The Three Oddest Words
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.
— Wislawa Szymborska
This is a continuation of part 1.
There are two very different ways of reading the phrase “imagine the limits of the imagination.”
One way is to assume that we’re trying to imagine what lies “beyond” imagination. This sets up a double-bind: trying to think beyond thinking; trying to speak about silence. It’s like asking that creature from part 1 (who can only hear) to describe a world of sight. It can’t be done.
The imagination rebels from the suggestion that it can’t do something. There’s an assumption of omniscience here, like that of an adolescent who already knows everything. It’s central to a belief in progress that rarely questions itself. And the assumption gives culture license for self-indulgence, where the recognition of limits is considered somewhat uncool.
And when something impossible is actually confronted, imagination tends to dismiss the significance of the failure as a problem “out there”: the double-bind as pure semantic bullshit.
But we can also read the title differently: As an attempt to reconnoiter the geography of imagination itself, not reach for something beyond its ken.
The first way of reading the title leads to an impossible contradiction. The second reading is not impossible, but immensely difficult. It would be like asking a fish who has never left the water (and for whatever reason, can’t jump free of it) to describe why it feels compelled to turn around at the farthest reach of a shore or at the top of a wave. How can it describe what it is that blocks its forward progress if it has no way of referring to something beyond the water?
I don’t know how a fish would do this, but I think the experience of reaching the farthest limit of imagination is palpable in words that contradict themselves (that turn back on themselves proprioceptively), that cannot possibly mean what they pretend to mean.
Words such as silence, nothing, emptiness, God, atheism, meditation, self, future, past, death, nowhere, and on and on. Any word that purports to reach into an unknowable domain. They are a temptation to minds that rebel from limitations. They tempt imagination into believing it can capture in material form (as thought, word, or image) what is not material. So they encourage a belief in the omniscience of thought.
Of course, this category of “odd” words is not a problem in itself. They challenge imagination. The danger is ignoring this challenge, expanding the vocabulary of “odd” words until the resulting vision of reality is pockmarked with absurdities, and delusions of grandeur. Products of the imagination, like nationalism, then seem to stand as eternal verities dictating necessities of war. Hallucinations erupt because imagination, in overstepping the boundaries implicit in these odd words, becomes ignorant of itself, can’t tell what it has and hasn’t created. What manifests, then, is a reality addicted to the products of imagination, addicted to the fragmented divisions and tools of division it has created (the consumer products, ideas, weapons, accomplishments, selves, nations, ideals, isms).
In our culture, the result is a rational/materialist vision of isolated selves banging against competing isolated selves in a world otherwise populated by mostly inanimate things. This is the general vision of reality held aloft by the invisible pillars of these misunderstood words.
But from deep within the conventional perspective, this seems preposterous. These “invisible pillars” are just abstract concepts that have no bearing on everyday life. At most, they’re ostentatious coins for purchasing a foothold in intellectual games of one-upmanship.
But from a different perspective, they represent a kind of “event horizon” — a point beyond which thought is negated, dissolved. I think they can provoke thought to discover its own limits, to cease trying to reach in delusion past itself. When thought is laid to rest by this discovery, a new sensory mode steps into the void.
Everything is Imagination
In no way is this an attempt to belittle the power of imagination. I’m trying to work from Jeppe’s perspective on the “imaginal,” and unfold what he seems to mean from my own peculiar angle.
By imagination, I mean all forms of thinking, not just daydreaming and artistic expression. But every visionary form, including the ones that are typically called “realistic,” such as rational analysis, economic theory (pure fantasy!), scientific theory, idealism, and everyday practical living. They’re all different forms of storytelling. The wide-spread belief that some things aren’t imaginative, but simply “how things are” shows how little awareness there is of the fabricated foundations of everything.
The word “everything” is one of those strange “event horizons.” It’s very difficult to get a vivid meaning of the word. For whatever image that’s conjured when reading or hearing the sound “e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g”, the image is abstract and limited (not everything). Do we experience the meaning of the word, or the actuality? Once in a while, the meaning of the actuality of “everything is imaginary” comes clear, but only in the experience of colliding with the sheer impossibility of picturing it! At that moment, there is something actual, but it’s not an image, it’s the discovery of a limit, something more physical than intellectual, which carries with it a quieting of the reach of thought.
Enjoying a Cruise on a Perpetually Sinking Ship
But the intermittent quality of the perspective is puzzling. At any given moment, I’m under one delusion of reality or another. Usually some form of identity. But if it’s possible to detect wishful thinking smudging these images, then the curtains are drawn back on the fabricated nature of the self-image, which deflates self-importance, loosening one’s dogmatic grip on the thing. Then the vision might be held more lightly as a metaphor, at least for a while.
