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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, March 09, 2007

more imagination

Yesterday I was talking about imagination, sparked by my reading volume 2 of William James's The Principles of Psychology. Here is some of the text (compressed) from the top of chapter 18:

Sensations, once experienced, modify the nervous organism, so that copies of them arise again in the mind after the original outward stimulus is gone. No mental copy can arise in the mind, of any kind of sensation which has never been directly excited from without.

Fantasy, or imagination, are the names given to the faculty of reproducing copies of originals once felt. The imagination is called "reproductive" when the copies are literal; "productive" when elements from different originals are recombined so as to make new wholes.

So imagination, in the sense of creative imagination, is simply the calling up and combining of sensations from memory.

One of my first thoughts on reading this was to wonder about dreams. Dreams contain a tremendous amount of novelty. Last night (well, about 3:15 this morning) I dreamed (again) that I was aboard a bus, actually more like our SeaBus here in Vancouver--a pedestrian ferry that crosses Burrard Inlet. This bus, jammed with commuters in the dream, had the same rows of white plastic seats facing each other, but with the new feature of having a kind of oblong ring-aisle off the main long aisle of the bus. The bus-loop we were approaching was more like an airport in the size and vacancy of the tarmac. So while the sensory elements of the dream were familiar, in the sense of being made of familiar substances and based on familiar objects, the actual objects and their configurations were new. So the "originals" being combined were of elements smaller than the whole objects themselves.

A few nights ago I had a dream of being in a cavern with a rushing river. In the river I saw a monster: a sharklike beast maybe 15 feet long, but with three heads on flexible necks protruding in a triangular array from the front of its body (the heads all had long sharp teeth--a very frightening creature). Again, the elements that went to make up this beast were small parts of itself--the fins, the skin, the necks, each tooth--all put together into a new whole. All the rest of the dream-elements too were new images assembled from much smaller pieces to create a strong sense of novelty in the whole.

I accept James's assertion that any imagined object must have a sensory original; a person blind from birth cannot visualize, period, and has dreams that feature only the other senses. But I suppose I'm wondering where this tremendous, productive, recombinant power of imagination comes from--spontaneously in dreaming, and with some conscious direction in creative art--and what guides it and shapes it.

The author of our dreams rips up our sensory memories and reassembles them into collages that have their own integrity, novelty, and emotional power. The pixels of our sensations are reformed into personal stories that have feeling and significance--that have purpose. It's as though the dream-stuff (known as "subtle matter" in ancient Indian philosophy) is a cloth draped over an otherwise invisible form, revealing its shape. And this shape has a purpose; it is not random or arbitrary. How much effort would it cost me to "write" a dream? To come up with its setting, cast, and plot? Quite a lot. Whoever is writing my dreams is putting out that much effort, while making it seem effortless. It can't be to no purpose, any more than my own creative efforts are to no purpose.

From this point of view, then, imagination is a tool, a means to an end, a way of getting something done. It's a way of seeing the invisible, speaking the unspeakable. The purposes or structuring forces underlying the organization of imaginative elements would be, I think, what Joseph Campbell would call myth. Or the whole process of draping these purposive forces with imagined elements, and showing and sharing the results, is myth.

If this isn't exactly clear, you're in no worse a position than I am. This is me working through an idea, a blog-post that reads a bit like an entry in one of my Thinking documents. There's something fascinating here--and very important for us creative artists, as well as us dreamers.

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