October 1, 2021

So what exactly is the imagination?  In a newsletter that has been running for months, you might think it time to venture a definition of our key thematic word.  Well, if pressed, I might respond something as follows. The imagination manifests itself in two ways, synchronic and diachronic:  that is, structural and dynamic.  On the one hand, it is a power that perceives in terms of connections, inter-relations, associations, identifications, a holistic and synthesizing faculty.  But the patterns it reveals are not static, for the imagination is also an energy that produces transformations, metamorphoses, new forms out of old.  Nothing highly original here:  my version of the imagination descends directly from the Romantic tradition.   What I want to do today is to make this definition a little less abstract and philosophical.  After all, my theme is the imagination as the home of human life, and although ideas are useful and sometimes necessary instruments, no one can live in a house built out of abstractions. 

The imagination is rooted in the human unconscious, where, as roots are, it is buried mostly out of sight.  But we can see it in such unconscious activities as dreaming.  Dreams are associative rather than factual and logical, so highly associative that they can actually fuse things that are separate in waking life, a process that Freud called “condensation.”  The associations are not random but based on our desires and anxieties.  Condensation is when, in your dream, “It was my father, but it was also somehow Donald Trump.”  In which case, you should seek therapy immediately—but not because the association is “unreal.”  Unless your name is Ivanka, your father and Trump are not factually the same person, but there is an emotional connection that your unconscious perceives while your reality-oriented waking self does not. 

What dreams are to the individual, mythology is to society.  Mythology, folk tales, and the literature of early periods retain much of the unconscious way of thinking that Freud called “primary process”:  the language of Homer, of Beowulf, of much of the Bible, especially in its earlier strata, is metaphorical rather than descriptive or conceptual, using “metaphor” as a loose term for the power of association and identification.  This metaphorical, associative, and therefore often dreamlike manner of perceiving survives in later periods as the genre or mode of romance, the tale of wonders and marvels. 

However, in the course of human development, the ego grows out of the unconscious as a faculty of discrimination and differentiation, a faculty governed by what Freud called “secondary process” and identified with the “reality principle.”  It is a plant that grows in the daylight while still connected to its hidden root, but the ego often feels threatened by the unconscious, which it perceives as a temptation, an alluring invitation to regress into what it thinks of as childish if not infantile primary process thinking.  Hence the backlash against the imagination’s mode of “fantasy.”  When you teach a course in fantasy and science fiction for thirty years, you get used to comments such as “I like fiction about real life, not that weird stuff.”  

On the level of the intellectual elite, the imagination may be attacked nowadays as not merely escapist and regressive but as sinister and dangerous.  Ours is an ironic age, and irony is the perception of disjunctions, differences, negations, conflicts rather than identifications.  Literary theory since the Sixties has often been openly anti-Romantic, anti-mythological, and anti-imaginative.  The imagination’s power of producing associations and connections is sometimes attacked not just as regression but as “mystification.”  Any expression of connection is suspect as a disguised power play, an aggressive, coercive imposition of unity for the purposes of social order.  This negativism becomes comprehensible when seen as a backlash against a betrayal of the imagination by all too many of the Modernist writers of roughly the turn of the twentieth century to the end of the Second World War.  It is appalling how many of the greatest writers of modern literature were attracted to reactionary ideologies, sympathizing with authoritarian movements because they seemed to promise a new social order based on a vision of total unity, total connectedness, the world of the imagination realized.  But the great betrayal is that the unity would be imposed by force.  The attraction of fascism, then as now again in the United States, is the temptation of a unity produced partly by hysterical collectivism or tribalism and partly by violence. 

Take for example T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, perhaps the foremost spokesmen for Modernist values.  Eliot’s The Waste Land remains a central modern poem because of its vivid dramatization of the widespread feelings of alienation, disconnection, and sterility that have resulted because modern consciousness has cut itself off its deeply buried roots.  It is a poem of seemingly disparate passages expressing the fragmentation of modern life.  “On Margate Sands I can connect nothing with nothing,” as one of its voices says.  But in his critical writing, Eliot’s solution to this fragmentation was to declare himself Catholic in religion, royalist in politics, and formalist or Classical in literature—in other words to ally himself with movements that promised what he called a “unified sensibility” imposed by social authority.  As opposed to Protestant individualism, democracy, and Romantic expressiveness, all of which he felt led towards a very messy anarchism. 

