donderdag 15 januari 2015

Sacred Imagination

As long as I hear people use the word ‘imagination’, an exalted tone is connected with it. Imagination stands on a pedestal. But, I asked myself many times, why is that?

It may be because imagination helps people – writers and readers – to, if only temporarily,  escape the unruly reality and to experience a rush of oblivion. Publishers seem to aim at that effect when promoting new books, as happens now with a new book by Leon de Winter that is touted as “a dance on the high wire of imagination”. And writer Adri van der Heijden once told that in his youth he was so bored at home that he fled in imagination.

Nice that it exists that way, but a second explanation appeals to me more. It associates  imagination with nurturing and enhancing the inner human space. In the same vein as philosophy can broaden your horizons by presenting new ideas, literary imagination can produce that effect by the portrayal of emotions and psychological complications.

But what I think is less appealing of this valuation of imagination is that it often in one go is linked to a useful side effect of imagination: the latter would help improve interpersonal communication because people learn better to empathize in each other’s situation. Even, some philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty say, in order to really improve the world, you should employ literature.

I do not like that argument. Firstly, because between the study room, where imagination unfolds, and reality in a disturbing way light remains. Something of irritation thereabout was voiced lately by critic Rob Schouten in his cautious appreciation of novelist Arnon Grunberg. Who refuses to reassure us in his novels, and his reversal of the feel-good-Swiss-Life-sentiment does not leave Schouten unscathed. “His work has to do more with human trauma than with sacred imagination”.

Secondly, and related, I do not like the idea of world-improving manufacturability that is expressed by Nussbaum’s and Rorty’s plead for instrumental imagination. Of course, one can never be against broadening horizons in the philosophical or literary field, that is only too right. But the underlying idea is wrong, because it argues that if only you think and feel broadly enough, you can eliminate misperceptions. And that thought is counterproductive in an insidious way.

Indeed, the range of human thoughts and emotions is infinitely large. To think that all that can in advance be made to fit in your imaginative world, by definition does not reflect the reality of people and is therefore, in its pretensions, potentially violent. Because how will a self-conscious large imagination deal with a reality that yet appears to dwell outside of it? Something múst be wrong with that.

And this last conclusion I would not draw too quickly. But that means that, conversely, there is something wrong, not so much with imagination itself, but with the pretensions of imagination. We will, in spite of the pretensions of Nussbaum and Rorty, keep being surprised time and again by the reactions of others, however big our imagination is. Because the other is different, by definition.

All things considered, we need to know – or, if you prefer, to imagine – only one from the whole range of human emotions: grief. Because then you will usually be able to recognize the situations in which you have hurt someone else, notwithstanding all your imagination.