"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made real
All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody's head

Peter Gabriel, "Mercy Street"

THE ABILITY TO REASON, to draw conclusions from observation and experience, has been crucial to the success of the human species.  Of this there can be little doubt.  But the flip side of reason, the ability to see the world "as it is," is the ability to see the world "as it might be."  This power, imagination, is one of our most extraordinary gifts.  It is not merely the source of our arts and cultures, but our technologies as well.  It lies close to the heart of what makes us--for now, at least--the dominant species on the planet.

Despite its power (or perhaps because of it), imagination tends to make people a bit nervous.  Like magic, a word to which it is related, imagination is at turns dismissed, trivialized, and condemned.  There is a sense that it must be restrained, sanctioned, quarantined.  We chuckle at it in children, but expect them to bridle it in adolescence and enter the "real world" (something I have written about here). We could argue this is due to its mercurial nature; imagination is often erratic and unpredictable, acting as an external muse rather than something we switch on and off like a coffee maker.  Imaginative work is a sort of dance, where the imagination acts as an equal partner rather than a subordinate.  As any artist will tell you, imagination needs to be wined and dined.  It can be controlled, but doing so cripples and eventually withers it.  To really let imagination do its thing, you have to be willing to let go. But most people only feel comfortable engaging with imagination in a limited, controlled way--such as by reading a novel, playing a video game, or watching a television program.  Actually unleashing it and allowing oneself to be carried away is usually left to artists...widely considered an odd bunch to begin with.

It's unfortunate that such attitudes exist, that people are afraid of letting their imaginations "run away with them."  It is also completely understandable.  At issue here is the nature of "power," and of society's attitudes towards it.

The beginning of despair lies in being unable to imagine anything better.  That leads to surrender.

There is a deep misunderstanding of what "power" is.  The word comes to us via French from the Latin potis, "to be able, capable," and is cousin to the English words potential and possibile.  There is a hint to its identity in this.  While we are generally taught that power is synonymous with "control," as in power "over" something, true power is the capacity to do and more importantly to create.  On some level we all understand this; Abrahamic faiths often refer to God, the Supreme Power, as the "Creator," and few aspects of human existence are treated with as much awe and sanctity as the power to create new human life.  Paradoxically we look askew at imaginative power, the power to create new ideas.  Indeed, it has often been said that the tragedies of history all stem from a lack of imagination.  It goes back to the obsession with control, and the desire by societies to control, regulate, and dictate the ideas that make up that particular culture.  When we talk about dictators wanting to control what people think, what we are really saying is that authoritarians want to control what people can imagine.  The beginning of despair lies in being unable to imagine anything better.  That leads to surrender.  In the interest of keeping control, those at the top of a society must limit the populace's ability to dream.

So very few of us then allow ourselves the experience of imagination as creative play.  This is tragic, because the imagination--like a muscle--only grows stronger with use.  Many of the same activities that lead to weakness of the body simultaneously lead to weakness of the imagination.  Sitting passively watching the latest big budget superhero film, the new season of Game of Thrones, or playing the most recent release of a favorite video game all seem to be exercises in imagination, but in reality these are mediums where all the imagining has already been done for you.  This benefits both authority and the entertainment industry--which like a drug dealer makes the public dependent on its product for "escape"--but does little to benefit the individual.  This is especially pernicious for children.  Where once they went outside to run and play, making up their own adventures and stories, today they remain indoors spoon-fed someone else's.

We end up in a situation, then, where people require re-education to do what should be completely natural for them.  No, not everyone should have equal imaginative capabilities, any more than we should all be able to lift the same amount or run just as fast, but we should all know at least how to sit down and make up stories, close our eyes and visualize, or engage in creative play without feeling self conscious about it.  Even reading--which like sex or dance is a creative pairing between two individuals, one providing the words and the other painting the images in his or her head--is becoming less common these days.  I have no doubt that this deterioration of imagination lies at the heart of many of the political movements we see these days, and I feel strongly enough about this to write an entire blog about it. 

...the key to a better life, for oneself, one's family, one's society, lies first in the ability to imagine one.

The connective tissue in all that I discuss here is imagination as creative play, a guilty pleasure that so many people have been taught to keep away from.  But the key to a better life, for oneself, one's family, one's society, lies first in the ability to imagine one.  This is the Promethean theft of fire from the gods.  It is the mercurial and awe inspiring heart of true magic. The first step in attaining this power is to allow oneself to go against oppressive norms and prohibitions intended to stifle it.  The road to freedom begins with allowing oneself to engage in the simple magic of childhood, to give oneself time to play.        


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