Aug 26 2022

Immoral Temptations: The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains


Immoral Temptations:
The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains

Maybe everything I wrote about imagination last week was wrong.

Maybe my convictions on the subject were too tight and need to be loosened a bit.

Perhaps, like Louis Renault, the police captain in Casablanca (1942), I should “have no convictions,” be “master of my fate” and “blow with the wind.”

Maybe imagination has a flipside full of adventure, criminality, corruption, immorality—full of things that won’t help my neighbors and me as we confront our society’s greatest perplexities with regard to traffic, housing, public safety (including classrooms), drought, and equality in broadband internet capabilities for both urban and rural areas.

Maybe there aren’t any silver bullets to slay these social werewolves with. Maybe our imaginations fooled us into believing in the bullets. Maybe that was too much to ask.

Maybe readers and voters should be wary of the adventurous side to imagination, as when poet-and-politician John Milton (1608–1674) has Satan say in Paradise Lost (1667):

let us try
Adventurous work (X, 254–55)

And later:

and now expecting
Each hour their great Adventurer from the search
Of foreign worlds, (X, 439–41)

And British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) has his narrator Marlow say of sailor Jim (who will go on to become Lord Jim):

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.

(Lord Jim (1900) in Lord Jim: The Authoritative Text, ed. Thomas C. Moser, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), II, p. 7)

Compare French writer André Gide (1869–1951) and his conspiratorial, comedic novel Les caves du Vatican (1914), usually translated as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In it, Gide elaborates on the juncture of crime and imagination:

“A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end.”

He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking.

(Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) (1914), trans. Dorothy Bussy, (New York: Knopf, 1953), (V, i), p. 186; (V, ii), p. 192)

Later when Conrad (a Polish sailor writing in Victorian English) penned his novel of Russian affairs Under Western Eyes (1911), he was in a mood to renounce imagination; although, at the same time, he seems to be, as the English say, “laying it on a bit thick”:

In the conduct of an invented story there are, no doubt, certain proprieties to be observed for the sake of clearness and effect. A man of imagination, however inexperienced in the art of narrative, has his instinct to guide him in the choice of his words, and in the development of the action. A grain of talent excuses many mistakes. But this is not a work of imagination; I have no talent; my excuse for this undertaking lies not in its art, but in its artlessness. Aware of my limitations and strong in the sincerity of my purpose, I would not try (were I able) to invent anything. I push my scruples so far that I would not even invent a transition.

(Under Western Eyes (1911), (New York: Modern Library, 1996),(II, i), p. 77)


In her novel The Custom of the Country (1913), American Edith Wharton (1862–1937) has the character Ralph conclude that the best solution in his particular situation is to restrain his imagination:

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience. The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.

(The Custom of the Country (New York: Scribner, 1913), II, xi, 147)

One might here compare the realization by the character Jesse in Sherwood Anderson’s (1876–1941) American novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919):

He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him.

(Winesburg, Ohio (1919), (New York: Viking, 1960), “[VII] Godliness – Part II,” pp. 58–59)

Finally, German writer Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) first novel Buddenbrooks (1922) tells how the character of Thomas Buddenbrook “found himself forever falling behind his own active imagination.” In a similar vein, William Yeats (1865–1939) has discussed how hatred may be the “basis of imagination,” which, in the case of Ireland, led, in his opinion, to literal sexual abstinence as well as imaginative impotence:

The symbol without emotion is more precise and, perhaps, more powerful than an emotion without symbol. Hatred as a basis of imagination, in ways which one could explain even without magic, helps to dry up the nature and make the sexual abstinence, so common among young men and women in Ireland, possible. This abstinence reacts in its turn on the imagination, so that we get at last that strange eunuch-like tone and temper. For the last ten or twenty years there has been a perpetual drying of the Irish mind with the resultant dust-cloud….

In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national, poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety. Ireland, since the Young Irelanders, has given itself up to apologetics. Every impression of life or impulse of imagination has been examined to see if it helped or hurt the glory of Ireland or the political claim of Ireland. A sincere impression of life became at last impossible, all was apologetics. There was no longer an impartial imagination, delighting in whatever is naturally exciting. [William] Synge was the rushing up of the buried fire, an explosion of all that had been denied or refused, a furious impartiality, an indifferent turbulent sorrow. His work, like that of [Robert] Burns, was to say all the people did not want to have said. He was able to do this because Nature had made him incapable of a political idea.’

(Mann, Buddenbrooks (1922), trans. John E. Woods, (New York: Knopf. 1993), (VII, v), p. 369; Yeats, Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909 in The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), (“Estrangement,” XLII), p. 330; (“The Death of Synge,” XXX), p. 352)

So perhaps Texans should be so quick to “applaud innovation” that comes from imagination:

(Harvey is, however, usually right when it comes to analyzing Texas politics.)