Friday, March 20, 2009

Imagine That!

How do we imagine? Why do we imagine? What role does imagination play in our lives? What role should it play in our lives? What is the purpose of imagination? What is the function of imagine. Why does imagination exist?

What is imagination anyways?

This imagination business. I don’t know. There’s something quite mysterious here, isn’t there? There’s nothing rational or rectilinear about it. There’s something almost absurd about it, don’t you find? Something that feels like it’s imported. Something alien. Something other.

I’m reminded of the artist M.C. Escher and his “Drawing Hands.” This is a print of two hands that seem to emerge out of the bounds of a piece of paper they both belong in, and both of them are busily drawing the shirtsleeve of the other.

I’m also reminded of the Mobius strip. A surface with only one side and one boundary component. Take a strip of paper. Make a half twist in it. Tape the ends together. Then draw a line along it until the beginning of the line and the end are the same point.

It’s like wondering about the beginning of the universe. If it began with a Big Bang, what was before the Big Bang? Imagine that!

What I mean to say is that it is a bit like the particles that seem to appear out of nothing. Physicists tell us they are there and that this sort of thing happens all the time. That particles are appearing and disappearing all the time. And this isn’t just one physicist.

If this were just one physicist, we could safely call the guy loony. Off his rocker. On account of the law of the conservation of matter. Which was a very firm law when I went to elementary school and junior high school. But by the time I went to high school, this law wasn’t so firm after all. It was more of a guideline. And then by the time I was in graduate school. Well. By then, we had discovered that the laws of physics are just about as subject to question and revision and rethinking as the laws enacting the federal budget.

But we now know. Hey, isn’t that a kick? To say something like that? “We now know….” As if one could speak for the authorities (whoever they are) in such an authoritative way. In a field one—strictly speaking—has no competence in?

But as I was saying, we now know, because just about every reputable physicist on the planet will say so, that matter appears and disappears just about everywhere all the time.

And so this imagination. This activity of imagining. Well. It just seems to be bubbling along all the time, doesn’t it? Like mystical matter. Like these elementary particles. Bubbling up out of nothing. All the time.

Where does it come from? Why does it pop up where it does? Why does it appear in the form it does? How does it work? What are the rules of its operation? Who knows?

And so one wants to know, for example, where Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems come from. Or where. I don’t know. Where Yosemite Valley comes from. Or where Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite Valley come from. Or where paintings depicting Yosemite Valley come from.

I don’t know. But maybe I’ll take a shot at saying several things that I’ve observed about my own imagination at work.

First, it seems unstoppable. It just keeps bubbling along, as I say.

Second, it is indiscriminate. Oh, it’s a bit like going to a landfill. Have you ever been to a landfill before all the stuff gets dozed beneath a pile of dirt? There’s stuff in there no one ever could have imagined. Or I should say. There’s stuff in there I had no idea could ever possibly exist.

Third, every once in awhile, something actually apparently useful pops out. But most of the stuff seems random.

Fourth, getting a sense of things seems impossible without it.

Fifth, planning anything is impossible without it.

Sixth, understanding possible outcomes is impossible without it.

Seventh, framing hypotheses is impossible without it.

Eighth, sympathy and empathy are impossible without it.

Ninth, anticipating others’ reactions to things is impossible without it.

Tenth, telling stories and making stories are impossible without it.

Eleventh, understanding what someone else means seems impossible without it.

Twelfth, getting out of bed in the morning and going anywhere or doing anything or thinking anything or feeling anything all seem impossible without it.

Thirteenth, speaking about or writing about or thinking about or depicting God in any way seem impossible without it.

Fourteenth, speaking about or writing about or thinking about or depicting anything not physically present seem impossible without it.

Fifteenth, speaking about or writing about or thinking about or depicting anything that is physically present seem impossible without it.

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