In my mind’s eye

Imagination – so I have heard – is not a particularly bad thing. That is, if it doesn’t overtake one’s daily enterprise like a high school student’s first gushing love affair which these days is further complicated by a list of multiple abbreviated sexual preferences. I guess I have always associated imagination with some kind of removal from reality, a wistful hope for something different, an anxious yearning for transition, denial or alteration. Yet there are many things about which I have employed my imagination without in my opinion compromising connection with the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.

Imagination is for me but the occasional landscape of idealism; rather like an artistic rendition of what one naturally perceives. It is not so much an escape as a mere interpretation or portrayal. There is a suggestion that imagination provokes unorthodoxy as opposed to creativity. My simpler definition of imagination is perception. Note that I haven’t sought to persuade my personal explanation by adding invention or nonconformity to the characterization. The imaginative eye is not a fanciful production; instead it is insightful. Basically imagination allows one to see in others and in life in general what is so often overlooked. Imagination thus draws upon the singular elements of life which, by artistic portrayal, evoke an elucidation normally subdued within. This feature goes so far as to include for example the likes of Michelangelo’s spiritual creation in the dome of the Sistine chapel in Rome. Though imaginative its penetratingly direct and uplifting appeal is undeniable.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564), known simply as Michelangelo, was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet of the High Renaissance. Born in the Republic of Florence, his work had a major influence on the development of Western art, particularly in relation to the Renaissance notions of humanism and naturalism. He is often considered a contender for the title of the archetypal Renaissance man, along with his rival and elder contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci. Given the sheer volume of surviving correspondence, sketches, and reminiscences, Michelangelo is one of the best-documented artists of the 16th century and several scholars have described Michelangelo as the most accomplished artist of his era.

Imagination is a tool, a device which if properly employed, enables humanity to rise above the muck of life while simultaneously preserving the dominant more agreeable ingredients. Even the baby Jesus arose from the indignity of swaddling clothes and a straw manger for a bed. Recall too how the princess survived the contamination of a pea beneath the mattress.

The story tells of a prince who wants to marry a princess but is having difficulty finding a suitable wife. Something is always wrong with those he meets and he cannot be certain they are real princesses because they have bad table manners or they are not his type. One stormy night, a young woman drenched with rain seeks shelter in the prince’s castle. She claims to be a princess, but no one is really believing her because of the way she looks, so the prince’s mother decides to test their unexpected guest by placing a pea in the bed she is offered for the night, covered by 20 mattresses and laid them upon the pea and placed twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.

In the morning, the princess tells her hosts that she endured a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard in the bed that she is certain has bruised her. With the proof of her bruised back, the princess passes the test and the prince rejoices happily, for only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through such a quantity of bedding. The two are happily married, and the story ends with the pea being placed in a museum, where, according to the story, it can still be seen today unless someone has stolen it.

Summoning up my historic employment of imagination, it is most often a settled regard of present circumstances. It is a vernacular I first encountered when reading Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a punishingly factual yet artistically dynamic description of Brooklyn, NY and Limerick, Ireland involving alcoholism and poverty. I challenge anyone who has read the book to deny its magical appeal in spite of its rudimentary narrative.

The McCourts suddenly have a new baby, Michael, whom Malachy says was left by an angel. The baby suffers from congestion and Malachy is forced to suck the mucus out of his child’s nose. Meanwhile, Welfare workers come to their house and Angela asks for them for boots. Malachy despises her for begging and mends the boys’ old boots with tire rubber.

This however is not to suggest that imagination distorts things as they are; rather that imagination calls upon hitherto sheltered or hidden traits which of their own natural being shine and illuminate erstwhile exclusion. Harry Potter and his gang of wizards are certainly a challenge to this thesis but they are by definition a mere fanciful portrayal of what’s hidden beneath the stairwell. What child has not been propelled to uncover and identify such immediate curiosity? Santa Claus, flying reindeer and the Easter Bunny are but one step removed. Not to mention heaven and hell.

Imagination of one degree or another is a commonplace additive to reality. It mystifies the imperturbable; it glorifies the firmament; it romanticizes the ocean; it focusses the complications of life. It removes us delicately from the hardness of our creeping arthritis and decomposition; and, in its place puts us in mind of something far more palatable. In short, life is what you make of it.