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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

d 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?