September 13, 2005

Super Essay: Imagination

Imagination has always been central to creative literature. [Boring digression into history deleted]. Philip Sydney wrote, “Only the poet… lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature…” (936) His point, I think, is that poetry can transcend the mundane and flawed material world, and rise to imitate the divine. I’m not convinced that the world is as mundane or flawed as the Renaissance writers thought it to be. But what I will agree to is that poetry, and art in general, can transform reality and enhance it, by perceiving the world with the eye of the imagination. Enhancing reality – this is what I mean when I write about “colouring in the gaps of my experiences”.

This is where I get to invoke William Blake. Imagination was of vital importance to Blake’s writing. Rather than being a mere faculty of the mind, Blake saw it as an explicitly spiritual way of seeing, a “fourfold vision”. Blake “distinguished between the various degrees of imaginative insight… twofold vision he associated with creative energy… threefold vision… is a place of visions between this material world and the world of the spirit. The final fourfold vision has a fullness which may only be caught very rarely in moments of supreme inspiration.” (Willmott 98–99). All of these degrees of the imagination are set against “single vision”, a narrow materialism that he associated with empiricists like Newton and Locke. “Single vision” is a very literalistic way of seeing the world, while the various other degrees of vision correspond to me with how the imagination may colour and elevate experience. The most important facet of Blake’s viewpoint is his appreciation that the imagination is an approach to seeing the world, and thus as an approach to life, rather than being related only to the artistic process.

We could think of the imagination as a place, a spiritual space to explore, as primitive religions did. Or we could think of it as a faculty of the mind, as we tend to nowadays, some flighty part of the brain separated from reason. I like to think of the imagination as Blake did, as a way of seeing, an enlightened approach to the world. And I see creative writing as a process, whereby raw experience is transformed into the “second nature” that Sydney wrote of.

The topic of imagination also hints at literature’s practical and social end. “Good art should make you think” is an oft-repeated mantra, and is no less true for being simplistic. But the reading of literature in particular can provoke the reader’s imagination. The imaginative process of the reader is at least as important as that of the writer in literature. It is, in fact, entirely necessary to have a good imaginative mind to enjoy literature, simply to be able to visualise the scenes and empathise with characters and personae. The implications of this for the education of children are prescient, especially in a time where children’s heads are seen as convenient receptacles for scores upon scores of exam-friendly facts. But the exercise of imagination that literature provides can be of great value to adults, too – in helping them to imagine ways to overcome the emotional and material quagmires faced by individuals each day.

[more to come!]


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