The Voices in Our Heads (II)
Why Imagination is Necessary and Also Under Attack
I learned this month that the illustrator and author Bruce McCall had died. His New Yorker Magazine covers and other drawings used to be highlights of any given week. McCall’s work was largely satirical with a kind of wistful longing for things that may never have been but would have been nice, like a highly cultured Times Square or a library car on the subway. Often he depicted diners in fine restaurants, seated at giant circular tables, set comfortably and crazily apart, situated atop enormous airplanes, buses, or ships the size of city blocks. His realm was indeed, as Rod Serling used to intone “that of imagination”. I write about it now as a pretext not only to complain about too many cell phones, as an example, but about the disturbing way the corporate world increasingly seems to want a world without much imagination.
Writing about imagination is ridiculous. It’s a bit of a grand topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write something about it because I recently began to observe, again relating to the general topic of smartphones, that the addiction to traveling telephonic microwave-linked pocket computers was poised to take over, and that the inner life —that peal of thoughts in our head — had all but given up the fight to exist in too many cases. This was added to a general corporate distrust I’ve been perceiving of the imaginary world, not unlike the way suspected communist sympathizers were herded out of the film and television industries for about ten years beginning in the late Forties, paving the way for exceptional predictability and blandness, and above all safety.
The addiction to mobile phones comes into play because it is the most visible, as in a horror film where everyone in sight has been absorbed by an invading alien force or in a fantasy novel – the kind Eugène Ionesco was thinking of when he wrote Rhinoceros.
In the late 90s the corporate retail world had begun convincing people that they needed a wireless phone and then progressively needed to interact with it well before its comingling with the Internet. Copper “land lines” are still being phased out, supplanted by VoIP (voice over internet protocol) connections. The high-tech Unisphere is becoming one homogenous grid of micro communication. Should any of it fail, chaos can ensue. Most need never think about it most times. Its enormous complexity and fragility are generally invisible. What remains is a comforting dreamworld of commentary, virtual friendship, and easy recognition. Post a picture and watch the little red numbers. Offer a comment and see the tiny balloons and smiling bears. Everyone speaks in glorious enthusiasm. All is either “awesome”, or all is “sad”. No more is required.
I remember objecting to this migration, partly based on what I noticed was the lax quality of mobile phone calls. There were latencies in digital wireless connections that caused halting overlaps and interruptions in conversations. This often led to arguments. The fidelity was simply poor. Music couldn’t be played over these virtual connections. I became aware of telephone contretemps in doorways and street corners, as people seemed to feel misunderstood or resisted during calls. Angry shouting was its result. The medium encouraged irritation. During the age of public telephones there had been sound-absorbing blinders or entire booths to isolate and protect callers. Clarity and privacy were paramount. Some booths, as the ones I recall at Grand Central Terminal, even offered seats. A call was often an important moment in one’s life, and you could sit. The solemnity of conversation had meaning.
Now it is a world of dedicated and addicted phone walkers who famously don’t often look up when they zigzag around, trudging up stairways at half-throttle, staring at the screen acting like a fascinating paperweight which has captured their souls as they cheat death by holding the radioactive device away from their heads as they converse and converse and converse, even in the earliest light. The conversations are no longer private or discrete. They are displayed like aural badges of honor for those who have joined the cyber herd. The inner life, fundamental to imagination, has been filled up by diversions, ads, and alarms.
The Internet itself is addictive. Putting it into a tiny device via wireless high-speed data adds immense, even tragic addiction, to a fully functional telephone that can call anywhere. Add to this the fact that phones are roving cameras capable of taking cinema quality video and the phone becomes the next Saturnian obelisk demanding devotion.
Who needs imagination if, from waking to slumber one machine guards our wayward attention? For imagination to succeed it needs time and quietude. It is that culling of our deepest thoughts and the transformation of them into things that can be read, heard, or viewed that is the hallmark of our greatest achievements. It is the admittance of our own complexity, our contradictions, and our follies. It is our depth and our beauty even within the most terrible visions. It is life itself.
I tried to think of some examples of how my awareness of imagination and its importance came to me.
One example is here, in a memory of a classroom at Ohio University – my junior year. My professor is a teacher of world literature and has been peppering us with questions about a Chekhov story. He is combating empathetic students who have taken pity on a character after a miscarriage near the end of the story. They want to be assured she will recover and be happy again. The professor strongly counters (offering “teacher’s opinion”, as he calls it) that this character, in this story, will not feel better. Therein begins the existentialist crisis. Though someone in the room claims that people in the modern world do recover from such things, he sternly responds, “I’m primarily concerned with the world of fiction” and douses any blithe hope of spiritual relief.
