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Deracination and the imagination

Deracination and the imagination
On the need for gravity when taking a leap

In the seventh chapter of his Biographia Literaria (1891), Samuel Taylor Coleridge considers the work of the imagination as analogous to moving against and with the world’s gravity. “In every movement,” he says, “we first counteract gravitation, in order to avail ourselves of it. It must exist, that there may be something to be counteracted, and which by its reaction, aids the force that is exerted to resist it.”

Consider the act of jumping. You leap. And in leaping you make yourself available to gravity. You feel yourself pushing against it, just as you feel it tugging you back to earth. There’s no other way. Gravity is essential for grace.

Even if we don’t have a say over gravity itself, we have some say over what we do with it, insofar as we comply with the nature and limitations of our embodiment. Walk. Run. Skip. Dance. Fall. Now, suggests Coleridge, “let a man watch his mind while he is composing.” The mind is preoccupied with the gravitational pull of a number of present and pressing concerns, a realm of physical and metaphysical impressions, many of which are trivial, many of which should perhaps not be given so much attention. There is form and content to what’s going on in our heads. But the mind is also capable of at least somewhat transcending its preoccupations with the immediately obvious. I say somewhat because total transcendence is meaningless insofar as transcendence assumes something doing the transcending. Also, if there’s nothing to transcend, there can be no transcendence.

Coleridge offers a beautiful and famous metaphor for the act of the imagination. It is like a water insect that “throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook.” Watching that little bug walk on water, we see how “the little animal wins its way up against the steam, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion.” The mind, Coleridge observes, is working somehow with and against itself in imagining anything; it is both active and passive, and imagining requires due attention to both its activity and passivity. There’s an echo of this in John Cleese’s framing of creativity as a constant swapping between two modes of attention: open, suggesting the passive, and closed, suggesting the active.

This combination of activity and passivity might be understood via the Daoist notion of non-action, which is not the same thing as inaction. Non-action takes consciousness itself as a form of active friction, which creates a delicate opposition to otherness to locate its edges; and it is this opposition that allows us to perceive properly. The friction may be in hesitation, lingering, pausing, reflecting, pushing back, testing, and so on. There’s no frictionless knowing. And there is no opposition-free, friction-free creativity.

The mind can be alert and attentive but also, at the very same time, calm and subtle and playful. It can be decisive while refusing rigidity. It is open but not merely indiscriminate. Imagination looks for love and, for this reason, is not simply promiscuous. As Chesterton has said, the point of an open mind is like that of an open mouth, which is to shut it on something solid. The metaphor reminds us of the solidity of the mind itself. If there is nothing there to know with, there’ll be no insights and no new connections. Sadly, many people seem to assume that ignorance can help with creativity; and, well, it can’t. The more attentive and understanding you are, the more creative you are likely to be. Creativity thrives on the well-nourished mind. The smaller the set of concerns of the wanna-be creative person, the smaller their ideas will be.

Coleridge’s insight into the need for both activity and passivity in the act of imagination is subtle and profound. I say this as one who has taught creative thinking to students for close to eighteen years now. One of the amazing things about having taught this for so long is that I’ve gotten to observe trends. I’ve seen how things have shifted. I won’t bother you with every one of my observations but I do want to home in on just three. They are not cheerful observations, I’m sorry to say, but the only way to invite a renewal of our creative capacities is to confront them head-on.

The first thing I’ve observed, at least the first thing I want to mention, is that even very naturally creative people struggle to think creatively. I say this having taught thousands of creative people. I’ve noticed that the capacity for mental elasticity among many, many creative people is startlingly unimpressive. Creative people also have echo chambers. Most creative people think they’re creative when they draw pretty pictures or come up with nice logos, and maybe this is part of it, but most of this is more of the same. Very few in each class I’ve taught have shown genuine spark in terms of pushing themselves into and past the gravitational pull of the utterly negligible and familiar.

