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Vol. 8, No. 4, 2009
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the imagination of



Imagination is the voice of daring.
Henry Miller

Our imagination flies -- we are its shadow on the earth.
Vladimir Nabokov



If there is a contemporary novelist who intuitively grasps the workings, evolutionary purpose and value of the imagination it is Jerzy Kosinski, whose work, from Steps (1969) to Pinball (1982), reads like an homage, in catalogue form, to experience for its own sake. The exhilarating immediacy of his prose originates in language that has been liberated from all its excesses so that it operates like a phenomenological exposition of pure literary experience.

Not unlike the ‘on the road’ genre, where the going takes precedence over destination, Kosinski’s books are often plotless, populated with an improbable assortment of characters who appear only long enough to illuminate situations that the average imagination has been conditioned to turn away from. In thrall to the here and now, Kosinski characters are cut in distinctly sacrificial cloth; he makes them forgo the depth and complexity we come to expect of western literature’s best in deference to experiences that are their own terminus. As semiotic devices, his personages typically open doors to forbidden worlds to the effect that the surprised reader, consequent to the vicarious literary experience, comes to better understand his own inclinations, which in turn allow him to choose and reject more wisely in real life.

Early in the game, Kosinski understood that the conventional modalities of narrative literature would not be able to provide a syntax elastic enough to answer to what would become his signature ‘vignettism’ out of which his style is forged. The result is a made-to-measure, 12-tone syntax that corresponds to the multiplicity and desultoriness of experience: chapter is replaced by semi-autonomous vignette whose effects are cumulative. The reader reaches for Kosinksi in full expectation of being arbitrarily thrown into situations that play by their own rules, and he takes the plunge because it is literature, meaning there are no consequences. Without ever passing judgment, Kosinski allows his characters to ply their trade between good and evil, where life at the extremes reveals every reader’s dark side of the moon and willingness to visit places that betray the many secret worlds we all inhabit. With a scalpel for a pen and razor sharp depiction that is its own precedent, Kosinski autopsies experience which he then embalms in language whose most lasting effect has been to give birth to a community of readers for whom the present subjunctive is the operative shibboleth.

I can think of no other modern writer who offers such a diverse feast of experience for the hungry reader, who so effectively makes the case that the imagination is the ideal testing ground for real life situations, and that no matter how far out or unthinkable an imagined experience may be, as a cognitive act of immaculate conception it enjoys the blessings of nature and bears directly on the innumerable choices we must make over the course of a lifetime. The workings of the imagination and life are not separate realms; indeed, without the former, the latter is fated to be cognate with those myriad forms of life that will never be lifted by the wind, carried by a current, or stirred by things unseen and unsung – and never know why.

Among post 1950 writers, Kosinski does not rank with the likes of Patrick White (Riders of the Chariot), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), J. M. Coetzee (Disgrace), unless we submit that his work is indeed significant for the reasons argued above, and that the literary establishment’s dismissal of Kosinski as a serious writer has been premature.

Before Kosinski’s suicide at the age of 57, he had surely imagined its physical impact and finality, and the afterlife commentary and analysis it would generate. Looking hard and long down the road not taken, the reader must surely wonder whether his imagination -- that single-handedly enlarged the possibilities of literature -- somehow spectacularly failed him or if his last act was the perfect response to an imagination that had done its homework.

Either way, Kosinski left the world a substantial body of work that, in the tradition of Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes and ‘on the road’ literature, underscores the workings, purpose and readiness to wholly identify with works of the imagination for both their whimsical and practical insights into experiences that real life does not permit.



When Charlie Sheen and fellow platoonists were sent into the jungle on a reconnaissance mission, they couldn’t see more than an ominous few tropical green leaves ahead. Everything there was either hidden or imagined, including the enemy: the Viet Cong. Every rustle of leaf or snapping twig was a potential prelude to a burst of gunfire and death. Twisting in my seat, listening to the pounding of my heart, the fitfulness of my breathing, I was so fearful, the tension and expectation so unbearable, I seriously contemplated leaving the theatre during the viewing of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, even though I knew that every frame of the film was pretend -- shot and expertly sequenced for my entertainment and edification.

I knew the soldiers weren’t real soldiers but actors playing the part, just as actors were playing the part of the enemy. I knew that no one really got napalmed, raped, or blown up. And yet there I was, in my purchased cinema seat, responding physically and emotionally as if I were soldiering in the jungles of Nam. Even more disturbing, that rational part of my brain (the slippery seed in the watermelon) was sufficiently disengaged to recognize that only two of my five senses were engaged: sight and sound. I couldn’t taste, touch or smell the war in Viet Nam and yet I was unable to prevent myself from reacting as if the film were real.

