My first and last care is not politics but education. Education seems to me inherently conservative, being the transmission, and thus the saving, of a tradition’s treasures of fiction and thought. But education is also inherently imaginative.
Author’s Note: I wish to dedicate this essay to a writer of books whose greatness is at once utterly at home in America and quite without spatio-temporal boundaries, Marilynne Robinson, who produces in reality the images I only analyze, and thereby not only saves but augments the tradition I love—the aboriginal imaginative conservative, one who celebrates the glory of the commonplace.
When Winston Elliott invited me to become a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative I had misgivings. “Is this an honor honestly come by?” I asked myself. Am I a conservative, true blue and staunch? A conservative at all? Would a political conservative have twice voted for our current president, and for my reasons? Because he could speak both in the faith-borne periods of a black preacher and the consideringly correct paragraphs of a Harvard professor. Because he was physically graceful and young. (My disapproving conservative friends claim I fell in love with his ears—and I had no deniability.) Because he was half-black (a way of putting it that suppresses, absurdly, that he is half-white) and I felt this to be great cause for national pride. But, then again, that I thought he was a pragmatic crypto-conservative (in which I turned out to be half-wrong, though all too right if you ask his Left). And because nothing has more eroded my political conservatism than the mulish obstructionism he’s met with in the Far Right, that miserable simulacrum of conservatism.
Yet, “imaginative conservative” does just about describe me. Let me put “political” conservatism aside for a–long–moment. Later I’ll want to show why an “imaginative” conservative might be all over the political map, as occasion arises: right, center, left–reactionary (disgustedly oppositional), moderate (prudently dithering), and radical (exuberantly reformist).
So, as always in life, having found the phrase that wins my adherence, it’s time to figure out what it means. What’s “imaginative?” What’s “conservative?” And how does the adjective modify the noun and the noun support its adjective? For my basic assumption is that—let other persuasions appeal to bleeding hearts, Christian conscience, or political realism—a conservative should have, first of all, recourse to self-awareness, mindfulness, reflection. One last confession before I get to it: none of the subjoined lucubrations are anything but second editions, so to speak, recollections and rephrasings of thoughts thought and re-thought over the decades. But perhaps that is in itself a sort of conservatism—to allow one’s convictions to modify and self-reform, but not to be given to swoops and loops and U-turns.
First: Temperamental Disposition
Candor seems to require the admission that conservatism is a temperamental disposition. This concession explains a fact that would otherwise leave us nonplussed: that all people aren’t conservatives. Conservatism is, I think, a disposition to delight in repetition, reference, resonance, recollection—to feel at home with twice-told tales. The other temperament relishes what is novel, decodable, anechoic, contractile.
All the nominal terms of the “conservative set” (not, God help us, a “mind-set,” as if the intellect were green aspic-in-a-mold) imply the experience of twiceness, of iteration. “This event has happened before, takes it meaning from elsewhere, reverberates with bygone music, recalls its memory from beyond.” A term borrowed from theology helps: this imaginative experience is the human counterpart of the divine nunc stans. As this “standing now” encompasses all the phases of time—past, present, and future—in one eternal present, so the imagination collapses all times into one, phase-fraught Now. As Socrates thinks that “the unexamined life is not lived,” meaning that nothing has properly happened until it has been tethered in reflection, so the imaginative conservative feels that the unimagined life has not eventuated, that nothing has come to pass until it has been reiterated, rehearsed in the conservatory of the IMAGINATION.
The antithetical set of adjectives can be comprehended under a phase-term from history: modernity, from modo, “just now.” To be modern means to eschew a time-fraught—in favor of a time-divorced—Now, to be as temporally abrupt, to achieve as pure a punctuality as possible. Thus modernity is tied to novelty; “novel” is what has never existed before and will not last long after. Novelty requires innovation, newness for its own sake. In matters human, recent modernity seeks “decodable” complexes, meaning experiences that can be represented as encryptions of discrete rational elements. It prefers “anechoic,” echoless, modes, the flat factuality of informational data. Finally, I term it “contractile,” because it tends to superseding rather than absorbing, to displacing rather that accommodating usages. In sum, our modernity is fast and fleeting.
