Imagination

Creative intelligence in action; the ability to learn and understand something without having experience of it.I17

If the mature market economy is to have a sequel on the Wheel of Life, it will be the work, substantially, of imagination. But imagination will not have an easy time of it, for it is widely seen as a dissident to be suppressed, removed or re-educated. “Higher level learning”, the ability to understand and analyse a subject, was achieved by one in five teenagers in 1976; as the psychologist Michael Shayer has shown, this is now down to one in twenty. The target-led routines of the education of our time appear to be reducing our ability to apply the lateral thinking needed for transition to a lean and resilient future.I18

Given a chance, imagination can build whole civilisations of the unexpected. Once, for example, it went Baroque . . .

“Baroque” was a culture that flourished in England and Europe between 1630 and 1730. It began with the order, harmony, authority and cool, universal proportion of Renaissance art and architecture. It groaned and rebelled, wondering what had happened to local detail, to paradox and to the pairs of opposites which walk together in the real world: science and superstition, the charitable and the violent, splendour and squalor, order and chaos, civilisation and nature, the erotic and the divine. And, in response, it produced an art and architecture, gardens, music, theatre and literature of systematic disorder. The historian Judith Hook explains,

Disorder and asymmetry were made part of a whole which when seen as a whole was ordered. This explains the baroque artist’s interest in total forms—the palace surrounded by its baroque gardens, town planning, or the opera—which gave full rein to diversity within an integrated overall design.I19

The Baroque is widely associated with the pointlessly elaborate, but more exactly it refers to the disorderliness and asymmetry of real life, to thought in the process of being formed, to the mind thinking.I20

And it worries the orderly mind. For instance, it worried the orderly thinking of those—notably the group at Emmanuel College, Cambridge: the Cambridge Platonists—who held on to the universal, orderly thinking of the Enlightenment, and saw, in imagination, nothing but confusion. As one of them wrote, with indignation, the trouble with imaginative powers is that they are always . . .

. . . breathing gross dew upon the pure Glass of our Understandings [which they so] sully and besmear . . . that we cannot see the Image of Divinity sincerely in it.I21

The irritating thing about Baroque thinking, from that point of view, is that it seems to be both untidy and inconclusive. It is not interested in equilibria, in orderly vertical and horizontal geometry; it is interested, instead, in movement. It is less taken by conclusions than by the imaginative process of getting there, and its preferred shape is the spiral—or the helix, like the pillars of the porch of St. Mary’s Church in Oxford—moving upwards out of the picture, forever inconclusive. It does not mark out the path to pleasure, but joins Thomas Hobbes in his quest for something more transient—“felicity”. Felicity lacks finality; its encounters with perfection are brief, at best; more usually, it simply makes do with the possibility.I22

It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive . . . . The travelling is done by the imagination; it takes place in the person, in the body, the habitat of life and passion. We need have no doubt on this point, because John Donne tells us so:

. . . for we are so composed, that if abundance, or glory scorch and melt us, we have an earthly cave, our bodies, to go into by consideration, and cool ourselves: and if we be frozen, and contracted with lower and dark fortunes, we have within us a torch, a soul, lighter and warmer than any without: we are therefore our own umbrellas and our own suns.I23

 

Related entries:

Narrative Truth, Second Nature.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: