When I was a boy, I played using the imagination as my primary raw material. I had books, toys, and other things, but the imagination was my Greyhound ticket to the road to anywhere. It got me, like The Saint, out of locked rooms, like Jane Austen out of occupied rooms, and like a cat burglar *into* all kinds of forbidden places.
The Universality of Transcendence: When I got older, I found a friend to journey with. If you’ve seen the film “Bridge to Terabithia” and remember the premise of the story, it was like that. People like to say “it was just your imagination”, but I was there, and it wasn’t “just” any such thing. In fact, imagining my way always preceding actually finding my way and making it actual. Even so, we have these Enlightenment categories we think in that equate “real” with the world of rationally understood sensation – and “imaginary” with “unreal” – which is to say ‘everything else’. And yet every culture on earth has traditions that don’t divide the world in this way, or limit ‘the world’ to only what is rationalized. There’s a distinction between rational and rationalized – I’m not against the rational. Sufism, Hindusm, Christianity, Buddhism, and lots of other traditions talk of spiritual warfare, of entering the self or centering the mind in the heart (the nous), of our extended consciousness moving in “places” and dealing with other intelligences and landscape and events that are at least ‘as real’ if not “more real” (separate debate) as quantifiable mechanics. This is not to mention lucid and shared dreaming and lots of “extra sensory” phenomenon – a term which I suspect is reductionist in regard to the expanding understanding of human senses and sensation. I remember when I first started reading “The Lord of the Rings”, and how adults rushed to remind me that it was “fantasy, not reality” – it was “just a book” – and yet many of us sensed that in Beowulf, in Roland, in Arthur, and in LOTR – in human epics – there was an underlying true story – the One True Story or the Story Tree (both my designations), from which all stories, indeed all human experience beyond mere animal sensation, can be said to derive. In short, we found in these stories “meaning” – transcendent meaning – as an additional prevaling other quantity – the way Fae Malania talks about The Quantity of a Hazelnut – the transcendence of ordinary things. The Romantic Poets, after all, were sometimes reaching for this, and some of us were teethed on said Romantics. Incidentally, the author of ‘Terabithia’ doesn’t complete the contract, does he? In the end, there’s a psychological benefit as the justification of imagining, but it’s not an entrance into something that’s good in and of itself. Some author’s fail in the ending not because they can’t figure out how to complete the sale, but because they fail in courage, they yield to embarrassment. At least, that’s my guess.
The Literary Rebellion: Obviously, adults living and walking among other worlds is not favorable to the Enlightenment restrictions on perception. For some, it meant journeying into the crossover places between literature and spirituality, or literature and philosophy, or literature and psychology. They found their portals in the between places of literature and “reality” like Carlos Castenada and South American magic realism, “Jonathon Livingston Seagull”, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Kerouk’s “On The Road (where the road and the journey take on mythical significance), Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”, and any number of others you can think of. As an adult, I came to know countless people who didn’t blindly accept the distinctions between real/unreal as equaling science vs. myth. Visit any yoga studio or coffee shop and you’ll still find that this premise is routinely rejected by many of those who want a fuller, richer human experience and at at least sense that there is something deeper there, something transcendent below the surface. People practice the occult because of an insistence that much of the world we call technically “real” is actually a world of symbol pointing to more elaborated realities. There are of course refined and highly developed, as well as lowest common denominator and pop forms of this exploration.