The second thing I’ve observed that I want to mention is that the number of people I’ve encountered in the last seven years who can access their own inner creative resources has been vastly diminished compared to the first ten years of my teaching career. If this is anything to go by, and it is by no means the only indicator of a shift in the general state of things, creativity in general is suffering. I say this in the context of teaching but if you look up to see where we are in terms of culture and pop-culture, you’ll notice that the trend is pretty universal. The news is worse than this, in fact. I sense that the decline in imaginative force is not slowing down. There are all kinds of factors that play into this: the culture of safetyism is one thing, the rise of the internet and social media culture is another (anxiety is terrible for creativity and we live among particularly anxious people), and the general loss of responsibility is yet another. Correlations and causes of all kinds play into this but my general assessment is this: the age of psychological man has been devastating for psychology; and for the imagination. The rise of victimhood culture and ressentiment and moral relativism have been terrible for creative thinking.

The third observation I’d like to mention, which I’ll get to shortly after a bit of an explanatory side-track, is a call-back to Coleridge’s conception of the work of the imagination. Keep in mind that the mind is a self-organising pattern-making memory system. And this system, organic and rhizomatic as it is, likes making the world predictable through its pattern-making. It develops heuristics by which it can understand, decide, and act. This in itself is a creative act but with potential downsides for creativity. This capacity of the mind to anchor itself in the familiar is basic inductive reasoning at work; it suggests pattern-making through enumeration. But through stressing mere induction, abduction—our capacity for playing with ideas and guessing at different alternatives—can get stifled and sidelined, even if this is not inevitable.

Take the classic monomyth as an example of a stiffening, ossifying heuristic. That’s not how it was introduced to the world, of course. It’s quite brilliant, really, how Joseph Campbell saw in all the old myths this One Pattern to rule them all; this one myth within which all the other great myths fit. He wrote about this famously in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In a way, he was following James George Frazer, who did something similar in his book The Golden Bough (1890). But here is the trouble, as Chesterton shows in his The Everlasting Man (1925), when he critiques Frazer; and this same critique is echoed, albeit with a different emphasis, in the work of René Girard.

The trouble is that a map can be drawn and then replace the territory. A model, often subtly but often not, can chip off everything in original myths that makes them unique. The insights of each specific, individual story can get flattened and averaged out. To treat the Gospel story as just another myth turns out, as Chesterton and Girard show, to be a massive category error. It somewhat fits the monomythic pattern but it also definitely breaks with it. It seems clear, then, that getting stuck in a heuristic can lead quite quickly to losing profound resonances beneath and permeating and haloing a specific tale. To accept what is general against what is specific has significance for understanding the diminishing of creativity that I’ll get to soon.

Of course, heuristics like the monomyth do not have to become so inflexible. Models can be extremely useful, even when they are incomplete or wrong in one way or another. But the fact is, they do become inflexible. We’ve seen this in Hollywood’s sudden realisation, after George Lukas made use of it in Star Wars, that the monomyth is a sort of formula that makes a movie sell well. And so the pattern became a kind of bureaucratic tick box for producers and Studios. But what makes a story matter to anyone is seldom the fact that monomythic heuristic has been applied. When you start to catch the specific beats and rhythms of maniacal monomythical monotony in a mainstream film, you soon find even the most striking events in a story dull and uninspiring.

And, well, just as this has happened with the monomyth, I’ve noticed this happening with so many other things recently. The memesphere is one example. Politics by algorithm is another. Just as Hollywood continues with its recycling phase—its endless rebooting of remakes of original stories based on novels based on some true story—so the whole world seems to have succumbed to a habit of rehashing, always moving further and further away from concrete experience into dreary abstractions. The heuristic is so passively accepted, especially given how it is assumed to ensure commercial success, that breaking out of it seems impossible.

So, at last, we get to the third observation I wanted to bring to your attention. Action and non-action have been swallowed up, if not overcome, by inaction. Activity has completely given way to passivity. Our ability to jump about and leap about, imaginatively speaking, is in serious trouble. What I earlier called mental elasticity, meaning the mind’s capacity to bend and shift and muck about—without necessarily losing sight of the truth—is perishing; and so it gets hard and brittle instead of allowing movement.

