Imagination has a bad name. In the common use of the term, imagination is associated either with childish fancies, or with the attitude of the innovator problem-solver. It is precisely through the ritual passage between the former and the latter, that the initiation into contemporary adulthood takes place. How is ‘growing’ up presented, today, but as a development of a child’s unleashed daydreaming into an adult’s firm grasp on the bridles of their own imagination, capable of bending it to worldly production?
A perfect example is the contemporary obsession with Santa Claus. Our children are expected to believe in Santa Claus, to the extent that it has become a nigh-mandatory requirement – the present equivalent of what in the past would have been called a ‘tradition’. Likewise, adults are expected to cooperate in the preservation of their children’s belief in the physical arrival of Santa bearing gifts. Apparently, only a monster would dare destroying their belief before time. But this is a very peculiar kind of belief. Unlike religious faith, with its transcendent scope, this is just the conviction that somewhere in our world, and at the level of worldly presence, there is something that in fact is not there. A more precise definition of this belief, would be ‘misconception’ – like believing or making one belief that in the kitchen there is a cat that in fact is not there. The pseudo-ritual of Santa Claus, performed today by titanic masses, is fundamentally a great exercise in propaganda and manipulation.
But why is it so important? The exemplariness of today’s cult of Santa, lies in the way in which it proves to deliver its function effectively and profoundly. When a child grows up, he or she is expected to no longer believe in Santa. Losing one’s belief in Santa is the first, crucial rite of passage into the contemporary community of adults. As in the past a person’s initiation into a community was ritually sanctioned by acts of braveness, endurance or ecstasy, so today this event is accompanied by a required act of disbelief. And like the initiatic trials of the past were meant to mark those who underwent them with their specific seal – making one a shaman, the other a warrior, and so on – so shedding one’s belief in Santa is meant to mark its subject with the seal of cynical disbelief. Santa teaches our children that any belief is fundamentally a form of misconception, unless it can be supported by precisely documentable, empirical proof. The production of this lasting trauma is, paradoxically, what Christmas is for today.
As they grow up, contemporary children are educated to become skillful manipulators of data + material (today’s equivalent of the ancient soul + body), reviving their beaten imagination only to put it to good use in a career as problem-solvers and innovators. They are expected to use their imagination to find new compositions of data and/or material, with the sole aim of creating ever more data and/or new material. And to be able to do so, first of all they need to believe that the world is, in fact, nothing but data and material – in the same way that their traumatic initiation into adulthood taught them that even belief or disbelief can only apply to the realm of data and material.
But is it really the case? Is imagination only the equivalent of an inventive radar, capable of picking up the catalogue of the world and of making up new assemblages of its entries? It depends, first of all, on our understanding of what is ‘there’ in the world. If there is nothing but things and their names (or only names without things, or names that are things), then imagination can be nothing else. Its value and function depend entirely on its ability to reshuffle the deck of cards of the world. If, on the contrary, the world is somehow ‘open within’ towards a dimension that at once traverses it and transcends it, then imagination can be something else.
Let us take the way in which Ibn Arabi understands the function of imagination – as recounted by Henry Corbin. According to the great Sufi master, God and the world that He created exist in a state of bi-unity. On the one hand, the essence of the world is God – yet on the other, God and His creation don’t exist in the same way. Precisely, the world is a manifestation (tajalli) of God, and every entity in the world is a place in which God shows His ‘face’. The world is not created ex nihilo, but it is God’s unveiling through the reflecting surfaces that the world provides. This is not a full manifestation, to be sure, since there remains a difference between God’s image and God’s ‘ipseity’ (His nature in Himself). Yet this is also not mere appearance: every fragment of the world is an ‘apparition’, a mirror for God to show His face, thus quenching the primordial sadness that characterized the undisclosed God – even though, ultimately, the only real witness to His disclosure is God Himself. Within this perspective, Imagination is the process through which God projects His image onto the world (thus existentiating the world), but also the more modest yet equally significant process of those creatures who are capable of recognizing God’s face in the world. Those creatures – typically, among humans, the mystics – act as God’s eye looking back towards Himself through His reflection in the mirror of the world. This is why Ibn Arabi speaks of ‘creative Imagination’: Imagination is at once responsible for creating the world, and also for creating God – inasmuch as He is a manifest God. God’s imagination and creaturely imagination dance a pas a deux, in complementary, creative bi-unity.
