The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
– William Shakespeare
I think that I mostly agree with your thoughts there. There is a lot you say about how words can divide us. How they frustrate debate or inflame resentment. I wanted to engage with this by talking about how words can do the opposite – specifically in relation to the imagination. What you termed: thinking about Others complexly. The imagination is often a slave of the passions too – it can both be something that spurs us onto the better futures that we see for ourselves, or can twist the facts to create parallel universes (hence why currently so much of US politics feels like it has slipped into a Don DeLillo novel: Alex Ross has a great piece about that in the New Yorker worth reading).
Martha Nussbaum presents the imagination as central to democratic practice in her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010): ‘Every modern democracy is also a society in which people differ greatly along many parameters, including religion, ethnicity, wealth and class, physical impairment, gender, and sexuality, and in which all voters are making choices that have a major impact on the lives of people who differ from ourselves.’ The imagination, she posits, is the way into the lives of others that we have the responsibility of considering when casting a vote. It is part of what it is to be a citizen in a democracy. And one way to get into the lives of others is through words, through literature. It would be a mistake to either limit literature to this thing only, or to give it a special status, but it does have certain important particularities: you sit with it, and there’s something personal about you alone with the words on the page, you alone with the words said in your own voice inside the privacy of your head, and the length of time you might spend with those words.
I wanted to single out two examples of works that have done this for me. The first is poetry, actually. Claudia Rankine’s most recent book Citizen (2014) – an assemblage of prose poetry, essay, pictures, that attempt to capture everyday racism, everyday slights and violence against people of colour in the US. The second person is used often: you are the one sitting on the train, or reeling after a careless remark, or after being pulled over by police.
This is what that’s like.
I am not a black man or woman living in 21st century America, but I felt like I got a glimpse into what that might be like. I took a leap of imagination. I took a leap of faith, guided by Rankine. It’s visceral, thoughtful, felt. There’s a video that features her voice reading from Citizen here – worth checking out. I love her voice. The mesmerising intonation of it.
There is a glancing similarity in some of the poems to my own experience as a gay man. Another African American writer, Ralph Ellison wrote a novel called Invisible Man (1952) – the title is a way of describing the experience of being African American the 1950s: ‘invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me.’ To be gay is another kind of invisibility. If one is in a cafe, at the barbers, on the bus, there are conversations one overhears that might be about you, and they don’t know it’s about you. When young, there are conversations among one’s friends, one’s family, that happen and they are about you, but at no point do they realise that it is you they they are discussing. Their disgust or derision or amusement isn’t directed at you, but it strikes you anyway.
Another writer I wanted to namecheck was Doris Lessing. Her powers to punchily give a reality to the messy claustrophobia of a human mind – in the fragmentation of The Golden Notebook (1962), and the pressures felt on women at her time, and indeed now, in say Martha Quest (1952) makes for uncomfortable, complicated reading.
I wanted to know: what works have done this to you? What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? What words made you leap into places you previously didn’t know?