Iain McGilchrist has famously diagnosed this as the reign of the emissary, the left hemisphere of the brain, over the master, the right hemisphere of the brain. I see resonances between this diagnosis and Jean-Charles Nault’s diagnosis of our time as possessed by the demon of acedia; that is listlessness or sloth. See Nault’s book The Noonday Devil (2015). Acedia doesn’t necessarily produce what we think of as stagnation. Acedia often produces a kind of frenzy, a constant preoccupation with trivialities. Workaholics are possessed by acedia. But the energy behind the frenzy is like that of a creature caught in its death throes. It is not the energy of life but the energy of life lost. It is not the energy of renewal but the energy of something in a state of degeneration. There’s a treadmill, which is a rut of a kind. It and the person running on it aren’t going anywhere.

With this in mind, let’s get back to Coleridge. Because already, thanks to Coleridge, we have a clear sense of what is needed for our imaginations to work well. First, we need a clear, solid gravitational force. We need “a place to stand,” to borrow from Archimedes. Second, we need the will to act against that force. Third, we need a willingness to work with that force. In this, we already have some clues concerning what has gone wrong in recent times, as we have experienced the acceleration of what has been noticed for centuries as an age of decadence. We can therefore take a moment to check where we are creatively speaking.

You’ll notice, of course, that I am using Coleridge’s model as a diagnostic tool. Oh no! I’m using it as a heuristic! This is no irony, though, since the aim is to move from the abstract to the concrete. The heuristic is not the point. And anyway, it by no means covers everything needed for an imaginative life but it is an important starting point.

Let’s turn again to the third aspect of the imagination named by Coleridge, which I’ll rephrase as a willingness to work with the given. This doesn’t seem to be at all a problem nowadays. There’s so much compliance going around, we’re all just drowning in a tumult of banalities, market concerns and tribal expectations. Clearly, then, the trouble must have something to do with the first two aspects. Every one of us is responsible for what we do creatively, and so perhaps we’ll be tempted to say that the main problem must be with the second facet of imagination, namely the will. This may be partially true. But is it true that people these days lack will? While many are overly comfortable, the answer, to me, is no. There’s an awful lot of willing today. Protests every five minutes. Wars. Culture wars. Soup thrown at paintings. People: busy, busy, busy. However, all of this is a willing that lacks teleology, as Chesterton observed over a century ago. There’s a lot of noise but no clear aim. Arguably, most people need to be protected from what they want because wanting is all they do. People are often very efficient and productive but their energies are determined by mimetic desires for the fleeting. Still, creativity is in crisis.

After all that, therefore, we get to what I think is the main problem. Gravity. There isn’t enough of it going around. If creative people get stuck, it is often on the brute and terrifying blank page. They have the will, meaning the capacity to work against and with any given gravitation field. But they lack a significant context. And because they lack such a context, they lack something against which they can push. They lack a world. They lack a gravitation field. The only thing most have to offer is a collection of tiny mental objects, each with very little gravitational force—a substitute for a worldview that amounts to little more than curated artifice composed of stitched-together knee-jerk reactions.

Interestingly, in pop culture now, you’ll find endless references to spacemen; to people in spacesuits, floating around. They might flail their arms and legs madly about without being able to propel themselves anywhere. What you see is just a generic figure, detached from the world. Sure, it’s a meme. Everyone’s prompting the machine to produce AI art with astronauts in it. But it’s also a clue. It has psychological content that reflects something many of us feel.

Byung-Chul Han, in The Crisis of Narration (2024), writes that late modernity is characterized by “opening up and unbounding,” the consequence of which is that “forms of concluding and closing off are increasingly eroded.” But this openness is not an openness akin to Coleridge’s passive posture; it lacks intentionality. It is a lazy sort of mindless openness. Modernity and postmodernity, as consciousnesses implicit in so much of the daily, see everything as constructed; they make everything manmade, every story man-told, everything radically contingent. Everything could be otherwise. Within the frame of the monomyth, for example, any character will do as the hero. The narrative algorithm will take them wherever it will. And so even if some sort of creative idea can be located, it will be one that lacks bite. It will be weak and insipid because it is merely regarded, like everything else, as a placeholder.

