Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The river grew lovelier and lovelier, until I knew that never before had I seen real water. Nothing in this world is more than like it.1

 - George MacDonald

My thesis here is that imagination is paramount in achieving happiness. Let us say, as a tentative proposition, that there are two ‘realities’: one spelled with a small ‘r’, and the other with a large ‘R’. Children (from a certain age - say, around four or five years) have a highly developed imagination: that is at least in proportion to the development of their notion of quotidian ‘reality’. They have not yet surrendered to the hard facts of life, nor need they since they are (for the most part, and in most cases) sheltered and protected by their parents. However, as they (we) get older this propensity for imaginative perception diminishes in comparison with the exigencies of the practical world and the pragmatic mind. They (we) become less trusting, less secure, and paradoxically less able to love life as it is. On the contrary they (we) become more uncertain, cautious, doubting, dull and narrow-minded. The lesser ‘reality’ begins to take on its familiar concrete, set form. Of course, this has a lot to do with the attitudes that surround the child (us) in the form of parents, teachers, society, and so on, as well as the oncoming pressures - and responsibilities - of puberty.

Once this begins to happen, another phenomenon steadily gains more power: fantasy. Fantasy is seen as our only hope of escaping our self-imposed ‘reality’. Although imagination is involved here to some small degree, fantasy is a delusion. It ends at best in disappointment, at worst in destruction. The delusion may be personal, religious, political, cultural, sexual, and so on, and is always connected to some unfulfilled desire. One need only witness a child’s innocent and spontaneous acceptance of the nature of life, in comparison to the alienation and confusion experienced by most people as they become adults. This alienation is over time exacerbated and perpetuated through the modus operandi of many of our cultural and societal institutions.

I would venture to say that the state of imaginative awareness prominent in children at this stage is one pregnant with possibilities. Amongst these is the possibility of perceiving the world as it Really is (large ‘R’) - that is, wondrous and beautiful in all its aspects, even those at times considered ‘ugly’ by their elders: And the possibility of seeing, or feeling, themselves as they Really are - that is, absolutely at one with their own, and the world’s, existence. This way of seeing and feeling the world is not fantasy - rather it is an all-too-brief vision of Reality.

It is just this quality of imagination, however, that is gradually covered up by our inherited notions of ‘reality’ (small ‘r’): amongst these the notion of the self as a major player in the world of ego, desire and possession, and a concomitant shrinking of our perception of the world as it Really is, and could be for us if only we could learn to see and feel it properly. Instead, we look deeper and deeper into the small ‘reality’, searching for answers but finding none; or we indulge in varying degrees of fantasy.

Of course, we cannot remain ‘innocent’; nor can we return to a state of innocence, a paradox addressed by William Blake in poetic form in Songs of Innocence and Experience. Nonetheless, somehow the vision of an idyllic state of being yet resides in our imagination.

I am in accord with Blake here (and possibly Plato too). Imagination is the key to a higher form of Reality - one that is our birthright, but to which we are blind through our limited capacity to live fully, freely and honestly, much of which limitation is self-imposed. Art is not essential to maintaining or developing this capacity, but it can be effective in doing so. Imagination is not the result of a mental process: it is another of Nature’s gifts. Neither is it the same as fantasy, although the distinction is not an easy one. Like talent, we need only let imagination flourish. Then might we transcend the ‘real’, and hopefully discover - and grow into - the ‘Real’.



1 Phantastes and Lilith (London: Gollanz, 1962). This is from “Lilith”.

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