I like to visualize Albert Einstein sitting on the tip of an advancing beam of light, his mane of white hair streaming in the solar wind as he roars through the curved universe at 186,000 miles per second, exulting in the difference between what we see, as he passes, and what he sees from his unique vantage point.
A writer’s fantasy? Not at all: The idea is Einstein’s, not mine. It occurred to him in 1895, when he was 16 years old, and it was one of the speculations that allowed him to think about the nature of light and movement, time and space, more boldly than any other man since Isaac Newton.
Ten years later, Einstein published five papers that shook physics to its roots, made it possible for other scientists to imagine photovoltaics and nuclear fission, and changed forever both the world we live in and the way we understand it.
I like that image of Einstein on his beam of light for its simultaneous magnificence and playfulness – and for its dramatic illustration of the importance of what the poet Coleridge called “the shaping spirit of imagination.” Without imagination, we lose not only all the arts, but also all the sciences and most of daily life. How could we pour so much love and effort into raising a child without imagining, in some general way, the kind of person that child might become? How could we design a building, campaign against the arms race, apply for a job, enter a marriage, without imagining the future to which these actions would lead?
Almost everything we do happens first in imagination. Imagination is vital to learning – and learning is what life is all about. “Action begins with fantasy,” writes libertarian educator John Holt, who has spent most of his life thinking about learning. “We are very unlikely to do something new, difficult, and demanding until after we have spent some time imagining or dreaming ourselves doing it.”
Yet people speak of imagination as if it were a rarity, a miraculous ability handed down to certain privileged individuals by God. “I envy you your imagination,” they say to writers, after reading their novels or seeing their plays. They think of imagination as something one has or doesn’t have, like brown eyes or size 14 feet. It is nothing of the kind. Almost all children have vivid imaginations. A few retain them. But somewhere in the process of growing up, getting through school, finding a trade and a mate, most people reject it or learn to conceal it or deny that they have it, even though they use it every day. It doesn’t do to appear too imaginative. We learn to be sound, stolid and safe.
As a culture, we are afraid of the imagination, despite our massive debt to it. And why? Because it leads in unpredictable directions, and we are afraid of what it may reveal. It delivers brilliant inventions, practical jokes and erotic fantasies, indiscriminately. It makes us feel uncontrolled, even foolish. Maybe only to ourselves, but that’s bad enough.
I noticed this in Saskatchewan, when the Children’s Book Festival sent me touring for a week in that hospitable and innovative province. In five days, I visited 12 groups of children, usually in small town libraries. Each time, I began something like this:
“A writer is a person who notices something in the world, and then says, What if? A peach is two inches in diameter. What if it were 20 feet in diameter? And that’s the beginning of a lovely book by Roald Dahl called James and the Giant Peach. Or someone says, what if there were a couple of boys whose father was a detective, and they decided to try solving crimes, too? That’s the beginning of the Hardy Boys books.
“Let’s try it. Here’s a ‘what-if’ from my friend W. O. Mitchell. Hair on your head and your face – that hair grows. Hair on your arms and legs (and elsewhere) doesn’t grow. But what if it did?
“Your pant legs would get all puffed up with hair. You’d have to claw the hair away from your wrist to look at your watch. You’d get hair billowing out over your shoes. Your feet would look like a cocker spaniel’s paws. You’d open up a Playboy magazine, and the centrefold would look like a carpet.”
By this time the kids are collapsing with laughter.
“Now what if that didn’t happen to everyone, but only to that fellow in the back row, the one in the blue shirt? Yeah, you. You’d try to hide it, right? No more shorts and T-shirts. Then one evening your mum comes into the bathroom when you’re in the tub, and she screams, because it looks like you’re floating in a bed of seaweed. She takes you to the doctor….”
We made the story into a comedy – the fellow becomes a celebrity, a TV star, and the big craze at Christmas is a Furry Fellow stuffed doll. We made it a tragedy – he winds up living alone in a shack by the railway yard, playing his violin late at night and drinking too much gin because no girl wants to marry a bear rug. We played with it, twisted it, reversed it, distorted it. We had a wonderful time.
And then I’d tell them how I began a children’s book I’m currently working on, and read them the beginning of it, confessing – truthfully- that I didn’t yet have a good ending for it. What if they were writing the book? How would they end it? By that point, they were primed, and the ideas came in showers. I’m going to use some of them, too. Any decent imagination purloins anything useful.
Jim Oxman, the information officer of the Saskatchewan Provincial Library, was shepherding me around the province, and one night, on the way into Saskatoon after I had done my routine in tiny Radisson, Jim said, “I don’t know how you do that.”
