A Study of the Human Imagination
A Brief Summary
The title of this volume comes from an aphorism of the poet and artist William Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” The book attempts a comprehensive survey of all the productions of the imagination, including those of the arts, mythology and religion, the creative aspects of popular culture, politics, and even science.
This is of course an impossible task, and no sense of total understanding or total mastery is implied, despite the book’s size, the intricacy of its patterns, and the multiplicity of its allusions. These need not deter readers: what is important is the vision of beauty, meaning, and possibility out of which they grow. Besides, it is not necessarily true that readers are put off by long books. The most popular book on mythology ever written, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, runs to 12 volumes in its unabridged form. Some people like books they can live in.
The imagination has two poles, a pole of wonder, taking the twin forms of visions of ideal order and love, and a pole of power and the possibility of building a better society. Each of these has of course its dark opposite: a vision of alienation, of the failure of both wisdom and love; a vision of the demonic will to power and the dystopian collapse of social hopes. These too are part of the imagination, which is a form of symbolic meditation that provides clarifying models of possible human experience. But the imagination is not merely contemplative and detached. We participate in life through imagination: the mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of “myths to live by.” The forms of the imagination are also what Blake called “States,” modes of being. Sometimes we willingly adopt them. At other times, they possess us, both individually and socially—for better or worse.
The imagination can be defined as the power that unites opposites into what Blake called Contraries, opposites that synergetically reinforce each other rather than merely conflicting or cancelling each other out, a state that Blake calls a Negation. The central opposites, out of which the others emanate, are those of subject and object, consciousness and its objective environment. In ordinary experience, subject and object are a Negation, producing the alienation that is characteristic of everyday life, however repressed or denied. We are alienated from our own minds, from the very language we use, from other people (both in individual relationships and collectively), from nature, and from God and the spiritual realm. Alienation results in depression and anxiety, the most common afflictions of modern life. Fear of the objective world by the vulnerable subject or ego produces paranoia, the feeling of threat that ends in either passive victimage or active aggression. The split between subject and object, self and other, is, in yet another Blakean phrase, a “cloven fiction” (cloven like the devil’s hoof), but its consequences are all too actual.
The imagination does not reduce opposites to a simple Unity or One, however. Borrowing from philosophy, we may say that unified Contraries form a paradoxical identity-in-difference. A good number of post-modernist and post-structuralists thinkers are skeptical about such a paradox, dismissing it as an irrationality to be “demystified.” Yet experiences of identity-in-difference happen all the time, and not just to exceptional visionaries. In fact, experience is inconceivable without some degree of identity-in-difference.
In imaginative vision, otherness does not disappear, but is transformed. The relationship between ego and unconscious, between artists and both their materials and their formal conventions, between lover and beloved, between humanity and the natural environment, between the human and the spiritual and divine—all these become transformed by a vision of mutual identification and interplay. In this sense, the imagination is the spirit of play, as Schiller recognized long ago. These unions do not efface difference but make it possible. They represent an ideal, but one that is partly realized every day, as well as providing a transformative goal for the future. The book’s central symbol of unified Contraries is the mandala, or crossed circle, conceived as analogous to the Taoist yin-yang symbol.
The most obvious aspect of the book is its map of the patterns of human culture as they emerge from the symbols and narrative patterns of mythology and develop into the forms and conventions of the arts and, in a displaced form, into the forms that ground, sometimes invisibly, discursive disciplines such as history, philosophy, the social sciences, and even to an extent the natural sciences. The map is in the shape of the mandala, and the four parts of the book explore components of the mandala shape.
Part 1 introduces us to the vertical axis that appears in countless mythologies, including the Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythologies from which Tolkien derived his name Middle Earth, from the Anglo-Saxon middengeard. We live in a middle realm surrounded by worlds above and worlds below. Most of Part 1 is concerned with worlds above, including heaven and paradise, and with journeys of ascent to and descent from those worlds. It is also concerned with Creation myths, in which the middle realm is brought into being by some form of interaction between the above and the below. Four types of Creation myth can be understood within this vertical perspective: creation by sexual interaction, by combat, by emergence (as a plant grows from a planted seed), and by the power of a descending creative word.