I’ve written in abstractions here. Modernity is just a summary term and has no power whatsoever, and the set of attributes I’ve picked out is neither complete nor really generic. Moreover, I can’t believe that the two dispositions I’m attempting to delineate aren’t both latent in all of us, and that the one I adhere to can’t be elicited in us all by imaginative education. It’s just that in order to clarify imaginative conservatism, I needed a sort of antithetical bogeyman. Nonetheless, with that caveat declared, I don’t want to recant my claim that people do, by and large, fall into various positions along this temperament-spectrum and that its right and left can be summed up, somewhat more insouciantly, like this: Imaginative conservatives mess around pragmatically sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity) while the other side wants righteously to rectify the world right now. I think good things get done somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. But now I’ve veered off into political action, when I’ve made it my brief to talk about the soul. Well, what politics is to public life, education is to the soul. So shifting to the second part of this analogy, let me say prospectively that nothing—nothing—seems to me as important to our communal life as the discriminating provision of children’s imagination. More of that at the end.
With this twice-lived, iterative mode of the soul goes a way of thinking that I’ve already named—reflection. Here’s what it means to me: a receptive readiness, an intentional openness. “Intentional” is a medieval term for the way the mind tends toward, reaches for, the world. There are many kinds of mentation, such as calculational, which converts qualities into quantities (as in “It’s hot because the thermometer is up to 95°”); analytic, which breaks the world up into its components (as in “Here’s a revolution, let’s take it apart into its religious, historical, political, economic, etc., factors”); methodical, which applies a tried-and-true procedure to situations (as in “Here’s a patient, let’s get his insurance, emergency number, vital signs, etc.”); symbolic, which turns beings into labels (as in “Here’s a school in trouble, let’s do some re-branding and achieve name-recognition”).
All these ways have their profitable efficiencies as well as their loss-producing dysfunctions. One had better be good at them—but as a user, not as a true believer. They don’t intend to construe the world; they mean to construct it. Not so reflection. It is a figure for attentional receptivity: send the beam of your interest out to things and receive the light returned by your object. (Language for the soul’s activity is perforce figurative.) There is a strong assumption here to be sure, a realism: the world that confronts us contains—be it at a first or second remove—substances, given natures that are somehow accessible to us. (This “somehow” covers shelves of philosophical technicalities.) “Reflection” honors this givenness. It expresses the priority of being over making, of receiving over manipulating, of nature over second nature. Other modes conceptualize; they produce concepts, thought-constructs, mental schematisms, “large-mannered motions” intended to have great generality, that is, ideologies. Reflection brings back basic notions of beings, thoughts that have great specificity in the sense of being replete with the nature of things, that is, ideas. Species, recall, is Latin for the Greek philosophical term idea or eidos, that in things which is intelligible to us.
Is reflection, then, purely passive? Yes, insofar as openness is a kind of excitable passivity. In human terms, the reflective life implies that adherence, engagement, and commitment to the way things are, love in sum, are the inciting causes of thinking rather than, say, mere gawking curiosity or its equally unloving antithesis, pure practical utility.
Yet, to my mind the plans that spring from, and the actions that follow on, receptive thought ought to—indeed often do—jibe better with the world than those that are willfully inventive. One way to put it is this: Constructive thinking changes the world; receptive thought changes it for the better. (Even the students of my own college, as good a lot as a teacher can hope for, are enough in the grip of modernity urgently to wish “to change the world,” well before having reflected much on how the world will look if they get their wish.) As so often, the trouble is terminal generality: abolish poverty, prejudice, inequality, etc., etc. Reflective thinking, given to according due respect to the way things are, tends to bring the “how” of execution much closer to the “what” of the desired outcome. This accretion of specificity, this involvement of means and ends, prevents some unintended consequences. Another way to put this is: If your designs intend to save a cherished vision of the imagination, you will be more open to practical compromise, well knowing that the actualities of the soul are anyhow never fully realized in the world and that, moreover, getting your way completely is the prelude to perdition (a text for a sermon full of edifying anecdotes).
The imaginative conservatism of such thinking is near neighbor to radicalism—not, I repeat not, extremism, which is a sort of secular fanaticism, aggressive all-outism, all-or-nothingism; nor even the insipid heterodoxy, cluelessly advocated by educators, called “questioning”—of situations, assumptions, elders. Questioning is secular inquisition, sneakily hostile inquiry. Its intention is to skewer the object and barbecue it. It is antithetical to question-asking, the central non-technique of reflection. A question affirms, at least as a starting point, the matter asked after. It imputes to its object the being that inquiry can wind itself around and the worth that arouses the interest implied in asking. The object of a question obliges by making of itself a sort of attractive nuisance, an irritating desire.
“Questioning,” then, is reason in its suspiciously peering mode, and since its satisfactions are necessarily negative, it can never rest satisfied, except perhaps in the ultras of the mind, in mental excess. Horribly enough, the human beings who have talked themselves into these regions are met there by their fellows who’ve come by the short route—true believers in stark finalities. Here the far-out intellectuals and the hell-bent troops find each other; it’s a human catastrophe in the making: Nazis, Soviets, in the last century.
