Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Colonization of Imagination (2020-05-18)
A discussion of science fiction writing online led me to revisit a seven-page essay by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of her most famous, "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" Originally presented as a Clarion Workshop address in 1974, it is one of many of Le Guin's sharp and funny examinations of the peculiar "american," by which she apparently means people in the united states, mainly those who are self-racialized and therefore think they are white, way of treating fiction. I have described it as sharp and funny, and it is. Yet, reading it in its 1979 version in the collection The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, it is also wistful and sad as Le Guin argues that all of us should trust children not to confuse reality with fantasy, and sketches the inched state of adults who despise fiction unless they can tie it to their work. I was refreshing my memory of the essay when I was particularly struck by her words on the fourth page of the 1979 version.
Now, I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Like all our evil propensities, the imagination will out. But if it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed. At its best, it will be mere ego-centered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously. Where literature is concerned, in the old, truly Puritan days. the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism. the man who refuses to read novels because it's unmanly to do so, or because they aren't true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on tbe television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment. that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic – after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players. and there used to be cowboys – and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn't interest most women.
Le Guin's reference to pornography gave me special pause, because note that her purpose in bringing it up is not to get into the subject of pornography's quality as literature or entertainment, or the grave ethical and legal issues entailed in its production. Not at all, her point is that it is a type of junk food for the imagination, which can be fed wholesomely or badly. Humans actually need to use their imaginations, and add images and ideas to them.
Then for other reasons, I spent some time reading Muriel Rukeyser's book The Life of Poetry. While on one hand I simply can't agree with the claim that the common aversion to poetry among people in the united states (and also canada, but it was outside of her purview for that book) is simply evidence of psychological illness, though it may correlate with that at times. Instead, poetry is part of that vast genre of fiction, and it demands the use and freedom of the imagination. And many people in the united states have religious heritages – whether they think they are white or not – that include stern invocations against freethinking for fear that this can only lead to a loss of faith. If faith can only be as fragile as so many religious and crypto-religious creeds insist, it is not irrational or unhealthy to fear fiction and its invitation to freethinking at all. Far from it, it is totally rational, because if faith is that fragile, it is also unbelievably precious, the key item that many people are certain is their insurance against their worst possible imaginings. Still, I wholeheartedly agree with Rukeyser's broader point about the actual accessibility of poetry, and that many people have been discouraged away from it and from riches poetry can hold.
Alas, it seems to me that discouraging people away from using their imaginations is in the end meant to allow those imaginations to be colonized. After all, the equivalent of junk food for the imagination is great for an occasional treat, but highly dissatisfying when that is all there is. It is intended to be used and thrown away, this sort of junk food. It is designed to be unsatisfying, so that we always want more, more often, with more excitement. Hence pornography, action movies, and even such seemingly staid fare as police procedurals get ever more extreme, more graphic, more violent. Yet people actually want fiction of all sorts that allows for rereading, reviewing, and/or relistening. Works that on revisits reveal new meanings, not necessarily because they are abstruse, but because between visits we have had new experiences and learned new things, and this changes how we experience them. Enough people act on the desire for more satisfying fiction by defying barriers set up to keep them fixated on the other stuff exclusively, and so they read poetry, build fandoms, and argue fiercely about what a "classic" is.
Those who want to colonize our imaginations and keep them that way are not so fond of resistance. After all, in a fundamentalist capitalism environment, anything that holds our attention and pleases us without forcing us to pay for it again and again is not something that can be used to steal value from us. Atrophying our imaginations so that we are unable to recognize or accept the existence of other fiction than the junk food kind is far more profitable for and acceptable to the committed capitalist. Of course, the companion loss of tolerance for and interest in non-fiction is just a convenient side effect.