For me, the metaphor eventually hardens into a new delusion of reality. And this attachment slowly diminishes creativity (depressing the mind) until a reflective spirit again erupts to embarrass thought’s efforts to sustain the unsustainable.
The pattern suggests a screwed-up neural connection somewhere, a pitted groove in the vinyl recording. It doesn’t suggest any bedrock human nature, because one can glimpse the “error” of an over-reaching imagination that leads to this structure. (Human potential is creative, open-ended and plastic (like evolution itself). I think it’s only particular tools and modes of perception (like imagination) that are limited).
Admittedly, I find the whole shenanigan somewhat amusing. The mice of self-consciousness are constantly scurrying to the higher end of a perpetually sinking (but never yet sunk) ship, running from stern to bow, as each end takes turns going down (and up).
And I’m not interested in anyone’s suggestions (but thank you!) for helping the mice swim safely ashore. I want to enjoy the bizarre show for now. I don’t want to “get rid” of this pattern before finding out what’s propelling all this, because the same pattern is embedded in human culture. It’s visible everywhere once you see it in yourself.
But I’m not exactly trying to wallow in suffering either. And I even have sympathy for gentle readers who are flung to and fro by this odd Pollyanna of a narrative voice – marching happily from paragraph to paragraph, with a giddy laugh, carrying the sign, “we’re all fucked!” It must be hard to know how to read this.
I’m just saying I’m not primarily concerned here with my own well-being, whatever it is. I don’t learn about myself in order to feel better. I learn because it’s interesting. The learning seems to improve my “mood,” but that’s only an accident of finding something interesting, whatever it may be.
Thought Experiment #2: Geographical Neglect
What’s interesting is this strange tendency of human consciousness to go down with its sinking ideas like a dimwit captain. Why is it so easy to get suckered into accepting whole hog the static content of various visions of what is real? Why lose sight of the functional forces of culture and habit that are creating this reality, which would help eliminate this enthrallment to dogmas and identities? Why not jump ship and swim with the currents? There’s nothing to lose but a delusion of stability. I’m not trying to inspire anyone here, but actually ask a question.
I’d like to look at this blindness to function as a form of “hemispheric neglect,” as Oliver Sacks uses the term in describing various neurological disorders.
In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks quotes another neurologist, M. Marsel Mesulam:
“When the neglect is severe, the patient may behave almost as if one half of the universe had abruptly ceased to exist in any meaningful form…. Patients with unilateral neglect behave not only as if nothing were actually happening in the left hemispace, but also as if nothing of any importance could be expected to occur there”.
The quote comes from a chapter about a woman (Mrs. S.) in her sixties who had a massive stroke. The stroke did not affect her intelligence and wit, but it did a very bizarre thing: It not only destroyed her left visual field, but also the very existence and idea of “left.” Now when she eats food, she can only eat food on the right side of the plate. “It does not occur to her that [the plate] has a left half as well.” If something is moved into “the preserved right half of her visual field, she says, “Oh, there it is – it wasn’t there before.”
Let’s imagine a connection between Mrs. S.’s predicament and our own.
Is it possible that proprioception is a mode of perception that is completely imperceptible to imagination in the same way that “left” was imperceptible to Mrs. S.?
Mrs. S. could pronounce the word “left”, just as any of us can say the word “meditation” or “proprioception.” For her and us, the meaning of the words do not signify the actual thing. They are merely signifiers of what is not known.
The difference, of course, is that Mrs. S. was brain damaged by stroke. We are merely “brain damaged” by an ignorance of the extent to which imagination unhelpfully participates in perception, racing in before other modes of perception have a chance to unfold.
I’m picturing an overly loyal Saint Bernard blithely stomping a child to death in its zeal to bring a glass of water to a thirsty looking master. Imagination doesn’t know when to sit still. It still thinks it can capture the unknown in a word.
In a word, imagination doesn’t know “left”.
Let’s enjoy imagining this connection. Let’s not try to find peace or happiness like a clumsy Saint Bernard. That just discourages us from noticing and being fascinated by the infinite (and noisy) extent to which imagination creates this world. Until this is appreciated, thought behaves almost as if other “halves” of the universe do not exist in any meaningful form. Then there is a tendency to not only neglect other modes of perception that differ imaginatively from prevailing ones, but more significantly, modes of perception that are not based in imagination (in opinion, argument, word, thought, ideal, belief, interpretation, worship, want or theory) — behaving as if “nothing of importance could be expected to occur” in such “unimaginable” emptiness.
Thought Experiment #3: A Hole in Language
Let’s imagine a very strange book. In that book, a peculiar hole was hidden someplace between the lines. The hole was unremarkable in appearance, but also not hidden or camouflaged in any way. It was a magical hole, because if a reader was lucky enough to notice it, he or she would emerge into a vast, new world, like stepping out of a 2-dimensional plane into a 3-dimensional space.