I remember being struck by the phrase “the world of fiction”. Where exactly was it, and why did it matter? I could have quickly comforted myself by asserting that it was a place within me called the imagination within a larger sphere called the mind, yet I still felt that I was looking for yet another dimension where characters in books really did exist. What I needed to conclude, for my mental health, was that Anton Chekhov had experienced something and was placing it before me so that I could think about it in just the way any artist might respond to life. The amount of reality in that sharing is key to great art – the idea that what we feel can be acknowledged for the remarkable and intense thing that it is. It becomes a real thing.
Sadly, the world of fiction finds little to celebrate amongst those who watch the bottom line. The need for profit, in so many cases, guides mad decisions of destruction, leading to all-encompassing wars and to the loss of things that in another time and place would be unthinkable to lose. New York lost Pennsylvania Station about 58 years ago – at least the magnificent part above ground – because a railroad company felt it needed the money that would come from developing the block. The result was decades of mourning for a lost architectural masterwork. Part of the reason this was feasible was the idea that imagination (and aesthetic - a subsection of the same store), once again, was of no importance. I also felt that it represented a bit of resentment – even jealousy – that someone sometime ago had created something that magnificent and that this did not represent the current captains of that particular industry. They wanted to build something too – although with almost no imagination or certainly any appreciation of it.
The effect of seeing the great terminal in its grandest form seemed to belong to sentimentality, which was easy to write off, but the truth was far more profound, as there was an emotional connection among the population to the grand order of the place, something we could not manage now, connecting to the internal landscape of the mind. Denying this dimension was achieved to the peril of New Yorkers for decades, who knew that the idea of the station and its design were more important by far than simply being able to catch a train there. Imagination in many ways is a grand classical colossus replete with order but filled with chaos. If the structure itself is destroyed and the perception of order is disturbed, what’s left is the chaos – hence the misery of the post-destruction Penn Station. Plans have ensued to replace what was lost ever since and may continue for a very long time. That grand order of what was there remains elusive.
My point is this: Imagination is real, whether it is found in literature, music, architecture, applied arts, the performing arts, and science. It is that final vision of what is possible and a commitment to an end, and it is greater than what can be found in a world without it. The danger we face from relegating our imaginative lives to prosthetic devices like smartphones (certainly remarkable in their power and convenience) is that we let others insert their marketing directly into our brains which no longer have the time to think.
Occasionally, I have forgotten my phone upon setting off on a local journey. I’m often too far away to return home once the mistake has been discovered. I resolve to continue on without the phone. It’s a shock of loss for about fifteen minutes when a sudden relief begins to overtake me. I no longer have to worry about missing a text or an e-mail. Nothing in “social media” needs to garner my attention. I don’t have to look, and look. I’m free. Oftentimes I will return later only to find that the phone has received no updates, no alerts, and no texts. The self-generated illusion of continual urgency is part of that addiction that can’t survive without the screen’s beckoning. The secret is that much of the time we simply don’t need this.
Imagination will probably continue to be in the crosshairs of commercial marketing, but there are signs that, as always, not everyone is buying in. There’s a movement back to paper books, as people discover that the calmness of a book is a greatly civilized thing. The world “civilized” is for me an important description of order at its best where each person has the freedom to enjoy moments of life, whether it is sitting on a great stone bench under an enormous vault or simply knowing that there is time enough. Like that moment in Chekhov, this moment could instead be the moment of realization that might also live in eternity.
I often hear “mindfulness” being recommended on the Internet. People speak of it as a panacea – a miraculous technique for offsetting stress and anxiety. Too often, though, it is practiced as “mindlessness”, where emptiness of thought is replaced by nothing but mantras of calm and soothing sounds. Meditation has existed for a long time, but its point in part is to once again achieve a sense of order. Mindfulness is simply the affirmation that the moment in which one is breathing is enough – that the anticipated and the past need not enter in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t create much either.
Here and now is a wonderful place to be – a point of beginning where the world can be created and recreated. The imagination is the realm where what we wish to see can become real, given the work, the failure, and the triumph which makes us human and appreciative of a living world. Put down the phone, turn it off, and see what happens.
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