Context is Just Context: I’ll be honest, I still sometimes play in the way I did as a child. Sometimes I tell stories out of the play, and it looks like I was initially intending to “just” tell stories for *other peoples’* imagination. Initially, I may not have been intending to write them down, at all. And yet it’s more than play. When you get older, things get more serious. Not that they weren’t serious as a child. When you can’t imagine getting past a nightmarish adult who wants to hurt you, maybe you imagine them as a dragon and your room as a castle perimeter and yourself as a knight. Is it “just” imagination? Nothing is “just” anything. If this helps you make choices that survive the onslaught of things as destructive as breath of fire, then you are moving in the world of metaphor and symbol and the world of substance and transcendence all at once, and it matters little which one is which. When I think of Walter Mitty, I think of someone who doesn’t know the difference between the somber atmosphere of the court room and the machine gun Walter is firing in his mind. That failure to make any distinction is what we call “psychosis” or psychotic. OK, maybe, but that’s just a word. Do we say the same thing of the person who prays and believes he is fighting demons? How about the person who meditates and believes he’s approaching transcendent light? The dancer who spins and touches God? When is it psychosis and when it is it perception of the essential meaning of things? When is it transcendence? Part of it, I think, is that we don’t consider emotions “real” – not really real. When I was a kid, feelings were widely regarded as unmanly (still are, in the middle of the United States), and *men* dealt with “real” things – the world of action. There were Platonic hierarchies of “reality”. Some things were more and less real. Reality was inherently quantifiable. So many of those men are deeply messed up right now – the cultural prohibition on taking their emotional lives seriously has hurt them.
Reclaiming the Science of Imagination: I saw a chart of side by side brain scans (depressed and not depressed) in Facebook the other day on a rather fun page I follow: When you say you’re depressed, as an example, people say “oh that’s just a feeling”. Scan the brain, though, and we know regions are lit or not lit. so it’s a tangible medical condition. The moment you say science is involved, the Enlightenment man perks up and says “Oh, OK, I was wrong in this one instance. But there still aren’t any dragons.” He looks on the Tarot and totems with disgust, as a gratuitous Mitty-like exaggeration of metaphor past its utility as a symbol of what are, to his mind, “just” things and not actually further symbols of further things. The perception of subject, object, and ground are absolutized in an almost fundamentalist way – and yet even the fundamentalist has his pet ‘deeper’ reality, if only the reality of transcendent love, devotion, commitment, or some other “emotional” substance. If there are any remaining people who say that all human experience is “just” electrical signals in the brain, they are now operating on outdated 19th century science which looks far more superstitious, given our contemporary understanding of neuroscience and quantum entanglement (non-local reality) than like a simply ‘more rational’ approach. We’re well beyond the butterfly effect now, if we’re up to date on current quantum mechanics. We know very well that there are realities we can’t describe in localized terms, even without appeal to Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty.
Atomization and Shame: As an adult, in this culture, I find that we are expected to locate our ‘kind’. The moment we want to talk about “pure ideas” we can do it anywhere. But if we want to talk about our own particular memes for transcendence, we have to locate our tribe, find our subgroup or subculture, where it’s acceptable. The rest of the time it’s supposed to be embarrassing. And play is altogether taken out of the equation. Hence, so is adventure. The idea of going on a spirit walk in a land of your own creation, and coming back *actually* rested, full, healed, or having solved “real” problems, is now only particular to the given religious clan. And yet art, as a portal to transcendence, and a means of being at play in the gardens of the transcendent, used to be a universal way to solve problems, to take such journeys, to explore such places, to have such adventures. Art wasn’t “just” imagination, “just” fantasy, “just” a hobby where we “just” play. Nor was it “just” a discipline (though it is one), and so only a superficial exercise of professionalism. In short, I’m not supposed to tell you or try to convince you that I as a “sane” and “rational” adult actually submerge into and walk in multiple worlds and really mean it, and am not just executing a pose or being clever. That would make me “weird” or “conceited”, and not merely odd. It would make me creepily and potentially ‘disturbed’, or at least “pretentious” (which is to say I’m “just” pretending). It’s true, much of what I find beneath the surface of things, the human constructs of power, authority, and control – including the consensus authority of Enlightenment thought – is disturbing to me. I am disturbed by it, by what it means, by what it actually does below the visible gearworks that seem so clean and fruitful. To me, it’s like the Eloi living off the Moorlocks. But I also find wonder and beauty, and I find challenges and “quests” and things to overcome, and often the means to overcoming them. I find adventure and kinship in some of the ‘fellow travelers’ and I have struggles and fight battles and accomplish feats – many of which are carried, in the form of mundane changes, as accomplishments into mundane life. Call it play, call it imaginary journeys, call it whatever politically correct euphemism suits you. Call it “nuts” if you like. But if I’m ‘nuts’ then so is most of the human race – they’re just sane in their own clan and really – the social and human reality, is that this is something we share. So what exactly is “nuts” in that context? As a friend observes, sanity is a cultural construct – it is the ultimate ‘mere’ symbol. It would suggest that culture is part of our epistemologies too, and that what is “real” is partly culturally defined. One more quick example: current science gives us an ever-expanding periodic table of elements, yet there is significance remaining in the traditional schemas of elements we find in various cultures – water and fire and air are still the stuff of life. We don’t get to dismiss the significance by replacing the schema. And this underscores that our current science is also a cultural construct representing merely this period of time and this culture’s epistemological methods and conclusions, also rife with significance.
