On the Wings of Imagination

By I. M. Oderberg

I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination. -- William Blake, Jerusalem

Long ago the quality of mind was awakened in early humanity, opening the door to self-identification and the awareness of space and time. The ability to recognize specific differences and similarities between entities inhabiting the earth made a magic moment in the life of mankind. The Old Testament symbolizes it by the scene where Adam names the plants and animals, for humanity was the first class of earthly beings to notice the characteristics of each individual and kind or species and genus. That was the occasion when human speech was born, so distinctive from the sounds emitted by the unself-conscious animals, for our man-made words place bounds on the vowels with consonants. Our language is measured, a sign of discriminating intelligence in control.* Thoughts must have preceded the words which therefore were created out of the need to express them.

*H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine 2:198-9 suggests that the first language was indeed based entirely on the use of vowels without consonants. Perhaps this speech was expressed in musical fashion, undulating up and down the scale as some Oriental tongues do even today.

Ancient teachings tell us that the potential of mind in early mankind was sparked alight by the already developed spiritual-mental capacities of beings who had been highly evolved humans in a previous planetary life period. Perhaps we should extend our conception of the mind beyond its rationalizing aspect that is so highly prized today, because it comprises so much more -- such as the aspect that is the source of intuition. There is also the question of another quality we have, which is closely connected with our creative ability.

Our imagination is a faculty that eludes a binding definition, for its properties are patently immaterial. By its means we can conceive and create all kinds of activities and existences. Charles Darwin stated in The Descent of Man that "The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results" (1896 ed., p. 74). The medieval mystics Hugh and Richard of the St. Victor monastery in Paris, perhaps applying Paul's threefold classification of a man as being composed of spirit, soul, and body, referred to "Imagination, Reason and Intellect" as different facets of our inner nature.

We can trace a slow development in the Western view of the imagination. For example, Iamblichus, who lived during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD, wrote: "Imagination is superior to all nature and generation, and through it we are capable of transcending the worldly order, of participating in eternal life and in the energy of the super-celestial. It is through this principle, therefore, that we will be liberated from the bonds of fate itself." A commentator interprets Iamblichus to mean that by "contacting" inspiration and insight, we may overcome the "'fate' of our character by working through personality problems and limitations." Indeed, the imagination can be a powerful influence to shape or affect our souls, and at least one author of insight has encouraged us to "visualize," for we thereby "create in imagination the picture of mighty things," opening a "door to new powers" within ourselves. (Katherine Tingley, Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic, pp. 46-7) This aspect of the imagination is described as dual, capable of being as destructive in its lower phase as it can be creative in its higher. In other words, we become what we imagine.

In modern times, the word imagination has acquired various meanings, usually limited to literature and the other arts. For example, it has been regarded as the faculty producing the setting, "atmosphere" or background, and symbolism in the most moving poetry or art. That is, it has been treated as though synonymous with fancy or fantasizing. But gradually the usages of the terms have grown far apart. The two poets of the 19th century who contributed much to the widening distinctions were Wordsworth and Coleridge, both of whom felt that composing a poem was strictly not a reasoning process. Elaborating on Wordsworth's tentative view that imagination is an "element of Nature's inner self," Coleridge identified it with creative power, the highest faculty that synthesizes experience into imagery. It perceives shape or form and order, using different, even opposite, elements of feeling, vision, and thought to achieve a unified whole. In other words, it fuses and assimilates the daily experiences into a larger unity. While Carlyle felt that imagination was lower in the scale than intellect, Coleridge regarded it as the "organ of the divine." The fancy, on the other hand, he felt to be merely the capacity to combine things and events. Wordsworth associated the "higher poetry" with the "wisdom of the heart" and the "grandeur of the imagination." He felt too that "wherever these appear, simplicity accompanies them." Shelley also deals profoundly with this theme. A Platonist, he places reason on a lower level than the other aspects of mentality; it has a guiding principle, the imagination, which he images as a "throne contained within the invisible nature of man." He further suggests, in the words of Carl Grabo, that there is a

divine order, truth, and beauty, existing in the immaterial world of ideas, a world to which the creative or poetic mind has occasional access. It is in the light of its intimations from this world -- what for want of a better word must be called intuitions -- that the creative mind apprehending it imposes its imaginative reading, its discovery of relationships, upon actual experience and thus aids in shaping the actual into a likeness of the divine.*
*The Magic Plant: The Growth of Shelley's Thought, pp. 354-5. This is a fine and stimulating study of Shelley's concepts on this topic, and the rigorous logic Shelley uses to build his philosophy, as well as his intuitional overview. Professor Peter Butter in Shelley's Idols of the Cave (1954) also touches on the influence of Plato and the Neoplatonic philosophy on Shelley's thought from the time the poet read the Symposium at Eton to 1817, when he learned to be a fluent reader in the ancient Greek and made the original texts the foundation of his philosophy.