The self-destruction of Ezra Pound is more spectacular.  Like The Waste Land, Pound’s epic, the Cantos, is haunted by the sense of a buried unity that has to be searched for beneath the rubble of modern life.  An epiphany of that unity could redeem human consciousness even in the midst of suffering and death.  In his translation of Sophocles’ drama The Women of Trachis, Pound has the dying Herakles, or Hercules, cry out, in his moment of what Aristotle called anagnorisis, or recognition, “what / SPLENDOUR / IT ALL COHERES,” adding a note saying that this is the crucial passage that makes sense of the whole play.  Ironically, however, the translation is so free that those lines are essentially made up, corresponding to nothing in the original.  So the passage that is the key to the drama is not really there. Yet Pound is right that the play culminates in the revelation of a hidden pattern working itself out, however dark and tragic the result, just as in Oedipus the King.  Herakles’ vision of coherence, of a meaningful pattern in his life, is to him, at least in Pound’s view, compensation for his agonizing death by poison and fire.   

The imagination thinks in terms of connections:  critics have noted that Pound saw a connection between his tragedy and that of Herakles.  He made his translation while shut up in St. Elizabeth’s hospital for the criminally insane, which was the way his friends and literary admirers saved him from being executed as a traitor because of his radio broadcasts supporting Mussolini during the war.  Nor was that recourse merely a legal subterfuge:  in a late canto (CXVI), Pound recognizes that what has wrecked his life, and perhaps also his poetry, has been a kind of madness, saying poignantly, “But the beauty is not the madness / Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me. / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.”  Yet he vacillates in a way that anyone writing creatively will sympathize with, adding a bit later that “it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere.” 

The premise of my book, of these newsletters, of all my writing is that there really is a hidden root, a buried source of connections and inter-relationships, of unity and coherence, but a unity that includes and in fact makes possible difference and diversity, transformation and transfiguration, not to mention progressive social change.  In The Productions of Time I call this principle identity-in-difference, a term out of post-Romantic philosophical tradition, but if you don’t like chewing on hyphenated jargon you can disregard it. What matters is that the buried root is not the false unity or coherence of ideological coercion, nor a regression to the dream-fusions of the unconscious. The underlying mystery may be paradoxical, but it is not mystical in the sense of something otherworldly and airy-fairy.  It manifests itself in everyday life, as what Wordsworth called “A simple produce of the common day.”

One of my favorite writers in any genre (and he writes in several), Samuel R. Delany, has an early science fiction story called Empire Star, a delightful comic jeu d’esprit whose protagonist, who starts with the deliberately goofy name of Comet Jo, evolves as he comes of age through three phases of consciousness that the story calls simplex, complex, and multiplex.  I teach freshman composition and used to teach a course on grammar, and in this context I am constantly striving to facilitate the development of students about Jo’s age from simplex to complex, starting on the most fundamental level of sentence construction.  One thing you have to teach some students is that they have to learn to write longer and more, well, complex sentences, to risk moving away from simple sentences of the “cat is on the mat” variety.  Not just because an entire essay of such constructions is choppy to the point of unreadable, though God knows.  Rather because higher-level thinking is not a succession of big ideas: it is relational, a revelation of the relationships among facts and ideas.  And language expresses those relationships through joining simple component parts, called clauses and phrases, into a syntax that diagrams their relationships.  The exercise of sentence diagramming discloses that web of syntactic relationships at a glance, like a blueprint.  To a main clause we join subordinate clauses and verbal phrases, each of which is a new piece of information that is being related to the total structure. 

If the freshmen go on to become English majors, they will eventually encounter (at least by hearsay) authors like Milton, Proust, Thomas Mann, Henry James, and Thomas Pynchon, whose sentences may go on for more than a page.  Reading them can be frustrating, like sitting at a railroad crossing while an interminably long train slowly rumbles by.  But these authors are attempting to suggest that all the elements in human experience, seen with sufficient imaginative energy, are interconnected and interacting.  Indeed, achieving such a mode of all-comprehending awareness becomes the actual subject of James’s late novels, all the love affairs and struggles over money that are supposed to constitute “real life” receding as secondary.  Which is why James advised aspiring writers so “Try to become someone on whom nothing is lost.” 

