The Baptistry of the Imagination

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

The Baptistry of the Imagination

Many things in life have I seen with great incorrectness and understood with immense inaccuracy, yet is it so crazy for me, now in middle age, to compare the human imagination (or at least some of its characteristics) to a baptistry?

Writer Owen Barfield (1898–1997) was something of Anthroposophist, while his friends C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) and J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973) were themselves, respectfully, a Northern Irish Anglican and a Catholic from South Africa. Not a Baptist to be had (or dunked).

But Barfield (I think) gets it right when he says in his book Romanticism Comes of Age (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1967) that the imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived.” (p. 63). One sinks into the waters to be baptized (when a Baptist); one sinks into the waters of the imagination to begin deep thinking (when a human).

Or let the metaphor be slightly altered: the human conscious sinks into the waters of the imagination, or is enveloped upon engaging in an imaginative (but certainly not imagined!) mode of thinking things through. Let the metaphor be slightly altered by the Venetian wordsmith Karl Kraus (1874–1936), as when he declares: “Imagination has the right to feast in the shade of the tree that it turns into a forest.” (Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Chicago UP; Engendra Press, Montreal. Reprint, 1976), p. 48.)


Alas, maybe the metaphor of the baptistry is too idealistic and, like cotton candy, though there appears to be something of substance, upon closer inspection, it turns out that there’s mostly just air there. Maybe it’s not so pleasant to sink into the imagination. Maybe sinking into reality is a better course of action, as it was for the hero of the novel Cien años de soledad (1967) señor José Arcadio Buendía when his creator Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) writes:

Fascinated by an immediate reality that came to be more fantastic than the vast universe of his imagination, he [José Arcadio Buendía] lost all interest in the alchemist’s laboratory, put to rest the material that had become attenuated with months of manipulation, and went back to being the enterprising man of earlier days when he had decided upon the layout of the streets and the location of the new houses so that  no one would enjoy privileges that everyone did not have.

(A Hundred Years of Solitude), trans. Gregory Rabassa, (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 39.)

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), amid recalling Taoist texts, once contemplated the notion of one becoming trapped in a neither-world (neither in reality nor in imagination):

This suspicion that life is but a dream is, of course, among the most characteristic traits of Asian philosophy; examples from Indian philosophy are numerous. I shall give a Chinese example which his very telling because of its briefness. It reports a story told about the Taoist (i.e., anti-Confucian) philosopher Chuang Tzu. He “once dreamt he was a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming it was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction!”

The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 198.)


But perhaps my Baptist background has made me incurably idealistic with regard to the imagination. Perhaps it cannot calm brutes and their brute thoughts. In the novel Grendel (New York: Knopf, 1971), the troll-protagonist penned by John Gardner (1933–1982) realizes:

Imagination, I knew. Some evil inside myself pushed out into the trees. I knew what I knew, the mindless, mechanical bruteness of things, and when the harper’s lure drew my mind away to hopeful dreams, the dark of what was and always was reached out and snatched my feet. (pp. 16–17)

And this same sentiment of a suspicion of the imagination plays out, much more gracefully and without as much brutishness, in the “tragedy of manners” novel The Remains of the Day (New York: Faber and Faber, 1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro. In that text, the butler Stephens has and hopes for grand plans to finally reunite and re-attract the attentions of Miss Kenton. But by being so swamped in his own imagination, he is unable to “see the writing on the wall” regarding their relationship.

But oh! is Stephens so refreshed, so sentimental, so “baptizing” upon his readers. Let us end this discussion with some examples of his imagination at play (sometimes occurring for Stephens while he is engaged in the act of reading):

My receiving the letter from Miss Kenton, containing as it did, along with its long, revealing passages, an unmistakable nostalgia for Darlington Hall, and—I am obliged me to see my staff plan afresh…. (p. 9)

I have, I should make clear, reread Miss Kenton’s recent letter several times, and there is no possibility I am merely imagining the presence of these hints on her part…. (p. 10)

They were written during the thirties, but much of it would still be up to date—after all, I do not imagine German bombs have altered our countryside so significantly…. (p. 11)

I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration often described in connection with this moment is very similar to what I felt in the Ford as the surroundings grew strange around me…. (p. 24)

What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint…. (pp. 28–29)

But by and large, I believe these generalizations to be accurate, and indeed, such ‘idealistic’ motivations as I have described have played a large part in my own career. (p. 116)