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All in the Imagination

Is it healthy to have a realistic outlook on life? How might that affect, for example, your attitude to the arts? Michael Bulley considers some of the consequences of how we view the objective world.

When I discuss drama with teenage students, most (to begin with) invoke realism as the main yardstick: the closer to real life, the better the play must be. Doubts can be sown by suggesting, in that case, going to the theatre is an unnecessary expense, since you can watch real life for nothing. You would also have to count The Tempest and Oedipus inferior to Brookside or Hill Street Blues. In the end it might be agreed that, even if you still preferred realistic drama, what you want from it is not just a resemblance to real life but some understanding of it, and that an unrealistic play may do that just as well.

Even so, most people, I think, in the western European tradition at least, put their trust in the concept of reality, regarding the obviously perceptible things in life, like bank balances and back gardens, as the serious ones; that is – to put it in a slightly paradoxical way – they think that what can exist independent of their thoughts is real and, therefore, important.

The relationship between thought and reality has been an abiding concern of philosophy. Most of the answers philosophy has given contradict the commonsense view. Even when the two agree that there is a physical reality independent of our thinking about it, the commonsense view equates it with our physical perception. Philosophers and neurophysiologists, however, are pretty certain that our experience of something we can see, for example, is not a pictorial or optical experience, and likewise for the other senses.

That is, that the brain does not see the image in the eye as the eye sees the visible object. Instead, there is a neural activity in the brain, in essence no different from those associated with feelings like delight, puzzlement or logical reasoning.

Our rational experience of the world, however, tricks us into the irrational belief that what is just an internal feeling (a blind sensation, if you like) is genuinely pictorial or film-like, with a direct correspondence with the outside world; and it seems that, in order to function in the everyday world, we are bound to behave as if holding unquestioningly to this false belief. The difficult philosophical problem is whether to draw any distinction between the neural activity and our awareness of seeing something. (Certainly, what you would see if you observed the neural events does not at all resemble your internal experience.)

Interpreting reality

Our knowledge of the world, then, comes in two ways: there is, on the one hand, our everyday experience and, on the other, logic and the observation of scientific instruments. If human intelligence were just a sort of conscious scientific instrument, there would only be an awareness of the things we perceived; the reality of a railway engine, for example, would simply be its shape, sound, smell and so forth. The human situation, however, is not like that; the engine will affect people differently; the railway enthusiast, for example, may have a quite intense feeling about it.

The importance of what the object means to you, rather than what it is, is particularly telling when, unlike the railway engine, it is a medium of conceptual, rather than locomotive, communication. If the drowning Frenchman cries ‘Au secours!’ you may be aware of what he has said and, like a tape recorder, be able to repeat it, but to no end if, not understanding French, you have no idea what it meant. And when the communication is not essentially for factual information or not obviously informative at all, as when you listen to a poem or a piece of music, you can feel frustrated that someone else has remained indifferent, while you have been deeply affected, though you both heard the same words, or the same notes. It would not be hard to explain what ‘Au secours!’ meant to you, if you understood it; but not being able to explain in words what a piece of music meant to you does not mean it was meaningless; that was why it was music.

Seas and Sausages

In an age of scientific self-consciousness the two ways of understanding the world – by instinct and reflection – can lead to a sort of double life. Sailing across one of the great oceans, you will be aware of rough seas or calm ones, which you will think of as flat; but most of us would not be instinctively aware of having travelled over a curve; we would have to remind ourselves of the shape of the earth first. The philosopher, Wittgenstein, remarked that if you told someone to whom it had hitherto seemed that the sun circled the earth that the reverse was truer, it would still be right for that person to continue thinking of the sun as rising in the east and setting in the west. (‘Ich bin meine Welt’ – Wittgenstein, Tractatus – ‘I am my world’).

When I eat a sausage, the reality of that event for me is usually one of ‘sausageness’; but if the man holding the fork was a biochemist, he could, with some effort, think of the protein-structure of the sausage or, if a physicist, its atomic or sub-atomic composition. What would our reality seem like, I wonder, if we naturally perceived things at the atomic level, or were naturally sensitive to radio waves, as we are to sound and light? The scientific approach, quite rightly, does not limit itself to our natural experience of the world, and it is right that physicists at places like CERN should investigate what might be the smallest constituents of matter (and may they continue to be funded!), but the topic of that investigation does not qualify the knowledge of it as more fundamental than other sorts of understanding.