But let us stick with the freshman non-majors for the moment. One of my course materials in writing classes over the years has been the Preface by another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, to his first volume of short stories.  In it, he recounts the anecdote of a man named Gately who made a hole-in-one while golfing.  Over two and a half pages, Sturgeon analyzes, with comic gusto, all the elements that had to coincide to produce Gately’s hole-in-one.  He was able to golf at all because he cancelled his office appointments for the day due to a toothache, which promptly disappeared once he had cancelled them.  Then:

At the fifth, he nudged his ball once on the positioning try, and

his patent tee leaned over five degrees.  On the backswing his

right foot slipped a trifle on the fore end of a large earthworm.

He drove.  The ball, badly slice, bulleted into the rough, where

it caromed off the concrete filling of the limb-socket of a gnarled

oak.  It began to cross the fairway, but was buoyed up by a

sudden hearty breeze.  Its course changed; it rolled to the green.

It struck a grasshopped in mid-stride.  The insect tried to take

off but instead kicked the ball violently.  The arrival point of the

ball was thereby altered three sixty-fourths of an inch and it

rolled to the cup, where, after deliberation round the rim, it over-

balanced and dropped in.

But Sturgeon is not done with his reductio ad absurdum that will in the end be more than merely absurd.  He opens the vista to an indefinitely receding number of larger factors:  the breeze was caused by a crop duster who sneezed at the wrong moment; the oak tree existed because of the decision of a certain acorn-burying squirrel; the timing of Gately’s stroke with the breeze and earthworm and grasshopper was produced by the delay while the pro told Gately’s caddy a dirty joke still in circulation after its first version 2000 years ago.  And so on. 

Sturgeon concludes: “We have been regarding a hole-in-one in this light because it is remarkable enough in itself to lead us to wonder at its causes.  But many an unremarkable thing has an interesting background.  Mr. Gately’s hole-in-one violates the laws of probability to a shocking extent.  So do many things, including the fact “that our reader is alive at all.  The odds are incalculably against such things.” The punch line is that “then the reader is counseled to think more than twice before he brands anything in this volume”—of “weird” science fiction stories—“as improbable.” 

Sturgeon is playfully demonstrating one of the commonest relationships in complex thinking, that of causality, expressed in clauses beginning “Because” or “Therefore” or “As a result.”  Causality is of course the basis of science, but Sturgeon’s purpose is more than teaching scientific law.  He is saying that the most commonplace relationship or connection of them all, the basis of commonplace reality, is in fact uncanny, miraculous, magical.  For all its humor, the final mood of his Preface is a sense of wonder at an infinitely interconnected world in which we live, and move, and have our being without even thinking about it.  The epiphany is the birth, out of complex thinking, of what Delany calls multiplex.  We think of scientific causality as complex rather than multiplex, but perhaps that is more on its mechanistic, still quasi-Newtonian surface level.  On the quantum level, light is somehow potentially both particle and wave, i.e., synchronic structure and diachronic energy process, and its behavior is in some ways dependent on an observer, whose perception of it creates the mode of its existence.  Whenever anyone tries to suggest that this has radical implications for our sense of reality, the more positivistic scientists are dismissive, but the more creative ones are aware of Schrödinger’s cat grinning somewhere invisibly.  Similarly in the natural sciences, the neo-Darwinists adhere to mechanistic materialism, but in the face of challenges about a more interconnected reality of “emergent systems” and the Gaia hypothesis. 

In a famous book, Science and the Modern World, the theoretical mathematician and philosopher of science Alfred North Whitehead, within a chapter about Romanticism’s relation to science, made the following statement: “my theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time.  For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location.  Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.” For Northrop Frye, perhaps the foremost theoretician of the imagination we have yet seen, this passage became something like a touchstone, and was the source of his vision of what he called “interpenetration,” a word that sums up everything I have been saying about a hidden imaginative world of associations and identifications.  When he delivered the keynote address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1981, Frye titled it “The Bridge of Language.”  A bridge connects, and it is language on its multiplex level that bridges the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. 