The More Populous World and More Worlds: I know the difference between a Dungeons and Dragon character and myself. I know that my next door neighbors aren’t really Orcs. I know that I am not King Arthur. I get all that. I’m not Walter Mitty – though who hasn’t imagined doing something like Mitty imagines. I sometimes imagine tossing a match over my shoulder as I leave my building, but I would never do that. There are cats and dogs who live there, after all. But I also know that there are dragons in the office boardroom, and trolls in the cubicles. I know that there are demons in the wild places that fight for control of the heart. I know in the same way that I know that I used an actual Greyhound ticket to get there and that I need to watch my cholesterol. I see the reductionist, 19th century, post-Enlightenment approach to reality as too sparse, too barren, too bereft and unpopulated to choose to live there only. In the words of Shyamalan’s film, “I see dead people.” Maybe I don’t talk to Elvis, but I might talk to Berlioz or Byron or Aristotle. How is this fundamentally different than praying to Saints or consulting your ancestors with incense? Some of you talk to your cats, after all, and I’d talk to your cats too, if I got to know them. When I walk in the night, it is not merely dark – I am “with the night”. When I look in the mirror before I go out, I am not merely Asher, I am a “black lion”. Yes, that’s a metaphor for my personality, but it’s also not “just” a symbol in some way that isolates it dialectically from who I am. It’s a distinction, not an opposition. Asher isn’t just my name – it’s *who* and *what* I am, and the night isn’t just a few hours before dawn, it’s my *home*. Midnight is my hour and Halloween is my Valentine’s Day. Sure, you could say “that guy’s a little off” but even if that were true, what I said is also true. They’re not mutually exclusive. What’s the adage? “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t meant there aren’t people or things trying to kill you.” So if you think people with rich imaginations, who live in them as much as they do in Starbucks and Whole Foods or in front of the TV in their living rooms watching “Reality Programming” (whole other set of issues there) are in some way broken, rationality requires dealing with this as a separate question from whether what they’re talking about and the language they’re speaking are also really “real”. And even when it’s not a consensual and communal reality (which merely depends on who consents and which community we’re talking about – the larger community of “everyone” *certainly* does not agree on these topics) – even then, just because one inhabits a kingdom of one’s own design, or a lair of one, does not mean that it isn’t there. Not if we’re being logically consistent. Those who stride the ‘many’ worlds send back enough maps and travelogues that, whether we call them stories or imaginary experiences or fantasies or spiritual journeys or spirit walks or transcendent insights or metaphors for internal emotional experience or daydreams or elaborate brain signals, the vast number of people broadcasting the ‘news’ suggests just as easily that there is also something “there” to be experienced.
