Mozart and the StarsGary Lachman October 31, 2018
Raine herself saw the Neoplatonic tradition, with its vision of the One, the varied forms of the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, and the struggle of the individual soul to free itself from material bondage – its exile in the world – and return to its source, as the guiding idea behind the symbols and metaphors that inform the Romantic lyrical tradition. What this poetry was about fundamentally was the soul, and its journey here, in an often dark world. Ultimately this vision went back to Plato. But she knew that Neoplatonism was not the sole source of the knowledge of the imagination she discovered in Coleridge, Yeats and other poets. It was one of many sources rooted in the past, such as Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and also the wisdom of the East, that fed the subterranean stream of the lost tradition. The tradition of the imagination has appeared in many forms, each related to the others, but each also unique. But each also fed and drank at the same source.
All of these traditions offered a different way of knowing the world and a different way of understanding our place in it, than that of the quantifiable, measurable view. In a general sense we can say that they spoke of a world that was living, conscious, interconnected, and receptive to human entreaty. Human beings themselves were a part of this world and shared in its spiritual, vital character. We could communicate with it. We participated in it. We could speak with the spirits of nature and commune with the gods. It was a world that we can only dimly envision now, through our imagination – or remember it from our childhood – but it was a world in which imagination was the fundamental medium linking all together.
But with the rise of the new quantitative way of knowing, all this changed. The gods and spirits were evicted from the world. In order to understand the laws of planetary motion, we had to reject the idea, expressed eloquently by Dante, that it was the angels, or love, that moved the stars. Yet, Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion which we use today to send our probes out into the further reaches of space, was himself a passionate devotee of our lost tradition.
If someone responsible for the knowledge that allows us to send interstellar probes out beyond our solar system and into the infinity of space was a student of our lost tradition, it behooves us, I believe, to try to understand why this should be so. It is also a reminder that in trying to revive or restore or renew this lost tradition, the aim is not for it to replace the kind of knowing we associate with science and the practical business of life, but to complement it. Both are absolutely necessary and it is only by embracing both that we are fully and truly human.
The true source of this tradition of imaginative knowledge, however, is the imagination itself. All gods exist and have their origin in the human soul, William Blake tells us. He goes even further. The entire world we perceive with our senses is a product of imagination – not in the sense of it being “fake” or “unreal” but in the sense that our inner world, our mind, for sake of a better word, has precedent over the outer one and is indeed responsible for it. As the essayist and philosopher of language Owen Barfield – a friend of C. S. Lewis and a brilliant expositor of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner – said, “Interior is anterior,” meaning that our inner worlds come first, before the outer world. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what modern science tells us today. For it, the outer, exterior, physical, material measureable world comes first and is, in some way they can’t explain just yet – but they are working on it – responsible for our inner ones.
I don’t accept this and I don’t believe the people in this room accept it. But that is the situation today. And it is because that is the situation today that we have what this conference is concerned with: a crisis of the ego. What I hope to do in this talk is to show that by regaining this lost knowledge of the imagination, by becoming aware of and participating in this tradition of the imagination, we may be able to overcome this crisis. With a grasp of what this knowledge of the imagination truly means, we can pass through this difficult time, this “time of troubles,” as the historian Arnold Toynbee spoke of the crises that challenge civilization, and begin to work on the real challenge, that of taking the next step in the evolution of consciousness.
For that is what I consider our current crises to be. The environmental, social, political, economic and other planetary challenges facing us are the hurdles we have to leap, the barriers we have to surmount, in order to make the shift into the next stage in human consciousness. Or, rather, it is by making that shift that we will be able to face these challenges successfully. The two are intertwined. Toynbee saw “challenge and response” as the motor of history. If a challenge facing a civilization is too great, it fails and goes down. If it is too easy, the civilization becomes complacent and decays. But if the challenge is “just right”, then the civilization finds the will and creativity to meet it, and continues to grow. I call this the “Goldilocks theory of history,” and it is something, I think, that we can apply to human consciousness itself. If you know the English fairy tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, you will know that out of three choices, she always finds what is “just right.”
There are no guarantees and it is up to us to pull it off. But if we don’t, I see little hope of a bright future. I don’t mean to be gloomy here, just realistic. The environmental challenges facing us are enough to suggest this, and the political ones are no help either.
But how can a tradition of imagination, however important, help deal with the kind of real, solid, hard, physical crises involving climate, wealth, social justice and so on that face us today? To answer that I will need to take a look at what I mean when I speak of imagination.
When we think of imagination we usually see it as some kind of “substitute” for reality. We think of fantasy, day-dreams, wish-fulfilment musings offering unsubstantial realizations of a life much more interesting, fascinating, exciting – in general in all ways much better than our own. We think of imagination as “make believe,” as pretence, and sigh wistfully about “having our dreams come true,” and are usually woken up with a start and the admonition that we have let our imagination “run away with us.” We drift into a fantasy of some more satisfying way of life, then sigh and admit that it was “just our imagination.”
