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The Secret Life of the Imagination

The Imagination may perhaps be forgiven for occasional vagaries and for not keeping carefully within the limit of experience, since it gains life and vigor by such flights and since it is always easier to moderate its boldness than to stimulate its languor. But the Understanding which ought to think can never be forgiven for indulging in vagaries; for we depend upon it alone for assistance to set bounds, when necessary, to the vagaries of the imagination. —Immanuel Kant in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics

Imagination is an outlaw to the empire of Experience. Understanding guards the limits of this empire. It is the sovereign ruler. And it knows that Imagination is an unusual type of rebel, the enemy it must keep closer than a brother. There are those delinquents that are easy to destroy and that need to be destroyed. A firing squad. A guillotine. They are gone. Imagination cannot die. Not that it’s immortal. It’s just that attempts on its life only makes it stronger. Imagination can only be managed. And the genius of Understanding is that it realizes this. Understanding knows that when it’s all said and done managing the vagaries or the so-called excesses of the Imagination is the sole meaning of its own existence. After all would there be boundaries to patrol if there is no one to trespass?  But sometimes, Imagination goes really crazy and Experience panics. Understanding would freak the hell out and banish Imagination. Bad decision ’cause it’s in banishment that Imagination becomes even more lethal of a threat. No one likes to keep an enemy too close, but with Imagination, that’s the only way to go.

On the other hand, Imagination is the bandit who cannot stay home for too long. It ventures as far as it can from the world of Understanding, who tries, as Kant says, to “moderate its boldness” and to use Imagination to make sense of itself. Sustaining the life of a master does not make a man any less a slave. So Imagination would rather roam the wild woods with other castaways like the Body, Desire, Feeling. Together they conspire to outrun the limits of Experience and outlast Existence and perplex Understanding.

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Photo Credit: Carakhan

 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

3 Responses to “The Secret Life of the Imagination” Subscribe

  1. Kunle 2011/10/19 at 22:06 #

    And where is the place for poor old ignorance? Why is imagination and understanding having all the fun!

    On a serious note though, knowing the limits of your ignorance can fire up imagination and enrich understanding.

  2. admin 2011/10/19 at 22:22 #

    @ Kunle: Lol! You make a valid and rather fun point here. So my sense is that ignorance would be one of the other delinquents. Easy to destroy. This is partly because ignorance might be merely a (binary) opposite of understanding. So understanding can easily cancel it out. But imagination is a bit more slippery. It’s neither knowledge, nor understanding, nor ignorance but still somehow partakes of all three. Maybe it’s just that Ignorance is not as cool a rebel as Imagination.

  3. Kunle 2011/10/19 at 22:33 #

    ah, but you forget that ignorance is the ever-present antithesis – to imagination and understanding. And where will these two other constructs be without ignorance to describe their limits. Oh, the power of ignorance!

    While ignorance may not be cool, it is the monster we should pay attention to.

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