Quite a few decades ago Jackie DeShannon made famous a song penned by Hal David, with music by Burt Bacharach – “What the World Needs Now”.
Go ahead, sing it with me – “What the world needs now, is love sweet love, it's the only thing, that there's just too little of…” Who could disagree with that? I surely couldn’t. But – and forgive me for doing this – I want to change the lyrics for a moment. Ready? “What the world needs now, is imagination…” Sacrilege you say? Well, let me explain.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who teaches at Georgia College and State University invited me to come to her class to speak about and lead a discussion on Flannery O’Connor. Coincidentally, about that same time I was developing some thoughts on “imagination”. When I began my presentation to the class, I began by talking about imagination instead of Flannery O’Connor. I think my friend (the teacher) was a little stunned, until she realized where I was going with my thoughts. Let me share with you briefly how the subject of imagination came to me, and how my thoughts developed.
One long-running program on C-SPAN was Booknotes. In each episode Brian Lamb would interview a significant author, and the January 4, 2004, episode featured Brenda Wineapple discussing her book Hawthorne: A Life (a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne). One of Hawthorne’s best friends was Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, who was an adamant proponent of the institution of slavery. Lamb asked about Pierce, “Why was he pro-slavery?” To which part of Wineapple’s response was:
“Why was he pro-slavery in that way? I think because he lacked the imagination to think of what it really is to be a slave. You know, I mean, I think it was a real failure – it’s a failure of moral nerve and it’s a failure of imagination that comes to Pierce that he didn’t bother to think about it. He never got beyond the rule of law. So it wasn’t real to him.”
Ah… a failure of imagination.
About the same time, I read an interview in Sojourners magazine with author Wendell Berry. Addressing how separate local regions interact without becoming isolationist, he brought up the topic of imagination in a similar context:
“The serious question is whether you’re going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people. I think the only antidote to that is imagination. You have to develop your imagination to the point that permits sympathy to happen. You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours or the lives of your loved ones or the lives of your neighbors.” (Sojourners, July 2004)
What does this have to do with Flannery O’Connor, or any other serious fiction writer for that matter? Everything! Without imagination we cannot empathize; we cannot feel what other people, particularly people different from ourselves, feel. We are trapped in the narrowness of our own flesh, of the self-centered and preoccupied experience of our microscopic arena of existence, and there is no hope that we can become anything more or better. Imagination is the gift that allows us to break free from our shackles, to become truly human, truly real beings.
In this context, imagination is not an escape from reality; it is entering into the fullness of reality. The most significant thing about art, literature, and music is the contribution they make to our imagination. Art does not supersede the thoroughly practical existence; it brings the practical into its stunning fulness. As an example of this, I offer my father’s contention that my interest in growing flowers was a waste of time and effort. “You can’t eat a flower,” he said. Therefore, to him, it was useless. I replied, “If there were no flowers, there would be no reason to eat, no reason to exist. And even the beans and squash in the vegetable garden begin as flowers.” As the Bible says, we human beings “do not live by bread alone…” Or in another place, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” I could paraphrase with no loss of meaning, “Where there is no imagination, the people cannot live.”
(1) Imagination is not an extraneous and frivolous part of our being – it is vital.
(2) Not only should imagination be encouraged, it should be nurtured in a positive way. That alone is justification for literature and the arts.
In the midst of war and terrorism, possibly more than ever, what the world needs now is… imagination. Hence, I invite you – come, imagine with me!