Imagination is the intellect’s creative force. Before the concrete idea is the imagined and desired state. This may demand the temporary abandonment of rationality but the process, overall, is rational and thoroughly reasonable: when one seeks a changed state of affairs, there are many tools on which human beings can draw to bring that about. Imagination is among the most important of them. It is a creative and useful process if the person does not spend excessive time on daydreams or fantasies without acting on them productively, and so long as the person recognizes the difference between fantasy and reality. Great inventions have been the products of such fancy, and will remain for as long as the human animal remains what it is.
Duchamp’s “Portrait of Chess Players” celebrates both the artist’s imagination and that of his subjects. Though success at chess is a function of making the right moves at the right time, no player is sophisticated enough to take into account every possible move or strategy by an opponent. For that reason, imagination is an essential attribute of a developing chess player.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Journal of Imagination, Cognition and Personality
- Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning
- Journal of Mental Imagery
- Consciousness, Literature and the Arts
Without imagination what a poor thing my world would be! My garden would be a silent patch of earth strewn with sticks of a variety of shapes and smells. But when the eye of my mind is opened to its beauty, the bare ground brightens beneath my feet, and the hedge-row bursts into leaf, and the rose-tree shakes its fragrance everywhere. I know how budding trees look, and I enter into the amorous joy of the mating birds, and this is the miracle of imagination.
Twofold is the miracle when, through my fingers, my imagination reaches forth and meets the imagination of an artist which he has embodied in a sculptured form. Although, compared with the life-warm, mobile face of a friend, the marble is cold and pulseless and unresponsive, yet it is beautiful to my hand. Its flowing curves and bendings are a real pleasure; only breath is wanting; but under the spell of the imagination the marble thrills and becomes the divine reality of the ideal. Imagination puts a sentiment into every line and curve, and the statue in my touch is indeed the goddess herself who breathes and moves and enchants. [Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1907), chapter I, “The Seeing Hand.”]
Leonardo’s primary activity in many of his formative years was conjuring up pageants, performances, and plays. He mixed theatrical ingenuity with fantasy. This gave him a combinatory creativity. [ Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 521.]
- Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (Yale University Press, 1978).
- David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Viking, 2011): “brilliant, exhilarating and profoundly eccentric book . . . about everything,” by an eccentric but gifted physicist with absolute confidence in the merits of his work and a difficult writing style; Deutsch sums up the unifying ethical theme of his work: “The only uniquely significant thing about humans . . . is our ability to create new explanations.”
- David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (Simon & Schuster, 2018): “ . . . the biography of an idea — a heretical, groundbreaking idea — and its many midwives, chief among them Carl Woese, ‘the most important biologist of the 20th century you’ve never heard of.’”
A few moments later our poet found himself in a tiny arched chamber, very cosy, very warm, seated at a table which appeared to ask nothing better than to make some loans from a larder hanging near by, having a good bed in prospect, and alone with a pretty girl. The adventure smacked of enchantment. He began seriously to take himself for a personage in a fairy tale; he cast his eyes about him from time to time to time, as though to see if the chariot of fire, harnessed to two-winged chimeras, which alone could have so rapidly transported him from Tartarus to Paradise, were still there. At times, also, he fixed his eyes obstinately upon the holes in his doublet, in order to cling to reality, and not lose the ground from under his feet completely. His reason, tossed about in imaginary space, now hung only by this thread. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Second, Chapter VII, “A Bridal Night”.]
Novels, stories and essays:
- Pam Munoz Ryan, The Dreamer (Scholastic Press, 2010).
- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Scholastic Press, 1998).
- Francis Spufford, True Stories and Other Essays (Yale University Press, 2017): “His unifying perspective in ‘True Stories’ is the virtue of imagination, and the search for alternate worlds or possibilities raised by counterfactual questions. Thus, in his opening section, eight essays on cold, he examines the records of various polar expeditions and celebrates Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s travel masterpiece, ‘The Worst Journey in the World.’”
- Thomas Keneally, Napoleon’s Last Island: A Novel (Atria Books, 2017) “imagines Napoleon’s final exile through the eyes of a young girl.”
- Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad: A Novel (Doubleday, 2016): “It doesn’t merely tell us about what happened; it also tells us what have happened. Whitehead’s imagination, unconstrained by stubborn facts, takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery, or rather to places where it actually has something new to say.”
- Mark Haddon, The Porpoise: A Novel (Doubleday, 2019): “Haddon’s writing is beautiful, almost hallucinatory at times, and his descriptions so rich and lush and specific that smells and sights and tastes and sounds — foam smashing across a boat’s deck; a breakfast of olives and barley bread soaked in wine; a woman trapped alive in a coffin — all but waft and dance off the page.”