“Think about things that way. If I found myself thinking about – I don’t know, about hair growing where it shouldn’t, or something like that, I’d get worried. I’d think there was something wrong with me. I’d make myself stop thinking about it.”
Yes, exactly. Jim is not alone. All of us close down the free, idle movement of thought and fancy when it begins to lead us to places we don’t want to go. A flickering notion goes through the back pasture of our minds, following its own logic, bothering nobody, and then suddenly we notice it. My God! Can I be thinking that? That’s not the kind of idea that belongs to me! People with thoughts like that are homosexuals! Communists! Holy Rollers! Stockbrokers! Liberals! Maybe worse! A sort of mental policeman strides into the back pasture, seizes the errant thought by the scruff of the neck, and tells it: This is a fine, respectable, well- regulated mind, you can’t go loitering about in here, get out! And it does. We abolish even the memory of its intrusion.
The problem is that a lot of other ideas go with it, unnoticed by anyone, and a further batch of ideas refuses to come in, having noted that irregularities are unwelcome in the tidy brain we have built up over decades of conscious training. So they wait, and invade the mind when its guard is down, during drunkenness, or extreme fatigue, or sleep. In our dreams we are all wildly imaginative, improper, disrespectful of physical and other laws. Image follows image, rollicking and bewildering. We have the most astonishing adventures.
And then we wake up, which means the police have come back on shift, and we remember scarcely anything about it. Unless, of course, we are as wise as Robert Louis Stevenson. When Stevenson woke up screaming one night, and his wife tried to console him, he told her it was not terrible, but wonderful – “a fine, bogey dream,” as he put it. With that, he rushed to his desk and scribbled down the first notes and outlines of what became The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the classic story of the divided self – the amoral, sadistic monster lurking in the soul of the respectable doctor. For Jekyll and Hyde are not two people, but one – and the hidden side has become warped and twisted in the darkness of its denial.
Unlike most of us, Stevenson respected his dreams and trusted what they told him. Dreams, after all, provide our easiest route to the subconscious, and the subconscious, closely linked to the imagination, is as fertile as the jungle. Artist after artist has testified to its fecundity, its spontaneous production of images and stories, which are the beginning and sometimes the end of a work of art. A. E. Housman, that most un-mystical of British professors, found that his poems would “bubble up,” a line or a stanza at a time, while he was taking a walk and thinking of nothing in particular, and more verse would perhaps appear if he took his walks “in a receptive and expectant state of mind.” Which of us has not had the similar experience of trying to solve a problem or remember a fact, and giving up in frustration – only to have the answer spontaneously pop into our heads hours or days later, when we had almost forgotten the question?
Somewhere in that buried realm where memory and desire dance a hot tango with instinct and chemistry lie the roots of the imagination. No wonder we are frightened: If there is a Mr. Hyde within us, he lives somewhere in those regions. But it is worth remembering that although we may find a Hyde deep within us, he need not take us over. Stevenson, after all, was a charming and lovable man, and he was none the worse – he may even have been better – for the discovery of the original Hyde somewhere in the depths of his own being.
Stevenson was on good terms, too, with the child within him, which may be why his reputation today rests largely on his glorious writing for children. Children have the advantage of not knowing what they are supposed to see and say, and so they see what is there and say what they mean – sometimes to the great embarrassment of their parents. We are not born with mental policemen. We acquire them during the process known to psychologists as “socialization,” which means precisely the process of bringing our own way of thinking and perceiving into line with everyone else’s. Socialization is a necessary process – without it, we could hardly communicate – but it can go too far. It can establish a kind of dictatorship between our ears, and frequently does.
So we reject thoughts that seem to be nonsense, though they might not seem so to a child, and that is one thing that makes us different from Einstein. In his dazzling book on modern physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav adopts a phrase from Zen Buddhism to describe a characteristic of the greatest scientific intelligences. Einstein, he says, had a “beginner’s mind,” like other great scientists who “do not fear to venture boldly into nonsense, into that which any fool could have told them is clearly not so. This is the mark of the creative mind; in fact, this is the creative process. It is characterized by a steadfast confidence that there exists a point of view from which the ‘nonsense’ is not nonsense at all.”
Such a person is “childlike,” says Zukav, in exactly the manner of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, who saw what was hidden from the adults by unspoken collective agreements. But just such a child exists within all of us, all our lives. The child may be ignored, disavowed, unrecognized – but can be revived. Our childlike imaginative vision never really disappears; it merely hibernates, emerging in our dreams, our reveries and our jokes.
