In a recent essay here, I discussed modern scientific discoveries, which suggest that a feeling for the past enhances creativity and imagination. Two helpful comments advanced the topic. Cat, a young mother, looks forward to introducing her two-year-old to “myth, mystery and creativity.” Meanwhile one of this journal’s best authors, the Vienna-based Miss Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna, observes that “for as long as one has a sense of history (and not “just“ knowledge of historical fact), the imagination is well-rooted in lush soil; a hearty perennial and beautiful bloom.”
Indeed, but these beg the question of how. In order to inculcate imagination and wonder among children, one must already possess it oneself—and Cat sounds well-prepared. Noting that historical fact is not the same as a “sense of history,” the ever-wise Miss Christoff-Kurapovna leads us to ponder how we can obtain and deploy the latter. If she will forgive me the crude analogy, one can read music and still be unable to “rock‘n roll.”
It was a glorious autumn day long ago, as we motored north beneath a canopy of crimson-leafed trees, and I had not realised that my passenger was in one of his playful moods. Why should I? Off the remnant table at the Hillsdale College library, I had just bought four or five somewhat damaged copies of the late-19th-Century Anglo-Saxon Review, edited by Winston Churchill’s mother, for a buck apiece, and I bragged of my treasure. Each was bound in fine leather, replicating the gold tooling of a royal library from the past – one that copied volumes owned by Charles V, the greatest of Holy Roman emperors. It turned out that my passenger had donated them to the library the week before, and while he graciously refused my offer to return them, he waxed wroth on deficiencies of small-town librarians. But then he changed the topic, and behind the wheel, I failed to see the tell-tale glimmer of merriment in Dr Russell Kirk.
He was a Visiting Professor there, forty years past, and I had luckily won the privilege of being his student driver, ferrying him to and from his Italianate Revival mansion, three hours north amid the mysterious swamps and ghostly, deforested scrublands of Mecosta. I was even paid for the privilege, although it did not matter – I had at least six hours a week in private conversation with the father of modern American conservatism.
Along our way slept pretty, little, 19th-Century towns, such as Marshall, each with gingerbread houses or imposing, Gothic Revival, Addams Family-style, piles erected by local tycoons long gone. Dr. Kirk adored every one, and so did I. We reached the town of Charlotte–curiously pronounced “char-LOT” by the locals whom my passenger seemed to know–and their splendid town hall, full of white stone decoration over red brick. It looked like a glorious confection that one might eat, a wedding cake instead of a workplace. There my passenger began talking, clearly less in earnest than in pure merriment and Higher Mischief.
He revealed that the citizens of Charlotte were secret monarchists, had been so for more than a century, and maintained their fealty to the Romanoffs, the deposed czars of Russia. This they prudently cloaked from their neighbours and local politicians alike. Indeed, he continued, when the heirs to the throne visited Michigan, they always stayed in this town hall-cum-imperial palace, and sometimes that or this elderly princess would appear at one window (he pointed to it) and wave to the throngs of adoring townsfolk gathered below. Then their Orthodox bishop (who pretended to run the feed-store) would don his ecclesiastical vestments and bless them from the imposing limestone steps.
It was fiction, of course, but I played along, egging him on. Would they rise up, overthrow Michigan’s elected order, and establish monarchy on American soil? Would they one day emigrate to a post-communist Russia? He scowled thoughtfully, swore me to secrecy and discussed the plan (which I am pledged not to reveal). Soon thereafter we passed into another town and another conversation, possibly ghost stories. He may have had Romanoffs on his mind that week, for when we reached Mecosta, his three young daughters, in dresses beneath the orchard trees in the lush gardens of Piety Hill, pretended to be members of the Russian royal family, and they had all the names correct, even the five-year-old. There are advantages to having no television at home.
The moral to the tale is this – imagination can be as contagious, and fun, among adults as it is beneficial to children.
Possibly inspired by the Sage of Mecosta’s periodic playfulness, I kept at it ever since. Recently, labouring on unlikely bureaucratic reforms in Trinidad, I warded off collective depression by pointing out, to local colleagues, a rusting, three-masted schooner slumbering in the harbour. It would make a splendid pirate ship, I proposed, and prove to be much more fun than bureaucracy. All we needed was pirates, and my colleagues would fit perfectly. Normally serious, and always intelligent, the island ladies swiftly joined in the fun. Over months we worked out our plan to overpower the harbourmaster, steal the ship, and make sail for the notorious pirate dens of Hispaniola. One thought she knew where to find cutlasses, another could sew eye-patches, and a third had a cousin who might lend us a tame macaw to perch on the captain’s shoulder. We could store the treasure in old ministry file-boxes, after gaily dumping the paperwork into the bay. Many the night we spoke of it over tots of delicious local rum, but usually went home before we started singing “yo-ho-hos.” Whether my intended shipmates thereafter read Treasure Island to their children and grandchildren, I cannot say.
Such creativity-inducing stunts require three things. First is a progenitor armed with imagination, and I suspect that most of our readers qualify – if they did not, they would instead be reading National (Socialist) Review in their spare time, or accountancy journals. Second is a playful audience of one or more adults, but they are not always so hard to find once the fun starts. Third, the progenitor needs Miss Christoff-Kurapovna’s, or Dr Kirk’s, appreciation for the “feel,” and themes and rhythms and greater messages of history and culture.
