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The Power of Imagination

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Posted on May 11, 2014

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is master of an enchanted island where he has absolute power. He keeps the primitive Caliban and the spirit Ariel as his slaves. The play is about liberty, love and the capacity for awe. It reminds us that the power unleashed in the wilderness can prompt us to good if we honor the sacred but to monstrous evil if we do not. There are few constraints in the wilderness, a theme that would later be explored by the novelist Joseph Conrad. Imagination triumphed in “The Tempest” because those who were bound to their senses and lusts were subjugated. However, overseas in the American colonies, as Shakespeare knew, the poison of dark passions embodied by the Calibans and evil dukes of the world had unleashed an orgy of greed, theft and genocide.

Those who worship themselves, the essence of the modern, commit spiritual suicide. In love with himself after seeing his reflection in a pond, Narcissus is doomed, as many in the modern world are, by vanity, celebrity and the need for admirers and sycophants. Narcissists master the arts of manipulation, seduction, power and control. They eschew empathy, honesty, trust and transparency. It is a form of mental illness.

It is through imagination that we can reach the dark regions of the human psyche and face our mortality and the brevity of existence. It is through imagination that we can recover reverence and kinship. It is through imagination that we can see ourselves in our neighbors and the other living organisms of the earth. It is through imagination that we can envision other ways to form a society. The triumph of modern utilitarianism, implanted by violence, crushed the primacy of the human imagination. It enslaved us to the cult of the self. And with this enslavement came an inability to see, the central theme of “King Lear.” Imagination, as Goddard wrote, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

All of the great visionaries and leaders of the Indian tribes, from medicine men like Black Elk and Sitting Bull to warriors such as Crazy Horse, in the presence of the natural world heard it speak to them, in the same way it spoke to Shakespeare, Dickinson or Walt Whitman. All elements of life, especially those that lie beyond articulation, infuse the human imagination. The communion—accentuated by vision quests, the sanctity of dreams, odd occurrences, miracles and the wonder of nature, as well as rituals that take place within a communal society—blurs the lines between the self and the world. This ability to connect with the sacred is what Percy Shelley meant when he wrote that poetry “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar things as if they were not familiar.” We are reminded at that moment of the wonder of life and our insignificance in the vastness of the cosmos, reminded that, as Prospero said, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Too often this wisdom comes too late, as it does when Othello stands over the dead Desdemona or Lear over his executed daughter, Cordelia. This wisdom makes grace possible. Songs, poetry, music, theater, dance, sculpture, art, fiction and ritual move human beings toward the sacred. They clear the way for transformation. The prosaic world of facts, data, science, news, technology, business and the military is cut off from the mysteries of creation and existence. We will recover this imagination, this capacity for the sacred, or we will vanish as a species.

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