In America, the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
That’s a quote from a talk given at the a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002 called “The Operating Instructions” from a book of essays and reviews called “Words are my Matter”, written by the inspiring and imaginative American writer Ursula K. LeGuin.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast. How’s it goin. Howy’re yis all doing out there? Hope yis are all doing well.
This is Episode 5 of my series of episodes on creativity, or since reading LeGuin, on Imagination, based around my book Create. Last time I talked about family, friends, and those close to us, and how important it is to make the distinction between allies and villains.
Now, I want to talk about creativity and Imagination. I talked about creativity in my first episode, my introduction, in a confused way by saying what creativity is not. Then, in the second episode I talked about what creativity is in all its amorphous forms, especially as a positive path, or Door towards change and hope. At the time, I hadn’t formulated a reasoning for why creativity as a word itself felt so amorphous to me, without getting into the idea of value and capitalism, something I will be doing a long episode on in about another 10 episodes. However, what I knew intuitively was that creativity has been co-opted in some way by academics and corporations, hence my resistance to even using the word. But if not creativity, then what? Everything that came into my head seemed like aspects, parts, either Walls or Doors away or towards creativity, not an idea or word as amorphous as creativity to signify the creative world in a more apex of the triangle kind of way, to encompass things. Until a few days ago.
My wife Kerry came back from the public library here in Scarborough with a book she said she thought I should read, because she knows I love Ursula LeGuin. And of course the very first essay I read was the one I read from at the outset of this episode. The essay clarified what had been gnawing away at me inside my head now for a long time, this distinction between the Imagination and creativity.
Of course, it had been staring me in the face all this time, even after having written a whole book on what I thought was creativity. Here I was without at least one short chapter on Imagination in my book. And yes, in an earlier draft I had had a few paragraphs on Imagination but, as with the idea of creativity, it had felt too amorphous to me, not enough to pay attention to for a whole chapter. So I deleted it. And so here I am back again, reconsidering the imagination because of LeGuin, because she made me understand that my intuition was correct, that creativity has been coopted and that it is Imagination which is more important because it hasn’t been coopted. Because creativity is simply the catchall to describe the act of using our Imagination. We are creative when we imagine. When we imagine, inspiration comes. When we imagine we create. We use the imagination to create. We don’t use creativity to create. Creativity is objective, what we see someone doing, creating. And innovation is when we better it, both being things in the tangible world. The action of creating though, that’s imagining, new theories, characters, worlds. Creativity is imprisoned by reality, imagination is free, released from the unreal.
Here is Le Guin again, later in her essay:
In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.
Exactly. This is exactly what I was trying to get at in my first episode, but didn’t. I wanted to write a letter to her after reading that quote, to thank her for her clarity.
Imagination. Of course. Let them have creativity. But, they can’t take away Imagination with a capital I, from us. They cannot capitalize on It, or again, as LeGuin expands:
Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their use. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.
For LeGuin story is the way into the world of the Imagination and the way to share empathy and communal bonding. For others the way in could be any of the forms of creativity, or sorry, Imagination, I’ve mentioned in previous episodes. But, the important thing, the corporatocracy can’t splash Imagination over their billboards, even though many have tried to appropriate it for selling products, Disney theme parks, gaming, technologies, cruise ships, cars. Albums and songs, fine, of which there are countless called Imagination, but corporations?
Two centuries before Le Guin, the Romantics placed a huge importance on the Imagination. How had I forgotten this? To them, it was considered the pinnacle of our mental faculty. Before the Romantics reason with a capital R was seen as all important, something we seem to have reverted to a lot more today, appealing to the negative, reasoning and uninspiring side of Science as opposed to the positive, creative and inspiring side of it.
To the Romantics the Imagination became a shaping, a creative power. They saw it in a Blakean way, on a par with nature or Nature with a capital N, as a deity, dynamic, active, alive and changing. Gone is the functions and passivity of Reason. To create anything, they argued, you needed Imagination. Without it you were losing before you started.
But they also saw Imagination as even larger than this, that it also shaped, or shapes our reality. Wordsworth would have said we perceive what is around us but that we also partly create what is around us too, and Coleridge’s “intellectual intuition” takes this a little further by saying the Imagination synthesizes and allows us to harmonize opposites and differences in the world as it appears, what he called a “reconciliation of opposites”, when two opposite but equal forces interact to create a third force.
