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)


Short Story Review: “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away” (2019) by Jim Bosiljevac


I don’t know what you call this style of narrative, but I’ve met it (or at least cousins of it) before. Of course, style is and isn’t substance. And all styles have their precursors, unchosen genealogies harkening back to nameless literary ancestors of yore.

What I see, as far as style goes, in Jim Bosiljeavac’s short story “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) can only be called the pulsing hyperpresent of the narrative—a rugged intensity emitting, radiating through each pseudo-sentence of the story. (Bosiljeavac’s piece contains no commas.)

I first encountered this style, as many of us do, in the grade-school classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce. Later I saw in Conrad, particularly in “Heart of Darkness” (1899) and grew weary of it in Faulkner, even at his best:

It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome, and apotheosis of the old, wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about ankles of a drowsing elephant;––the old bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowered, childless, and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons. (William Faulkner, Go Down Moses. (New York: Random House, 1947) “V. The Bear.” § I)

You can find this style in Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1947):

Around me the students move with faces frozen in solemn masks, and I seem to hear already the voices mechanically raised in the songs the visitors loved. (Loved? Demanded. Sung? An ultimatum accepted and ritualized, an allegiance recited for the peace it imparted, and for that perhaps loved. Loved as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors. A gesture of acceptance, of terms laid down and reluctantly approved.) And here, sitting rigid, I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of a we; remember the short formal sermons intoned from the pulpit there, rendered in smooth articulate tones, with calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and of whom we were deeply ashamed, these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design requiring nothing more than the lucidity of uncluttered periods, the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness. (The Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1953) V, 86.)

Sometimes the pulsing hyperpresent style pops up in Jack London, sometimes in Camus (as in the 1957 short story “Le renégat”), and certainly in John Gardner’s Grendel (1971):

A severed leg swells up and bursts, then an arm, then another, and the red fire turns on the blackening flesh and makes it sizzle, and it reaches higher, up and up into greasy smoke, turning, turning, like the falcons at warplay, rushing like circling wolves up into the swallowing, indifferent sky. (Grendel, (New York: Knopf, 1971) I, 14)

This style that emphasizes an intensity of immediacy can even be found in Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002). But when it comes to Bosiljevac’s story, I think one of the key paragraphs is toward the end, where—much like in Conrad’s Darkness and Bierce’s Occurrence, dream and reality, conscious and subconscious have folded over one another (perhaps bleeding into the metafictions of Stephen Dixon). Bosiljevac writes:

Owen! he shouts but it comes out Own! but he shouts it over and over and chases the sound down toward the white eagle and in his mind he begins to see things that are like memories but he knows he never experienced these things. He sees a man with a feather in his hair and blood smeared all about his face riding on a black horse and the man is slumped over with a spear run clear through him and he sees two bears wrestling in a muddy street and he sees a woman in a small farmhouse out in the country and she is telling a story to her child son about the young boy who was awakened in the night by a noise and runs out not knowing if he is in a dream or in real life but believing that his younger brother has been stolen by the devil. And in this story the boy chases the devil into the woods and across fields and through rivers and over mountains and he is carried forward by the rope that hitches his heart to his brother’s and because he doesn’t know if it’s real that a devil has stolen his brother in the night or if he has just been sent off by a dream.

Whatever you want to call that style, Bosiljevac has written an interesting, strong piece of short fiction. It is not completely perfect. I thought the naming of the children, in all their biblically onomastic glory, was a little too corny, too much like The Waltons going to bed. But other than that, what readers get is a potent, probing tale of night and sweat, suspense and silence. This is a writer (who apparently also spends some of his time in Austin) to watch out for.

The Waltons Say Goodnight