The imagination should be a mirror, not a psychedelic portal, transcending reality without renouncing the transcendentals.

Catholic professor and writer John Senior possessed a sharp imagination, which he once leveled against Dumbo. “Dumbo is an abomination of the imagination,” he said. “Elephants can’t fly. Horses can fly.” Dr. Senior’s intriguing statement poses the controversial position that even the imagination should have boundaries, which is not a common connotation. But an imaginative free-for-all can become an imaginative free-fall when it abandons the fantasy implicit in the truth—and when truth goes, morality is not far behind.

It is obvious that there are limits to the moral imagination, but it is less obvious that the creative imagination has limits also (except in reference to morality). When, however, the creative imagination is disconnected from the rational expression of truth, it becomes vulnerable to immorality. Imaginative incoherencies that are simply or strangely incoherent encourage an “imagination-without-borders” paradigm, when some things should not be imagined. Though its realm is the “unreal,” and, as an aesthetic act it is prone to subjectivity, the imagination should reflect reality and its allusions, rather than replicate or exalt the blatantly bizarre. One challenge in restoring Catholic culture—a culture of truth—is recognizing the margins of imagination.

Man was created in the image of God, and therefore Catholics cannot deny the importance of the imagination. They should strive within the venerable traditions which cultivate the imagination as crucial to the knowledge of truth. One of the Aristotelian principles of learning, famously phrased by St. Thomas Aquinas, is that nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses. This suggests an order of knowing, beginning with encounters that lead to an intellectual awakening, which entails not only the direct experience of things but also the development of the imagination, the creative exercise of the fancy with the facts.

It is through the imaginative arts—poetry, music, drama, and literature—that men become sensitized to “the light of things,” as Wordsworth put it. In that light, the imagination, which Wordsworth called “Reason in her most exalted mood,” becomes receptive to the hidden mystery of being, leading people of imagination to wonder, the beginning and sustaining principle of wisdom. If, then, the imagination is a rational function, it should play within the principles of truth, not only in message, but in the very images themselves. The further the imagination strays from truth, the further it strays from the order, the morality, that truth inspires.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matt 6:22-24)

The eye illumines the mind with the light of truth. The imagination can, nevertheless, be fantastic without losing its connection with the truth. The truth, after all, is fantastic, and the imagination emphasizes or embellishes the fantastical truth of things. The whole point of the imagination, therefore, is to draw out and augment inherent symbology, giving real objects a representation that is not seen in reality, but sensed as integral to their nature. Consider, for instance, the imaginative pattern that wolves are wicked, donkeys dumb, and lions regal. This is not simply a convention, but an imaginative expression based in reality since the fables of Æsop.

In following this intuition of the suggestiveness of and in things, the imagination presides over an invisible aspect of the visible world, bringing the unreal into play without denying reality. Even in their distinction, the real and unreal should retain some fundamental, poetic relation. Hence the fittingness of a flying horse over a flying elephant, for there is a very real sense in which a horse can be said to “fly” and no real sense at all in which an elephant can.

While both are unreal creations, the former is a magnification of truth; the latter, a departure. The principle at work is this: The imagination is ordered not to outlandish fantasy but to the intimations of reality—to the proportion of flying horses as opposed to the disproportion of flying elephants. Therefore, Bellerophon soars on Pegasus, doling death to the Chimera.

As traditional fairy stories attest, evil can be portrayed as ugly, or even incoherent, in its imaginative conception, for such is the truth; but it should exist in clear contrast to the good and beautiful, maintaining the moral compass. In other words, wolves should be big and bad, trolls should be nasty, and dragons terrible. Contrariwise, heroes should be strong, life should be sacred, and the world wondrous. In short, the imagination should be a mirror, not a psychedelic portal, transcending reality without renouncing the transcendentals.

The imaginative life, like the intellectual life, is perfected in truth, the conformance of mind to reality, even if the image of reality is exaggerated or allegorized. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.” The fact of a forest, for instance, is made more wondrous, even more real, by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents; there is tree-like truth in their watchful whispering, their careful, rooted constancy, that complements and extends the perception of woodland reality. But when the unconstrained imagination conjures teenage mutant ninja turtles, how is truth enhanced? Though ostensibly harmless, what is the purpose and the effect of such arbitrary creations, such settled strangeness?

While ninja turtles or flying elephants may be considered within the category of imaginative “abominations,” they are certainly not as extreme as pornography, graphic violence, disturbing deformation, uncanny revelry, or plain immorality. But the initial movements, however small, are worth heeding for they can be the beginning of an imaginative habit or mode.

If the imagination is to be moral, truth must matter in the action of imagination, together with goodness and beauty. Imaginative relativism sets a precedent for relativism in general, and moral relativism is quick to gain a foothold if given half a chance. Again, Christ’s correlation of the eye, imagination, and moral life is clear: “Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28).

Today, freaks qua freaks are celebrated in imaginative distortions that blur the lines of morality. These forsake the congruent interplays of reality, accustoming young people to imagine beyond the margins of truth. Modern approbation for the aberrantly unnatural, for Lady Gaga “Born This Way” abominations, defy the moral imagination with a creativity that defies nature even in “unnatural” conceptions. The entertainment industry especially is morphing imaginative norms with “new-normal” imagery. There is an irrational incongruity of imagery associated with this epidemic, images more monstrous than harmonious. With the conditioning to imaginings that are not in the image of truth, comes a normalizing of the abnormal.

Where, then, are the margins of imagination? Whether in art, literature, film, or music, when precisely does reality cease to be reflected? How far can the image of truth be stretched before it becomes false? Are there criteria or parameters, or is Justice Stewart’s watchword, “I know it when I see it?” The more extreme departures are easily judged. Artists like Salvador Dali and Zdzisław Beksiński rebel against reason. The writings of H.P. Lovecraft smell of perversity. Music and videos produced by Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson are depraved. The creations of Clive Barker are grotesque. The brutality of Quentin Tarantino is indefensible.

What of the talking animals from Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, or A. A. Milne? (Anthropomorphizing in the nursery is only natural.) How about Mike Mulligan’s sentient steam shovel? (Even machines and vehicles have a “personality.”) What of the Marvel universe and the Star Wars galaxy? (Modernity must make its mythology.) From Middle-Earth to Narnia, the slopes are slippery. The problem of delineating objective ground for an aesthetic calculus, whether creative or receptive, is analogous to the problem of delineating an intrinsic moral dimension to aesthetics. Though indefinite, it does not change the principle that images which do not instinctively and intuitively serve the good, true, and beautiful should remain unimagined.

If the imagination is not bound by truth, it can drift into John Lennon’s dream that imagines heaven and hell away rather than foster a more perfect vision of the truth. There is room for fantasy, and even absurdity, in the creative imagination, but, as Dr. Senior taught, it should retain a dynamic and derivative that befits rational creatures and forbid the freakish to mentally validate a trans-reality. Flying elephants may be outwardly whimsical, but they may also advance an inwardly perilous trajectory beyond the margins of a healthy imagination. When it comes to the imagination, the skies are not the limit. Truth is.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Bellerophon is sent to the campaign against the Chimera” (1829) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806-1858), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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