And of course this Romantic Imagination had effects. Mary Shelley created “Frankenstein” when she was 20. Indeed she must have inherited her Romantic Imagination from her mother even if she never met her, the wonderful political theorist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother, author of the great proto-feminist book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, wrote in a letter from 1794 (The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd):
The imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture.
Wollstonecraft saw Imagination as the Door to liberation, even if it became sensual, seductive and “bewitching” her into despair and rapture.
Another absent parent, Lord Byron, also had an extraordinary daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, or later, Ada Lovelace. She too was influenced by the this same Imagination but in a different way, despite the cruelty of her mother, by creating a Romantic science. Instead of writing fiction Ada wrote code, or a computational poetics, becoming the first writer of a paper on computer science. In 1843, when she was 27, she translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea “Sketch of an Analytical Engine”, writing seven footnotes which combine to over sixty pages, over twice the length of Menabrea’s text, including the first complete computer program.
The conflict between the Imagination and the contemporary industry around creativity can be seen all the way back to the experiences of the extraordinary William Blake too, when he was commissioned to work for a fool who didn’t understand the Imagination or creative freedom.
Blake talked about vision, his muse and his Imagination but his employer Reverend John Trusler criticized and tried to denigrate Blake’s spiritual intentions. Trusler wanted derivative contemporary whimsical caricature. In one of his letters to the Reverend, from August 1799, Blake writes:
Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.
Blake also writes about how important the magic of the real world is, how the visions he creates are easily found in the imagination of children, quote, “who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my pictures than I even hoped. Neither youth nor childhood is folly or incapacity. Some children are fools and so are some old men. But there is a vast majority on the side of imagination or spiritual sensation.”
Which brings me back to Le Guin’s wonderful essay. She sees Imagination, like any tool, as something we need to first learn how to use, that we don’t destroy it in our children:
Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.
When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs. All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
So, why have we forgotten this Romantic understanding of Imagination? What wonderful works and creations have we lost by this industry of creativity? Because if we can’t imagine, anything, especially imagine a better future, how can we ever create one, much like Lennon’s Imagine song sings?
How has the creative faculty of our minds, the process of thinking and remembering, creating and fantasizing been lost to the industry of of creativity as opposed to the process of Imagination? Even the word itself, from the latin word, “imaginari”, asks us to question ourselves, because it means “to picture oneself”, to image oneself, to imagine oneself, which is perhaps a real understanding of creation, to investigate and picture from yourself, create from your images, your memories, your imagination, a visionary Blakean place where visions create mental concepts that are not actually tangible to the senses, but are there, present, nevertheless. Perhaps the best way to express all our creative world is the Imagination, just as the Romantics trusted, not what has become a commodification of creativity, a creativity industry in academia and corporations, something divorced from creation itself, many Walls away from creation, with words the Romantics would have despised, like efficiency and comfortable calculated maximization of profits and worker performance. The clutches of consumerist commodification are trying to optimize creativity when it is something the exact opposite, inspired, passionate, a chaos of enthusiasm and courage.
From now on I will try to use the word Imagination as much as I can on this podcast, but at the same time continue to title episodes with the word Creativity so as to allow people conditioned as I was by it’s amorphous commodification, to perhaps hear a reminder of what the Romantics called creativity, the Imagination. Like children, we need to imagine again. Wild imagination. Imaginary friends, make-believe, play. As Blake would have put it, we need to return to the Lamb of Innocence to harness our imagination, as a child, not the Tyger of creativity, like an adult. We do not lack imagination, we are simply told it’s ridiculous or weird as we grow up. We have to “put away childish things”, if we are to listen to dogma, become more real. Creativity needs Imagination. Imagination does not need creativity. So the question is, do you lack creativity, or do you lack Imagination? Is this real world more important to you than the imaginary one? And if you think it’s Imagination which is equally important, if not more, like I do, then how do you return to childhood Imagination?
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from an American writer but as I’ve done in previous episodes, I’m going to end with an Irish proverb.
This one literally means:
Every beginning is weak.
Bíonn gach tosach lag.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.