Part 2 concerns the concept of the Fall, the loss of the higher modes of human experience symbolized by heaven, paradise, a Golden Age, and so on. The Fall confronts us with the mystery of evil, especially in relation to the nature of a supposedly all-good and all-powerful God. In the last several decades, new attention has been paid to the phenomenon of Gnosticism, both by scholars of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and by C.G. Jung in his Answer to Job. In some versions of Gnosticism, the divine itself fell along with humanity. Imagination becomes the divine spark, the Inner Light shining in the darkness of a fallen world, the still-unfallen aspect of God but at the same time the spiritual identity of humanity, trying to produce resurrection and apocalypse, the individual and social forms of redemption from the fallen realm.
The fallen world has two aspects: a natural cycle of birth and death and rebirth and a human construct traditionally known as law but expanding into the more inclusive concept of ideology. Law and ideology form a fallen version of the vertical axis, a vertical axis of authority, of top-down coercive power relations. The literary genres of tragedy and comedy derive from and are structured by the hierarchical power of the law and the transformative power of the natural cycle, which is the inner circle of the book’s mandala.
Part 3 concerns the horizontal axis of the mandala, which is the timeline of history. But history is not merely linear: it moves forward, but through a series of cycles represented by the outer circle of the mandala, not the cycle of nature but the cycle of the spirit, the traditional term for a reality that transcends the merely natural. It is the dynamic and transformative aspect of the imagination. Part 3 is focused upon recreation, the imagination’s attempt, through cycle after failed cycle of human history, to recreate its own vision and thus recreate the world.
Despite its anti-Semitic and other corruptions, Biblical typology has given the West a recreative vision of time. In literature, recreation seems to be the central theme of the epic tradition. However, the center of gravity for the latter two Parts of the book is less traditional than modern, meaning Romantic and post-Romantic. The Romantics were the first to create or discover a new kind of mythology in which individual and social transformation came from within rather than from above, in which a redemptive power is felt as immanent rather than transcendent. Along with this sense of an immanent power, however, is the terrible temptation to what C.G. Jung called “inflation,” a nihilistic megalomania that produces a charismatic leader and a mindlessly collectivized mass following, a cult—in other words, produces the current state of modern politics in both the United States and the world. It is not sentimentality to see the contemporary crisis as a conflict between the recreative and nihilistic uses of the imagination.
If the transformative power is immanent and inward, there is the necessity for a descent quest to awaken it, or to respond to its call from below. The descent down the lower portion of the vertical axis is the theme of Part 4, and comes to focus on the theme of decreation. Decreation is not destruction: it is, or at least begins with, the ability to see that what we take as inescapable “reality” is not real, even if it cannot be wished away by magical thinking. The major genres of modern literature, including lyric poetry, the personal essay, and even the profounder works of modern realism are haunted by the sense of something dark and unknown, frightening yet alluring, beneath the surface of ordinary life.
This ensures that modern literature is dominated by the ironic, the sense that appearance and reality are disjunctive, and by the satiric, the mode that uses comic absurdism as dynamite to blow up conventional appearances. Post-modernism’s claim that there are no depths, only surfaces, merely describes a mode in which the intuition of those depths has been walled off, repressed, sometimes as a defense mechanism. The pervasive mood of anxiety, not just in modern literature but in modern life, arises from a terror of, and yet fascinated attraction to, the Nothing that seems to lurk beneath the phenomenal world.
What Northrop Frye, my mentor and one of the presiding spirits of the present work, called the “educated imagination” is neither a kind of elitist erudition (“the best that has been thought and said” according to the canonical pronouncements of a dominant social class) nor a kind of aestheticism, a refined sensibility of the sort that is merely an escapist refuge from the miseries of human life.
On a practical, individual level, it begins as the decreative capacity to see through, to break through stereotypes, repressive conventions, ideological structures of repressive power. Against such false structures it pits models of human desire—paradisal, utopian, apocalyptic—according to which we may recreate the world, not merely by “social engineering” but by the way we live our lives. When Martin Luther King said he had a dream, such a hopeful vision is what he meant. However, as any truly creative person knows, the imagination is not fully subject to the will—the illusion of the “will to power” is dangerous egocentric “inflation,” and, if the imagination needs to be educated, it is also what does the educating. True education is neither information processing nor training in the skills leading to career success but an expansion of vision, a cleansing of the doors of perception, in another Blake phrase—not just a knowledge but an experience of a wider perspective in which we sense that we are part of some larger identity that is at once human and divine, individual and yet communal—an identity that, if fully awakened, would have the power to recreate not just society but reality itself.