The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Imagination of Children

Sentimentality is often cruelty in soft focus; and the sentimental view of the imagination of little children, if sharpened, shows life as a cruel joke. Children come into the world trailing glory that they must at last forget; or they fall into this gross swaddling heap of a world as into a trap. We adults are left to the same fate whether our doom is romantic or gnostic: within, we must look to the children we were to find the springs of our selfhood and the soil of our emotions; and, without, we must heed children as oracles, and strive to shape society to children, and not children to society.

Very smart people believe this; some of the smartest and wisest who ever were. Great art has been made in this belief. Our law, our manners, our architecture all reflect it.

Nonetheless, I have no idea what any of them are talking about.

I remember what it felt like to be a child, and how much I disliked it – the pain, sometimes horror, of weakness and ignorance, of doubt and incomprehension.

And I seem to remember how my imagination worked. In those products of it that I retain I can usually recall the responsible train of thought. Certainly imagination was very different then: fluent, indefatigable, effortless, and pervasive. I would amuse myself at breakfast by dumping spoonfuls of powdered chocolate into my milk and, before each little island sank, giving it a name and a history accounting for how it had come to this woeful end – to disappear beneath the waves.

I suppose that I am the poorer now that I see no such islands – now that the rise and fall of empires no longer attends my breakfast, now that a pile of bricks is not the stuff of castles and henges, now that decayed stumps are not mountain cities in waiting and old foundations promise no secrets.

Yet I feel no loss. I have fewer empires now, but better ones. Then empire was a word; now my empires have roads and provinces, frontiers and legions, temples and palaces, god-kings and the mandate of heaven; know how to pave stone roads and cast iron pagodas; know the aching legs of the pilgrim road and the stink the morning after the triumph rides through, the must of archives and catacombs.

Imagination was then outside of me, a thing of names and pictures to reach for and mix; and now it is a thing inside of me, ransacking my experience for new things to name. This is fair trade, and a place in a cycle. And if I do well at it, other will have those names to play with when I myself am only a name.

You say: good for you; but most people are not so lucky. What of those who grow up to lose their imagination? Who have it ground or drained out of them? Who spurn and abandon it?

But distinguish active imagination from passive. Surely the popularity of all kinds of imaginative fiction precisely among those who have no opportunities to exercise imagination – the more purely imaginative, the more popular – demonstrates that the faculty is not lost.

Words on a page, moving pictures on a screen; these are but indices and suggestions. Coleridge (which is to say, romanticism) saves the appearances by asserting that here we do not engage imagination; instead, we suspend disbelief. But this is absurd, for two reasons. First, it implies that dreaming, and not waking, is the natural activity of the mind. But our dreams rely on our waking lives for their matter. That is not to cheapen dreams, but to esteem them: dreams take work, and show the quality of the dreamer. Second, it implies that it is possible to believe without imagining – that a story, once told, contains in itself everything necessary to believe it; that the audience need only let its guard down to be possessed by another’s imagination. But communication does not work this way. You cannot tell the time of day to someone who cannot imagine a clock. You cannot tell a story to someone who cannot imagine stories. The audient imagination, though it is passive – active but only in reaction – is still there. It may even be very strong, though in an awkward, china-breaking way. But why the imbalance? What happened to the active imagination of these people?

There is something, I think, that disestablishes imagination, that destroys it – but not the darkness of the world or the cruelty of life, not the pollution of sex or the preoccupation of business. It is, however, related to the end of childhood: it is the strait of adolescence. On the one side is pettiness; on the other side, grandiosity. Both can wreck the imagination. The field where imagination is useful is in those things and events that are too great for an individual, yet small enough for humanity; if it shrinks to cunning, or inflates to philosophy, it dies; but there is a middle course, and the delight and mercy of the middle course between cunning and philosophy is that when it is held cunning and philosophy fall in beside it.