Conservative radicalism means something quite different to me. Fanaticism is deliberate tunnel vision, chosen obliviousness of environments and surroundings, stark single-mindedness—the very opposite of the twice-lived imaginative life. The conservative is always in the middle of things, betwixt and between, interestedly engaged in the world’s paradoxes and oppositions. Recall that “interest” (from the Latin interesse) means “to be among things,” sufficiently composed not to fear compromise, moved enough to feel responsibility, whereas extremists are self-displaced to the far-out edges, where hot tempers and icy simplicities rule. (One of the marvels of Dante’s hell is that Satan’s Inferno is ice-cold.)
“Radical” means going to the roots. There is that eradicating radicalism I’ve described as extremism, which pulls growths up by the roots to exterminate them like weeds. But conservative radicalism digs deep in order to ground more securely by understanding more deeply the roots of the world. All the things we care about have, or so I think, a root to be understood, reflected on, replanted. (Thomas Aquinas, for example, speaks of radix gratiae, habitus, peccati, virtutis, rationis, “the root of grace, disposition, sin, virtue, reason.”)
In such inspection the cankers also come to light. Thus every anchoring root of our country’s political life turns out to have its attendant flaw, knowledge of which is a cause for shamed love. American patriotism is confirmed both in the resigned acknowledgment of our ineradicably inherent defects and in some participation in righting eradicable flaws. What other country’s all-but national anthem can boast such a stanza:
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
Conservative radicalism is reflective rootedness.
Now I must cast loose from this earth and go off into the wild blue yonder of ontology, an unjustly ogreish word, which means “the account of Being.” Up until the middle of the last century, Being—what ultimately is—was the central interest of all philosophy in our Western tradition.
I want to claim that conservatives of the soul think philosophically—ipso facto. This claim goes somewhat against a very respectable conservative tradition that pits conservative moderation against philosophical extremism. It’s a belief that deserves respect because it belongs to the tradition of traditionalism. I mean that this traditional belief values—as I do—what has slowly come to be, carries the past within, belongs to this specific place, cherishes the treasures delivered to us (tradere, “to deliver,” “hand down”) in two strands, sometimes from our imaginative and intellectual forbears (mine are Homer and Socrates), sometimes from our ethnic ancestors (as mine are Joseph the Egyptianized Jew and David the kingly musician).
But the proponents of this beautiful dual tradition make what seems to me a big error. They mistake philosophy—the love of wisdom, the desire to know what’s what, that opens itself receptively to beings—for ideology, the trading in thought-packages that willfully traffics in denuded rationalisms. They rightly value responsive reasonableness over manipulative rationality but forget that reasoning too can be a form of safekeeping.
Coercive rationality, moreover, plays only a very intermittent part in philosophy, which is—or so I think—given to all kinds of detail-invested thoughtfulness, particularly the imaginative kind. Read a rationalist thinker, and you will find an occasionally smartly devised but mingy mythlet to illustrate a point. The reflective philosophers, on the other hand, allow their thought to clothe itself in grand myths—not so that we may luxuriate in our mortal version of what Wallace Stevens calls Jove’s “mythy mind,” fuzzy and static, but, on the contrary, to move our thinking about a multitude of matters: about the remarkable fact that we can receive non-spatial beings (divinities and fictions) into that psychic quasi-space called the imagination; about the mysterious nature of images themselves, that they both are and are not the beings they present; about our unexplained ability to extract intellectual truth from images, myths, parables, and those image-skeletons diagrams; and, finally, about our astounding gift for thinking beyond the limitations of our language.
Far be it from me to demand that folks trying to live their lives should take on professional philosophy. Professors of philosophy belong to a guild like any other; they do what they were trained to do and what they are good at (to obfuscate or clarify as the state of the art may require) and what gains reputation and a livelihood. I am thinking of an unabashedly amateurish affair, everyone’s business: to muse occasionally about the multifarious appearances that present themselves to our five external senses (why five?) and whether appearances are what there is or whether something supports them, something—that notorious Being—which they both hide and reveal; to meditate now and then on ourselves; to think about our thinking power, whether rationality is always or ever reasonable, whether rigorous reason is always right reason, whether thoughtfulness should be dead serious or actively playful, in short, to ask what is required to get responsibly from here to there in thinking; to wonder whether human beings have changed their nature over the millennia, whether something did change in human being when it turned, in early modernity, from being an embodied soul in God’s world to being a disembodied soul in its own world (toward which inquiry a piece of learning is moderately helpful: at the dawn of modernity the word “subject,” which had meant “the bearer of an object’s appearing qualities,” flipped into “subjective consciousness,” what we mean when we speak of our personhood, our subjectivity); and finally, to consider how we will be transformed if our bodies become mostly prosthetic artifacts and our souls withdraw largely into cyberspace.