To exercise the imagination, we need only recognize and respect it, and heed its promptings. The subconscious does not draw our attention to trivial things. It vents our repressed angers, shows the solutions to problems, expresses our unrealized ambitions. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once said that the proper image of the human being is the novelist, because human beings, like novelists, constantly imagine stories and strive to realize them – but their stories are their own futures, and they strive to realize them not in books, but in life.
I know a man, for instance, who does his career planning by imagining himself successful in a new venture, and then being interviewed about his success. “How did you get into the oil business?” asks the admiring imaginary reporter. “Well,” says my friend, “the world runs on oil, but in 1982 the oil industry was in trauma, so I figured it was a good time to buy…”
By the time the interview is over, he has explained to himself just what is involved in the project. If he goes ahead, the story he told the reporter is his plan.
Used in this way, the imagination is a tool for thinking about things that are not – or not yet – real. This type of speculative thinking is not to be confused with random fantasy about winning a lottery, for instance. The difference is discipline, the ability to set out a hypothetical situation and then trace its pitfalls and opportunities relentlessly. What if the price of oil crashes? Could it crash? On the other hand, what if some fresh ayatollah took over Saudi Arabia, denying the West access to the world’s largest reserves of oil? The price of oil would soar. What are the chances of success? Of failure? Am I gambling on unknown factors, or making an informed judgment about the future?
Some people do the same thing with computers, calling it simulation. No matter: It’s the same thing. The computer can only manipulate the possibilities punched in by the operator – the possibilities the operator has imagined. All such simulations have a large element of play in them. There is not as much difference as one might think between “running an econometric model” and playing any other video game.
This is not to scorn computer modelling, but only to say that certain lines of work melt into imaginative play. Writing a novel is a lovely form of play, though the result is oddly called a “work”; and a playwright, even more oddly, is literally “one who works a play.” Successful speculators in the stock market are highly imaginative people whose models of the future are accurate enough to bet on – which is why “playing the market” is a poetically apt phrase.
Playfulness goes with the imagination as salt fish goes with scruncheons – and our fear of the imagination is part of our disrespect for play. We are too serious and cynical to engage in games, however fruitful. Still, if any generation should have a cynical view of cynicism, it is ours. When we were children, everyone “knew” that home computers, laser beams, cloning, satellite communications, robots and space travel were idle speculations of science-fiction writers. We have lived to see every one of them, because some people had enough imagination to play seriously with such wild notions.
These developments suggest that imagination may be the central human quality, the thing in our makeup that allows us to create new realities. We imagine them, realize them – literally, make them real – and then move them out into time and space. Some moralists would say, of course, that what distinguishes man from beast is our moral sense, our ability to distinguish right from wrong. But a moral sense without an imagination is surely a mythical creature. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, says the Golden Rule – which is to say, imagine yourself in another person’s situation, and imagine how you would wish to be treated.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who imagined the Ancient Mariner, spent years of his life thinking about the imagination, and eventually concluded that it was “the living power and prime agent of all human perception” – the power that determines what we actually see and notice. There is a story that the Australian aborigines, when first confronted with the ships of Captain Cook, actually did not see them; they had never imagined such a thing, and therefore could not perceive it when it appeared.
But Coleridge went further still. He also considered the imagination to be “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am” – in other words, a smaller instance of the great act of imaginative creation that brought the universe itself into existence.
Which brings us back to Einstein, still racing through space on his beam of light. For Einstein was a deeply religious man who believed science to be an attempt to discover what he called “the secrets of the Old Man.” In perhaps the most famous scientific dispute of our time, he rejected quantum mechanics because it held that the law of cause and effect did not apply to subatomic particles. No, said Einstein, in a now-famous phrase, “I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world.” That is not a scientific statement. It is a statement of faith.
In 1938, Einstein wrote that the ideas of physics do not really describe the actual physical world, but only our experience of that world. He compared the universe to a watch, which scientists can observe from the outside but never truly penetrate. Their explanations about how the watch works are faithful to what they can see, but they cannot actually see the inner workings of the watch. So the findings of physics are finally “free creations of the human mind.”
Science itself is thus a brilliant work of the imagination. And that, I think, makes it possible to claim that the imagination really is the faculty that makes us human.
Let there be light. Let there be a man riding on the light. And let us understand the light for what it is: the divine spark that lets us see what cannot be seen, know what cannot be known, and create realities by the act of imagining them.
Even as we ourselves, perhaps, exist only in the imagination of our Creator.