In one of the pivotal books of Canadian writing, The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye writes about the comparison of the language of practical sense and the language of the imagination. Central to the latter are devices like metaphor, simile and personification, all of them dedicated to the union of things that are not normally even linked together.
Unity comes through the imagination seeing, as Wordsworth reminded us in his poem, Daffodils, "into the life of things". Seeing beyond the literal, the empirical, the mere data, into its meaning, its significance and into its capacity to bridge the here-and-now with the forever, the eternal, the sacred is the singular role of the human imagination. Unlike all other animals, as David Suzuki reminded us this week in his appearance on Bill Moyers on PBS, humans can see a future, can bear witness to that future and can take both imaginative steps and concrete steps to walk toward that vision. It is our imagination that makes such visions possible.
And it is our artists, our poets, our actors and our dancers whose lives, almost without conscious and deliberate "career-making decisions," who keep the human imagination vibrant and integral to our life among the wild beasts of nature, demonstrating our capacity to interact with that "wild" and never to separate, even emotionally from that wild. There is, after all, a unity to life, human and the wild, that beats to the drum of the sacred.
The shamans, and the oracles of all tribes everywhere and always were the voices, revered and reviled, often at the same time, were and are part of that ancient theme of human culture and 'civilization' to which the poets and the prophets owe their existence and their courage. Frye's window to that world, in which "the mouse can eat the elephant" does not leave the reader/audience is shocked or incredulous simply because s/he has suspended his/her disbelief. We can and do enter into the world "created" by the imagination of the novelist, the poet, the dramatist, and the oracles and without those voices we permit and are complicit in a world reduced to the literal, the data, the meta-data, and our own minimal selves.
There is really no separation between the sacred and the natural, and it is such a perceived dichotomy, a Manichean dichotomy, that permits and even encourages the hubris that is also innate to humans.
That separation, echoed in the most hollow words that can be uttered, "Man's purpose is to get rich!" (from Kevin O'Leary in an advertisement for the Lang and O'Leary Exchange on CBC) renders man nothing more than a function of his own narcissistic greed and ambition. O'Leary's words, like those of the original Wall Street movie, "Greed is good!" render man a victim, through self-sabotage, of his own minimalist, reductionistic gratification.
The fracture of all bridges to 'the other' and through and to the human imagination had some of its roots in the Puritan banning of all theatrical performances to the outside of London. And through the contemporary worship of technology and mere empirical data, and the calculations and the equations required to manipulate that growing mountain of data, we have become blinded to our own imaginations, all the while fixated on the dance of those little digits on our various "screens" that so entrance us into our own potential oblivion.
We are, or perhaps already have, abandoned the pursuit of the spiritual and the sacred in ourselves and in our world, in order to achieve that worst of all possible nightmares, "dominion" over the world. We have become worshippers at the altar of raw power in the political, economic and even cultural manipulation of our smaller and smaller worlds, as if to achieve dominion, through our wealth and status, were the reason for our very existence.
And we have been blinded by our own drowning in our own hubris, from which only our imagination has the capacity to rescue us. And every day that we demonstrate what looks like a revival of the Puritan contempt for the imagination, and contempt for the voices who infuse life into that imagination, our poets, our prophets, our shamans, and our elders, as practiced in native culture, including our contempt for each other and the earth that sustains our lives, we move closer to our own annihilation.
Every time we hear of another school board cutting support for the "arts" we should all be manning the barricades of their board rooms demanding they stop.
Every time we hear of the abandonment of another music program in the public education systems, we must demand its reinstatement.
We need to ask our mega-corporations whose productions of news and documentaries saturate our lives, to focus on the role and the accomplishments of the human imagination, for example, the orchestra in Africa without instruments that toured North America, providing not only a living but a meaning for its members.
This is a cause to which all of us can and must contribute, through our conversations, our activities and our dreams for our lives, our children's lives, and our grandchildren's lives.
In a recent piece in truthdig.com Chris Hedges writes about this theme.
Read and reflect on this excerpt:
Those who worship themselves, the essence of the modern, commit spiritual suicide. In love with himself after seeing his reflection in a pond, Narcissus is doomed, as many in the modern world are, by vanity, celebrity and the need for admirers and sycophants. Narcissists master the arts of manipulation, seduction, power and control. They eschew empathy, honesty, trust and transparency. It is a form of mental illness.
It is through imagination that we can reach the dark regions of the human psyche and face our mortality and the brevity of existence. It is through imagination that we can recover reverence and kinship. It is through imagination that we can see ourselves in our neighbors and the other living organisms of the earth. It is through imagination that we can envision other ways to form a society. The triumph of modern utilitarianism, implanted by violence, crushed the primacy of the human imagination. It enslaved us to the cult of the self. And with this enslavement came an inability to see, the central theme of “King Lear.” Imagination, as Goddard wrote, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”
All of the great visionaries and leaders of the Indian tribes, from medicine men like Black Elk and Sitting Bull to warriors such as Crazy Horse, in the presence of the natural world heard it speak to them, in the same way it spoke to Shakespeare, Dickinson or Walt Whitman. All elements of life, especially those that lie beyond articulation, infuse the human imagination. The communion—accentuated by vision quests, the sanctity of dreams, odd occurrences, miracles and the wonder of nature, as well as rituals that take place within a communal society—blurs the lines between the self and the world. This ability to connect with the sacred is what Percy Shelley meant when he wrote that poetry “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar things as if they were not familiar.” We are reminded at that moment of the wonder of life and our insignificance in the vastness of the cosmos, reminded that, as Prospero said, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Too often this wisdom comes too late, as it does when Othello stands over the dead Desdemona or Lear over his executed daughter, Cordelia. This wisdom makes grace possible. Songs, poetry, music, theater, dance, sculpture, art, fiction and ritual move human beings toward the sacred. They clear the way for transformation. The prosaic world of facts, data, science, news, technology, business and the military is cut off from the mysteries of creation and existence. We will recover this imagination, this capacity for the sacred, or we will vanish as a species. (By Chris Hedges, The Power of Imagination, truthdig.com, May 11, 2014)