By Molly Andrews
“By reason and logic we die hourly, by imagination we live!” wrote W.B. Yeats, thus resurrecting an age-old dichotomy between our ability to make sense of the world around us and our ability to see beyond what meets the eye. A belief in this dualism informs much thinking on imagination, which is often pitted against what is real. Jean-Paul Sartre had a different way of seeing things. Imagination, he thought, had a critical role to play in the human psyche. His first well-known book, Being and Nothingness, was a philosophical treatise based on his fascination with the world as it is and its relationship to that which is not, but which may also yet be, what he termed the ‘not-yet-real.’
Imagination is in fact the life blood of one of the most fundamental human inclinations — that of storytelling. We tell stories all the time, about everything, to everyone, including ourselves. What we tell and why and how we tell it are strongly influenced by the contexts in which we as narrators operate. But one only needs to think for a moment of what it would mean to have no story to tell, or to have forgotten one’s story — as depicted in some of the wonderfully rich books by Oliver Sachs — to realize that we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.
Narrative and imagination are integrally tied to one another; that they are so is immediately clear to anyone who stops to think about stories — real and imagined, about the past or in a promised, or feared, future. Why and how this is so are questions that direct us to ruminate on what it means to be human. Narrative and imagination are combined, not only in our most elevated thoughts about the world as it might be, but also in the very minutiae of our daily lives. Although we do not often talk about the role of imagination in how we approach each day, carrying out and evading those responsibilities to which we have committed ourselves, and simply being ourselves in the world, negotiating our sometimes troubled paths between competing desires of our own and those of others, its importance cannot be overstated. Sartre argued that our freedom to act in the world is a function of our ability to see not only what is before us, but alternative futures. Writing about Sartre’s work, Mary Warnock comments: the power to see things in different ways and to form images about a so far non-existent future, is identical with the power of imagination (Warnock 1972:xvii). Thus imagination is not antithetical to being able to perceive that which is ‘real’ but rather an extension of it, the scaffolding which underlies our efforts to build a different world.
Molly Andrews is Professor of Political Psychology, and Co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London. Listen to an interview about her newest book, Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life.
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Image credit: Luxor, United Arab Republic: Famed French author Jean-Paul Sartre poses beside an ancient Egyptian statue as he toured the antiquities of Luxor during his visit to the UAR. © Bettmann/CORBIS. Used with permission. Do not reproduce.