It follows as the night the day that a conservative of any imagination will be concerned with divinity. Although there could be no obligation to be a believer in the conservatism I’m delineating, yet there might be a duty not to position oneself as a skeptic, meaning by “skeptic” a habitual questioner of the questioning type described above, someone who, under the mask of inquiry, intends corrosion.
The beginning is the disposition to feel respect, even awe, in the face of faith, to suppose that a faithful fellow human may, far from lacking critical ability, have been given a gift—called “grace” in theology. Next comes, or ought to come, a genuine (not an informational) desire to reflect on the possible reality of a root of all roots, to brew up some sympathy for the possibility of Scripture, meaning a book whose ultimate author is trans-human; to find the teachings of faith (dogma) and the contents of religion (ritual) engaging; and to be open to the grandeurs of theology and the wonder of the great doctors of divinity—that human beings of the most logically acute and humanly penetrating intelligence should be willing to turn the beginnings of their thought over to revelation and faith.
If belief does not eventuate (the best word in my vocabulary for its coming about), there is a reverent substitute, situated between belief and skepticism: good-faith agnosticism. “Agnosticism” literally means “not-knowing.” Not knowing in good faith is, therefore, not making specious protestations of ignorance—a mask for spiritual indolence or crypto-skepticism. Despair strenuously developed, on the other hand, though possibly open to the charge of willfulness, also seems to me a good-faith position; so is serious atheism—a curious state of strenuous belief in a not-god, in God with a negative sign. In fact, the merely apparent openness of the agnostic who has adopted that position as a sort of effort-mitigation seems to me even more unbudgeable than that of the unbeliever who exists agitatedly fending off recapture by this non-existent God—such agonizing people live as serious figures in Dostoevsky novels, and in the world as well.
The agnosticism in which I have faith begins with a strong sense of human finitude—not others’ but my own, a strong sense that I have no access to the bounds of my own existence, no credible news of that “undiscov’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Thoughts of my essence, my “whatness,” may well take me behind and beyond the here and now that characterizes my “thatness,” my existence, but these existential, real life bounds are absolute. Well, perhaps not quite; after all, it is possible to imagine hell or paradise—indeed they are the imagination’s prime subject. So sometimes I feel a kind of shame at possibly waking up after death in a venue that is absolutely strange to me; the thought of being caught post-mortem in embarrassing ignorance invokes a sort of obligation to imagine possible afterlives.
In sum, to think about a possible divine nature is an obligation not at all abrogated by divine inaccessibility. Here’s another way to put it: the sense that I seriously don’t know is not the end but the beginning; imagination can stand in for faith; thus the inquiry that saves our humanity is conserved. The ancient astronomers had a wonderful way of phrasing their task: “to save the appearances.” They meant to find the mathematical hypotheses, the underpinnings, that would make the heavens intelligible. But it goes as well for the theological urge; its task is to thoughtfully save the hither world by hypotheses about the thither realm—and the imaginative conservative will want to participate.
Now is the moment, when I’ve so run up the intellectual stakes, to say something of the populism that seems to me to fit the imaginative conservative.
The populism of the Right has, deservedly, a dubious reputation: no-nothing anti-intellectualism, anti-democratic demagoguery, exploitation of prejudice, hate-mongering. It’s no better on the Left: dictatorships of the proletariat, leveling egalitarianisms, crowd-sourced pseudo-revolutions. The populism I mean is the political friendship on which, as Aristotle says, civic communities are founded. It is very American, and its Madisonian version seems to me particularly to suit the conservative temperament—democracy controlled by a constitution, mediated by representation, and diversified by the interest groups Madison calls factions. (I think of Madison as the most imaginative conservative statesmen I know of, imaginative in envisioning very specifically how things actually work on earth, conservative in devising an edgily innervating stability.)