I suppose that I inherited a historical sense from my parents: in a childhood full of storybooks read aloud until I could devour them on my own; in my George Washington uniform and powdered wig, and my chrome-plated, medieval breastplate, helmet and a plastic knightly sword; commanding legions of toy-soldiers, each hand-painted by my parents, working secretly by night before Christmas; in a wooden toy castle built by my father (an approximation of G. K. Chesterton’s toy theatre); and in a splendid birthday party in which the young guests and I, decked out in crepe-paper pirate costumes, followed a tea-stained, sepia map down to the river, where, beneath the weeping-willow trees, we found a treasure chest crammed with pieces-of-eight (silver-paper disks left over from the x-rays of my dentist-father). That year my younger brother’s birthday, I seem to recall, was an African safari with hand-painted, plastic, toy animals.
Do parents do this today? Do they take the great storybook themes, or pander to their child’s uninformed demand for Spiderman? I know not.
With such a fortuitous start, it led to collecting books that were old, forgotten, and usually unloved, but which each held out the promise of secret wisdom. Then, as Dr Kirk worked until nearly dawn in his vast library, beside a log fire on winter nights I poured through his collection, usually under his guidance. His set of Johnson, he explained, was paper-covered on the understanding that its wealthy, gentleman buyer would have it rebound in leather to match his other books. The best Chesterton novel, he believed, was The Napoleon of Notting Hill; in which a practical joke results in a return to medievalism and the trick-ridden defeat of modern plutocrats (the trope is not too different from Kirk’s imaginative take on Romanoff Charlotte). Among Walter Scott’s novels he preferred Old Mortality, and the best of George Gissing was The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft.
Dr. Kirk’s television-free daughters notwithstanding, media played a helpful role, at least in terms of historical dramas fuelling imagination. My brother and I watched Disney serials of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett, while wearing fake-fur coonskin caps, even as a clan of real raccoons, from the adjacent forest, gathered outside the kitchen door making merry messes from our garbage cans. Similarly, for creativity’s initiators or audiences, for children or adults, the modern films of our media age contribute, even if audiences are somewhat numb and unread. After all, Hollywood never gets the history precisely right, but in the past it caught the general spirit of what it portrayed: King Richard was Christian, brave and righteous, while the heathen Saladin was better dressed, understood soap, and showed that enemies could be gentlemen too.
Modern histories on cinema or video can be troubled. Miss J. K. Rowling, having moved from welfare-mom to doyen of the chattering classes, felt compelled to make Professor Dumbledore homosexual (we never thought to ask if the heroine of “The Princess and the Pea” was lesbian—but about what was she dreaming on all those mattresses?). No doubt modern dragons have nightmares of global warming and breathe less fire as a result. But parents can somewhat direct the imagination of their young. It is more difficult among adults, corrupted as we often are, by the modern cult focussing on any historical figure’s foibles rather than the greatness. Hence Dr. Martin Luther King was “predominantly” a womaniser, we are told; and there was nothing noble about the crusaders; Mother Theresa was allegedly ambitious and testy; Honest Abe was less than fully honest; and miracles were all sleight-of-hand. Phooey. They can read but they cannot dance.
Confronting this can be challenging but possible. Recently, an appalling Irish guest at my London club declared, with loud certainty, that Jesus had brothers, and so the Blessed Virgin was, um, not always the latter. I considered a long exchange on the many dubious texts excluded from the Gospels, which was what the argumentative guest clearly wanted. Instead I concurred, mentioning Christ’s supposed other siblings, including Zebedee and Clark, the famous donkey-racing drivers, and their sister Doreen, the hairdresser in Jericho. Altogether, we laughed him off the terrace and into a taxi. Game, set and match for orthodoxy.
The strategy can be adapted, insinuating all manner of things that turn the modernist mockery of history—in fact and fable—into a mockery of itself. The false interpretations condemning the Middle Ages can be countered by discussing the thousands of modern people who wish to return there, dressing up for medieval and Renaissance fairs. That gives you an opportunity to stifle your opponent, and return the conversation to the realm of myth, fable and Greater Truth. The alleged falsity of Christianity can be made to look meagre—especially to a Progressive who worships youth and anything new—by discussing the hundreds of thousands of young people (chiefly young people, indeed), who turn up whenever the pope steps outside of his spartan guesthouse. Whatever the modernist objection, one may be able to return the conversation to moral truths cloaked in a long-shared vision of the past. But I digress.
For the young, the ingredients of history and romance ever remain: as storybooks old and new, and in cinema. It merely requires an adult with a joyful sense of the past. Among grownups, the minimal result of creative gamesmanship, usually alongside inspiring shared creativity, imagination and fun, has the side-effect of lifting adults from our workaday ruts; of helping us come to see ourselves as part of a vast continuum; of being players cast by God in His sweeping and glamorous cavalcade.
Such play inspires overall, and has the often-unnoticed side-effect of helping to inculcate a much wider, and long-lasting, appreciation for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.