As Shelley perceives it, what the world needs most is not more facts but the creative imagination, and he analyzes the parlous situation of our materialistic civilization that is based on and shored up chiefly by scientific and economic knowledge. For him as for Plato, the world of the material phase of life partly obscures and partly exposes the real world of which it is the reflection or "shadow." During those moments when we feel illumined, we become aware of the "heart of things," which means we sense the presence of the eternal essence of life, of which all the routines and ephemera of our daily lives are but symbols. This is why the poet appears to be in a state of constant wonderment about life's finer aspects -- he is sensitive to the invisible reality.

Shelley has been accused of being impractical, but he did see the cruelty, injustice, and selfishness prevalent in his world, and discernible in ours as well! His diagnosis of the root cause of all the suffering and inhumanity probed to the desire we all have for happiness, and our confusion as to where to look for it. In comment, Carl Grabo writes that:

Reason, unless directed by imagination, leads nowhere but to futility. We have knowledge, material things, and command over natural forces; but these are nothing in themselves . . . unless, prompted by intuition from the divine, we shape them imaginatively to the uses of a freer and less selfish social order. This is not the analysis and teaching of a visionary, but realism of the toughest kind. It is inspired common-sense. It is not Shelley who is fantastic and insane but the world of "practical" men. -- p. 363*
*See Shelley's A Defence of Poetry for a perceptive section on this subject.

If imagination carries within itself the power of invention or originality, how does this apply to imitation and the work of a craftsman? In a broad translation of an apothegm of Ptah-hotep, a high government official of ancient Egypt who had acquired wisdom with age, "The summit of an artist's creativity is never reached. The craftsman can never reach perfection." Just as the full flower of the artistic inspiration cannot be completely duplicated as imagined, so the skill of the artisan cannot produce an absolutely perfect work. Philostratus relates that in a discussion with Thespesion about the superb Greek statues of deities sculpted by Pheidias and Praxiteles, Apollonius of Tyana said these artists in representing the gods were not merely imitating or fantasizing as he had suggested, but rather had experienced

an influence pregnant with wisdom and genius. . . . Imagination wrought these works, a wiser and subtler artist by far than imitation; for imitation can only create as its handiwork what it has seen, but imagination equally what it has not seen -- for it will conceive of its ideal with reference to the reality, and imitation is often baffled by terror [or awe], but imagination by nothing; for it marches undismayed to the goal which it has itself laid down. -- Life of Apollonius, vi, xix

And the Greek Platonic philosopher Longinus notes that often "the imagination oversteps the bounds of space, so that if we survey our life on every side, how greatness and beauty and eminence have everywhere the prerogative, we shall straightway perceive the end for which we were created" (On the Sublime, xxxv).

We turn now to another artist-poet of the 19th century who gave the term imagination a new and wider meaning. William Blake was a largely self-educated mystic gifted equally in the graphic arts and poetry. He had stepped into the stream of ideas that flowed down into the slough of Europe's dark centuries from Plato, the Neoplatonists, and those few mystics scattered in space and time who had immersed themselves in the life-giving waters. Through the murk of contemporary dogma and illiteracy, Blake discerned gleams of spiritual light that came from a very ancient wisdom tradition. Taking from his various sources phrasings about the ensoulment of the universe and the composite nature of man, he created his own language of which the most important term is perhaps his distinctive use of the word imagination.

Blake envisioned men as spiritual beings drawn into the smoky fires of material life ages ago and unaware of their true identity. The souls "fallen from heaven" or their state of pristine purity remain smog-bound, captivated by the false glitter of the pleasures offered by the physical side of earthly existence. Their appetite for possessions and the delights that feed the ego and its lower qualities increases as each gratification grows stale. The increase brings in its train further stupefaction.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. -- The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The one savior is the imagination which, he points out, is really the creative soul of the universe. In his writings, illustrations, drawings, and etchings, he contrasts the imagination with the dry, mechanical aspects of the reasoning mind. The mythology that he invented symbolizes this process. For example, his term the "satanic mills" warns against the worst features of the industrial revolution: the reduction of human entities from being spiritual individuals into merely material creatures functioning as cogs turning the wheels of machines. The names of the English scientist Newton and philosopher Locke represent in his poetry the rationalizing elements in human nature; they symbolize excessive dependence upon the mechanical aspect of the mind -- that part of it that merely operates the "computer" or brain, rather than the higher element that programs it. Blake's point of view stresses that this is done at the expense of the finer qualities of the human being. The creator of the physical world, the "Workman," could produce only a machine-like universe that is really a shadow-image of the much superior realm where the truly creative aspects of divinity are allowed fuller play.