The populism that seems to me to suit us is a friendly fellow-feeling based on sheer liking of our common public ways: the matter-of-fact courteous helpfulness of our casual encounters; the ready wit of our linguistic companionableness, the well-worn high-jinx of our gestures; the commonsensical unegalitarian sense of equality, meaning the deep sense that sub specie aeternitatis, seen from the height of heaven, as it were, we are indeed all equal, of an equal creation, but that, on the plateau of earth, we are quite unequally, or better, incommensurably, gifted; the consequent understanding that we are endowed from above with certain rights regarding our existence, but that seen on the shared level of earth we are all mysteries to each other and so, ipso facto, entitled to respect for our individual souls. It follows, I think, that you have to be very willful to enforce an egalitarianism of condition or of gifts on so incomparably diverse a lot as we are. (Examples for my own practical application: expect even an evidently warranted judgment of terminal stupidity passed on a fellow to be someday nullified by unsuspected wisdom. Similarly for badness: expect even patent rogues to have some preserve of goodness in their souls. Despising is neither imaginative nor conservative.)
Similarly for cleverness. Contravening my own advice, I’m not a great respecter of pointy-headed intellectuals (a prejudice common to all sorts of conservatives). Now the first token of this type is Thersites in Homer’s Iliad (whose head literally comes to a peak), a homely, narrow-shouldered, bandy-legged footsoldier among knights and a fellow of “measureless wordiness,” who gets beaten up by Odysseus for his subversive social criticism. But—this is Homer’s covert greatness—Thersites really is speaking truth to power; he’s one of us.
I know perfectly well that these fellow-citizens, left and right, especially the latter, can be (unlike myself) pains in whatever part of the anatomy you prefer. They play deaf to reason, go on motoric rants, display firepower (though mostly hunting rifles, the least scary of the whole worrisome miscellany) and all the other unamiable qualities for which the theoretical egalitarians and believers in “the people” of the Left tend to despise people. Still, for good sense, the middling majority (which is, lamentably, shrinking but still most of us) seems to me most trustworthy: decent, shrewd, often religious, not-so-simple, and—what is not to be underrated—generally high on personal hygiene, and therefore agreeable up close and personal. I’d rather see sovereignty with them (and so, with me) than with any other class I know. I’ve already mentioned the inequalities of personal excellence, of endowments, of which glories and dangers I, as a teacher, am acutely aware. True believers in creaturely equality ought to be, and, as I said, in this country often are, generously unegalitarian with respect to acknowledging gifts.
I can’t claim really to have much of a feel for popular culture, from wailing folksongs accompanied by plunky guitars to the succession of big-time musical entertainments of the last half-century. But a devotion to the works of traditional high culture just can’t be a disqualifier for being a populist of the sort I’ve described—doesn’t the most popular high of high culture, the Ninth, claim that in joy all men will be brothers?—populism, albeit expressed in politically incorrect, gendered language.
A last thought under this rubric: I have a notion that the whole country would be a bit better if our language were a little more taut, a little more succinct. Not only would shy people be more apt to get a word in, but the linguistic law of diminishing returns would be properly observed—the longer you talk, the less anyone hears. (Case in point: modern tyrants compel crowds to listen to six-hour rants.) The Gettysburg Address took just over two minutes to deliver. I think we would all like each other a little better if we had the occasional common experience of the brief grandeur of a Lincoln-like speech. Am I dreaming?
That brings to mind time, surely the concern of an imaginative conservative, who lives now in, now out of time, who sometimes thinks and, in stretches, reasons collectedly and again muses and meditates vagrantly. (Buddhist-oriented readers must forgive me for this hijacking of their central practice; in the Western tradition, for instance in Descartes, “meditation” refers to imaginative thinking. For my part, I experience vagrant mentation often but can form no conception—such is my residual respect for rationality—of a mind perfectly cleared of all thinking, in the Eastern mode.)
So here is this particular conservative’s take on time: I think he, or—as I, a woman, may say without having political correctness imputed to me—she, will have a bias against the future. It sounds very like profanity to say so in an age in which almost all time is fugitive but the future. It is, however, this very bully-future I’m against. “X is coming, like it or not;” “You can’t stop Y [usually putative progress], so go with it;” “We have to change or we’ll be left behind.” These are threats, even “existential” threats, as they say.
Well, surely I don’t have to submit to what I don’t like, surely I can go against rather than with “it,” surely I can opt to be left behind, if that’s where I want to be. After all, it’s well known that if you fall behind for a long enough time, you’ll end up way ahead: “The first shall be last and the last first.” The future is not what’s inevitably coming but what you are willing to have others call up for you and what you are ready to summon a slightly hysterical welcome for. You could opt out, live around it. “To hell with you” is an apt profanity, when used toward time-bullies, for they are emissaries from the realm of No Exit, which is hell.
