January 1, 2017
When the powers of imagination come under attack by mass commodification, by religious fundamentalism, by intellectual mechanization, by political opportunism, by fiscal greed, by cynical disparagement, or by any other ideological enemy of what should be respected as a primary source of personal and collective liberty, it is incumbent upon us to defend these powers by making explicit how they engender our humanity.
We can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, and a few hours without shelter in an inhospitable clime, but we cannot live for even a moment without some movement of imagination in mind and body. To restrict its enlivening flow is to cripple the wellsprings of health, vitality, and sanity.
“Enchantment” as used herein refers to the mood of eager, inviting wonder: a precious gift of the free uses of imaginative capacities such as fantasy, awe, reverie, foresight, fancy, vision, play, and invention. Enchantment is a self-evident basic right. An assault on enchantment is an assault on the human spirit.
To be able to imagine is a primal human need. We cannot make a move without imagining where we go. Every great creative work, every achievement, every plan, every calculation and experiment, everything our species ever grew, raised, crafted, built, and tended began as a fantasy in someone’s imagination.
Imagination allows us to evaluate before we risk, emote before we enact, and experiment before we commit. Identity and empathy emerge from the matrix of our shared imaginative interiority. Without imagination, we cannot envision the consequences of our acts or feel into how they could impact other beings.
Imagination remains healthy only when free to go where it will, even when its images disturb, challenge, or unsettle. Trying to suppress them takes them too literally, making their translation into action more likely and not less. Fantasies harmfully acted out are fantasies imperfectly imagined.
A truly free people enjoy free use of their imagination. Tyranny begins when a group seeking power over others and over what they need to live restricts some fantasies and degrades others into political or religious propaganda. Tyrannies spread disenchantment through fear-mongering, name-calling, and turning citizens against each other. A free citizen must stand up for the right to imaginal liberty.
Enchantment-killing explanations of imagination in terms of linguistic units, psychological mechanisms, or intracranial biochemistries cuts off consciousness from its somatic, communal, ecological, and spiritual roots—and is itself a fantasy structure unconsciously acted out. Like human nature, imagination and its emergent works are always far more than their constitutive elements.
The products and figures and beings of imagination possess their own autonomy and imaginal reality. They need no passports and recognize no customs guards. When treated with respect and hospitality, they often disclose insights and intuitions different from and deeper than any contrivable by the conscious mind. They also enchant the world by clothing it in the magical garments of fantasy, symbol, image, vision, and dream.
Disparaging imagination, enchantment, and fantasy as “escapism” betrays a deep fear of them based in ideological self-restriction. Some people do use realms of fantasy as a haven from the messy details of living, but for this they must literalize and materialize these realms well beyond the sphere of fantasy. Very often the clue for how to reground in the everyday, creatively and realistically, awaits discovery within the fantasies themselves.
The imagination is naturally diverse. When welcomed and explored, each fantasy carries its own expressions, perceptions, moods, voices, and values. Each fantasy in turn must interact with all others in an ever-creative interior democracy that furnishes the imaginal foundations for genuinely inclusive political democracy. We imagine, therefore we are a people.
The arts and humanities deserve our sustained attention, sustenance, and protection because, beyond their incalculable value to their cultures of origin and to humanity as a whole, they bring reenchantment while nurturing creativity. Depriving the arts and humanities of support impoverishes cultural life and deprives citizens of imaginal enrichment. The measure of a society’s health is in how strongly it supports its vehicles of imagination.
Threatening people with the loss of basic necessities, including safe places for reflection and inspiration, also attacks their imagination. Impoverished children play at the dump: imagine what they could envision and grow up to create if they were not forced to live there. Poverty is undeclared war on the human spirit.
Without the gifts of the imagination, we cannot fashion the new stories we need for carrying us forward. Systemic catastrophes like patriarchy, poverty, greed, global warming, habitat destruction, warfare, and bigotry all represent failures of imagination and, therefore, failures of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, our place in the world, and how we should be with each other.
Everyone deserves to live in an enchanted world community formed of many communities of belonging, justice, peace, and plenty; but we cannot assemble or strengthen these communities without free access to imagination as well as opportunities to exercise its powers and enlarge its scope.
Without enchantment and fantasy, we face no mysteries, only static things we have not rationally explained yet. Without mystery, there is no humility; and when humility shrinks, societies rot from within and topple like trees hollowed out by disease. The cure is found in networked pockets of flourishing imaginative community.
With imagination, we can perceive and enjoy the organic intelligence of the natural world and the sense of self-sustaining order that pervades the cosmos. With imagination, we live in places that converse with us. Instead of futilely and hubristically trying to master Nature, we take our place within it as one species among many, a species with much to learn.
“Imagination” is another word for “Possibility” brought into creative view. To explore Possibility requires Liberty. Unfettered imagination is the last outpost of freedom.