 Blake, "Creation of Adam"

We humans are but the semblances of the spiritual beings we were in the beginning of the world, and are still intrinsically today, even though we may not realize this to be the case. By beholding glimpses of our true nature, aspiring and striving toward the ideal, we rebecome the Logos of which we were (and still are!) vital parts. This Logos, the Divine Reason of the Greek philosophers and the Gnostics, the "Word" of the New Testament, Blake called "Jesus the Imagination." The term does not refer to the individual of 2,000 years ago, but to the universal "Divine Humanity" of which the earthly mankind is an imperfect vehicle. An Indian symbol of this "Divine Humanity" is the banyan tree, with our mankind like the dependent branches that eventually strike root in the cosmic soil to become in their turn trunks of a new growth.

More literature of the Gnostic communities is available today than it was in Blake's time, and he would have found there the means to round out and extend the meaning of his vision that in the beginning men were pure and translucent -- adding the key term unself-conscious -- essences of divinity. The Tibetan Buddhist conceives of the essential spark in the heart of all entities as the "jewel in the lotus." Life's processes have been tending to polish the jewel until full awareness of the inner potential quality is achieved. Then humankind will be ready for the next phase of evolution or the unfoldment of latent faculties -- a further level of soul-growth, for the bodies are but the envelopes enabling the expression of inherent qualities so far unexpressed.

Blake felt the tremendous responsibility of the artist, whether with words or in the graphic field, to mediate for men between the material and the more refined realms of the spirit. He liked to quote Shakespeare's vision:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination. -- A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1

Blake, however, objected to the last line of this quotation. One biographer writes that Blake himself

saw spiritual appearances by the exercise of a special faculty -- that of imagination -- using the word in the then unusual, but true sense, of a faculty which busies itself with the subtler realities, not with fictions . . . the things the imagination saw were as much realities as were gross and tangible facts. . . . His advice to a young painter was "You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done." -- Alexander Gilchrist, Life of Blake, pp. 318-19

For Jacob Boehme, the German mystic who was one of Blake's favorite sources, Adam ate with his "outward mouth," and so saw only the bodily tree of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. He must learn again to eat, this time with his "inward mouth," interpreted by Blake as meaning "a cleansing of the doors of perception." Kathleen Raine comments suggestively that the tree of life in the garden of Eden represents "the world of Imagination," whereas the tree of the knowledge of good and evil relates to the material side of creation -- the "error" of the "tree of Creation." She sees the tree of life as Adam's "tree of Mystery," and that nature perceived as the "magia," or the "wonders of God," no longer wields over man its "destructive power" as represented by the allurements of material life (see Blake and Tradition, vol. 2, Appendix 1, p. 49). However, the original act of immersion in matter symbolized by the fall of the angels was not an error in the creative process. Its purpose was to call out of potentiality the qualities of spiritual individuality within all entities. The error lies in the deliberate choice of continued absorption in embodied physical life instead of rising with the cycle of refinement that is now in process.

But if Blake had perceived the full implication of his vision of the universe as being ensouled, with all souls imbued with a tincture of the Divine, then he would not have raised aloft the concept of a personal God, however grand. Infinity cannot be qualified by any term, for such would limit it. Imagination envisions what existed before the creation of the cosmos with its heavenly bodies and our present home, the earth. "As a spider throws out and retracts its web, as herbs spring up in the ground . . . so is the Universe derived from the undecaying one" (Mundaka Upanishad I.1.7).

But as winter preludes the spring, so every death contains within itself the seeds of a new life. "A ceaseless crossing of thresholds, an endless being through becoming . . . endless . . . endless time . . . no beginning, no end . . ." For the universe "is a nascent god" and Blake's "Imagination" is the divine aspect of mankind, upon whose wings we may fly and thus realize all our finest possibilities.

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 2002/January 2003; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)