Perhaps, counter-expectation, total openness shreds creative possibilities. It is no mistake that the greatest works of literature and cinema and art have all come out of a stable culture because a stable culture provides precisely the kind of clarity that creativity needs. Even those who have rebelled against their context to create something new have done so well enough because their context had sufficient gravitas to be worth rebelling against. “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere,” writes Chesterton, who with nearly 100 books and over 5000 essays to his name remains a striking example of the creative power of this principle. Creativity requires a world to be responsible to, not a mere empty container of mere contingencies to shuffle around like papers on the desk of some hogwash job.

But today, we are all getting trained to gravitate towards the vague and the nebulous, which is to say we are trained to gravitate towards the spreading of anti-gravity. Everything is fluid. Everything is a spectrum. Everyone is everyone. Everyone’s an astro-naught; a space-nothing. Everything is everything. Diversity and inclusion, to name just one popular pair of buzzwords, indicate getting surfaces right at the expense of essences. But these are just symptoms and the illness is modernity itself, which deracinates us; it strips us of being and transforms us into signifiers and data points.

Modernity, manifest especially in the ideology of globalisation, tends towards ridding the world of specificity and locality and real distance. Unreflective immediacy takes over. Emigration is one sign of this, as if it doesn’t matter where you live as long as you choose to live there. Modernity has also set up the philosophical coordinates according to which the technological environment is arranged to ensure maximal ease. But to always be invited only to pick the path of least resistance is detrimental to creativity. The sculptor hammers away at stone to make the statue come to life and it is often amazing. The AI-prompter gets an instant answer to a prompt, a simulation of a sculpture, and without any of the resistance, without even the feeling of creating the thing, the result is uninspiring. One feels the labour of love, for instance, the 12 years it took to write and the 5 years beyond that to get it published, that Tolkien underwent in composing The Lord of the Rings. One feels nothing when Chat-GPT spits out a string of bitter nothings. The difference is one of a rich context. The difference is in gravity.

Once we sort gravity out, once we return to earth and stop living in a totally abstract global village, creativity will begin to thrive again. It is far easier to be creative when you have something solid, a context, to push against and to return to; to resist and to trust. It is easier to be creative with a pencil in hand than in front of a machine that takes away your agency. It is easier to be creative when you are essentially responsible, which is why so many irresponsible people never achieve anything of real significance. The creative person isn’t waiting for permission, isn’t constantly having their ideas fact-checked, isn’t lost in a state of unfeeling. The creative person is patient with the work and allows everything to manifest its own significance in the process. Everything has gravity, if we would only pay attention to it long enough to notice.

This is intuitively felt now, especially by those on the side of tradition, who find in it not dull and uninspiring generalities but the thrill of specificity. Read Dostoevsky or Dickens, for example, and you find yourself immersed in a world of clear social expectations and well-rounded, deep, thoroughly human characters. Maybe not all of the lines drawn are pleasant in their worlds but the point is that they reveal a genuine gravitational field, a set of solid hermeneutical coordinates according to which the story can happen.

It is much more exciting to stick with the given and to creatively navigate the given than to be faced with a spreadsheet of options with no real consequences. If you want tell a good story, you need a concrete Heaven and Hell, a thing to strive towards and a thing to fight. You need Purgatory too, an image of progress. Dante, for one, knew this. You need strong contrasts, dark, light; and a way to get from one to the other. “A yes, a no, a straight line and a goal,” says Nietzsche. In a word, you need gravity. Gravity will provide you with gravitas. Gravity invites meaning. And it is only with gravity that you can fly.

It is conventional wisdom that talks about imagination as concerned with possibilities. But such wisdom often forgets the simple fact, the foundational fact, that what is possible is always dependent upon what is actual, real, tangible, solid, and definite. The imaginary needs the unimaginary.

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