John Lennon, sly dog that he was, got one thing right: the power of imagination, especially young people’s imagination, is one of the most influential political agents in the world. Young people will slide flowers into the barrel of a National Guardsman’s rifle. Young people will stare down tanks in Tiananmen Square. Their elders will always be the brains of a successful revolution; but sinewy, juvenile spirits will be their general infantry, their cannon fodder and their battle cry.
Establishment politics can’t harness this incredible power, whether they be right or wrong. Establishment leaders (i.e. Obama) might, but only with a P.R. campaign of safety-on radicalism: “Get your radicalist credentials with none of the sacrifice!” Otherwise, young people won’t show up. And perhaps a mainstream solution is what we need. But perhaps the extremism of young minds also dooms our society to accommodate extremes.
The good news is that the conservative has always been urged to harness this fantastical, unfounded idealism. For Christ said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not the intellect or the physicality of children that we need, but the imaginative power: an imagination that flouts all of life’s disappointments, all of the world’s callousness. We need hearts that demand love unfailingly and offer love unconditionally. We need minds that see the world in golden and sapphire hues.
And we need a battle-plan.
The Imaginative Conservative, as the name implies, has an inkling of this potential. An imagination fed by the richest grain and clearest water can batter away any adversity, hold fast to any great principle. At least till the spirit collapses.
This has been the demise of the Leftist counter-culture: they fed the imaginative mind, but did not take the imaginative soul. They urged their followers to dream of a better world (the material), but not of a better self (the soul). We might take up the old Aristotleism, that prosperity demands virtue. And by any conservative reckoning that’s certainly true: individual betterment precedes social betterment. But what the conservative has neglected is the arresting awe in the presence of Truth that gives way to virtue.
And from what I can devise, this strikes the heart of conservatism. Variety (or, say, diversity) is the spice of life, yes. But meaningful diversity has nothing to do with this man’s skin or that woman’s hair, or what sort of bedmate you happen to prefer. So long as we’re outside the Kingdom of Heaven, we must put our modest powers together to discern the Forms that glow beneath their material surface. It’s our duty to hearten each other with glimpses of unearthly beauty and majesty, which we know is made incarnate when two or more are gathered together. To some large degree, we’re escapists on principle. We flee this world to another where love and truth and grace are the only reality, and our ghosts that haunt this plane point to that one more concrete, rooted in what is eternal. When one soul places a foot in the next world, this world is offered a glimpse of the world to come.
I’d be wrong not to acknowledge that Tim Stanley brought this vision to our contemporaries first, but it’s a vision that deserves to be spoken of over and over.
We know it’s been done before, and with great success. So many Imaginative Conservatives have been brought to Elfland Traditionalism by the likes of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. But we have room—and likely a need—for men and women who dream such dreams.
The revolution has its living heirs. In New York, Simon Van Booy is writing short stories about a modern world where love exists between common people. In Sydney, David Malouf is revisiting the heroes of antiquity, Ovid and Priam of Troy among them. I can’t vouch for those men’s political views, but it doesn’t matter. Their work will give heart to men and women of any creed who crave something more than what is real. We desperately crave something that is surreal, which means real beyond our powers to fully comprehend them.
There’s room for other mediums, too. For me, it’s clear in the curious case of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod”. As a lover of English culture (Anglophile is such a dirty word) “Nimrod” has always been one of my favorite classical pieces. To me, it’s a more evocative and yet wordless rendition of Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem”. I’ve always said to myself, It’s the sound of England!, a nonsense phrase that means the world to me. But on three or four occasions I’ve had the pleasure to chat with other Elgar enthusiasts, and “Nimrod” inevitably comes up. I’ve unfailingly been told, “It’s the sound of England!” followed by a curious expression, as though they, too, have never really said the phrase aloud. To them, it’s as equally absurd and meaningful as it has been to me. It’s said that T.S. Eliot credited Igor Stravinsky with giving a musical voice to the discordant, post-industrial world. But Elgar salvages the music of an England that came before, the better England that will forever lie beneath those Satanic mills. Musicians today could do the same: share with us the echo they’ve caught of those feet rustling across England’s green pastures.
Is this a lot of waxing romantic? Sometimes. Other times it’s waxing classical, waxing Gothic, waxing Victorian. Wax however you feel is best for your temperament. But we desperately need to wax more often—not in spite of its impracticality, but because it’s entirely impractical. We need the fading voice of our elders to whisper stories in our ears. We need the childish eyes that see magic sleeping in the lakes and trees, and a noble spirit waiting to be realized in every human heart. For we have so little if not imagination.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t make our voices heard on the political scene. The 20th century is dotted with tales of defiant traditionalists who entered the public arena if only to get an brief, honest word in. There’s William F. Buckley’s race for Mayor of New York City on the Conservative Party ticket: when asked what his first act as mayor would be if he should win, Buckley joked, “Demand a recount.” And there’s Hilaire Belloc’s contention for Salford South’s seat in Parliament as a Liberal and a “papist”.
We also have the remarkable example of W.B. Yeats’s two terms in the first Seanad Éireann, fighting for both an independent and a traditionalist Ireland. His little-known speeches defending the Anglo-Irish Ascendency deserve more attention than they receive. Yeats represented the Protestant aristocracy, not by their landholdings or their treasury, but by their history and their culture. Defending the rights of his fellow Anglo-Irishmen before the Senate, Yeats cried, “We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke… we are the people of Swift… We have created the great modern literature of this country.” The ideal is positively Hellenic—almost absurdly so. To this day, Irish Senators justify their politics with the words of their nation’s bards. But how often has a nation’s greatest poet served in the legislature? Could we imagine Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens taking the floor of the United States Congress? I can only imagine what they’d say. I don’t think it would have anything to do with Obamacare or the Second Amendment, however strongly those gentlemen might feel about those issues. Something tells me they’d have too much to say about any body of government’s duty to safeguard the spiritual wellbeing and absolute dignity of their constituents than to say anything about the functionality of a certain website or ammunition restrictions. The enemy is too entrenched, and our lives much too short, for such a narrow cause célèbre.
In a way, artists are the subconscious of conservatism. Their voices rustle in the recesses of our mind, flare up in our memory and give us strength. We hear the furtive “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…” and the subtle “But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ With an alien people clutching their gods…” and a soft “What would you Fergus?/ Be a king no more,/ But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours”. They aren’t Jiminy Crickets tugging at our earlobes. They’re voices that will go unanswered if we choose to ignore them—just as we could refuse grace, or love, or friendship. But they’re the voices that remind us why we’re conservative. Not because this-or-that tax policy is best for America, or because a certain immigration scheme is best for England. Those might arise from the poets’ vision, but they’re far from being the vision itself.
Writers, painters, musicians, all those whose profession is art—theirs is a sketch of order, creativity, and brotherhood. They brush shoulders with the ancients, recalling some dormant spirit that once animated man in his every thought and step. It had something to do with humility, but also with great pride. God walked with them in the Garden but they weren’t ashamed to face Him. There were houses thatched by hand, and towers of mossy stone. Men lived by what the Earth bore them. And amongst themselves there was a sense that they owed some dignity to one-another.
Most likely that world never existed. But no doubt it always should have. For the Traditionalist, no policy is drafted or initiative taken for itself, but rather to achieve that reverie brought up by the best dreamers among us. If we’ve forgotten what that place is like, our policies can only be ill informed and aimless, like endlessly copying the Good Book in a script we don’t understand. If we must doze off for a while, retreat into that other country, if only to recapture the sights and smells, so be it. If that vision is lost for too long, alas; we may not find our way back again.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.