“[E]veryday life would be unrecognizable if we excised imaginative activities.” – Shaun Nichols
“The imagination is a form of love: playful, generous, and transformative.” – Jeff VanderMeer
When I first started reading fantastika, I was drawn to a number of elements of the genre. My mentor in the literature liked to give me books that were hard to read, that were experimental, that dealt with complex issues, that were calculated to blow my mind. At first, I found this irksome, but as I read more of the books he gave me I felt that, unlike my high school studies, these books were teaching me about life and the world. I discovered ideas that had never occurred to me, read about places that never existed, and learned about the capacity of the imagination to exceed the moment and reframe your mind. That difficult beginning (after a diet of Burroughs, Kenneth Robeson, and, oh right, Poe) stimulated my imagination, gave me a desire to feed it so that it could show me the world in new ways.
Fantastika has been called “the literature of imagination,” but does not own that title. That term and its inverse, imaginative literature, have been used for a long time to talk more extensively about fiction, poetry, and drama as opposed to factual sorts of writing, although writers of fantastika have also deployed this term. It’s a bit of a muddle, really, as many want to claim use of the term and apply it to their artistic productions. The very idea of the imagination when discussing literature is powerful and prosaic, an elevation of something that we all do every day into a profound, near-magical process.
The imagination has been conceived of in many ways in the modern era, and discussion of it stretches back to at least Aristotle. From apprehension about its capabilities to a neo-religious faith in its power, from trying to discover its process to creating different categories of its operation, the imagination has been an object of inquiry and puzzlement. Always difficult to pin down, it has been a slippery topic for the fields of philosophy, science, and literature, and is still in many ways elusive. It is a rather ironic state of affairs: that this intellectual capacity that every human possesses still perplexes our efforts to comprehend its workings.
It is a capacity that we use so easily, unconsciously, that it seems odd that we marvel at its use and need to quantify it in analytical discourse. Kant put it succinctly: “Every human being, thus, is, so far as he perceives anything at all, a creator and an idealizing agent.” Standard dictionary definitions range widely, delineate vaguely or, worse, tautologically, often relying on other forms of the word (imagine, image, etc.) to define it. The etymology is not terribly revealing, as it comes from a Latin term “to picture something.” Perhaps more than any other word, it something that we know when we see it, when we experience it, and that is so commonly performed that to firmly define it is not just difficult, but inescapably linked to the nature of the thing itself. The idea is so full of possibility, of limitlessness, that any effort to fixate it clashes with the imagination’s volatile ability to exceed explanation and provide reworked or novel understandings, even of the thing itself.
This slippage is not just a factor in trying to understand the imagination, but to quantify its capabilities and inventions. While imagination is an embedded human capacity, its universality is quickly brought down to the level of the individual, of cultural ideas, and social processes. The options for exercising our imagination are limited by the conditions of our existence, from the acuity of our senses to the ideological formations and institutions that seek to appropriate and influence the breadth of our conceptual range. The problem is that, while we can theoretically imagine anything, in actual practice this often impossible. The imagination, in the end, is always a historical/cultural/social/political/cosmological/ capacity and process, limited by what we sense and how we recombine or riff off of what we sense. Its potential is inevitably constrained by what we take in and what we use to employ it. But these limits, quite literally, are in our heads, and contained within our imaginations are ways to navigate these conceptual barriers, these channels that try to direct our imaginations in particular directions, that sometimes misdirect and steal the creative potential of imagining
One such way can be found in the writing of fantastic literature. As Nick Mamatas put it, “What’s been missing is a focus on the imagination, or at least on our own imaginations, as opposed to the heavily mediated imagination of authority.” While the imagination in some conceptions is lauded by academics and artists, the everyday practice of imagining is often curtailed and even ridiculed. We are taught to focus our imaginations on the imaginary products of others, to express our ideas through approved or popular symbols and ideas. Every culture and society does this in some fashion, but in our globalized, high technologized and institutionalized societies of the 21st century, great effort is expended to commoditize and appropriate our imaginative activities. Even as we strive to understand how imagination works in the brain, the power of that capacity is often fettered to the burdens of social expectations and media conjurations.
This is the essential insurgent power of the imagination which works of fantastika can amplify, sometimes in unpredictable ways, sometimes in ways that seem rote or ho-hum. Certainly fantastic literature can reproduce and overlay the constraints that I believe are problematic, but there is more possibility of liberating the imagination through genre literature than through literary realism or writing that tries to make the choices for you. The dialogical qualities of the imagination, how we struggle with what we take in and try to use it to live, to tell others what we think, to effect change in the world around us, makes imagining a dynamic, potentially transformative act. The imagination thrives on the inchoate alchemy of dialogism, and the texts of fantastika can offer a framework for engagement and exercise of the imagination. Even the struggles over conceptualizing the genre can provide intellectual terrain for exercising the imagination and pondering what we write and see differently, and I think part of what makes fantastic literature vital are these debates (some of them, at least).
This vitality, which to some extent reflects the volatility and subversiveness of the imagination itself, is not only a challenge, but an opportunity. Every time a writer sets out to tell a story of something different, something that does not exist, they exercise their imagination, and they create the possibility that their creative faculties will give them a new idea, a quirky insight, a heavy truth, or a witty conjecture. These come not by following the rules or traditions of genre, but by refashioning them, dismantling them, or inverting them. The fantastic is the playground for the imagination, if we let it play and not just try to routinize its carrying-on.
Nothing demonstrates the danger and audacity of the imagination’s transformative potential better than my earlier discussion of efforts to define it. Many great minds have tried to not just define the imagination, but tame it, harness it, and command it to perform the tasks that they want it to do. Most of the effort to make sense of the imagination is an endeavor to assign value to its fabrications, to not just understand it, but to confine it, to render it less dangerous by dismissing what is not culturally or intellectually “good” as “fancy” or some lower order of imagining. What does not fit needs to be defined away so that it does not destabilize or call into question what is considered rational, productive, acceptable.
The ideas and ideals of the fantastic can instigate moments when we could imagine something outside of what is expected, or tolerated, or safe. It is up to the writer (and the reader) to let their imagination loose, to ignore propriety or form or the quotidian, to escape the expectations that condition our imaginings, and find something that emancipates our thoughts and makes the world, however slightly, divergent, and shows us that our imaginations have more in them than we think possible. We make the world through our imagination, shape and interact with it by taking that step of processing our sensory information and acting upon it. Perhaps part of the problem with defining and using the imagination to its fullest extent is that, at some point, we will truly realize our own power, and have to do something with it.
we shall have to think up signs, sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
the reality of this world.
Octavio Paz, “January First“