Ordinary communication demands that we mean one thing and mean it clearly, but the language of myth and literature is polysemous, meaning that a word or image has many possible associations and connections:  its meaning is not exclusive but inclusive.  Frye’s image of the bridge is a serendipitous example.  It so happens—if these things are in fact accidents rather than what Jung called synchronicity—that Delany’s character Jo is taught the difference between simplex, complex, and multiplex through the visual aid of a life-size replica of the Brooklyn Bridge on a distant world of a distant future. (Delany is a New Yorker, and the Brooklyn Bridge is a recurrent image of his imagination, reinforced by Hart Crane’s epic poem about it).  His mentor tells him to look at the holes in the plating that floors the bridge.  They look random:  that is the simplex view.  But when he starts walking, the dots wink out and reappear.  The mentor comments, “But thou art now receiving the complex view, for thou art aware that there is more than what is seen from any one spot.  Now, start to run.”  When he does, he sees “that the holes were in a pattern, six-pointed stars crossed by diagonals of seven holes each.  It was only with the flickering coming so fast that the entire pattern could be perceived—” and he does a face plant.  The mentor summarizes: “Thou hast also encountered one of the major difficulties of the simplex mind attempting to encompass the multiplex view.  Thou art very likely to fall flat on thy face.” 

However, it may be worth the risk.  To bring this highfalutin multiplex notion further into the light of common day, let me invoke one more bridge, from a wonderful essay by Cherokee Paul McDonald called “A View from the Bridge.”  While jogging across a bridge, McDonald hears the voice of a young boy asking him to help him find his bait.  McDonald is impatient until, with a shock, he realizes the boy is blind.  By using language alone, he helps the boy bait his hook and, when he gets a huge fish on his line, guide him in and land him.  The boy begs him to describe the fish—describe a fish to a blind person.  But McDonald tries his best because it means so much the boy.  But then the boy lets the fish swim away.  He thanks McDonald “for helping me to see it.”  McDonald replies, “No, my friend, thank you for letting me see that fish.” 

This moving essay is from my textbook, and I will use it to teach my students that there is no way a multiplex view can be reduced to the simplex or at most complex statement we call a thesis, even if we may have to try to do so at times.  Should we attempt it, we might begin by saying it is about the multiplex interactions between man, boy, and fish.  Their interactions are described in the metaphor of seeing:  the man “sees” the boy for the first time when he realizes the boy is blind; the boy “sees” the fish through the man’s description; the way the boy “sees” himself is transformed when he proves he can be successful; the man “sees” the fish as if for the first time through the imaginative act of describing it to the boy; and, perhaps, the boy at the last minute “sees” the fish as a fellow living creature instead of a trophy, and lets the fish go.  These mutually transforming interactions take place largely through language, which bridges our solitudes and shows us that no one is an island.  But the webwork (the word “text” has a root meaning of web) of associations extends outside the essay as well, in what has been termed “intertextuality,” the way the contest with the fish here reaches out into what Frye calls the order of words and links with similar images in other texts, from Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “The Fish” to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.  Finally, it reaches out and includes us readers as well.  The way texts work is a greater miracle and mystery than any hole-in-one, and we suddenly remember that the ultimate bridge is the rainbow, symbol of a hope that cannot really be defined, only felt, like everything else that is multiplex. 


Samuel R. Delany, Empire Star (New York: Vintage, 2001; originally published 1966). The conversation I report appears on 16-17. 

Theodore Sturgeon, Preface to Not Without Sorcery (New York: Ballantine, 1948), 7-9. 

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Lowell Lectures, 1925 (New York: Free Press, 1967), 91. 

Northrop Frye, “The Bridge of Language,” in Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, edited by Jan Gorak, volume 11 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, University of Toronto Press, 315-29. 

The definitive treatment of Frye’s concept of interpenetration is Robert D. Denham, Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2004).  See chapter 1, “Interpenetration,” 33-60. 

Cherokee Paul McDonald, “A View from the Bridge,” in The Longman Reader, 12th edition, (New York: Pearson, 2019), 96-98.