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)


Imagining a Conversation on Imagination between Verbena and Lantana

Texas wildflowers

Imagining a Conversation on Imagination between
Verbena and Lantana

Can you imagine what the wildflowers have to say to us—especially now in midwinter—can you imagine all the books they’ve read, all those books that they’re ready to recite back to those who look down upon them?

For what else do the wildflowers do?

They shout from where they stand, they recite and re-sight every color, every number, every combination of color and number clawing its way out of the earth and toward the silent sun.

Yes, the wildflowers shout at the silent sun. They shout about what they’ve read.

We can imagine what they read.

We can imagine what they’ve read about the imagination.

Our ears ache as we await their great recitation.

Verbena: We have seen the man with the red beard looking and leaping and weeping and waving paint in our fields.

Lantana: That was old Van Gogh. He refused to speak to us, and only listened. But he wrote some of his letters while in our fields, and we were able to read them while he wrote. Though we were never able to look down upon him, the way he and all humans do to us, we were occasionally able to look over his shoulder. One of the last things he wrote was:

Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak. But still, my dear brother, there is this that I have always told you, and I repeat it once more with all the earnestness that can be imparted by an effort of a mind diligently fixed on trying to do as well as one can—I tell you again that I shall always consider that you are something other than a simple dealer on Corot, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which even in the cataclysm retain their quietude.

For this is what we have got to, and this is all or at least the chief thing that I can have to tell you at a moment of comparative crisis. At a moment when things are very strained between dealers in pictures by dead artists, and living artists.

Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has halffoundered owing to it—that’s all right—but you are not among the dealers in men so far as I know, and you can choose your side, I think, acting with true humanity, but what’s the use?
(“To Theo, Auvers-sur-Oise, late July, 1890,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. (London: Constable, 1929), ed. Mark Roskill, (New York: Touchstone, 2008), pp. 339–40)

Verbena: ole Van Gogh (1853–1890), and at that point in his life, what else did he have left to imagine? Even we, the flowers of the field, occasionally wither. But new things are always sprouting up. After Van Gogh came Karl Kraus (1874–1936), a man who had nothing to do with hunting in woods, farming in fields, or feasting his eyes upon wildflowers. But he had imagination. So when you say you saw Van Gogh writing in the fields, I say I see in my mind’s eye what Kraus had to say about the imagination. I see that he said:

Often I prick my hand with my pen and know only then that I have experienced what is written.

When I read it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting….

Word and substance—that is the only connection I have ever striven for in my life.
(Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Montreal: Engendra Press; Reprint Chicago UP, 1976), p. 36)

Lantana: Unless I’m mistaken, Kraus also said, of himself as a writer-artist, that:

An understanding of my work is impeded by a knowledge of my material. People don’t realize that what is there must first be invented, and that it is worth inventing. Nor do they see that a satirist for whom people exist as though he had invented them needs more strength than one who invents persons as though they existed. (Halftruths, p. 34)

Verbena: And it was Kraus who reminded us that, at least when it comes to writing about the truth (though perhaps it’s not applicable to experiencing or understanding certain truths):

The real truths are those that can be invented. (Half Truths, p. 60)

Lantana: Then, though still out of Austria, but after Kraus, emerged Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), a man who may have seen a few flowers on a stroll from Grantchester village to Cambridge town proper. What might he have imagined while walking along the banks of the River Cam? We know only what our cousins living in those fertile fields have told us. That it was Wittgenstein who said:

What is in the imagination is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.
(“Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” 317–18; see also Philosophical Investigations, (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), I. no. 301)

Verbena: Then there are those after Wittgenstein. Remember when C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), a sort of Northern-Irish Oxonian Englishman, appeared in Cambridge? What did he say about the imagination?

Lantana: He said (and I think he meant this both anatomically and musically):

Imagination is the organ of meaning.
(“Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford UP. 1939); reprinted in The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black, (NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 49)

Verbena: And there was also Lewis’s friend and intellectual sparring partner, Owen Barfield (1898–1997), who tried to teach humans what we wildflowers already know. That:

Imagination is the marriage of spirit and sense.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 79)

Lantana: Barfield also said:

Perception is what we see; imagination is how we look at it.
(Barfield, “Matter, Imagination, and Spirit,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (December 1974): 621–29 at 626.)

