In my mind, at least, I always believed that the ‘imagination’ had to do with images. Hence I always believed that I did not have a good imagination, for I was never good at producing mental images. Even when my football coach told me that I needed to visualize a game happening in my mind, I couldn’t produce it. The Waterboy (Adam Sandler reference), however, could do it quite well.
As a young preacher this especially bothered me. Early on I read a lot of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons. He was a master of images: a spider hanging over a fire comes to mind (from Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God). I read that, and it moved me, yet I still couldn’t draw up the image of it in my mind. Even now, as I write, I try to force the image into my mind and it just doesn’t come easy. But, here’s the but, the idea is there even if the image is not. And even without a mental image, the idea still comes to me with power and force.
I have never been one to insert myself into stories, at least not for the most part. I don’t picture myself standing in the multitudes as Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, nor do I picture myself standing at the foot of the cross. But that sermon has come to me with force nonetheless, and so has the cross. The images aren’t there, but the ideas are, and I do not believe that they are less forceful.
Let me move on to the point here. In his essay entitled Image and Imagination (from a book with the same name), C.S. Lewis has a mock-dialogue on the subject of what the imagination, or, more specifically, what an imagined thing is. One of the points he makes there is that an imagined thing cannot simply be an image (or what we might call a mental picture). For instance, using the example of an imagined tower, he makes the point that an imagined tower is not the same thing as a mental image of a tower:
Take away from the tower all its implications and it ceases to be an imagined thing and becomes merely an image. But images are not enough: for the way in which they affect us depends, not on their content as images, but on what they are taken to be. Mention a tower, or a king, or a dog, in a poem or tale, and they come to us not in the nakedness of pictured form and colour, but with all the associations of towerhood, kinghood, and doghood (Image and Imagination, p. 44).
Let me stay with the idea of a tower here. If you picture a tower in your mind, what do you picture? Do you imagine its foundation? Do you imagine each brick that it consists of? Do you imagine the particles of each brick? The mortar? Each piece of furniture? The subtle shadows depending on how the sun is shining? And when we introduce the sun, we stretch outside of the tower, to the world in which the tower exists. Do you imagine the sun? Do you imagine the dirt or grass outside the tower? Do you imagine the country in which the tower sits? Or the world in which the country sits? Or the universe in which the world exists?
The answer to all of these questions is likely ‘No.’ Therefore, Lewis is arguing, to truly imagine something, to imagine it with any sort of depth, is not simply to have a bare mental picture of it. That kind of picture is not worth a thousand words. The thousand words come from the context surrounding the image. We are stretching ourselves out from a bare picture of one object to entire worlds. But as we stretch out, we also narrow our focus in on individual blades of grass. Our image has grown substantially, and become substantially more detailed. We now have more than an image, we have a story. We have moved from the image of a castle, to a specific castle, in a specific country, in a specific world, in a specific universe. Whether this castle, world, or universe actually exists is irrelevant at this point.
Lewis goes on,
On this point I speak with some authority, having been an extreme visualist, and having learned that this unruly power – in truth not the ally of imagination, but a mere nuisance to it – must be corrected and restrained in dealing with literature. Our imagination uses our images for poetical purposes, much as a child uses material objects for its games. An imaginative man can make of very scanty and crude images all he needs for appreciation of the greatest books, as a child worth its salt can make a liner or a railway station out of the first two or three bits of furniture it finds in the nursery. It is not the children with the costly toys who play best: or if they do, they do it in spite of the toys (p. 45).
Lewis is arguing that having a good imagination does not demand our having good mental pictures. In fact, the pictures can be a hindrance to the imagination. Which brings me back to where I began.
Images are frowned upon in the Scriptures. The third commandment immediately comes to mind. One of the problems with us, as a species, is that we want to craft images, whether in the mind or with our hands. One of the Hebrew words the KJV translates ‘imagine’ has to do with making a ‘form,’ another has do with etching or plowing, creating lines. These are always frowned upon as mental acts. Perhaps the reason for this is that the creating of forms, mentally, actually causes us to lose our perspective of bigger things, and smaller things as well. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the whole world. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the grains of sand that hold it together. And in the process of losing the world and the sand, you also lose any emotional affect the castle might have – you lose the affective mood or flavor. But move from the image to the ideas – castlehood – and now you have something. You have the universe, the world, the nations, the counties, the cities, the dirt, the grass, kings, knights, princesses in distress, and you have a mood that those objects set. And it will be the mood, most likely, that moves you emotionally.
To bring this back to the examples I used earlier of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount or dying on the cross, let me say this: As for the cross, if I focus on the image of a man being crucified, perhaps it will evoke something within me, like horror or sadness. But these emotions are nearly animal (animal spirits, as Jonathan Edwards called them). They are physical reactions as much as they are mental, they are a reflex against horrible sights. But if you go beyond the image, outside of it, and into the details, that’s where we find meaning. We have a man dying on a particular cross, on a particular day, at a particular place, in a particular world, for a particular purpose. All of this demands context, and bare image cannot supply it. It must come to me as an idea, or as a story, or a poem, or what have you, if it is to have true imaginative force. This is precisely what poets tend to do. They take small objects and relate them to the world, or even the cosmos. They look at a Grecian urn and end up thinking about flowery tales, deities, and priests offering sacrifices. Or they take a nightingale and, before you know it, they are thinking about ‘perilous seas, in faery lands forelorn.’
I do not mean by all this that one should not have mental pictures. What I do mean is that the common notion of the imagination simply as something that supplies mental images is wrong, and deadly (as far as the imagination is concerned). Someone who uses their mind to build castles in the sky is useless. Someone who can tell me a story about castles in the sky is quite useful.
Perhaps this post is an attempt to justify my own mental bent, or justifying my own way of imagining. But I hope that will encourage anyone who is not an ‘extreme visualist.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have a good imagination. In fact, you may be better off.