Political realism

In politics, the falseness of objectivity dehumanizes people. In this country, for example, the weapons for the distantly looming general election have already been chosen, both by the government and opposition, and they are one or two sets of numbers defining national economics, as if it would be embarrassing to think that the socio-economic future could be decided by a vision of human behaviour rather than by the lowering of interest rates. It must be said, though, that the government of the last eleven years or so, in particular, of course, the long period of socalled Thatcherism, has been more open than some previous ones in Britain about its cultural vision; its ideal, alas, materialism yoked to respectability, exalts objective appearance.

Politics, to be sure, needs realism: the system should offer citizens security, liberties that are not licences, and the possibility of a sophisticated culture; but whereas the destination of human success should be people themselves, modern political discussion locates it in the impersonal consequences of their actions, and it is symbolized by objects (which, granted, could be the means to success) or, even worse, by the abstraction of objects in statistics.

Art and other people

In the arts, objectivity has governed arguments about what is socially desirable. This goes back at least to Plato, whose ideal society would have been free from the corrupting pretence of fictional drama. (The Greek word for dramatic acting gives us ‘hypocrisy’). Recent criteria for censorship in the arts have not been so stringent as Plato’s, but they still rest on the content of the work and not on its significance. Nor could it be otherwise, since the only accurate expression of the meaning of a work of art is the work itself, and then you are back where you started. This is why in legal cases where censorship is the issue, the lawyers, usually the defence, have the absurd task of appealing to ‘artistic values’ or ‘cultural seriousness’ for which, since they are not solid objects, no solid evidence can be produced.

To exemplify this problem of censorship, two contrasting works of drama I can think of, taken more or less at random, are Bertolucci’s film La Luna and The Cosby Show on television. The plot of La Luna has teenagers’ addiction to heroin and incestuous lust between mother and son. I find it a beautiful and moving film. The Cosby Show portrays a secure family in which minor difficulties of teenage immaturity are resolved by the loving concern of the parents. Those who call publicly for censorship in the mass media to protect and improve people’s morals would no doubt censure Bertolucci and commend The Cosby Show. If I, like Plato, were imagining the conditions for the morally good society, it would be more likely one in which resided the values of Bertolucci’s film than one embalmed in the spirit of The Cosby Show.

Art and the individual

What place, then, should we give creative art? To return to the students I began with: most will have acquired the opinion that plays and music are fantasy and entertainment, desirable to make life interesting and pleasant, but neither being nor affecting anything serious. Yet, if what I have said is true, to define all poetry and music as part of the leisure industry, in which the industry is the serious part, is not a reasonable attitude. For if, as I suggest, our individual reality simply consists of potential sensations, we can decide rationally what will matter more and what less. By this, I do not advocate fantasy: the innocent man imprisoned is not reasoning well if he persuades himself he is free.

‘Ich bin meine Welt’ – I am my world, and that world is all the influences on it and all you sense it to be, not only those feelings which you could express as an account of things in the world, but all the moral, aesthetic, emotional and inventive feelings you have; and there is no justification to set one above the other as being more real; they are all in the imagination. What your world is and what your life is depends on how varied, intense, refined, those sensations are.

The work of art is an object, like any other, and perceiving it produces some intellectual consequence, however slight. If the object is an egg-slicer, it might mean something to you, but it was designed rather to act upon the egg, not on your imagination. It changes your view of the world by changing the egg. Works of art, by contrast, are designed to act more directly and seem likely, from what we surmise about the labour and intentions of their authors, to be able to add more ways we see the world, so that we have more chance of discovering, even if only by indistinct intuition, what is serious in it. The frequent mix of art and pleasure, even gloomy art, should induce us to guess that pleasure, unconnected with material gain, is serious too.

Many, despite the historical evidence for the mutability of commonplace opinion, hold to a down-to-earth philosophy of natural certainties. They speak of themselves as living in the real world. In such a world, human nature is held to have unchanging limitations, and whatever actions or attitudes do not seem validated by tangible appearances are dismissed as unrealistic. Feelings, seeming insubstantial and unsupported by the external world, even feelings for other people, are judged as less important. For art, the false security of that world is inhuman, and the transition of an individual away from it has sometimes itself been the theme of art. As Faber says, at the end of Tippett’s opera, The Knot Garden : ‘I am all imagination’.

© M. Bulley 1991

Michael Bulley teaches Classics at a school in Ashford, Kent.

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