Imagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.
This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.
The young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little that they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?
Without imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.
“Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”
This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.
In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But something else that he was, which gives his stories much of their value, was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”
One of these stories in particular has served for me as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.
The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.
Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.
“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.
“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.
“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
“What?” inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”
“H’m! What did he die of?”
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”
“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”
“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.
Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?
And God so loved the world.
That He gave His only Son.
I’ve managed to finish almost all of the books on my summer reading list by now, although I’m still working through Hayek. It’s not that The Road to Serfdom isn’t fascinating. On the contrary, I feel such a strong urge to copy down so much of what he says that I get held up penning his words down in my book of quotations rather than reading them.
In addition to the books on the list I prepared in June, I’ve also managed to read a few extras, giving me a pretty hefty collection of works to review. Here are some of my thoughts on them.
A Concise History of the 20th Century (Martin Gilbert) – 3 STARS – I started off thinking I was going to love this book, but found myself growing increasingly irritated by Gilbert’s obvious bias in favor of a central world governing system and disturbed at times by his naiveté regarding late 20th century foreign policy. While I didn’t come away feeling like I had both sides of all of the stories, I did appreciate the sheer volume of numbers the man was able to cram into the text in a reverent and respectful way that I felt portrayed well the appalling suffering of the world at war throughout a turbulent century.
So Brave, Young and Handsome (Leif Enger) – 4 STARS – While I’m not sure Enger can ever write anything as memorable as Peace Like a River again, this was a well-constructed and lovely novel, full of significant thoughts and questions and yet wholly a story about fugitives from justice and authors and family and the bitter sweetness of the world.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan) – 3 STARS – While there’s nothing especially remarkable about this detective story, it’s a good, satisfying read.
Ever Wonder Why? And Other Controversial Essays (Thomas Sowell) – 3 STARS – This collection of Thomas Sowell’s columns is insightful but nevertheless a bit of a disappointment after the brilliance of The Vision of the Anointed. Sowell sticks to classic conservative premises which he reuses over and over again in these short essays. While they would make good articles in a magazine or newspaper, they don’t read well in the format of a book, leaving the reader feeling that they are getting recycled material. What’s more, the brevity of the pieces leaves them many of them dangling as though they have not been thoroughly pondered. I would certainly recommend The Vision of the Anointed as a better pick for anyone interested in reading Sowell’s works.
Your God Is Too Safe (Mark Buchanan) – 5 STARS – Buchanan offers a stirring and wrenching, honest but eloquent call to meet God in the holy wild. You need to read this book.
The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy (Penelope Wilcox) – 4 STARS – I am divided in my mind about this book. It’s a trilogy bound in one volume, dealing with the stories of 14th century Benedictine monks. While I felt that the first two books were poorly written and childish and didn’t enjoy them at all, the third book, The Long Fall, was an entirely different matter. Dealing with the friendship between Brother Thomas and the enigmatic and proud Father Peregrine, suddenly incapacitated by illness, this book leaves no holds barred and is altogether heartbreaking. I don’t know when any book has made me cry so much. So, while I can’t recommend the first two books, I can urge you to read The Long Fall and ponder the love of Christ until it remakes you.
Hannah Coulter (Wendell Berry) – 5 STARS – I read this on Sarah Clarkson’s glowing recommendation and was not disappointed. Having never read anything at all by Wendell Berry, I had no idea what to expect, and was certainly blown out of the water by his elegant and singing prose. Hannah Coulter explores in beautiful language the vast questions of land and war and children and marriage and memory. It is the voice of the past speaking into the reckless ears of the present day, offering like jewels the wisdom that our age has already chosen to disregard.
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor – 4 STARS – While I ended up getting ahead of Jonathan Rogers’ Summer Reading Club and finished the O’Connor stories a few weeks early, I really enjoyed the discussions we were able to have and the input that other readers offered into the gritty and baffling writing of Flannery O’Connor. Some of the stories were as plain as day to me, and others I didn’t understand at all, but overall I appreciated this woman’s staggering insight into the human condition and the nature of depravity. Her clearest and most insistently communicated message is that the road to redemption leads right through the place of nauseated self-loathing. In my mind, she ranks with William Golding as a champion of the doctrine of original sin, and her message is needed urgently in an society that seeks to reduce evil altogether to a mere matter of mental disorder or diversity. I plan to write about my favorite O’Connor story in the near future.
Current Reading List
Collected Fictions (Jorge Luis Borges)
The Island of the World (Michael O’Brien)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Kevin Belmonte)
The Landlady’s Master (George MacDonald, edited by Michael Phillips)
Collected Poems (W.H. Auden)
Letters To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (C.S. Lewis)