- Ted Chiang, Exhalation: Stories (Knopf, 2019): “I think of my work as maybe not so much focused on technology or a particular technological invention, as more with the idea of scientific exploration in general”
While Duchamp's "Portrait of Chess Players" hints at the ability of the creative person to alternate with facility between primary process (e.g., dreams) and secondary process (e.g., reason and logic) thinking, many of our great artists, especially the surrealists, mainly emphasized primary processes. In expressing primary process through the visual arts, perhaps the surrealists, impressionists and others gave us essential tools for drawing the essential distinction between fantasy and reality. The most striking example of this may be the work of Salvador Dali:
- The Whole Dali in a Face (1975)
- Battle in the Clouds (1974)
- Path in Púbol (1973)
- Modern Rhapsody (1957)
- The Temptation of St. Anthony (1946)
- The Broken Bridge and the Dream (1945)
- Invisible Bust of Voltaire (1941)
- Spider of the Evening (1940)
- The Endless Enigma (1938)
- Dreams on a Beach (1934)
- The Dream (1931)
- The Dream Approaches (1931)
- Playing in the Dark (1929)
- Late Night Dreams (1923)
Other extraordinary works include:
- René Magritte, The Imaginative Faculty (1948)
- Marc Chagall, Monsters, Chimeras and Hybrids
- Norman Rockwell, Boy Reading Adventure Story (1923)
Film and Stage
- The Purple Rose of Cairo, about imagination as a bridge to a new reality
- Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau(Celine and Julie Go Boating), about “the fanciful world of two women literally lost in the stories they tell each other” showcases “the dotty logic of dreams”
- Terry Gilliam’s trilogy “about imagination versus reality” explores imagination as an escape from reality: Time Bandits (review); Brazil (review); The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (review)
- Billy Liar, about a man with a “fertile ability to dream, to weave fantasies of himself as various heroes accomplishing bold and glamorous deeds”
- Heavy Traffic: on imagination as a means of escape
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Your commitment to kindness and civility might lead you to say that jazz legend Sun Ra was peculiar but in most circles you would be forgiven and probably understood if you said he was crazy. He was convinced that he was from the planet Saturn, and spoke of “altered destiny”. For a time, he embraced an idea called Afrofuturism, a blend of history, fiction, would-be cosmology and other elements. Yet he left a strong musical and discographic legacy and was the main subject of two documentaries, Space Is the Place and A Joyful Noise. We may never know what led the man whose birth name was Herman Poole Blount to his remarkable way of looking at not only the world but the cosmos, or what he thought any of that had to do with music. But we do have these lyrics from his song “Imagination”: “Imagination is a black carpet/On which we may soar/To distant lands and climes/And even go beyond the moon/To any planet in the sky/If we came from nowhere here/Why can’t we go somewhere there?” We are a symbolic species. We can imagine the impossible and the absurd. While we may want someone more firmly grounded in reality leading our space program, Sun Ra and his remarkably unique imagination made a major contribution to music. He is the subject of a biography by John Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, 1997). Below are some of his albums:
- “The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra” (1961)
- “When Angels Speak of Love” (1963)
- “Heliocentric Worlds” (3 volumes) (1965)
- “Nothing Is” (1966)
- “The Magic City” (1966)
- “Sound of Joy” (1968)
- “Atlantis” (1969)
- “It’s After the End of the World” (1979)
- “The Night of the Purple Moon” (1970)
- “Discipline 27-II” (1973)
- “Lanquidity” (1978)
- “Unity” (1978)
- “Disco 3000” (1978)
- “Sleeping Beauty” (1979)
- “On Jupiter” (1979)
- “God Is More Love Than Can Ever Be” (1979)
- Though Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) never visited Iran, he composed a set of sixteen piano pieces expressing an imagined trip. He also composed an orchestral version of the same pieces. Listening to Les Heures Persanes (The Persian Hours), Op. 65, is like riding in a dream on a musical cloud.
- Lambert, Horoscope (1937)
- Berners, The Triumph of Neptune (L’Umo di Baffi) (1926)
- Bax, The Tale the Pine Trees Knew (1931)
In a completely different vein, though Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) never visited Iran, he composed a set of sixteen piano pieces expressing an imagined trip. He also composed an orchestral version of the same pieces. Listening to Les Heures Persanes (The Persian Hours), Op. 65, is like riding in a dream on a musical cloud.
Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess'd at, / What I guess'd when I loaf'd on the grass, / What I guess'd while I lay alone in my bed, / And again as I walk'd the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps, / I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, / I am afoot with my vision.
Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars, / Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and the diameter of eighty thousand miles, / Speeding with tail'd meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest, / Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly, / Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning, / Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing, / I tread day and night such roads.
I visit the orchards of spheres and look at the product, / And look at quintillions ripen'd and look at quintillions green.
I fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul, / My course runs below the soundings of plummets.
I help myself to material and immaterial, / No guard can shut me off, no law prevent me.
I anchor my ship for a little while only, / My messengers continually cruise away or bring their returns to me.
I go hunting polar furs and the seal, leaping chasms with a pike-pointed staff, clinging to topples of brittle and blue.