Thursday 14 February 2019

"I wish it was real" - or, the Re-entry Problem

A child who has read a story, seen a TV program or movie that they liked a lot, when it ends and the 'spell begins to recede' may say something like 'I wish it was real' - this is the re-entry problem and has been evident at least since the beginning of the Novel in the middle 1700s, and probably before in the theatre.

We have been living in the world of imagination, and by comparison 'real life' seems a lesser thing. The experience of imagination may be more passive and guided or more active and inventive; it may range from simple wish fulfilment fantasy to 'world building' - when we imaginatively inhabit another reality...

Interestingly, the yearned-for imagined fantasy world may be fuller of suffering and hazard than our own life; yet is feels more real, more present, more immersive - and this is what we crave.

The gulf between imagination and reality has been the root of 'Romantic despair' as it has afflicted The West from more than two centuries - the gap between what we can imagine and actuality. And, the usual response of 'I wish it was real' leads to a kind of despair because 'it' is not real, and never can be real...

Yet, we should not stop at that point; because even if it could be real, it would not suffice - and this is the clue we need.

For example; if we read about Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, and say to ourselves 'I wish it was real' and are filled with a yearning to visit it; it is true that we cannot go and visit; but the deeper point is that even if Lothlorien was a place we could visit, and stay as long as we wanted; we know that the magic would fade, and we would 'get used to it' and come to take it for granted.

A real Lothlorien would not be real in the same way that the imagined Lothlorien is real. The actuality of any possible real Lothlorien would not be as good as that which we can imagine and yearn for...

This impossibility might seem to render Romanticism even more hope-less than before; but it is actually a clue to a possible answer. The traditional source of despair is the cleft between subjective imagination thinking and objective real-life - that thinking and real life are tragically regarded as two different worlds - with thinking as merely an imperfect copy or distortion of real-life.

The impossibility of replacing imagination with real, solid, objective objects; ought to lead us to the possibility of strengthening imagination - not to avoid real-life but because thinking is a necessary part of reality.

Thinking is not just 'thinking-about' - thinking can be a primary activity, a real-reality. Reality and thinking are not two things - but all reality includes thinking.

So our ideal Lothlorien is not a solid working-model of an imaginative 'picture' - but, because imaginative thinking is a reality; the ideal Lothlorien is an intensification of that which is imagined: More Thinking, instead of a solid model of what has been thought.

The principle is generally applicable. What is needed is not a copy of that which is imagined, nor is it a recognition of the unreality of imagination and replacement with 'real things'; but a recognition that we need a development of consciousness such that ever-more of our thinking - including our imagination - becomes real thinking: thinking that satisfies because it is primary; instead of the feeble, evanescent, secondhand, manipulated, passive stuff that passes as thinking for most people, most of the time.

If we know what we need to aim for, and that it is possible; then we may be able to make progress towards it. There is hope because progress has already been made - which why why Romantic despair happened in the first place. We need to continue along that same line of development: more imagination, more powerful imagination - but this time rooted in Christianity.  


Epimetheus said...

The first thing that struck me when reading Colin Wilson was how seriously he took his consciousness - the modes of thinking, the timbre, the textures etc. As if he was observing a "real" thing outside his head, in the external world.

That's when your writing about thinking "clicked" with me; before that, I found it incomprehensible. But of course! Thinking is real! Consciousness is the highest gift and value of life!

All our external activities are unconscious attempts to achieve some more preferred consciousness. People don't want to win the lottery - they want to experience the inner joy they think sudden wealth will bring them.

It's the madness of modernity that we write off consciousness, that we don't take it seriously, then spend our lives trying to deal with an inexplicable pain and alienation inside our heads.

I think imagination is not just an attempt to escape reality, but it's also an attempt to arrive. Children can sense in reality things that most adults do not.

Bruce Charlton said...

@E - I guess you meant to comment on the CW post... Anyway, I agree that CW understood that Consciousness was a crucial problem for modern man - and one that was and still is almost wholly neglected by the Christian churches (even the best/ real ones). And it is such a dfficult problem that he spent his whole life trying to slove it - making progress, and providing very valuable analysis for the rest of us; but never realising (at least, not after Religion and the Rebel) that he could not succeed, because the importance of consciousness was undercut by his unexamined non-theistic metaphysical assumptions.

Epimetheus said...

Agreed. In Beyond The Outsider, he posits that, somehow, a purposeless universe and blind natural evolution had produced a mind capable of (and starving for) peak experiences. It was maddening to read him closing off his metaphysics in this way.

He is excellent for pointing out the problem of modern consciousness, and for not setting off any alarm bells in the reader. Nowadays, most people get their guard up if they get a whiff of New Age woo woo or Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - This isn't easy to grasp (at least, it wasn't easy for me). You could try reading Rudolf Steiner's Truth and Knowledge, and Philsophy of Freedom (or listening to them at Rudolf Steiner Audio). You could try Owen Barfield - or maybe look at the stuff on my Owen Barfield blog...