No one knew who the author was. The book just appeared out of nowhere, you might say. The knowledge of this “hole” in the book grew by legend. A few claimed to have fallen like Alice into the gap between the lines and later tried to tell others to read the book more closely so they might also visit the beautiful world they found.
But the vast majority thought books were mere semantics. Or just fantasy. Not meant for practical people who have practical concerns. So they never read it.
And the intellectuals and academics who read books for a living found the challenge to read the book “more carefully” an insult. They (more than anyone!) knew what a close reading was all about. And none of them found anything exceptional about the book. They assured themselves that they had read deeply into the meaning of the words, and found nothing exceptional, apart from a few puns and allusions that others would not notice.
The intellectuals, however, didn’t notice that they were in fact skimming the surface of meaning by holding too tightly to definitions and theories. Their analyses seemed “deep” to them, but they barely cracked the surface of the text. Their “depth” was horizontal. It extended impressively across a broad field of knowledge. It helped them read “informatively”, leaping from knowledge to knowledge, theory to theory, conclusion to conclusion. In doing this intricate dance on the page they skipped right over the obvious hole without seeing it. Or perhaps they saw it, but too quickly interpreted its significance, misperceiving the hole as yet another surface extension of knowledge.
Essentially, they couldn’t imagine falling through the words into some meaning off the page — landing in an actuality that was not merely an “idea.” As Sacks said, “nothing of importance could be expected to occur there.”
And even when the intellectual was brilliant and deeply interested in finding this hole, they often missed it. (I believe this actually happened in the case of the philosopher Huston Smith in his talk with Krishnamurti).
What that book did was call attention to a hole in the heart of an odd word. It’s not easy to call attention to these holes. It takes an elaborate system of metaphoric mirrors to show us the missing “half” of our vision of the world. And in the end the reader has to make the intellectually short, but disconcerting, leap through the looking glass. Where we end up is Nowhere — in a place that language and even the imagination can’t reach.
Thought Experiment #4: The Mirror of Nowhere
In Sacks’ book, he concludes the story of Mrs. S. in this way:
“Would it be possible, we wondered, for her to have a ‘mirror’ such that she would see the left side of her face on the right? …We tried a video system, with camera and monitor facing her, and the results were startling and bizarre. For now, using the video screen as a ‘mirror’, she did see the left side of her face on the right, an experience confounding even to a normal person…. ‘Take it away!’ she cried… so we did not explore the matter further. This is a pity, because …there might be much promise in such [‘mirrors’’] … for such patients with hemi-inattention….”
There’s something “promising” in confronting the utterly bewildering incapacity of imagination to “get” proprioception, meditation, silence, emptiness, and all the other words with a hole in the middle of them. If imagination doesn’t dissolve, it fills that hole with sometimes frightening delusions: “Take it away!” Change the subject!
But the hole could also seem downright insignificant. Big deal.
For example, the word “nowhere.” It’s either abstract nonsense or it represents the large vocabulary of words and images that trample other modes of perception. Nowhere might be our mirror.
And that’s because nowhere is not nowhere. When I think of “nowhere” I can’t help but form an image that exits, if you will, somewhere. Nowhere is Somewhere. Nowhere is like the concept “left” for Mrs. S. And our dismissal of the significance of this unconsciousness of nowhere may be no different than Mrs. S.’s dismissal of the importance of “left.”
If the word seems too meaningless and small, replace it with the word “God”. God is not God, never will be. There is no God that is not merely imagination. From this perspective, there is no belief that is possible, and also no disbelief. Because from this angle even the question of God does not exist except as an idol.
In other words, this is not an inquiry into anything but imagination itself. We are not asking about a “God beyond the image of God”, and never have in the history of humanity (from this angle). Because that “God beyond the image” is still only an image. That’s how far imagination reaches – infinitely. But everything infinite is also limited. The question of God as a “reality” or not can’t be broached, only imagination can be broached. It leaves an unspoken question — elicits an open-ended perspective. There is room in this for a faith that is not attached to any form at all, to any imagination.
And this is not agnosticism. Agnosticism still treats the question of God as if it were a “real” question. We can’t imagine what is not imaginable, neither its existence nor its non-existence. There’s no “it”. If we really want to see if there is actuality, and not merely something semantic, we have to confront this limit and proceed without knowing anything.
“Take it away”?
I think there’s something beautiful in this. Because when imagination reaches that limit and shuts down of its own accord, the geography of fragmentation and wishful thinking shuts down with it. Then we don’t need to have a word or image for what arises in its place. And what arises is always shockingly more extensive and more beautiful than we imagined.