Don’t Trust the Imagination? Maybe You Don’t Have One

I was listening to Griel Marcus talk about his new book on Van Morrison (something I’ll never read) and he said he had little interest in the biographic details of an artist. He felt that there are too many people who what to explain a work by the experiences the author has had, as if that were the sum of her art. Then he quoted John Nichols who had told him, those who don’t trust the imagination, don’t have one (paraphrases all). When I heard that two thoughts came together, one revolving around those who take the biographic details as explanation, and those who, like David Shields, suggest fiction has died and there is nothing left to say. While these are two types of people the ideas they share are similar: namely, that we have exhausted or are incapable of imaginative ideas.

For the first group I’m lenient. They don’t trade in imagination and may not be accustomed to use it in the way a writer does. My favorite example was a conversation I’d had about Coleridge’s Kubla Kahan. My debating partner held that it was the laudanum that had made the poem possible, what with all of its mystical and exotic illusions. But that is a simplistic read, at best, and removes any agency from Coleridge. Moreover, it projects a fact, Laudanum, along with a myth that drug use creates fantastical experiences that translate into good writing, and rewrites his story using some stereotype from the 60s. The need to explain, and not appreciate the work for itself, creates a pat and unimaginative read that suggests no work of the imagination is really the imagination.Of course, there are plenty of cases where the writer’s work is full of the personal, but the expectation that the writer is always mirroring her own life is limiting.

On the other hand, we have David Shields whose Reality Hunger posits the decline of fiction and the modes of story telling that fiction has come to server. It is only through nonfiction can we address our world. While nonfiction is written with imagination, the idea that only nonfiction is possible is a little unimaginative. What it really suggest is David Shields is unable to imagine new stories. It is hard to write and can happen to the best of writers. Tto say that the naturalistic novel that used to be the home of social criticism has out lived its usefulness, is one thing, but to say there is no where to go suggests the same mistake my conversation partner made: fiction is just a copy of reality. The naturalistic novels may not work anymore, but that doesn’t mean game’s up. Culture is too fluid, and the novel (which is really Shields’ target) is too young, as is the mass culture we now know and has been growing for the last 150 years or so, almost following the life of the novel (as it is commonly thought of).

I don’t know what the new thing, but it will be imaginative, not just another memoir. I think Steven Moore’s book The Novel An Alternative History offers an interesting antidote to Shields. Moore who is a lover of the strange has put together a history of novels that don’t fit the naturalistic tradition. There have been many of them, as Moore tells it, starting with the Greeks and Romans and on up to Cervantes (where his current book ends). What I find intriguing about these books is they weren’t attempts to describe reality per say, but an opening of the imagination. And more importantly, they weren’t tied to a centuries long tradition. While Moore loves the strange, his book is a solid counterpoint to Shields: why does fiction have to be reality? To me, history, a form of reality, although one Shields should understand is constructed, is a great form, but it doesn’t substitute for other forms of thinking, of using the imagination.

Ultimately, it is tempting to find explanations in reality, because they make things seem approachable, manageable, even rational. However, questioning that reality, not addressing it can be just as important as digging deeper into it. Hopefully, I’ll never say the ludicrous nonsense that Henry Rollins did when I saw him once: there will never be another musical genius. He was referring to Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, but all he was really doing was admitting is that he had given up. It is a sat fate.