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Which Has More Potential for Harm:

Poetry or Logic, Imagination or Analysis?

[To speak of an “exaggerated faith” in the power of analytical reasoning is to suggest a partiality for some philosophy other than reductive materialism. You may wish to argue that this partiality leads to a prejudicial view (or a balanced one) of the analytical habit of mind that has long dominated Western intellectual culture.]

There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin... The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

G. K. Chesterton

It is a favourite proposition of mine which I often discussed with Hughie [Hugh Kingsmill] and with which he largely agreed, that highly imaginative people are invariably miserable when they are young, and on the whole grow progressively happier...It seems to me that the general rule is that the imagination makes for unhappiness when young and can produce serenity when old. Its first struggles with appetite are painful and leave many bruises, and its first realisation that the world of time is irretrievably imperfect, whereas delight is only in perfection, cannot but create much anguish. Once this period is passed, the imagination becomes an even greater solace, until now, in middle age, I feel that it alone makes life worth living, and that to be deprived of it, whatever compensations there might be, would drain life of its delight.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Society attaches immense importance to saying the right thing at the right time. In society’s eyes the virtue of saying the right thing at the right time is more important than the virtue of telling the whole truth, or sometimes even of telling the truth at all. So when George Bernard Shaw remarks that a temptation to tell the truth should be just as carefully considered as a temptation to tell a lie, he’s appealing to social standards beyond the merely intellectual standard of truth and falsehood, which have power of final veto and which only the imagination can grasp.

Northrop Frye

Mathematics and the stars consoled me when the human world seemed empty of comfort. But changes in my philosophy have robbed me of such consolations. It seemed that what we had thought of as laws of nature were only linguistic conventions, and that physics was not really concerned with an external world. I do not mean that I quite believed this, but that it became a haunting nightmare, increasingly invading my imagination.

Bertrand Russell



Thoughts about Imagination & Vision

A man’s artistic faculty is merely the means by which he communicates his vision of life, and however brilliant or complex it cannot purify a corrupted vision or deepen a shallow one.

Hugh Kingsmill

An idea is salvation by imagination.

Frank Lloyd Wright

As I see it, in the twentieth century the genius of man has gone into science and the resultant technology, leaving the field of mysticism and imaginative art and literature almost entirely to charlatans and sick or obsessed minds.

Malcolm Muggeridge

At the deepest level of the psyche reason serves the imagination. And one of the ingredients of the imagination is desire.

Rationalists set reason on the throne of power. The Romantics place their personal feelings at the centre of life and enter a world driven by the imagination.

Education frees the intellect and imagination from bondage to unexamined ideologies or beliefs.

Northrop Frye

Human nature simply cannot subsist without a hope and aim of some kind; as the sanity of the Old Testament truly said, where there is no vision the people perisheth. But it is precisely because an ideal is necessary to man that the man without ideals is in permanent danger of fanaticism.

G. K. Chesterton

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.

John Keats

Imagination is only a new configuration of old things.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein

Imagination is the eye of the soul.

Joseph Joubert

Imagination is the power of constructing possible models of human experience.

Northrop Frye

Imagination rules the world.

Napoleon

Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.

H. L. Mencken

The more my marriages gravitated towards the rocks, the more insanely idealistic did I become about the limitless possibilities of love, simply expressed and deeply felt.

Peter Ustinov

Man consists of body, mind and imagination. His body is faulty, his mind untrustworthy, but his imagination has made him remarkable.

John Masefield

Man is a being born to believe. And if no Church comes forward with its title-deeds of truth to guide him, he will find altars and idols in his own heart and his own imagination.

Benjamin Disraeli

Our imagination is what our whole social life is really based on.

Northrop Frye

In ordinary life we almost never get a chance to use the intellect by itself. In practically everything we do it’s the combination of emotion and intellect we call imagination.

Northrop Frye

All powerful imaginations are conservative.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The imagination, at however rudimentary a level, reaches into the future. So its works have a prophetic quality.

Malcolm Muggeridge

The imagination is the faculty where the soul and the body are unified.

The vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.

G. K. Chesterton

This Life’s dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’, the Eye.

William Blake

You can’t depend on your judgement when your imagination is out of focus.

Mark Twain

The old beliefs will be brought back to honour again: the whole secret knowledge of nature, of the divine, of the shapeless, the demonic. We will wash off the Christian veneer and bring out a religion peculiar to our race.

Adolf Hitler

Where there is no imagination there is no horror.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Where there is vision the people perish. I admit they also perish where there is no vision. Either way, in fact, their situation appears to be damnably awkward.

Hugh Kingsmill

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