Here’s a truth, an ontological one, meaning one concerning the way things are. (Below I’ll reiterate that a true conservative is an ontologist, an account-giver of Being.) There is no future. It is not a region, and so nothing can come to or at us from there. There are hopes, expectations, and plans. They are now. “He will come to dinner” means I expect him and he plans to come, not that this future dinner guest, who is still taking a shower at home, is somehow already marching toward my house.
There are, as far as I can tell, two futures right now. One is fixed and determined by the laws of nature plus present conditions. Since no living soul is in full possession of all the conditioning facts, no one knows what will happen of necessity, even if he is convinced that the future is fixed. On the whole, forecasts are pretty reliable nowadays, so it makes sense, for example, to invest in real estate, as if the Eastern coastline (the one I care about) might be partly underwater in 2030. So it will probably be—unless…
The other future is fairly completely up to us. For instance, if we wish our young more or less to disappear into electronic virtuality, that’s entirely up to us. “Us” is a tricky word here; it means both you and me, and we may wish for different futures. So what’s coming is not entirely in my power or in yours, but it is most assuredly not in the power of that utter non-being, the Future.
I might inject here that the bully-futurist is not the only bully I need to stand up to. The bully-conservative, my disreputable cousin, is equally unlovable. I mean that incarnation of one-eyed againstness, of dug-in recalcitrance, of pseudo-rational reaction, that has brought Congress into disrepute (from which it will recover when the people’s good sense again prevails over their urgent fears, as it always does). Therefore, complementary to resisting surrender to the specious siren-song of an inevitable future is withstanding the noisy rant of fear-inspired reaction.
If the Future is rightly exposed as self-fulfilling prophecy, as willfulness disguised as prescience, what about the past? The past seems like the proper province, the homeland, of the conservative soul. It has, however, one small defect: If the future is not yet, the past is no more. The past has passed away; it’s dead and gone. It’s nowhere on earth to be found.
I should know. I used to be an archaeologist. We regarded the artifacts and bones we (very methodically) dug up after 2,700 years of resting in peace, as testimonials of the past—no, as pieces of the past. But that was one of the axiomatic illusions all professions require to keep working. My potsherds weren’t past. They were present, now-existing. And their age was our attribution and their meaning our interpretation. A perfectly innocent intelligence would not have discerned any pastness in those precious snippets of civilization sitting in the soil along with dumbly timeless pebbles.
And yet—the past has a smidgin more thereness than the future, which is why the sedate conservative has a tad more solidity than the labile progressive. Where then is the past, if not on earth? In memory. The past exists because we remember. The soul is a lamination of time-signed memories and projections. (The language is mine, but the thought comes from Augustine, the most time-wise philosopher-theologian I know of.)
Some of these memories arise from personal experience, some from outside transmissions. Some are corroborable and falsifiable, some are beyond the pale of evidence. The memorial past is all the past there is. If it has more thereness, more existence, than the future, it is because the projections that are the future are, after all, just modified cullings of memory. The future—our particular future—is mostly past-plus-technology, that is, memory-images plus special effects—confidently expectant science fiction.
So what’s left to life? The Now. And when is that? When asked what time it was, my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, answered, “You mean now?”—a counter-question that has no possible answer. It’s always and never now. The Now, when analyzed, is a point without parts, to save us from which the psychologists have proposed a “specious present,” the moment of actual consciousness. It can be extended to the span of immediately active memory (at least for the young; for the old what happened three hours before has gone into deeper oblivion than what happened three score years ago).
If our analogue watches, instead of ticking and skipping along in increments, were as truly continuous as are the starry heavens they model (which Plato called “the moving image of eternity,” eternity being the nunc stans mentioned above), no Now would be distinguishable from any other; they would all meld into each other. So it is a genuine mystery how we manage to exist—a source of irritated rationalization to the problem-solvers and of acceptant awe to the reverence-minded. (Nota bene. In fact I rejoice in problem-solving, from household malfunctions to human embroilments to political perplexities. But I think of it as a lesser human mode than contemplation.) There is a famous saying by Marx here adapted by me: “Philosophy has hitherto aimed to understand being; it is time for it to solve problems.” That, I would claim, is pure perversity. And the opposite is pure conservatism: first apprehend Being, then get to doing. More of that below.
