Thursday, December 26, 2013

Worlds of the Imagination

In a post in her Anthropocene Mind blog in Psychology Today "Our Myopic Imagination," Michele Wick reported on a study that concluded we generally fall for "The End of History Illusion" and assume that although we see ourselves now as different from ourselves in the past, we also see ourselves as a stable product of that past experience, unlikely to change much in the future. Wick's particular concern is how that illusion would affect our ability to cope with the kind of personal change we must envision and enact to cope with global warming. Leaving myself open to the when-you-have-a-hammer-everything –looks-like-a-nail criticism, I see a place for literature as a tool of evolutionary adaptation, like Kenneth Burke's assertion of "Literature as Equipment for Living."

Not to realize we have changed would be a failure of memory; not to realize we will change is a failure of imagination. The most ecologically efficient way to exercise the imagination is one person telling a story to another, an activity that consumes no external resources. With current technology, stories can be recorded and sent to many people, consuming some bits of resource. The least efficient way to tell a story right now is to make a film: hundreds of people consume staggering amounts of resources. A book, especially an electronic one, is the work of primarily one person with editors and publishing company people supporting it. The reader takes care of the actors, the scenery, and the special effects. So with a few additional resources, a shared act of the imagination in the form of an MP3 or a book can engage many people. An important characteristic of the book, too, is that it is private: one author talking to one person at a time. No peer pressure from the reaction of fellow audience members becomes an inextricable part of the experience so the individual imagination has a chance to build up muscle before confronting the Captain Bringdowns of the world.
I have another self-serving suggestion. To encourage our imaginations to break the shackles of the world view of the culture that surrounds us, we might look to literature from the past. There have been some wonderful modern reimaginings of the world in film—The Matrix, Inception, The Adjustment Bureau—but they all have their roots in the present and reflect extrapolations from our current fears and wishes. The past, however, is beyond our experience. The past has never heard of us. When we look at the way storytellers from past ages imagine another world, we can see the constraints they impose and the freedoms they allow themselves.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Middle English poem from the turn of the 15th Century, plunges Gawain into a bizarre adventure when he accepts the challenge to deliver a blow with an axe and then a year later to receive one back. He beheads the Green Knight who recovers his head, and, after reminding Gawain of his obligation, rides off. As a result of this beginning, Gawain ends up in a castle where he discovers himself enmeshed in a set of three interlocking games. The anonymous poet who wrote the story was immersed in a world so saturated with meaning that there were no random events or meaningless objects. Deus's organizing Logos reached to the bottom of creation. Gawain's shield contains a pentangle and the poet spends many lines, admitting that he is delaying the story, to describe the "five fives" the shield symbolizes. Whatever bizarre thing happens, it will be part of a plan. The medieval poet could casually dispense with realism, but he did not imagine a world without ubiquitous meaning.
Such cultural constructs remind us that we understand our experiences within a frame of reference that on some levels seems inevitable. Climbing into the past (or another culture) suggests ways to step outside our tidy sets of assumptions. Even if the past is entirely wrongheaded, it may suggest a crack in our own thinking that we may be able get some purchase on, so we can see what happens when it starts to break apart. Sometimes all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put our old thoughts together again, and we need to make something new of the pieces.

No comments:

Post a Comment