Friday, March 18, 2016

Retrieving (and Critiquing) Imagination in a Time of Moral-Political Threat: A Compendium of Commentary

How and when did the imaginations of some of us who vaunt ourselves on being "liberal" thinkers become so stunted, that we imagine the valid responses of LGBT citizens to a clear and malicious "misstatement" about the Reagans' AIDS legacy are beside the point as we vet a political candidate to occupy the highest office in the land? What future do we expect to have when we throttle our imaginations and trample down necessary conversations about our future?

Today, it occurs to me to share with you some observations about the (sometimes ambiguous, as one of these citations will suggest) role of imagination in moral and political thinking, which I've catalogued over many years of reading. As I look at citations from books I've read that I've logged over many years of reading, the theme of imagination — what it is, what is required to nurture it, its dangers when misapplied — runs like a bright and shining thread through those citations. Here are some snippets from my journal logs:

Alan Jones, The Soul's Journey: Exploring the Spiritual Life with Dante as Guide (San Francisco: Harper, 1995):

The whole purpose of the journey [of the soul] is the re-ordering of the imagination in the direction of an all-inclusive story (p. 142).

Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2003):

Imagination brings you close to compassion. Practice imagining yourself living the life of someone whose situation differs entirely from yours—living in another country, having another religion—and the more deeply you can do so, the more you become that character you write (p. 297). 

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989):

In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away "prejudice" or burrowing down to previously hidden depths, but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, "They do not feel it as we would," or "There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?" (p. xvi). 

Mae Sarton, At Seventy (NY: W.W. Norton, 1984):

If someone asked me what is the single greatest human quality I would have to answer, Courage, courage and imagination—those two (p. 151). 
Rare is the person who has the imagination to share in the suffering of others (p. 312). 

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1994):

The deliberate conjunction of magic and meal, miracle and table, free compassion and open commensality, was a challenge launched not just on the level of Judaism's strictest purity regulations, or even on that of the Mediterranean's patriarchal combination of honor and shame, patronage and clientage, but at the most basic level of civilization's eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies, and maintain discriminations. It did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination's most dangerous depths. No importance was given to distinctions of Gentile and Jew, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory; they were simply ignored (p. 196). 

Dorothee Sölle, Beyond Mere Obedience: Reflections on a Christian Ethic for the Future, trans. Lawrence W. Denef (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970):

In German, phantasie has a potentially far more positive value than the word "fantasy" has in English. Its meaning includes the dimensions of imagination, inspiration, inventiveness, flexibility, freedom and creativity (p. 10).

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978):

Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist . . . .  Indeed, poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge and conflict the dominant reality (p. 45).

Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (NY: W.W. Norton, 1979):

Most, if not all, human lives are full of fantasy—passive day-dreaming which need not be acted on. But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well, is not to fantasize, or to put fantasies on paper. For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive . .  Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment . . . . For writing is re-naming (p. 43).

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (NY: Grove Press, 2011):

Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination (p. 42).  

Elie Wiesel, The Fifth Son, trans. Marion Wiesel (NY: Warner, 1985):

I call upon all those whose destinies have fashioned mine. I mobilize all my resources of energy, imagination, and memory to give each sentence, each pause, the intensity of fire and authenticity . . . . I speak and know that . . . I have lived through more than one life, accepted so many challenges and deciphered so many symbols (p. 198).

Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch Hunts (NY: Basic, 1975):

The great witch hunt can, in fact, be taken as a supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which, unknown or rejected in earlier centuries, had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths. It illustrates vividly both the power of the human imagination to build up a stereotype and its reluctance to question the validity of a stereotype once it is generally accepted (253).

Lillian Smith, How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith, ed. Margaret Rose Gladney (Chapel Hill: UNC, 1993):

I believe a good man is a man with a fine imagination (p. 140, letter to Lewis Gannett, 10 Dec. 1953).

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