Saturday 6 October 2012

The quality of imagination


It is interesting how imagination works differently for different people, and for the same person at different times or stages in their life.

I am thinking of what comes to mind when one thinks of a place, person, book, event, or even an historical situation - the last one is the most fascinating, since it is such a large and complex things to 'imagine' (say) the life of a Roman on Hadrian's Wall, or the University of Paris at the time of Thomas Aquinas, or  Concord Massachusetts when Emerson and Thoreau were neighbours. 


I personally find that for some things the memory is usually based on a static image, like a photograph; or perhaps more exactly, something rather more like a short segment of video, lasting a few seconds.

So, for the last example of Concord, I have a picture of Emerson's study with its Aeolian Harp; a picture of sitting in the doorway of Thoreau's hut looking out at gentle rain; and a scene of lounging beside a very slow flowing river, in a meadow, on a summer afternoon.


But for Constantinople at the height of the Eastern Roman Empire I have something more like a feeling, an emotion experienced here-and-now induced by the imagination of being there.

The actual imagined place is neither a picture, nor a video, but includes a vista of the city in its setting, the impression of light reflected from sea, marble, through windows and from rich colours and gold - set below a solidly blue sky; choral singing and processions with crosses and icons aloft - all bound-up in that kind of entranced yearning which C.S Lewis called joy and the German Romantic called Sehnsucht - but knowingly directed at Heaven.

The specific details of what is imagined are vague, perhaps because they seem more like an inferred explanation of what might serve to induce the emotion, rather than being a causal stimulus of the emotion.  


It seems, therefore, that the reason that I have such an affinity for Byzantium is precisely due to the strength and quality of this imagination of the time and place.

What I get from it is a sense of what it would, could or might be like to live in a place which I and those around me considered to be a representation of Heaven-on-Earth - yet which always pointed above and beyond itself to the eternal reality of Heaven itself.


To be able to imagine this has (it seems to me) done more to sustain and direct my Christian faith than has a great deal of cold reason.

This is, for me, the reality of Byzantium and a pinnacle of earthly Christian life - and the facts concerning abstractions such as political and religious structures, publications and biographies... these seem arbitrary, uncertain and irrelevant by comparison.



AlexT said...

Weird. That's exactly how i picture Constantinople, minus the processions. I tend to imagine scenes of everyday life lived by deeply devout people, and try to picture what that type of society would look like. It's a tough thing to picture nowadays, but worth the effort.

Bruce Charlton said...

@At - That's because it's true!

I got the picture from having read Count Belisarius by Robert Graves whaen I was about 14 years old; and then adding Christianity.

Robert Graves had a remarkable historical imagination, but loathed Christianity (and indeed the pagan Roman religion which preceded it) - so his Constantinople is (if you can imagine this!) what it would be like without Christianity: or rather if the Christians were *obviously* deluded and hypocritical.

You get all the corruption and sins, but completely writing out the fact that this was (even after hypocrisy and corruption have done their worst) the most devout Christian society the world has ever known.

(Just as the world of I Claudius/ the God is Rome as if the Romans were not the deeply religious people that they in fact were.)

At any rate, there was this movie set picture of Constaninople lurking in the back of my mind, ready to be brought to life after I became a Christian and encountered Fr Seraphim Rose.

JRRT Reader said...

@ Dr. Charlton-that's a curious thing about Graves, then. I never read him, but I did see the famous TV series of I, Claudius. I would not have suspected from that series that he was hostile to Christianity or religion, though that adaptation may not have been faithful. I simply could not imagine an Eastern Rome without Christianity.

But I think a lot of (bad) fantasy literature does something similar. A good deal of it is a sort of middle ages re-imagined without Christianity. They like the motifs and outer trappings of that society, but are unable to accept the Christian core. I've known many people hostile to Christianity, usually "neo-pagans" who have a strong affection for Gothic architecture.

I see some adaptations of the Greek myths which try to present the Greeks as an irreligious people. I hear many people say that they admire the ancients because of their essentially "rational", secular ways. One wonders which versions of the myths they have read! I'm currently re-reading the Odyssey , and can't help but remark on the astonishing level of piety that the protagonists demonstrate. It might be instructive to remember that these people were the forerunners of the Byzantines.

In any case, it is often so that people want the fruits of a Christianity society without the Christianity. It might at least show a path home for some secularists when they realize that they cannot have one without the other. Take, for example, the fact that no one seems to want to build an Islamic-type world, minus the Islam.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JRRTR - Graves was one of the major founders of neo-paganism - especially via his book The White Goddess; and he wrote an anti-Christian subversive novel called King Jesus. As I recall the books, he treats Roman religion the product of sincere, credulous and superstitious fools or cynical manipulators.