Marshall McLuhan, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, tells us that when people from primitive cultures are exposed to cinema for the very first time, they are mystified by the sudden disappearance of a character that leaves the screen; they look past the edge, wondering what happened to him. Such is cinema’s unrivaled authority in being able to wholly engage the viewer, and why ‘the magic of cinema’ remains the medium’s most endearing association. Every viewer, without exception, is knowingly tricked or wants to be tricked into regarding as real an art form, that by design, offers but a simulacrum of reality.

The experience of reading is even more remarkable since none of the senses is engaged except sight to read the words, which the mind then transmutes into a plausibly connected series of images that tell a story. When I was brought to tears over the fate of Hans Castorp (from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain), I knew Hans didn’t exist, that the only thing real going on was myself reading in my chair, which meant my lachrymose state was produced by the activity of the imagination.

So if we know the book or film is unreal, but we remain unable and unwilling to rationally respond to the unrealness, what are we forced to conclude about the propensity (susceptibility) of the mind to reify -- to regard as concrete -- works of the imagination? Why has natural selection seen fit to preserve the kind of intelligence we are that responds to events we imagine -- or events imagined for us -- as if they are real? The discomfited George Steiner asks how is it that literature moves us to respond to a stranger’s cry in the night but we will not respond to that same cry in real life? Could it be that the armchair academic, no matter how universally venerated, is the last person to learn that the act of self-preservation will always trump the power of literature? The latter is an indulgence the former refuses and is what decisively moves us to remove ourselves from harm’s way -- the vicinity of the cry.

We are a species disposed to creating mental worlds that are so vivid and persuasive we physiologically respond as if they are factual, meaningful. If there was a prototype humanoid without imaginative faculties, it didn’t survive precisely because it was unable to fabricate imagined alternative worlds that uniquely grant the imaginer glimpses (pre-experience knowledge) of situations that approximate or parallel real life ones.

Prior to defending its one and only well, a tribe will be better prepared if it has already imagined the various kinds of assaults that are likely to occur, just as after reading about the downward spiral unto death of a heroin addict, I’m less likely to be tempted by the culture of heroin.

The evolutionary paradigm that disposes us to emotionally identify with situations described in film and literature (or works of the imagination) is the built-in, no-consequences guarantee. This de facto impunity-immunity clause frees the imagination to conjure up hypothetical outcomes to possible real life situations, which is exactly what nature teleologically intends.

Since every individual life is limited by fear and finitude, we depend on the imagination to bridge the gap between human curiosity and the infinite: traversing the Gobi, fighting a war, denouncing war, being a mother, a father, a great artist, a criminal, a rapist, the raped, being rich, poor. I can imagine myself in any number of bizarre, taboo, dangerous situations that I would shy away from in real life for fear of the consequences or restrictions imposed by my upbringing or social milieu. If it weren’t for the imagination, the muscle that stirs our curiosity to explore the world in its breathtaking diversity would soon atrophy.

French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) describes courage as the lack of imagination. Properly imagined, we would probably refuse what are commemorated as courageous acts -- jumping into icy waters to save a stranger from drowning, throwing oneself on a live grenade for the sake of the platoon -- because the imagination will have disclosed the possible life-threatening consequences the ‘unmediated’ experience doesn’t allow.

Our maturation and evolution over the course of a lifetime would be severely retarded if not for the imagination. Paul, one of the characters in John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, explains, “how unbearable would the act of self-examination be without the faculty of the imagination.” Without the capability of imagining beyond, let’s say, the ignorance we confess to on our better days, we will be less disposed to admit to it and end up doing nothing about it.

Not all cultures are equally friendly to the free play of the imagination. Roland Barthes, in his essay, Lesson in Writing, which is an unintended argument for and incitement to travel, notes that Japanese culture is mistrustful of the effects of purely imaginative works on especially the psyche of children. In Japanese Bunraku (puppet) theatre, the audience can observe the puppeteers above the stage manipulating the puppets as well as the actors and crew at the wings of the stage responsible for the dialogue, song and sound effects. Which makes Bunraku the cinematic equivalent of the filming of the making of a film. As theatre, it is anti-theatrical since it appeals to reason by subverting the immediate impact of the experience for the sake of its more sober epistemological certainties.

Related articles:
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene


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