What is the heart of imagination? What causes someone to take external objects or concepts and the combine them to form an entirely unique whole? What sparked Joyce to write Finnegan’s Wake, a churning mass of layered literary allusions? What causes someone to produce something without any immediate points of reference? Where does Babylon 5 or Warhammer 40K come from?
It’s a question that has been posed more than once and greater minds have grappled with it. Coleridge took a gander at it, and he cooked his goose. Honestly, you would think that such a question wouldn’t be terribly difficult to answer, even for me. After all, I spend my nights reading about cities dangling by a web of wires, thoughts of a dead man slowly diffusing into a tree, and a molting, fallen angel trapped in a cage. Yet, I can’t say what sparks these imaginative worlds.
I can search and find the inspirational kindling for them and the charred stack of biographical dead wood where the bonfire started, but not the creative spark that lit that fire originally.
The Ancient of Days
The ventriloquist Plato argues through Socrates, the dead terrorist, that creativity is divinely given. The term “inspiration” literally means “to breath into.” Poets, prophets, lovers, and inebriated club dancers are driven into a frenzied, creative state by the gods. So, the next time someone spills a sticky cocktail on your $200+ dancing shoes, don’t be angry. It wasn’t their fault. The gods made them do it!
For Plato, creativity is revelation – it is the discovery of something that always already existed in the realm of Forms – and the creative work is merely an imitation of the higher, idealized Form. Of course, not all creative works are created equal. The carpenter and the painter are not the same. The first makes things, the other imitates things already made. An imitation of an imitation is a corruption of a corruption. By Plato’s measure A Portrait of a Lady and Assassin’s Creed are the same. They both attempt to represent reality realistically and they can corrupt our minds.
Seriously, you know this issue is difficult when the Socratic puppet argues that imagination can’t be human—that creativity is literally unnatural – and his argument awkwardly defines nearly all creative works as beautiful lies.
The Modern Man
Modern nihilists, who shall remain nameless, argue there is no imagination. The author is DOA. We are all simply funnels of cultural impressions that have been inscribed on us since birth. By that measure, I am Asimov and Tolkien, mixed generously with Star Trek and Super Mario Bros., and topped with a nice layer of Britney Spears, Eminem, and a pinch of N’sync I would readily deny exists.
For them, creativity is mere mimicry—creative repurposing of the past. Honor Harrington is merely a reincarnation of Horacio Hornblower. The Game of Thrones is just re-enactment of the War of the Roses. The artist’s greatness lies in their re-animation of dead works. Artists are necromancers resurrecting Homer hoping to scribble down another Odyssey. Imagination is re-imaging what already exists. There’s nothing new under the sun. In essence, true imagination doesn’t exist.
Proposing that creativity is inhuman is like pretending ancient aliens created the pyramids—it’s absurd. However, denying the very existence of the pyramids is simply insane. Yet, here we are. Instead of answering the question, the question is denied. Why?
I think there are three (3) reasons for this denial:
- The Nature of Imagination
- The Egalitarianism of Imagination
- The Power of Imagination
The Nature of Imagination
The creative act appears spontaneous. There is a moment of clarity, an epiphany in which everything is illuminated. One moment you’re in General Physics class desperately scribbling equations on lift and drag, and the next you have crafted the Dawn Treader sailing to the edge of the world. Our pattern seeking mind has made a new connection, but you don’t quite know how. Imagination then seems involuntary, generated outside ourselves rather than a result of our thinking mind.
In addition, creativity more often adds and abstracts than invents. Necessity is often the mother of invention (yes, it’s a trite saying), but with art there is no necessity except to stave off ennui. Claude Monet’s Impressionist Haystacks and Water Lilies are an evolution of Romantic landscapes and painting en plein air is a resistance to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Just as Henry Ford would recognize a V8 in Ford Mustang GT, so to would George Eliot recognize Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. More imaginative art is iterative than innovative, so we have difficulty accounting for both or even differentiating between the new and the revolutionary.
The Egalitarianism of Imagination
Creation, even at its most basic in the interlocking of words to form meaning, still has the idea of action, of making, and of choice at its heart. If there is action, it is participatory and there is the potential for uniqueness. If imagination is the working of the pattern seeking mind upon things of this world, then it is a universal process in the minds of all humans. Some might take this fact to the extreme and argue the everything made is creative, unique, and an expression of imaginative design.
If all things are art, then nothing is Art. More problematic, if all humans can be artists, the only thing that separates the Artist from the Common Man is their up-bring and environment. Privilege and opportunity are all that differentiates Virginia Woolf from your neighbor. You know the annoying one that acts all aloof and never follows the HOA rules? That one. Such a possibility would never sit well with those who wish to delineate and demarcate a difference—especially if they view themselves as the top of the hierarchy as well.
The Power of Imagination
Artistic creation is a synthesis. It perfects as well as unifies. It takes objects and concepts and combines them in new and seamless ways. Consider the iPhone—it is an excellent example of industrial design. A pocketable device that functions as a computer, a calendar, an address book, a camera, a camcorder, and whatnot. It unifies a host of separate tools in a unique way. Something like it can seem either mundane or impossible. Mundane since it seems like an inevitable invention. Impossible because it seems to be wholly divorced from its smartphone predecessors.
Creating something wholly new has the tendency of upsetting the established order. That power is problematic. One idea, or one invention, can upset an entire society—it can reshape its entire geo-political fabric. Perhaps our ideology, instead of simply permeating our imaginative output, has persuaded us that there is no imagination at all. Convinced that there is nothing really new, only iterative imagination is permitted.
Surely, we’d see through the deception whenever we came across something truly new. Or would we? So preoccupied with our need to find connections and prove a work’s unoriginality, that we ignore the newness and the imaginative artistry of it? Could it be that we purposefully, although subconsciously, attempt to incorporate the totality of prior works into canon in order to convince ourselves what our ideology already dictates—that imagination is unnatural or that nothing is truly new?
Looking at this blog now, amidst the thousands of voices calling out into the darkness, the digital void, do you see something unique? Is this blog original? If our ideology limits us, then you wouldn’t acknowledge it even if it really is a product of imagination, of originality, or of a new depth of thought.
No, you’d see this as just another blog, written by just another person, exactly the same as all the rest. You’d find nothing new here. This is just a a creative repurposing of Plato, Coleridge, Eliot, et al. You’d look at the page and wonder why you’re even reading this—it’s clearly an oversimplification of the issue. You’d not find an answer, so you’d continue staring at this post for a moment and then move on to something else a bit more interesting.
Or maybe you’d say to yourself, “I can do better than this!” and then start a creative blog yourself. If you did, you’d might create something wholly new. Maybe you’d realize what the heart of imagination really is as you manifest your own thoughts out of the ether. You could then share it with the rest of us. Why not? Anything is possible—just use your imagination.