Imagination and the Age of Reason.
The Age of Reason is a term generally
used to refer to one of two concepts. First, the rise of our society from out
of the Dark Ages of superstition, ignorance and religious oppression: and two,
the age at which a young child learns to process and articulate the difference
between reality and dream.
A child who
announces that he has seen fairies in his garden is treated with amused
indulgence and praised for being imaginative: an adult doing the same thing is
assumed to be a liar or more likely, mentally ill.
How can we
justify this shift in attitude? An imaginative child is generally perceived as
an intelligent child. As educators and parents, we try to encourage our
children to think imaginatively. We read them fairy stories. We tell them
little fictions about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage them to
play role-playing games, in which they assume the identities of fictional
characters; princes; knights; superheroes; animals. These things are all
designed to develop the imagination –
and then comes the age of reason, at which point the adult world begins to
deliver a wholly conflicting message: that none of that matters any more, and
that at a certain age, children should put aside childish things and
concentrate on the real world.
Here we have
perfect illustration of the modern era’s division between reason and
imagination. Reason, we are led to believe, is what can be proved through
logic. Reason is the enemy of dreams and wishful thinking. Reason is science – a word that translates, etymologically, as what we know – whereas imagination is what we create for
ourselves in our minds, with no apparent connection between the fictional world
and the real one. The Age of Reason is therefore the age at which intelligence – the function of the brain’s
capacity to rationalize and process information - is valued and trusted more
highly than its dream potential.
At last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Richard
Dawkins made the following comment on the subject of fairy stories; that it is “… pernicious to inculcate into
a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of
His words imply a belief that telling fairy stories is not only
dangerous, in that it encourages children to believe in impossible things, but
that these fictions act as a means of training them to embrace the larger
fictions of superstition and religion – areas still governed by the dark half
of the human brain, as yet unenlightened by reason.
it seems that fairy stories and the Dark Ages have a lot in common. They are the natural enemies of reason,
logic and science. They represent a backward time in the evolution of Man, in
which people were governed by irrational fears and emotions rather than the
evidence of their senses. Pernicious supernaturalism is the enemy of progress:
it has led some of the cruellest and most destructive phases in human history;
it has been responsible for the destruction of most of humanity’s literature,
sculpture and artwork.
And yet, the
greatest achievements of Man have come from that dark half of the brain that
looks at things previously deemed impossible – electricity; space flight; social
equality; men on the moon - and brings them, kicking and screaming, into the world
of here and now.
How can we
reconcile the two? Can living in a dream world ever help us in real life? Can irrational thinking be a creative, progressive force? Can
the constraints of the fairytale help us to be truly free?
I think they
can. But first we need to look at the role of those fairy stories, and their
purpose in a rational world. Why do we tell stories? Why are so many of them
set in fantasy worlds, where physics and magic collide, and where races of
imaginary beings battle fearsome monsters? Is it because our own world has
become too much to bear that we feel the need to escape into another reality?
This is the
argument laid out by those who mistrust fantasy; who feel that irrational
thinking is backward, primitive thinking. I disagree – not least because of our
shared human history of inspired, imaginative thinkers and dreamers, who dared
to embrace possibilities that had not yet been conceived of.
Because imagination is not about escaping from
reality. It is the art of the possible. It teaches curiosity and flexibility of
thought – both essential to the process of scientific discovery. And stories, - even fairy stories; perhaps especially fairy stories - teach us to
look behind fiction and see the truth
that it conceals. Picasso said that anything
that can be imagined is real. Thus, fictional worlds, even the most
fantastic, are merely reflections of our own world, glimpsed through a
“So - where do you get your ideas from?”
It’s the question every artists
dreads. We try to get round it in various ways, by making jokes (my standard
response tends to be; “Goblins bring them during the
night”), but actually the answer is this: “They come from somewhere in my brain.”
But the brain, for all its
mysteries, isn’t a Magic Eight-Ball. It’s an organ that enables us to process
what we experience. Everything we see and hear; everything we suffer;
everything that brings us joy is filtered through memory and imagination to
create a personal narrative that reflects our world and the things we think are
important. Writers shape these narratives into stories for other people to
read; an expression of our shared experience and humanity.
Some of these stories are metaphors,
peopled with dragons and monsters and gods. But sometimes it’s easier to
express our deepest fears and concerns through metaphor. Feelings are
inarticulate. This doesn’t make them any less real. And sometimes the reality
of our deepest thoughts and fears can only be accessed through story, and
conquered by the imagination.
That’s why the original fairy
stories by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm were so unflinchingly bleak and
challenging. In these stories, children die, are abandoned, are victims of
incest and abuse; love is often cruel; good does not always triumph over evil.
In spite of the trappings of fiction, it represents a portrait of a world dominated
by cruelty, unhappiness, war, disease and poverty. Magic, witches and unicorns
aside, it’s a far from fanciful portrait. It is a view of reality, filtered
through a lens of hope; hope that love can save us; that monsters can be
defeated; hope that magic may exist – the power to change our destiny.
Nowadays, these stories have been
sweetened and adapted. Disney has much to answer for. And yet, our world is no
less bleak, with its nuclear weapons, world wars and terrorist organizations.
The monsters of myth and fairy tale have different faces nowadays, faces that
some of us would rather not see. But stories sometimes allow us, not only to
expose those monsters, but to show us ways of fighting against them and
defeating them in real life. Through a glass darkly, stories reflect our world and
the monsters it contains. To limit the darkness in stories is to take away the
very thing that gives us the power to fight back against cruelty; racism;
a society, we claim to value Reason in all its forms. And yet, we are
governed primarily by Unreason: by
instinct; by all the inarticulate, buried emotions that dictate our movements
and deeds. People like Richard Dawkins believe that by suppressing these
emotions and by embracing Reality, we will as a species reach the Age of
Reason, leaving the messy, irrational part of our psychological makeup behind.
I believe that to dismiss the power
of the irrational mind is the sign of a person in denial of what it means to be
human. Feelings are inarticulate, yes. They sometimes emerge in surprising
ways. Feelings are unpredictable, awkward and irrational. But like it or not,
this irrational part of the mind is also an integral part of the engine that
drives it; the creative imagination that overcomes all obstacles in its attempt
to fulfil its dream – be that an end to slavery; travel to another world or
simply the dream of true love – in the course of its personal narrative.
are the language of this buried world of emotions. By understanding and
accepting them, we can learn to harness and use the power of imagination – a
power so great that, in stories, it often translates as magic.
But magic is just a metaphor for the power of the mind. The words we
associate and use with fairytale magic are also the words that we associate
with certain human qualities. Glamour. Charisma. Charm. Enchantment. Qualities
which, far from being supernatural, imaginary or irrelevant, inspire the
devotion of others, and lead to the great imaginative leaps that created our
There’s no such thing as a fantasy
world. There’s no such thing as supernaturalism. There is only the lens of the human
imagination, powered by human intelligence, levelled at reality to enable us
see the world as it is, as a changing, filled with possibilities.
So - read stories to your children.
Read stories to each other. Imagine worlds. Feel feelings. That’s what it means
to be human. Don’t be afraid of unreason, or magic, or fairies, or darkness.
is the vehicle. Imagination is the road. Where it leads is up to you. Just enjoy the journey.