In Defense of Imagining

A few minutes before writing this blog, I finished reading Reality Hunger by David Shields, and found myself deeply disturbed by his assertions. This is my response to reading that book, but in general it’s also some thoughts on art and imagination. It’s weird. If this is your first time visiting my blog… good luck. It’s possible I grossly misinterpreted his point. In any case, I'm wading in.

Imagination isn’t dead, and neither is the novel. Not everyone enjoys novels; not everyone enjoys ice cream. Nothing is everyone’s cup of tea (this is especially true of tea itself). The fact of the matter is: there is no such thing as truly high art in the moment of its creation. High art is formed in the eyes of the future, who attempt to look ahead and see their view obstructed by the greats of the past. There’s a reason we talk about standing in another’s shadow.

The other night, in a conversation with a school teacher, I learned that not everyone has relationships with their favorite characters. Not everyone has learned how to love books, and so when the kids are assigned truly impressive, mind-bending works of art, they break. They can’t possibly enjoy it. I deeply enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because I knew the conventions it was flouting. It isn’t a mark of stupidity that a high schooler I know didn’t enjoy it. It’s a mark of, for lack of a better word, literary virginity. Let people meet their first loves in stories! Let them love them forever.

I am now of the age that, if Narnia is a real place, I will not find it in a wardrobe, painting, or train platform. However, what benefit is it to me to stop allowing the part of me that hoped it might be true as a child to die? The children in the novels were charged with remembering Narnia and using their memories to be better in our world. Is that not the same charge I’ve been given by every great story I've visited.

It’s a sign of snobbery and nothing else to allow no story to take you in. What sincerity is being sought? Pee in a jar: I’ll look at the hormone levels and see if you are truly “in love.” What balance of adrenaline creates reality in the mind of the dreamer? Shall I have a ring bearer and an equally small bearer of the lie detector for our wedding day?

It is not a mark of intelligence to see through the illusion we have all agreed to believe in. It is a mark of pride, in the negative sense. It’s not that hard to figure out what presents are under the tree: the joy is letting the wrapping paper serve its job and letting the truth come out in its own time. In my house, the truth comes out by nine in the morning, December 25th. I’ve painted sets before. In my mind’s eye, I see both the fabric/paint/plywood, and the haunted French castle. Maybe I’m just good at receiving gifts. Maybe I can admire the paper and the truth.

The novel is alive. Genres are only ever descriptions; if “the novel” is dead and is already entirely eclipsed by a new thing calling itself a novel, then the novel is alive, alive to the point that it is growing. Multi-genre is delightful— I agree here with Shields. Conventions themselves are fading away. What Shields fails to engage is that new conventions have already formed around the changes. The speediness of the transformation doesn’t change that it is transformation. A person might look like a totally different person, or even creature, in the span of six months of its life. It depends on which six months. We are in a critical period. Saying a form is dead when it is going through a growth spurt is a bold choice of words.

Truth is pure; it isn’t safe. It is infectious, dangerous even. And as such, the truth made entirely safe is sterile. Sterility isn’t generally a positive in the continuation of the species.

I wrote a poem once that, in essence, said that faith is like letting a wave do what it wants and riding it into shore. Reading fiction, in a sense, is a practice in having faith. It is an exercise in seeking truth. Reading fiction is allowing a world of another’s basic design to exist in one’s own mind. It is the intimate and pregnant, the birth and the glory. No story is alike in the minds of two readers, but then again, how could that be negative? Why would I want to live in a world where many more can’t exist?

It baffles me that there are people who believe in multi-verses and refuse to watch fantasy films. How many things will we believe are only true of the elves? How much more immortal do we ourselves think we can be? Meaning-making can’t be meaningless. It’s a contradiction in terms.

I am so much smaller than reality. Can you blame me for wanting to enter another one, if only for a while, through the electric storm that flows through the meat I call myself? Is there something purer than letting the markings left by another’s electric jolts and fingers tell me a story that lives only in my own thunderhead?

It bears repeating: I am religious by nature. If I wasn’t a Christian, I would be an artist. If I wasn’t a Christian, I would be a person of faith. Enduring skepticism makes me nervous. In the face of such a wave, I have to take shelter. “Child-like faith”: asking all the questions, over and over, and yet allowing the story to leave me spellbound. It is no accident the stars look back at us, asking us to weave their millions of miles of loneliness into patterns, a single narrative, the twins together forever, the hunter and his prey. “My search for God was the mouse’s search for the cat” (C.S. Lewis).

What a small world must be inhabited, to imagine that one’s own perspective is the deepest well of truth. It gives me hope to know that there are animals that see colors I can’t see. Why would I not want the world to be shot through with glory? What is the Imago Dei but imagination? What is dominion over creation but the ability to create, truly? “Made in the image of God.” I can’t create the sea in all its power, but I can remind you of it now, put the smell in your nostrils and the feeling of the salt on your skin. You and I are communing on a fictional seashore, where the sand is black and the water is teal blue, the temperature of your lips touching the forehead of your beloved last night, when the rain was falling on the roof.

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