“Keep the imagination sane—that is one of the truest conditions of communion with heaven.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the American Notebooks (1868)
Imagination is the power to simulate sensation without external stimuli, and every intelligent person knows this power can be healthy or depraved. The word depraved means bent, so that imagination is depraved when it is bent to simulate sensations that it should not simulate. These may be the hallucinations of a lunatic or the forbidden figments of a “dirty mind,” and these and many other simulated sensations are insane because they cripple those who imagine them.
When Hawthorn enjoined his wife to keep her imagination sane, he was particularly enjoining her to eschew the then red-hot fad for mesmerism. This was in 1841, and mesmerism was the name for various techniques whereby a trance was induced and an extrasensory image evoked in the mind of the one who was mesmerized. Hawthorne told his wife these extrasensory images were no more spiritual than the phantoms evoked by opium; and what is more, he warned her that phantoms evoked by artificial stimulants bend the imagination in ways that are not easily straightened.
Hawthorn was expressing the old view that imagination is a dangerous power that must be kept on a short leash, and that men and women who fail to keep it on a short leash are often crippled by insane dreads and desires. This was, for instance, Plato’s opinion in the Philebus, where he wrote:
“In man’s imagination, numberless false fancies spring up continually . . . and frequently break forth in all kinds of foul mischief.”
Plato goes on to say that these false fancies are not always limited “to the persons themselves, who are tortured with these feverish distempers of the soul,” but that often,
“by contagion, they spread the calamity through whole families, tribes and nations.”
If a society does not keep imagination on a short leash, the false fancies of distempered souls will spread and cripple that society with insane dreads and desires. The society will be haunted by hobgoblins, and will hunger for delights that it either cannot or should not hold.
Indeed in Plato’s opinion the chief end of philosophy is to prevent this kind of social insanity by curbing all “wildness of imagination.”
“To prevent these mischiefs and cure these diseases . . . to banish the exorbitant or over-abounding fancies, and to restrain the wildness of imagination, we may reasonably presume to be the chief ends . . . for which the principles of mind and reason are imparted to the human soul.”
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With this in mind, we may reflect with some misgiving on the new view that exalts, extolls, and excites imagination. This new view began in the Romantic follies, of which mesmerism was one. It is evident in the fact that almost all of today’s educators promise to “unleash” the imaginations of young scholars. Far from being the font of foul mischief and calamity, imagination is, they assure us, the Pierian Spring from which all wisdom flows.
Parents throughout the land gloat with satisfaction when the fruit of their loins is an imaginative child with a mind in which “numberless false fancies spring up continually.” Indeed, it is in the hope of such a harvest that they manure the minds of their offspring with books and movies renown for “overabounding fancies” and “wildness of imagination.” They strongly disagree with men like Plato and Hawthorne, and believe it is very easy to “keep the imagination sane.”
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The old view held that sleep also removes the restraint from imagination, and that the figments of a wild imagination therefore differ little from the phantasmagoria of a dream. This is how the eighteenth-century schoolmaster Henry Norris described the frolic of wild fancies that crowd a sleeping brain.
“Now wild imagination takes her reign,
Enthroned majestic, o’er the subject brain;
With vain creations cheats the slumbering sense,
Curbed by no power, and bounded by no fence.”
Had he not held poetry in such low esteem, Plato might have penned these words to describe the way in which the fictions of enthroned imagination overwhelm reason and bring calamity to a man, a family, a tribe or a nation. As I said a moment ago, these fictions cause people to be haunted by hobgoblins, and to hunger for delights that they either cannot or should not hold.
And this is not the end of the calamity, because the splendid fictions of imagination also cast an unflattering shadow over the sober facts of life. The world of sober sense seems especially drab to a man who has just opened his eyes from an especially delicious dream.
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Imagination gives rise to extravagant expectations, and extravagant expectations give rise to follies and disappointments. This was the gist of the old view that young people especially should not read works of wild imagination, because doing so would deprave their imaginations and drive them insane. Hester Chapone was a woman of the eighteenth century who subscribed to this old view, and who stated her reasons in a book called Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773). One finds the same opinion diffused through the novels of Jane Austin.
Chapone did not place a ban on all works of fiction, but said,
“the greatest care should be taken in the choice of those fictitious stories, that so enchant the mind—most of which tend to inflame the passions of youth, whilst the chief purpose of education should be to moderate and restrain them.”
You see here an educational philosophy directly opposite to that of our own day. Where we labor to fan the embers of childish imagination, Chapone espoused the old view that these should be sprinkled with water. For the sake of personal and social sanity, every child should be brought to entertain sober expectations of the life for which he or she is actually destined. Stated somewhat more harshly, it is the duty of every good parent and teacher to gently crush a child’s dreams.
“The expectation of extraordinary adventures—which seldom ever happen to the sober and prudent part of mankind—and the admiration of extravagant passions and absurd conduct, are some of the usual fruits of this kind of reading; which, when a young woman makes it her chief amusement , generally render her ridiculous in conversation, and miserably wrongheaded in her pursuits and behavior.”
) Floyer Syndenham translation (1779)
) Henry Norris (1752-1823) was a classicist and schoolmaster at Taunton, in Somerset. The lines are from his “Court of Momus,” which was published in 1774 but written some years earlier.