Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Reality of Imagination

In reading Owen Barfield, I have become more than ever before aware of what he regarded, all through his life, as the key question: In what way is Imagination true?

Because - following the Romantics especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and in-line with Rudolf Steiner - Barfield argued that Imagination was true; and not just true but the primary and indispensable truth for our time.

Therefore it is our task - now, at this point in human history - to understand what it means and implies to say and believe that Imagination is real and true.

And the reason that this is important is that it is our way out from the modern condition of despair arising from nihilism and alienation.

The first step, as we live in the world, is to notice the power of imagination - and rather than dismiss it as mere fantasy or subjective whim - to believe it is real and true. And then to discover what this means.

So, we read Tolkien... or some other book or poem or play; or see a beautiful landscape, or church; or whenever our minds in some way, any way, come alive with apprehension of some-thing - and then do not dismiss these (do not snub it, mock or sneer at it, refrain from satire - do not take it lightly) we need to hold to these feelings as true.

True in some real way, a source of knowledge.

What to do next, how to understand the knowledge, how to check it... these are secondary factors. But the primary one is to regard the power of imagination as the power to apprehend real, solid, valid truth.

That is just the first step - but for some, perhaps many, it must be the first step.  


  1. Can't help but fear that the power of imagination will be dimmed as a more and more convincing virtual reality is achieved by technology.

  2. And I might go further. That is to say, our present technophilic flight into virtual reality (computer games, social media, ever more convincing computer generated animation) is the result of our conclusion that the imagination isn't real. Thus "the pleasures of the imagination" that were pursued by the Romantics were found to be just as superficial as materialism (just as “material”). So we now conclude that since spirituality is a fantasy and imagination is not transcendent and materialism is unsatisfying, what is needed is the most convincing externally-generated illusions. If all is unreal, at least make falsity all-encompassing and immersive!

  3. @Bill - Yes, this is why the movie is a lower art form than the novel: the movie (at least while it is happening) is a kind of virtual reality, in which we are somewhat passively immersed: it is not so much a mobilization of the imagination. And poetry demands more imagination than the novel.

    But even movies can stimulate imagination, when considered in retrospect. The real enemy of imagination is the constant, drip-drip of distraction/ stimulation by novelty - with never a moment for imagination - as with modern social media and news.

  4. The current age has its own risks for the imagination, but in some ways it is also an unprecedented window-of-opportunity which may or may not close in the future.

    Consider that in the earlier age, it would take centuries for a mythology to evolve; now a person like Tolkien or Clarke can contemplate single-handedly constructing a mythology, with enough original material for a dozen primitive peoples -- and have that material reach and motivate potentially millions of people. And -- most wonderfully -- the result does not need to be taken more seriously than it is meant to be. In so far as it is good for us, we can seriously hope for elves in the forest, without needing to sacrifice to them. Whereas, in earlier ages, for one person's imagination to solidify into a commonly held folk belief over generations required the glue of superstition and idolatry, which necessarily lent the subject of the belief itself a rather brutal edge, whatever the original thought of its author.

  5. @Seijio - Agreed - I something think that the Imagination is the Trojan horse of modernity; tens of millions of people are carrying marvellous imaginative contents through life, the 'golden thread' running through the illusions and unrealities of normal 'life', which may become 'activated' at any time simply by the sudden recognition that it is *real* ...

  6. What would you recommend for someone interested in Barfield's thoughts on Imagination?

  7. @W - Sorry for the late reply, your comment was for some reason marked as Spam.

    I am unsure how to answer your question, because I do not think Barfield explains himself very well in any of the books I have encountered.

    But perhaps you might start with the collection of essays and interviews "Owen Barfield on CS Lewis"; which has several very interesting comments on imagination scattered throughout as well as a couple of essays which focus on the subject, and as a book is extremely interesting in its own right (this is assuming that you, like me, are interested by Lewis as a person)?