Imagination, Rowling, Happiness, Carnival


Memorable lines from William Blake:

Twofold, twofold always

May God us keep

From single vision

And Newton’s sleep




Imagination lets us see the world as other than a Newtonian assembly of spinning atoms (updated to Quarks), or as a Darwinian stage for Fitter-gene transmissions, or as a Brainy locus for neurological pathways. Blake was worried about a physics take-over of claims to reality. The situation is more complex today, with a variety of sciences vieing for top billing.

Whatever the contests among the sciences for pride of place in their own bailiwick, there’s no reason to believe science is the only

Boston, MA - 4/3/2016 - Passersby walk along a path of snow covered trees in the Boston Public Garden in Boston, MA, April 3, 2016. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

access to the “the way the world is.” In fact there are a multitude of competitors, and no reason to choose among them for the all-purpose winner for access to “the way the world really is.”

Politics, painting, economics, philosophy, novels, poetry, war, religions, lazy vacations, medicine, walks in the snow . . . each can reveal the world to us. Each has its privileged moment on stage. And it’s imagination that helps us to negotiate the terrain offered from any one of these angles, and that helps us to negotiate shifts from one angle — one world — to the next.

By and large, we have good intuitions about whether a book or conversation is relishing politics or painting or lazy vacations. Ever been at a table where folks turned to medicine, comparing their recent gall-bladder operations?

Imagination allows us to suspend the bragging rights of rational “theory-and-fact” driven science. It opens to a more everyday world of trees and newscasters and musicians, perhaps pedestrians in snow, who appeal to us or not. It allows us to see others as like and unlike ourselves, and to marvel at spring buds.

  • We are the imaginative animal, not just the rational or language using or political one.


In my last post I focused on colleges and universities.  I took a dim view of the shift toward seeing students as consumers and faculty as salespersons. I felt driven to imagine an alternative, to picture a pre-modern setting where apprentices and novitiates learned crafts from masters who had skills to impart, to give, to share — blotting out the dominance of commercial transaction.

images-5Today I find myself imagining the universities and colleges from a new angle, from the special podium of the commencement address. Not that I had to give one. Rather I discovered a video and print version of a commencement address — on imagination, no less — given by J. K. Rowling to graduates of a top Ivy League college. The theme, imagination, was delivered expertly and with humor, even dropping some Harry Potter insider allusions.

Her imaginative delivery shifted my view of colleges away from the critique I had offered just last week to a smiling celebration of and gratitude for the hoary tradition of commencement addresses. This is a momentary shift of mood, I’m sure, and I have no impulse to rewrite my previous post. But finding my imagination of the college-world shift so quickly brings to light several truths about imagination and its workings.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion“The way the world is” doesn’t hold still, so snap shots, even extended narrations, will be ever-open to revision. This means we can accept Blake’s “twofold vision” as a revealing snap shot and also accept its simplification: we inhabit a world requiring visions_of_quixote_tnmultifold visions because it has multifold aspects.

And just to complicate things, we can think of imagination as operating at two levels: at the level of whatever angle of vision captures our attention at the moment, and at the level of its work in helping us shift from one angle to the next, as when we want to shift away from the vision that presently captures our attention.

Blake’s “twofold always” simplifies.

Let’s say we inhabit a carnivalesque world — shows, exhibitions, contests, distractions all about.  Imagination is itself carnivalesque. Carnivals are sites of many moods and many truths: knife-throwing is dangerous and fascinating; freaks of nature are mesmerizing and repulsive; trapeze acts are dangerous and fun to watch (kids sometimes cover their eyes).

Carnivals don’t hold still and they have many possible focal points. They demand an ever-widening, ever narrowing mobile interpreting imaginative consciousness.

images-5images-2If universities are carnivalesque, they harbor many truths. Homer lives in those corridors. Consumer-focused instruction blights those corridors.

Commencement addresses happen late in the term and are worthy traditions, and happen in grand stadiums. Such ceremonies can unite across generations and open themes like the supreme importance of imagination and reverie, and like the importance of taking the imaginative outlook of another which makes empathy possible.

If the self is carnivalesque, rather than a stable something to peer in at, then there is a crucial consequence for self-growth and advance. It can be true simultaneously that one is in a horrible mood, also that one can sense the nearness of an alternative, happier mood, and finally that one can imagine a way to transition from the first to the second. This shift in mood is not unlike walking from a depressing carnival side-show to one more humorous and uplifting.


In her commencement address, Rowling has this to say in the midst of speaking on imagination:

. . .  many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

494ec88c-adc1-4cbd-8ace-44152be86b0bOf course read backwards, as it were, this passage alerts us to the virtues of exercising imagination

  • the virtue of moving out of the narrow comfort-zone of my own experience
  • the virtue of troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than I am
  • the virtue of bothering to hear screams in the night or to peer inside cages of unhappiness or torture
  • the virtue of  opening mind and heart to suffering that does not touch me personally, say the carnage in Brussels, and
  • the virtue of coming to know more through imagining more. I have to imagine mightily how the citizens of Brussels shift from grief into steady applause that lets each congratulate the other for profound resolve in adversity.

I think literature exercises these virtues of imagination, and sometimes comes up with the sort of truths we can spend late nights anxiously or obsessively pondering. A Jane Austen novel, one good critic tells me, can focus a new and difficult truth about happiness.

It takes imagination to fill out the truth that happiness can be both earned and accidental. And it takes a labor of imagination to fathom how being resigned (if only temporarily) to unhappiness can be necessary to earn happiness. The period of failure and resignations tests one’s mettle as deserving of happiness — whether or not it is granted.

936edfeba9cc65131c4a1b780a7e9b17Of Austen’s heroines, an astute critic writes that

 They must accept their unhappiness before they are granted happiness. The reward [of happiness] then is not the essential thing because it need never have arrived; that may well be dependent on chance; what is important is that at the time it is granted the heroine is worthy of a happiness that has a meaning [having worked, suffered, for it]. She would have been worthy of it even if her lot had proved unhappy because in her place she has used her time well, and that is not a matter of chance.


Imaginative interpretation of human lives as they pivot around happiness and unhappiness, around worthy, earned happiness and its accidental, merely lucky counterfeits — imagining lives as they pivot around a world broken and healed by fateful contingencies as well as by human action and inaction — this is imaginatively engaging the deep riddles that fuel so much of theater, writing, religion.


Earnestly doing this imagining in the unfolding of one’s own life is at the heart of any life one can aspire to. Or so it seems to me.


Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009

Credits: Image: Boston, MA – 4/3/2016 – Passersby walk along a path of snow covered trees in the Boston Public Garden in Boston, MA, April 3, 2016. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff); William Blake, last lines of poem in letter to Thomas Butts, 1802; Blake also has threefold and fourfold visions. A video and print version of J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” can be found in Harvard Magazine, Oct 15, 2015.  For the comments on Austen, see Some Words of Jame Austen, Stuart M. Tave, University of Chicago, 1971, p 17. Kelley Jolly alerted me to this passage posted on his blog Quantum Est In Rebus Inane <> March 28, 2016.

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