Thus the time-phase of which there is, so to speak, the most, is the past, and this past is lodged in personal but also in public memory. There resides the tradition that is the conservative domain, almost by definition, for the handing down (once again, tradere, Latin for “transmitting, handing on”) of past treasure is, after all, any conserver’s prime business. Conservatives are ipso facto conservers, conservators. Moreover, the conserving absorption of public into personal memory well describes the process of education. Put otherwise, education is in part the enlivening activity whereby the lifeless letter of external memory is revivified in the interior soul under the tutelage of someone in whom the tradition has already come to life. At least that is education for children: the stocking, the provisioning, of the imaginative memory with the goods of the tradition or tradition-to-be. (In current cognitive-science terms this accumulation of memorial treasure is called “storage.”) For older students, the other part of education also comes into play, the incitement of reflection, of appreciative and, on occasion, condemnatory critique. For, contrary to the current judgment against “judgmentalism,” judgment is what we were put on the earth to exercise—though not driven by pedagogic needling, but by exigent attention.
So the reappropriation of the sculpture carved, the book written, the music composed long ago, is the business of cultivating education. The original meaning of cultivation is the loosening of soil and the killing of weeds to allow plants to grow—so education as cultivation is a really good metaphor gone disastrously dead. It might sound as if education, in the conservative understanding, had to do with the past that has passed away and its zombie-like re-animation. But the real past, the past of memory, is precisely un-passed; it lives after all in the soul and the soul is vitality itself. That is why conservatism is averse to “historicism,” the notion that the chronological time you live in makes you what you are, with the consequence that when your time is up, you’re history, dead and gone, mummy for scholars. (There is an academic mafia, contract killers who produce rigid time-corpses out of the past and then position and re-position them; this exercise is called revisionism.) That is also why, from historically meticulous restoration to insouciantly inventive historical theme parks, the smell of dry death, of Miss Havisham’s cobwebbed stasis, hangs over the reanimation business, no matter that its venues are spider-free and squeaky-clean. These well-researched tableaus are the opposite of true renaissance, of rebirth, the present reappropriation of the past. The tradition rightly taken in is, I think, a privately performed renaissance, a revivification of the stock delivered to the soul’s storehouse.
The twice-lived life, the iterated existence I spoke of above, is memory-bound, for nothing has really happened until it locks into its proper past, finds its background myth. Memory provides the backdrop that sets the scene for the event—here and now. Perhaps some sort of temperament can live in the, unresonant, referenceless, anechoic Now—but I can’t imagine that experience.
To recapitulate, and more radically: The past that is alive and present, the memorial past, the ongoing renaissance of the soul, abolishes in its very conserving potency the distancing properties of chronological time and material space. Why should spatial distance and remote time be principles of separation when their inhabitants all together dwell in the soul’s memory? Nihil humanum alienum mihi (“nothing human is alien to me”), if I have a conserving memory and a memorial imagination.
We are lucky in our Western heritage, lucky that it is a great tradition that has been bequeathed to us, and lucky that so much has been enough valued to escape the degradation of passing time. But here is a question: Is it the antiquity that a conservative actually tends to value in this tradition, more than its contents? I have a little Attic cup dating from the fifth century B.C.E. sitting beside me. It holds paper clips, but every once in a while I “come to” and a frisson runs down my spine as I think, “2,450 years back and perhaps a little Athenian kid was drinking his milk from this.” Mere antiquity has its peculiar charms to which the dispositional conservative is perhaps particularly sensitive. But all in all the glory of the tradition—a tradition primarily in books—as I’ve tried to lay it out, is not in its pastness but in its presence. These books speak directly and rousingly to me and my friends, known and unknown; moreover, they are in dialogue with each other, on either side of their temporal position. To their predecessors they respond by acceptance and/or rejection; to their successors they attempt to project their influence. And as its individual speakers have greatness, so their conversation has grandeur. Raphael in the “School of Athens” was right to put them all in one venue as contemporaries. Imaginative conservatism is not essentially time-involved.
One last temporal consideration: What is the conservative disposition toward the New, that I seem to have proscribed above? Newness may appear in two modes. There is “new to me”—all the things I never knew. “All human beings,” I think with Aristotle, “are hungry to know.” So we’re all avid for knowledge already known to others. But sometimes there is also “new in the world.” Some of this newsy news is old stuff, re-costumed. But there are things truly new and new in themselves: new phenomena and new knowledge—not novelties, newly invented for the sake of newness, but newly discovered because the realm of nature or of the intellect was willing to yield to the importunities of ingeniously avid research. I’ve studied some science and some mathematics—and even some philosophy—that boggles the mind in its never-before-heard-of newness and its revolutionary re-formation of human and natural being—that gives the lie to the Preacher who claims that “there is nothing new under the sun.” I won’t list examples because I’m averse to name-dropping, but every reader will have a supply. To my mind, the proper conservative response to true newness (as opposed to hyped-up novelty) is to assimilate it as best we can, to integrate it into the dialectic of the tradition, where it settles into its place—and in ceasing to be so discombobulating, becomes really interesting.
