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Useful And Fantastic: Applied Imagination - 3

Imagination in Fantasy.


Dreams are the most astonishing example of our fantastic imaginations. They escape all conscious direction, yet they usualy run as stories. Dreaming remain the most mysterious of everything we do, despite our age-long fascination and investigating. How they ravel or unravel our waking experience is surely extraordinary.

Even daydreams can run away from conscious direction and become grotesque or fearsome, or, sometimes, in a sudden spark, a daydream solves puzzles that all our directed intelligence could not breach. A book of ‘Dreams in History’ would show how often they have influenced events and inventions, even though as out-of-the-blue prognosticators of what is going to happen, they remain controversial and usually unreliable. I once woke up from a dream about my daughter overseas, and her lily-of-the-valley perfume was in the room. Remembering some other precognitions which had turned out to have meaning, I hastily communicated with her. She was OK. Nothing was happening.

The mind also consciously devises and elaborates fantasy. Old traditions and new dreams are handed down from generations in songs, epics, proverbs, allegories, and legends. The visual arts and music express visions, emotions and ideas that need no translation into words. Critics interpret the products of imagination only as handmaids, and they should not get above themselves to think they are communicating what the products themselves are meant to communicate. ‘English’ in schools has much to answer for in turning students off reading literature for pleasure.

Imagination has been revered as a divine spark which the gods bestow at whim. Generally the divine gift has been assumed to be bestowed upon the arts, especialy music, visual arts, poetry and narrative, the realms of the Nine Muses. Romantics have regarded imagination as their specialized trust, and utilitarians have responded with mistrust. It has not seemed useful enough. The poet Keats was appalled at a scientist’s analysis of a rainbow or dissection of a butterfly; for him it was the end of imagination, not another beginning.

Some bat-blind scientists have justified the criticism. The ethos of the famous Cambridge toast, ‘Here’s to pure maths, and may it never be any use to anyone’, has been laid upon imagination more successfully than for pure maths – which ironically helped to win World War II shortly afterwards by underlying inventions such as sonar resonance and radar.

The English classical poets of the eighteenth century thought their poetic imagination was useful. According to Doctor Johnson:
‘He (the poet) must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as a being superior to time and place.' (Rasselas)

The romantic poets of the early nineteenth century thought their poetic imagination had high and noble roles:

‘Imagination, which in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.’
(Wordsworth: The Prelude)

His friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge labelled the ancient concept of a divine and free spark as the Primary Imagination, and defined it grandly as 'a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.' The episode of the poetic fragment of Kublai Khan illustrated the free divine spark extinguished by the intrusion of the humdrum, in the visitor from Porlock who interrupted the flow, never to spring again.

John Ruskin, in 19th century Victorian mode asked: ‘What is poetry? The suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions.' (Modern Painters)

However, this focus of the Romantics helped to set imagination being as primarily about fantasy in the arts and entertainment, and there it still sticks today. Ironically, Charles Dickens, one of the most imaginative of men, contributed to this restriction. His novel Hard Times highlighted the deadening consequences of unmitigated reason, which was symbolized in giving a child a cabinet of crystals and other geological specimens, and epitomized in Mr Gradgrind. Dickens contrasted this tedium with the virtues of fancy - symbolized in the freedom of picturing horses capering over wallpaper, which the realists could not allow, because it could not be true. Meanwhile, in another part of the 19th century forest, the scientific imagination of the Victorians was ‘fantastically’ transforming the world and expanding our horizons, in part aided through geology and cabinets of crystals. While Alice scurried through a fantasy wonderland, scientists like J B S Haldane spread their minds to fly in the real world. ‘The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine. Science fiction has often linked fantasy now with reality later. And mathematicians and logicians read Alice in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass for Lewis Carroll's imagination at play with mathematics and logic.

Still imagination is seen as primarily serving entertainment and the arts. This can mean in schooling the young with Creative Art, English studies of fiction and poetry, and Creative Writing interpreted as meaning writing stories and verses. ‘Fostering Creativity’ is attempted by setting tasks that can often be not unfairly parodied in ‘Find a hundred uses for a dead cat’.

There are of course, practical reasons why it could be dangerous to allow students to apply imagination to real life - but that is another matter.

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