In the modern, scientific age the word ‘imagination’ tends to have a sense of being the inverse of ‘reality’ – a non-substantial ‘escape’ from the real world where wild flights of fantasy take place, with little grounding in the important, real-world particulars of scientific laws and adult responsibilities. But have we got it wrong? Should we understand imagination better as the place where reality actually springs from?
To explain, consider this quote from Terence McKenna:
Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. We are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects.
As McKenna points out, all of human technology originated firstly in the imagination, before being “extruded” into the physical world. So why are the worlds of the imagination seen as anything other than another form of proto-reality that feeds into the physical world, thus making it perhaps an even more important ‘reality’ than the material world?
These questions appear to also have intrigued one of my favourite authors on esoteric subjects, Gary Lachman, whose new book The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination investigates the history of our connection to the world of the imagination, and how we became disconnected from it in modern times.
Lachman recently gave a talk at Watkins Books in which he outlines some of the topics in the book (embedded below) – it’s a fascinating discussion, and well worth the time to help reconsider what we believe about the imagination.
What is the imagination? Generally we think of it as in some way a substitute for reality, a form of ‘make believe,’ of escaping from the difficult, stubborn everyday world we know so well, into a different, better, more congenial one – that, more often than not, unfortunately exists only inside our head. Or we see imagination as a useful tool in grasping opportunities, producing novel, innovative ways in which some product or activity can get ahead of its competitors and occupy a place on the ‘cutting edge.’
Certainly these notions of imagination are accurate, as far as they go. But what if rather than providing us with an ‘alternate reality,’ the imagination is actually deeply involved in bringing into being the very reality from which it ostensibly wants to escape? What if imagination, rather than being about ‘make believe,’ is actually about ‘make real?’
Where does this knowledge of the imagination leave us today? The author argues that we have entered a time when the idea that imagination has the power to affect reality itself – directly, and not through the medium of culture – seems to have become a topic of interest, while reality itself has become something rather different than what it used to be. Is it possible that the obscurity in which the knowledge of the imagination was kept for so long is now starting to clear, and the true meaning and significance of our imagination is coming to light? We know that with great power comes great responsibility. Will we have the strength and purpose to meet this challenge? Let’s imagine.