Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Being Contrary

In the battle between reason and imagination, I vote for … reason and imagination. Not only that, but I vote for the battle.

Plato proposed a perfect republic in which reason would reign unchallenged—a perfect political society that would require no poets, because it requires no lies. Walt Disney proposed a well-kept and clean magic kingdom produced by imagineers—the interchangeable puppets of It’s a Small World as models of peace and unity.

I see something healthy in tension, though, and I’m not anxious to see the world in which either reason/logic/science or imagination/intuition/magic hold absolute sway. I like both Plato and Disney, by the way.

I can’t concur with Ayn Rand that “contradictions do not exist.” I cannot fully embrace Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual observation that “the apparent contradictions and perplexities in every religion mark but different stages of growth.” Though I’m no believer, my heart responds more to Thomas Merton’s view: “The very contradictions in my life are in some way signs of God’s mercy to me.”

I’m not much of a critical theorist, but I abhor the sentimental hopes some hold for a heaven of pure, unadulterated positive vibes. It sounds not only boring, offending my aesthetic sensibility, but also just plain wrong, offending my moral nature.

It also sounds like a defeat for both reason and imagination.

Without an antithesis, reason does not lead to progress—without rebuttal, you have no debate, and debate is crucial to a free society’s ability to interpret fact and educate its citizens to make necessary judgments.

Without alienation-effect or the simplified conflict of drama, imagination is simply memory—even more boring, a “photographic” memory—and we lose the power of fantasy to envision possible futures towards which to strive or against which to brace ourselves—we’d have no poets and artists to be, as Shelley called them, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I don’t think a utilitarian ethics or a purely pragmatic technology is possible or even desirable.

And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not on the side of puritans on either side.

I’m irreligious and strongly oppose state-run churches and church-run states, yet a world from which all trace of religion was erased does not sound good to me. I also oppose a world of therapeutic solutions to every worry, every woe, every spot of the blues. I like escapism as much as the next guy, but a lifetime of uninterrupted amusement and instant gratification would cloy all capacity for desire and joy. I think liberty and security should remain in tension, too. Absolute security at the cost of freedom and absolute liberty at the cost of justice and equality are equally reprehensible—though, if I had to, I suppose I would opt for the second. But only if I had to.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my experience and environment have limited my capacity to reason or imagine purely. OK, then, perhaps. But it remains that I have yet no reason to believe a purely harmonious society can exist. And I cannot imagine a purely harmonious heaven or utopia where the individual human spirit could still survive.

1 comment:

  1. This was a rare and unusual blog. Great reading.



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