Imagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.
This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.
The young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing them to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?
Without imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.
“Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”
This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.
In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But he was something else too, something that gives his stories much of their value; Chekhov was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”
One of these stories in particular has served for me as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.
The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.
Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.
“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.
“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.
“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
“What?” inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”
“H’m! What did he die of?”
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”
“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”
“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.
Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?
And God so loved the world.
That He gave His only Son.