Ibn Arabi takes away our worldly imagination, only to return to us a world-making imagination. But how to apply it outside of a strictly mystical field? Where can we find this alternative form of imagination in a more approachable version, what poet Adam Zagajewski would call ‘mysticism for beginners’? For one, certainly, in poetry itself. The work of a poet consists mainly of cutting and polishing, exactly like that of a mirror maker. The space that opens within a poem – worthy of this name – is a surface at once transparent and reflecting, where things manifest not their presence but their ‘face’. But we shouldn’t resign ourselves to be cast out even of this more moderate form of creative Imagination only because we don’t write poetry. Imagination doesn’t necessarily require the support of a written text to stretch out its thin mirror-surfaces. It’s not even necessary to be able to actually see, perhaps while withdrawn in silence, the face of the world reflected in each of its fragments. Even for poets, those moments of illumination are rare, and possibly beyond anybody’s ability to access them at will. What truly counts, like the drops of liquid silver than will eventually form a mirror’s coating, is the unshakable desire to see. The authentic stuff of an image, is the viewer’s desire to see it, to accept it, to interpret it.
In an age that has invested images of semi-material existence, and of terrifying secular power, it is particularly important to revisit our notion of imagination. Rather than functioning as the handmaiden of worldly production, imagination can be understood first of all as the burning desire to see the face of the world, hidden within the infinite catalogue of its features. Even though very few of us ever manage to become poets in their writing practice, all of us are capable of holding in their heart the same desire that shakes a poet and inhabits their lines. I look around myself, sitting in the kitchen, and I see only objects, objects, objects. Things. But things that exist. And the mystery of their existence renews my desire to be able to see, hidden within their casual patter, a minuscule key that will allow me to read them as the skin of the world, as its face. Yet I fail, I fail again. And my desire remains unabated, though I might doubt my ability to ever sustain it on my shoulders until it will be satisfied. I can’t see, but I want to see! And already my desire gives a shimmer to the plant on the table, to the faint stains on the wall, or to my own hands typing these words.
The face of the world is here, right here in plain view, yet it is so difficult to grasp – like the beauty of some of Bach’s works, perfectly present to the ear yet so difficult to access. Remember Borges’ short story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, which recounts the story of that Empire where “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, … delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.” Such is the face of the world, for one who wishes to see it: a map that it as perfect as it is impossible to read. Nonetheless, it is the only exact map, the only portrait in which the world shows itself to be truly a world – not just an aggregate of data and material. One might wonder what happened to those ‘following Generations’ who abandoned the map: did they still inhabit a world, or just a barren territory cut up by conflicting opinions? Like those ‘Animals and Beggars’, it is better to withdraw to a corner of the map, and to remain faithful to the desire to see it whole – believing that the ‘Inclemencies of Sun and Winter’ could never really shred it. The map is in the eye, as long as we see it inscribed in the territory. The face is in the flesh of each object, as long as we wish to see it, and even if we fail to ever actually see it.
If we understand Imagination this way, we can modify our contemporary habit of bridling it as we do, in order to gain access to the community of adults. Certainly, the metamorphosis of a child’s imagination will remain a requirement to be initiated into adulthood – though in a different way from what we enact with cynic mechanism such as the cult of Santa. It is not a matter of taming a child’s imagination, so that he or she will be able to use it like a hammer to fix the plumbing problems of history. A child should be encouraged to refine their imagination, to strengthen it and to root it in their desire to see. As we grow up, daily worries and occupations inevitably obfuscate our vision and can often blind us to anything that isn’t the immediate drudgery of inhabiting history. Refining, strengthening and rooting our Imagination becomes more difficult with time, but this difficulty is compensated by the creative power that it gains after years of care and practice. Growing up means – or should mean – taking upon ourselves the burden of a renewed desire to see, connecting it to our innermost motions as well as to our most mundane activities. Never abandoning the desire that cannot be fulfilled.
“beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you
be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star
repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes
Be faithful Go” (2)
(1) Henry Corbin, Alone With the Alone, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
(2) Zbigniew Herbert, The Envoy of Mr. Cogito, translated by Bogdana and John Carpenter, online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48501/the-envoy-of-mr-cogito