Imagination is the daughter of scarcity

— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

Teens at the East Greenbush Community Library welcomed spring with this artwork.

In a dozen different ways I heard people say, after Hurricane Dorian visited death upon the Bahamas, “I can’t imagine what that’s like.”

Of course I, too, was deeply concerned about the devastated souls there, but my thoughts turned to the imagination. Did those people mean that the suffering they saw was so great that their imagination couldn’t take it all in? Were they saying the imagination had limits?

Sometimes when people say they can’t imagine something, they are speaking figuratively but I think what folks were saying about the Bahamas is that they lacked the means to project themselves into the shoes of another.

Again, were they saying the imagination has a ceiling? What are its powers? And what is its purpose in life?

Google “imagination” on Wikipedia and you’ll find a dozen reference works that expound on imagination from a variety of angles — cognitive, poetic, psychological, economic, and political — but that list might be my gloss on the text.

If I had to define “imagination” this very moment, I’d say the mind has an ability to make images, or to combine images that previously appeared and were lying dormant until called upon. Like soldiers in the reserves.

But there are times when images crop up on their own and parade themselves before the mind’s eye — the oculus mentis as the Roman writer Cicero called it. A man can be sitting under the shade of a tree taking in the summer breeze and all of a sudden images of his grandfather appear and start running across his mind like the frames of a movie.

When I taught school years ago, I used to ask students where the imagination resides and they struggled to come up with an answer; they had a hard time placing consciousness too. The question was: Does our awareness of our self in relation to that self, and in relation to other selves, have a locality?

Whatever your answer is, we need to keep in mind that the imagination is a tool of consciousness put into play when we feel a need for a new conceptual world view — to remedy something that’s missing from our lives. The imagination is the daughter of scarcity.

That is, the imagination arose, developed, and continues to exist, because homo sapiens needed a tool to invent, reinvent, capture, project, introject, images to help people meet their needs. In this sense, the imagination is related to dream. When John Lennon chanted his peroration “Imagine,” he was asking the human community: What is keeping us from treating another’s needs as our own?

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church responded to this question with a “mystical body,” a paradigm that says the imagination is an agent of utopia, an envisioner of a world in which the needs of all are met, structurally. Nobody’s left out, they say, according to the gospel of Jesus.

Such a view is an antidote to the static and ill-will people generate when they minimize or dismiss the needs of others. Some do it with insolence and go nuts when they hear the word “utopia.” They flush it from consciousness like a bug pestering their wits while calling the bug a “nut job.”

But nut-job language is a smoke screen; it reflects a deep deep fear of the depths of one’s soul.

Walt Disney — the Walt of Mickey Mouse — demonstrated his utopia by creating animals, people, worlds, and fantasies and then — across the vast multi-acre venues he built — showcased the lives of those animals and people with life-scripts he wrote for them.

When the maestro launched his famed Fantasyland in the summer of 1955, he told those who gathered there that this was his “world of imagination,” a world where “hopes and dreams” come true.

Sounding like a poet, he spoke of a timeless land of enchantment, a land “of chivalry [where] magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true.”

But he let the crowd know that this land is accessible only to “the young at heart — to those who believe that, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

What a sales pitch! Imagine: not living on a star but just wishing on it, and you wind up in the lap of eternity.

Keep in mind that Disney — and utopianists of his ilk — let his imagination take him where it had to go; or maybe he needed to go somewhere and called upon it to bail him out. How else could he meet Snow White, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and the ever-endearing Thumper?

As a scholar of the human condition, I’ve been long interested in the imagination’s ability to allow a person to project its self (consciousness) into the life-circumstances (consciousness) of another, and feel sympathy for that other. Ethicists say that, when a soul gets good at this, it finally has a moral compass.

A lot of people know the Adam Smith who penned “Wealth of Nations ”— a core capitalist manifesto — but earlier in life Smith showed interest in the imagination’s ability to help one person connect with another through feelings of sympathy, what today we’d call empathy.

In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” he said such a process is radically transformative — I see no other way to read the text.

One wonders how the Smith of a nationally-sanctioned-private-wealth-production ideology squares with the Smith of empathy, his version of a mystical body, that there’s only one boat.

Utopia is a world, a country, and local communities where people treat the least as the richest among them. In a somewhat oblique way, that’s what the radical American documents of the 1770s were reaching for.

Some of the 2020 candidates for the presidency of the United States seem to reaching for the same thing. It’s certainly a far cry from a political economy where one person can drive another in the ground and live unimpeded.

Some say the driven-down deserve such treatment because they’re losers, lazy, dumb, and lacking pedigree. Maybe they’re a Mexican working in a cement plant breathing in deadly dust or a dark-skinned fellow wearing a dastaar in the front seat of a cab.

The Walt Disney in me says hogwash to those who deny that human worth is based in need — not age or gender or race or any other demographic accident: but need — and that all quid pro quo economies are non compos mentis.

Never mind $15 an hour; let’s put everyone down for a $100,000 a year (including students), and let’s provide everyone with a modest shelter of choice, and let’s guarantee the means to stay alive (health) without imposing tariffs.

Of course in such a society there’s paperwork, there are conflicting differences, and cheaters of ill repute, and those who’ll pull the wool over the eyes of a child for a measly sawbuck.

But, in the world of Walt Disney, the world of a world he brought into being, at least everyone says: I know how you feel. And lots of them do something about it.

Or is that a dream too hard to imagine?