We Need a More Universal Language: It’s an act of vulnerability and authenticity to “admit” to these things. In other cultures at other times – just not this one at this time – it was something to be proud of, not to merely “admit”. But I for one want to say that I create stories not out of just a mechanical act of craftsmanship, using whatever “elements of myth” are lying around to borrow. It’s fine if that’s how you do it. But I dream, and live in dreams, and don’t intend to ever stop. In that sense, I’m not a writer so much as a storyteller who sometimes writes it down. And I’m in immense and immaculate company. Interacting with me will probably cause you to at least touch the stone of some Avalon, if not the one Arthur’s bards dreamed, tho you needn’t feel required to search for it and enter. I myself can see it only through the mist – the mist which is also really there, as far as I’m concerned. I want to make one last point. I think one key to recovering what was stolen from us and, while I depend on Newtonian physics and Descartian logic as much as you do (we all do – so outright discounting them as having no utility is ignorant), I do find it a theft when we say that those are all there is – is finding a terminology that bridges the gap. We need a universal language, a bank of words, or at least one word, that describes this activity. An acquaintance described it as Surface and Deep. I call the places I find and add to or build within “constructs” which I took from Constructivism in Educational Psychology and Political Science (i.e. should we reify ‘the nation’ or are nations merely constructs?). But I think a revived full culture that is less atomized, bigoted, and that closes us off less from each other, needs a word for the activity of journeying in alternate worlds that is acceptable across all subgroups and subcultures of art and spirituality – one that is not merely a psychological construct, and one that does not qualify the experience as “merely” or “just” anything. This is the challenge of living in a multicultural society of many tribes rather than a monocultural one, like a single tribe. It is a form of the question, ‘how do we share our myths as a larger tribe of tribes, if we can’t share the concept of myth itself?’ We need words that do not contain in themselves the seeds of a renewed reductionism in epistemology – in the perceptual matrix that we each adopt to assess what is real. I’m open to suggestions, if you are – or even if you aren’t.
I’m interested in your thoughts: If you think I’m crazy and should rush to my nearest mental health professional (how do we know she isn’t crazy too?) then I’m open to hearing it, though I’m not looking to get “fixed” or “set straight” in a parental or ideological way – I’m not looking for spiritual, psychological, religious, or cultural guidance; if that’s arrogance, then it’s arrogance, but it’s also mainly boredom. I’m also not interested in religious debates over which tradition is the key and answer to all the others – in religious fandom and fanboyism, in short – but if you think there’s a lingo that really *would* – not just *could* be acceptable across all traditions, then I’m curious as Hell. Has this been studied somewhere that provides some clues? I know it has been studied – I’ve seen many studies – but maybe you’ve come across something that sheds light I haven’t seen. What about your experience – what are you doing to live in a world that says your most fundamental experiences aren’t genuine, authentic, “real”, and true? How do you respond when someone says “figment” of your imagination, instead of treating the imagination as a portal, a bridge, or a signpost? Personally, I’m not deeply interested in Peyote and LSD or Men Who Stare at Goats – there’s a reductionism of everything, including a reductionism of non-reductionism – but I’m also not faulting you, if that’s your thing – it’s just not my thing. I’m curious, too – do you write works of magic realism in which it’s not merely some of the more mundane experiences that are drawing on your past or present, as with all authors, but in which the supernormal ones do as well? That question requires vulnerability and authenticity on *your* part, as well, if you answer it – doesn’t it?
FYI (re: Facebook updates): You don’t have to like my question, or how I’ve formed it, or the means by which I’m exploring it. I never require anyone to agree. You’re welcome to be afraid of the question, and what it implies – which clearly one or two people are. But let’s be kind to one another, and not dismissive, trivializing, or controlling. If we can’t, I know I won’t be interested. Maybe someone else will value those things. Which is not to say that you’re not free to post responses that won’t be valued. That’s what Facebook is for. 🙂
Fiction Works: Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, The Wizard of the Pigeons, and we’ve mentioned Bridge to Terabithia (despite the ending), are some – but examples are countless. An immense amount of the genre of Magic Realism is based on ambiguity over what is real/unreal, true/untrue, allowing for multiple interpretations – that’s one of the premises central to the genre, though not all its works explore this. It strikes me that the need for hard and fast categories of real/unreal, true/untrue, as much as I’m a huge fan of Aristotelian logic, is needlessly Thomist and Protestant – which frankly has its own set of cultural assumptions that succeed only after unaccountable reductionism. The person that insists “no, I know exactly where the line is” in other words, or “there is a line, and it’s definitive” is not being particularly rational or intellectual, nor scientific except as narrowly defined in the pocket dictionaries – they’re being ideological and specifically ideologically narrow. As the Bard said, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than in all your philosophy, Horatio.” Or in other words, we could fill encyclopedias with what those who think they know don’t know. Personally, and I think he’s channeling Morgaine from C.J. Cherryh’s cycle, I like Stephen King’s statement in the mouth of a character in his Gunslinger series, who is hanging and being abandoned by the Gunslinger: “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
Non-Fiction: some references to this kind of exploration will be forthcoming