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The Place Of Imagination In Mental Economy

But such a measure for the imagination as that just stated is far too
narrow. A good imagination, like a good memory, is the one which serves
its owner best. If DeQuincey and Poe and Stevenson and Bulwer found the
type which led them into such dizzy flights the best for their
particular purpose, well and good; but that is not saying that their
type is the best for you, or that you may not rank as high in some other
field of imaginative power as they in theirs. While you may lack in
their particular type of imagination, they may have been short in the
type which will one day make you famous. The artisan, the architect, the
merchant, the artist, the farmer, the teacher, the professional
man--all need imagination in their vocations not less than the writers
need it in theirs, but each needs a specialized kind adapted to the
particular work which he has to do.

PRACTICAL NATURE OF IMAGINATION.--Imagination is not a process of
thought which must deal chiefly with unrealities and impossibilities,
and which has for its chief end our amusement when we have nothing
better to do than to follow its wanderings. It is, rather, a
commonplace, necessary process which illumines the way for our everyday
thinking and acting--a process without which we think and act by
haphazard chance or blind imitation. It is the process by which the
images from our past experiences are marshaled, and made to serve our
present. Imagination looks into the future and constructs our patterns
and lays our plans. It sets up our ideals and pictures us in the acts of
achieving them. It enables us to live our joys and our sorrows, our
victories and our defeats before we reach them. It looks into the past
and allows us to live with the kings and seers of old, or it goes back
to the beginning and we see things in the process of the making. It
comes into our present and plays a part in every act from the simplest
to the most complex. It is to the mental stream what the light is to the
traveler who carries it as he passes through the darkness, while it
casts its beams in all directions around him, lighting up what otherwise
would be intolerable gloom.

us see some of the most common uses of the imagination. Suppose I
describe to you the battle of the Marne. Unless you can take the images
which my words suggest and build them into struggling, shouting,
bleeding soldiers; into forts and entanglements and breastworks; into
roaring cannon and whistling bullet and screaming shell--unless you can
take all these separate images and out of them get one great unified
complex, then my description will be to you only so many words largely
without content, and you will lack the power to comprehend the
historical event in any complete way. Unless you can read the poem, and
out of the images suggested by the words reconstruct the picture which
was in the mind of the author as he wrote The Village Blacksmith or
Snowbound, the significance will have dropped out, and the throbbing
scenes of life and action become only so many dead words, like the shell
of the chrysalis after the butterfly has left its shroud. Without the
power of imagination, the history of Washington's winter at Valley Forge
becomes a mere formal recital, and you can never get a view of the
snow-covered tents, the wind-swept landscape, the tracks in the snow
marked by the telltale drops of blood, or the form of the heartbroken
commander as he kneels in the silent wood to pray for his army. Without
the power to construct this picture as you read, you may commit the
words, and be able to recite them, and to pass examination upon them,
but the living reality of it will forever escape you.

Your power of imagination determines your ability to interpret literature
of all kinds; for the interpretation of literature is nothing, after
all, but the reconstruction on our part of the pictures with their
meanings which were in the mind of the writer as he penned the words,
and the experiencing of the emotions which moved him as he wrote. Small
use indeed to read the history of the centuries unless we can see in it
living, acting people, and real events occurring in actual environments.
Small use to read the world's great books unless their characters are
to us real men and women--our brothers and sisters, interpreted to us by
the master minds of the ages. Anything less than this, and we are no
longer dealing with literature, but with words--like musical sounds
which deal with no theme, or like picture frames in which no picture has
been set. Nor is the case different in listening to a speaker. His words
are to you only so many sensations of sounds of such and such pitches
and intensities and quality, unless your mind keeps pace with his and
continually builds the pictures which fill his thought as he speaks.
Lacking imagination, the sculptures of Michael Angelo and the pictures
of Raphael are to you so many pieces of curiously shaped marble and
ingeniously colored canvas. What the sculptor and the painter have
placed before you must suggest to you images and thoughts from your own
experience, to fill out and make alive the marble and the canvas, else
to you they are dead.

IMAGINATION AND SCIENCE.--Nor is imagination less necessary in other
lines of study. Without this power of building living, moving pictures
out of images, there is small use to study science beyond what is
immediately present to our senses; for some of the most fundamental laws
of science rest upon conceptions which can be grasped only as we have
the power of imagination. The student who cannot get a picture of the
molecules of matter, infinitely close to each other and yet never
touching, all in vibratory motion, yet each within its own orbit, each a
complete unit in itself, yet capable of still further division into
smaller particles,--the student who cannot see all this in a clear
visual image can never at best have more than a most hazy notion of the
theory of matter. And this means, finally, that the explanations of
light and heat and sound, and much besides, will be to him largely a
jumble of words which linger in his memory, perchance, but which never
vitally become a possession of his mind.

