Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
It’s difficult to imagine something you can’t imagine. I’ve always wondered what the imagination really is. We seem to spend rather a lot of time imagining things, but I‘m not sure whether we actually get anything practical from it most of the time. I think I shall now go on to prove that I’m talking nonsense by talking my way through a labyrinthine meandering argument that’ll just make the snake swallow its tail. Or, more likely, I might just make the snake regurgitate itself, thereby proving that it never really existed.
I suppose I should start by trying to define what I mean when I talk about the imagination. In its wildest and woolliest form it’s like dreaming, where a whole random set of images and thoughts and feelings project themselves in and out of our consciousness without apparent form or meaning. We don’t have any control over these flights of fancy, and there doesn’t appear to be any progression, or story, or even any connection between the elements of the dream.
Nobody knows how we do this
We can also use our imagination in very specific ways. We already have fantastic mobile phones, for instance, that can do an astonishing number of things. There are people who are paid, probably lots of money, to come up with even more functionality. They would have to start with an intimate knowledge of all the things their phone already does, and an understanding of what’s inside the box. Then they would have to start imagining what else might be useful, or possible, or fun, and see if there’s any way the new stuff could be built in. So their imagination would be required to add something to what is already there, and that can be achieved within the limits of science and technology and cost.
I still don’t know how anyone manages to come up with things that don’t exist. We do this all the time, but nobody knows how we do this. And in-between these extremes, there’s a whole range of activity that uses our imagination. I wonder whether there’s proactive imagination and reactive imagination. Did an early caveman see something being crushed with a rock, and suddenly connect that with his need to crush the bones of his victim, or did he have the bones and go looking for a stone because he was hurting his fist when he hit it? That’s another part of this mystery. Obviously, the need to eat is inbuilt, but finding other or better ways to find food is more complicated.
We all know how that worked out
I’ve had occasions in my life to understand some of the complications and limitations of the imagination. I once filled in an insurance policy, and I wrote down a list of everything I could think of or imagine that might happen, so I would be covered. I was rather impressed with it all, and of course the thing that happened, and which caused me to be unable to claim, was the one thing I never thought could possibly occur. Like the Titanic, labelled the ‘Unsinkable’, because there could never possibly be any circumstances that might cause several watertight spaces to be breached at the same time. We all know how that worked out.
Finding out better ways to hunt is important, whatever it is we’re hunting for: food, jobs, love, new clothes, they’re all made better or more enjoyable or productive by applying our minds to improving the process. But who would have thought that we’d be looking forward to a time when everything would be bought online and delivered by drones? I sometimes wonder whether shops will even exist in a short few years from now. We’re not very good at imagining what we could do with all that empty space in our town centres.
Picturing the future, or escaping from the present
Imagination is all about picturing the future, or escaping from the present. There are people out there who create books, or art, or entertainments, or new things that we’re all going to want to buy. Every one of these things has to be imagined up out of thin air. Whoever gets that flash of inspiration, the one that goes all the way to becoming popular, is well-rewarded, and without that momentary insight, there would be no art or entertainment, and no progress in technology or ideas. Life would be rather flat and dismal. Nobody would be able to imagine how much better the world would be if only we could find a way to make everyone happy, or find cheap and easy ways to keep warm, or even how to cheat whatever system that has been set up, in order to gain power, or money, or get away with crime.
Even though imagination is free, it’s never the whole story. Turning an imagined idea into something that’s workable or saleable in whatever fashion is just the first step. There’s an enormous amount of work and risk and commitment involved in making it real. Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and when you think of the effort it must have taken to turn the idea of making light into real light bulbs, it seems extraordinary. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fly like the birds? I wonder what it would be like to walk on the Moon? Who thought about preserving a story somehow, before it was forgotten? All these things require an enormous amount of infrastructure to make them work in the way they were imagined.
Riven by insecurity and a fear of failure
I love to read, and I love to write. I get enormous pleasure from opening a book that describes people or places that are new to me, and I love to follow the characters and the story to whatever conclusion they’re headed towards. There is an infinite variety of stories out there. We’ll never stop making up stories, in whatever form they appear, or are absorbed. I’ve always been jealous of those writers I admire, or whose books I’ve loved. Much of what goes on in my mind is influenced by those great minds, and their wonderful imaginations. I feel rather insignificant sometimes in my own writing, because I can’t help comparing my own modest efforts with their towering achievements.
But at the same time, I feel that I have that seed of greatness within me, but I either don’t work hard enough at it, or I just don’t have the talent, or that there’s something missing inside my mind that won’t imagine the sort of things I want to imagine. I don’t know what goes through JK Rowling’s mind, whether she’s riven by insecurity and a fear of failure or not. I suspect she is. She’s probably worrying right now about the book she’s writing, whether it won’t be as good as her previous work, whether it’s going to be boring and flat, whether people will be disappointed. And, much farther down the list, whether it won’t sell.
There’s no guarantee of a success, or even a result
I can easily imagine Einstein, and Da Vinci, and Edison, working away through the night being terrified of failure. Because the fundamental thing about the imagination and creativity is that there’s no guarantee of a success, or even a result. You have to work and work and work, and you have to understand that you can fail, it can all turn to dust, you could be committing your life’s work to a lost cause. That’s a daunting prospect.
I think about all the howling that happened when Darwin published the Origin of the Species, and all those careers went down the pan. These were honourable and hard-working people, doing their very best work, finding out that everything they had been certain of was now no longer relevant. At these times people show themselves in their true light. When your whole life’s work is challenged, you can either accept it and retire from the field, or you can learn the new stuff and adapt what you know to the new framework, or you can fight it.
They’re just resisting the idea of change
History is full of the sad stories of people who refuse to read the writing on the wall, and their attempt to suppress the new ideas or technology, holding up progress and often killing good people. Many of the fanatics that have existed or are operating in the world right now are doing exactly this. They’re just resisting the idea of change. Our challenge is to manage these people while embracing the new, and I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of it. But it has always been like that.
I like to imagine that we’ll work this out, but I haven’t put a lot of effort into it, because I suspect it’ll never happen. Or maybe I just prefer the dreamy imagination, which you don’t have to do anything about.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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