Or we think of imagination as a tool for being innovative, for coming up with novelties that will keep us at “the cutting edge” of our profession. It helps to bring us the latest in technology, and keeps it “state of the art” and “fresh from the drawing board.” Imagination in this sense can be applied to anything, from computers to lipstick, from automobiles to swim suits. It is responsible for fashion – or perhaps we should say that a lack of imagination is responsible for that.
Of course we also give imagination an important, essential place in the arts. This is where it is most respected. Great literature, great painting, great music are all dependent upon the powers of the imagination, as are the lower ranks in these pursuits. This is perhaps the one realm in which the quantitative way of knowing will allow its qualitative way some freedom, although of course we know that many serious people see the products of imagination in this way as little more than ways of “escaping reality.” We say that people who spend too much time reading fiction or watching films are guilty of escapism, of running away from life – although much of the fiction and the films made today seem themselves something to run away from.
But ultimately, when it gets down to business, however powerful and moving a novel, painting, symphony, or even a film may be, in the end it, like the other substitutes for reality, is “unreal.” They are fiction, even if the novel, such as War and Peace, is about “real” events, or the painting depicts an historic scene. And if it is, like music, a non-representational art, then it is in the end really nothing more than nice sounds, vibrations of air that, for some odd reason, give us a sense of joy or comfort or what have you.
The point here is that no matter how powerful or meaningful we find a work of art, in the end, for the quantitative way of knowing, that power or meaning is less real than the paper, ink, canvas, paint or vibrations of air that convey it. Paper, canvas, ink and vibrations can be measured; meaning can’t.
This prejudice toward the unreality of the imagination is a difficult thing to excise. It is emphasized in the very definition of the word, at least in English. The Oxford Dictionary calls it a “mental faculty of forming images of objects not existent.” The Cambridge Dictionary calls it “the ability to form pictures in the mind that you think exist or are true but are in fact not real or true.” Merriam-Webster calls it “the ability to imagine things that are not real.”
We get the point. There are two things I want to say about this. The first is that although “imagining” in the sense of making a mental picture of something is, of course, a great part of “imagination,” it is not the only thing that is important about it or the only “power” possessed by imagination. The way I see imagination, it is not a faculty or a power in a specific sense, in the way that, say, our eyes have the “power” of sight or our ears the “power” of hearing. It is the means by which we have any experience at all. You can have 20/20 vision and hearing like sonar, but if you lack imagination you will be blind as a bat and deaf as a log. Imagination is something so fundamental that we cannot point to one limited expression of it and say, “That’s it. That’s imagination.” It is a kind of “intuitive glue” that holds all of our experience together; without it, everything would break apart into disconnected fragments. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be without imagination, because we would need imagination in order to do so.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke of the fundamental elements of our experience as things “incapable of analysis in terms of factors more far-reaching than themselves.” These are things so basic that we can’t get under or away from them. We can’t analyse anything without already taking them for granted. Imagination, I think, is one of those things. It is so much a part of memory, self-consciousness, thought, perception, and the rest of our inner experience that it is almost impossible to pry it apart from them or any of them from each other. We can talk about these elements of our inner world as separate phenomena but we soon find that they blend into each other and that to demand an unyielding, fixed definition of “imagination” or any of these other imponderables would actually make them more obscure. We recognize what they mean tacitly, implicitly, and to throw the spotlight of analysis on them too harshly causes them to fade from our grasp. They have their own character, their own shading, contour and shape, but they run in parallel with each other.
The other thing I would say regarding a definition of imagination is that the one I do find most profitable to follow comes from Colin Wilson, a British writer and philosopher whose work has been an enormous influence on my own. He saw imagination as “the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.” Not, as our official definitions have it, as a means of creating “mental images” of non-existent things. But a means of grasping reality itself. I would only add to Wilson’s definition the fact that we often need imagination to truly grasp the reality that is right in front of us, staring us in the face.
Wilson knew this, and it is this kind of passivity before the outer world that our consciousness often exhibits – what he calls “robotic consciousness” – that he spent a lifetime analysing in order to overcome. But what he meant by “realities that are not immediately present,” is that we are often hypnotized into accepting whatever “reality” may be in front of us at the moment as the whole of reality, or at least of the reality available to us at the time. We are, he says, “stuck” in the present, hemmed in by our immediate experience in the same way that we would be hemmed in by four walls if we were locked in a room. Plato, in fact, knew this ages ago, when he compared human beings to prisoners chained and forced to live in a cave, and who take the shadows they are compelled to see for “reality.”
Plato believed the pursuit of philosophy was a way of exiting the cave. He is right. It is, and the Neoplatonists whose vision informed Kathleen Raine’s Romantic poets knew it. But sometimes we can find ourselves outside the cave and in the bright daylight spontaneously. It is in such a moment that imagination in the sense of “making real” “realities that are not immediately present,” comes into play. And even here, the notion that imagination, instead of “make believe” – which is how we usually understand it – is really about “making real,” is expressed quite clearly. Anytime you “realize” something – that is, make it real to you – you use your imagination to do so. That is what “realizing” something means: making it real.