So with the world of the telescope. You may have at your disposal all
the magnificent lenses and the accurate machinery owned by modern
observatories; but if you have not within yourself the power to build
what these reveal to you, and what the books tell you, into the solar
system and still larger systems, you can never study astronomy except in
a blind and piecemeal sort of way, and all the planets and satellites
and suns will never for you form themselves into a system, no matter
what the books may say about it.

EVERYDAY USES OF IMAGINATION.--But we may consider a still more
practical phase of imagination, or at least one which has more to do
with the humdrum daily life of most of us. Suppose you go to your
milliner and tell her how you want your spring hat shaped and trimmed.
And suppose you have never been able to see this hat in toto in your
mind, so as to get an idea of how it will look when completed, but have
only a general notion, because you like red velvet, white plumes, and a
turned-up rim, that this combination will look well together. Suppose
you have never been able to see how you would look in this particular
hat with your hair done in this or that way. If you are in this helpless
state shall you not have to depend finally on the taste of the milliner,
or accept the model, and so fail to reveal any taste or individuality
on your own part?

How many times have you been disappointed in some article of dress,
because when you planned it you were unable to see it all at once so as
to get the full effect; or else you could not see yourself in it, and so
be able to judge whether it suited you! How many homes have in them
draperies and rugs and wall paper and furniture which are in constant
quarrel because someone could not see before they were assembled that
they were never intended to keep company! How many people who plan their
own houses, would build them just the same again after seeing them
completed? The man who can see a building complete before a brick has
been laid or a timber put in place, who can see it not only in its
details one by one as he runs them over in his mind, but can see the
building in its entirety, is the only one who is safe to plan the
structure. And this is the man who is drawing a large salary as an
architect, for imaginations of this kind are in demand. Only the one who
can see in his mind's eye, before it is begun, the thing he would
create, is capable to plan its construction. And who will say that
ability to work with images of these kinds is not of just as high a type
as that which results in the construction of plots upon which stories
are built!

THE BUILDING OF IDEALS AND PLANS.--Nor is the part of imagination less
marked in the formation of our life's ideals and plans. Everyone who is
not living blindly and aimlessly must have some ideal, some pattern, by
which to square his life and guide his actions. At some time in our life
I am sure that each of us has selected the person who filled most nearly
our notion of what we should like to become, and measured ourselves by
this pattern. But there comes a time when we must idealize even the most
perfect individual; when we invest the character with attributes which
we have selected from some other person, and thus worship at a shrine
which is partly real and partly ideal.

As time goes on, we drop out more and more of the strictly individual
element, adding correspondingly more of the ideal, until our pattern is
largely a construction of our own imagination, having in it the best we
have been able to glean from the many characters we have known. How
large a part these ever-changing ideals play in our lives we shall never
know, but certainly the part is not an insignificant one. And happy the
youth who is able to look into the future and see himself approximating
some worthy ideal. He has caught a vision which will never allow him to
lag or falter in the pursuit of the flying goal which points the
direction of his efforts.

IMAGINATION AND CONDUCT.--Another great field for imagination is with
reference to conduct and our relations with others. Over and over again
the thoughtless person has to say, I am sorry; I did not think. The
did not think simply means that he failed to realize through his
imagination what would be the consequences of his rash or unkind words.
He would not be unkind, but he did not imagine how the other would feel;
he did not put himself in the other's place. Likewise with reference to
the effects of our conduct on ourselves. What youth, taking his first
drink of liquor, would continue if he could see a clear picture of
himself in the gutter with bloated face and bloodshot eyes a decade
hence? Or what boy, slyly smoking one of his early cigarettes, would
proceed if he could see his haggard face and nerveless hand a few years
farther along? What spendthrift would throw away his money on vanities
could he vividly see himself in penury and want in old age? What
prodigal anywhere who, if he could take a good look at himself
sin-stained and broken as he returns to his father's house after the
years of debauchery in the far country would not hesitate long before
he entered upon his downward career?

IMAGINATION AND THINKING.--We have already considered the use of
imagination in interpreting the thoughts, feelings and handiwork of
others. Let us now look a little more closely into the part it plays in
our own thinking. Suppose that, instead of reading a poem, we are
writing one; instead of listening to a description of a battle, we are
describing it; instead of looking at the picture, we are painting it.
Then our object is to make others who may read our language, or listen
to our words, or view our handiwork, construct the mental images of the
situation which furnished the material for our thought.

Our words and other modes of expression are but the description of the
flow of images in our minds, and our problem is to make a similar stream
flow through the mind of the listener; but strange indeed would it be to
make others see a situation which we ourselves cannot see; strange if we
could draw a picture without being able to follow its outlines as we
draw. Or suppose we are teaching science, and our object is to explain
the composition of matter to someone, and make him understand how light,
heat, etc., depend on the theory of matter; strange if the listener
should get a picture if we ourselves are unable to get it. Or, once
more, suppose we are to describe some incident, and our aim is to make
its every detail stand out so clearly that no one can miss a single one.
Is it not evident that we can never make any of these images more clear
to those who listen to us or read our words than they are to ourselves?

Next: The Material Used By Imagination

Previous: Problems In Introspection And Observation

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