Bittersweet (But Better): Imagined Pain and Painful Imagination

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Bittersweet (But Better):
Imagined Pain and Painful Imagination

But imagination is not always fun and games. Pain can be imagined. Pain is part of the imagination. One can imagine being in pain. And to actually be in pain may have something to do with the imagination. And by “pain,” I don’t necessarily mean “icepick through the occipital,” kind of physical pain. It can be emotional pain, like sorrow, as with Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s–1400) and his Book of the Duchess (1368):

For [sory] imaginacioun
Is alway hoolly in my minde. (ll. 14–15)

Or imagination can couple with other emotional pains, like anxiety, like depression, as when the character of Satan recognizes early in the Paradise Lost (1667) of John Milton (1608–1674) that:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (I, 254–55)

Or imagination may bed with amorous pains for a fling, as when Stendhal (1783–1842) recognizes in his exploration of De lamour (1822):

The difficulty of forgetting a woman with whom you have been happy is that the imagination tirelessly continues to evoke and embellish moments of the past.
(De l’amour, trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale, (New York: Penguin, 1957, 1975), (I, xxxix, ii), p. 129)

But too much labor and toil can wear down (and out) the imagination, as when Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) saw in his first volume of Democracy in America (1835):

In the Southern States the more immediate wants of life are always supplied; the inhabitants of those parts are not busied in the material cares of life, which are always provided for by others; and their imagination is diverted to more captivating and less definite objects. The American of the South is fond of grandeur, luxury, and renown, of gayety, of pleasure, and above all of idleness; nothing obliges him to exert himself in order to subsist; and as he has no necessary occupations, he gives way to indolence, and does not even attempt what would be useful.

But the equality of fortunes, and the absence of slavery in the North, plunge the inhabitants in those same cares of daily life which are disdained by the white population of the South. They are taught from infancy to combat want, and to place comfort above all the pleasures of the intellect or the heart. The imagination is extinguished by the trivial details of life, and the ideas become less numerous and less general, but far more practical and more precise. As prosperity is the sole aim of exertion, it is excellently well attained; nature and mankind are turned to the best pecuniary advantage, and society is dexterously made to contribute to the welfare of each of its members, whilst individual egotism is the source of general happiness.
(Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, (London: Saunders and Otley, 1835), (I, xviii), p. 364)

Even the pains of impotence can be intertwined with the imagination, as when novelist Ian Fleming (1908–1964) writes of his spy character James Bond in Casino Royale (1953):

The doctor had talked often to Bond about his injuries. He had always told him that there would be no evil effects from the terrible battering his body had received. He had said that Bond’s full health would return and that none of his powers had been taken from him. But the evidence of Bond’s eyes and his nerves refused these comforting assurances. He was still painfully swollen and bruised and whenever the injections wore off he was in agony. Above all, his imagination had suffered. For an hour in that room with Le Chiffre the certainty of impotence had been beaten into him and a scar had been left on his mind that could only be healed by experience.
(Casino Royale, (Las Vegas: Thomas and Mercer, 1953, 2012), (XXI), p. 138)

When we see an animal in pain, we fulfill fellow Venetian writer Karl Kraus’s (1874–1936) observation: “When animals yawn, they have human faces.” Or, as fellow-Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) might’ve put it: we interpret the animal’s behavior to mean what a human might feel like in pain. But we don’t imagine a dog experiencing pain in only a way a dog could experience pain. Instead, we hear it yelp and see it limp and know that it is in pain. But how? (Kraus, Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Montreal: Engendra Press; Reprint Chicago UP, 1976) p. 120; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009) I. nos. 283, 285, 350.)

Elsewhere,* Wittgenstein explains:

Pain in the imagination is not a picture.


What is in the imagination is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.

*(“Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” 317–18; Philosophical Investigations, I. no. 300–301)