Here is an excursus on politics, for surely being an imaginative conservative, that is, primarily a conservative of the soul, must have some proper public consequences, articulable in a sort of political credo. Here’s mine: fairly reliable reasonableness in matters of policy and utter unpredictability in party adherence. I’d be sorry to think anyone could predict my vote, or that they couldn’t count on my having communicable reasons.
Yet there are probably also ingrained predispositions: to incrementalism not closed to sudden dramatic intervention; to retreat-ready-positions on policy with—a very few—unbudgeable principles: to being generally in the mainstream with occasional last-ditch-loner hold-outs. Back at Yale, more than three score years ago I learned one thing from my numismatics professor (not much about those beastly little coins of which numismatics is the study). He was department chairman and told me his manner of governance, “Pure principles and corrupt administration.” He meant: Never do what’s plain wrong but compromise yourself shamelessly on all the confused issues—that would, thirty years later, bedevil my life as a dean. (A note here on “plain wrong:” It goes without saying that any judgment of wrong—or right—is mine, but that doesn’t imply “wrong for me,” as relativists claim. Moral judgment is, I think, in its very nature universal; otherwise it is mere preference. If that isn’t a conservative opinion these days, I wouldn’t know what is.)
So in sum, protectiveness of what is of slow growth and has endured—has both suffered and lasted through times and places. And as a complement, sudden action when the time has come—readiness to join, never the revolt of the masses, but the revolution of citizens, whose best model is our own American revolution.
And always that insistence that big-hearted generalities be costed out in practical specificities, for sentimentally expansive mantras tend to issue in restrictively rational prescriptions. Further, even (or especially) in politics, there’s a temperamental preference for what has a human face and a distinctive flavor over what is standardized and sanitized, for what is free rather than planned, natural rather than plastic, small rather than large—in short, for the whole litany of a conservationist sensibility, provided that enthusiasm for its realization doesn’t overwhelm care for people’s present livelihoods. (Again, an example to represent concretely the whole dispositional complex: a preference for the analogue over the digital, for what is spatial, shapely, figurative, patent, over what is linear, cypher- and fact-like, encrypted. But perhaps I am sliding into personal taste rather than true-to-type delineation.)
There was a philosophy professor whose lectures I sat in on for a while at Yale (incidentally, the only real academic philosophy class I ever attended; therein was my salvation: the ignorance of academic philosophy permits the bliss of occasional insight). He used to say, when making a mental leap, “By a natural and easy transition, we now come to…,” so I now come to stuff and its ism, materialism.
Political conservatives do associate themselves with physical and notional accumulations—commodities and capital, profits and power. That’s fine by me, as they said in my childhood Brooklyn. I’m not in love with stuff, per se; I have a rule for my little house: one thing in, one thing out; it doesn’t apply to books. But I do hang on to, even love, some things, for example that little Attic cup I mentioned above. To me, an imaginative conservative doesn’t trash things but accords them a limited respect as being incarnations of human effort. Nor does he invest in objects designed for obsolescence—a euphemism for trashing. But this strain of disapproval is an old song and sometimes tiresome. So by and large, I think people should do with their money what they like and throw away (into the designated bins, if you please) what they want to be rid of. In fact, I would wish people to have what they want, and if they want stuff, on their head be it. Gorging isn’t elegant, but it’s human; conspicuous consumption isn’t refined, but it’s very human. People don’t have to like what I like, particularly since the world is surely full of potential friends and sufficiently stocked with actual ones, who do like what I like.
All of which is to say that, given a choice between the disgusting materialism of the American middle and the sanctimonious spirituality of the elite, I’ll take disgusting materialism. To the bottom of my heart I’m what my students would call a freak—a First Amendment freak: freedom (within the law) first, and goods, even refined ones, will eventuate. Indeed here’s a case for pretty radical conservatism: Let everyone talk as they like, and pray people won’t take advantage; they’re more likely to stay civil if not inhibited by rules of correctness.
I would go so far as to say that I find offense-taking somewhat offensive. This is the real world, live with it. So what if some oaf subjects me to anti-Semitism? Let’s not make a federal case of it. I want the law to protect my person from harm, not my soul from insult. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
That was a bit of a digression from materialism. But this next point about immaterialism is the point. I have a real fear of virtuality; it makes me appreciate good old-fashioned thing-devotion. I think the diminution of the spacious imagination and the oblivion of the time-honored tradition that seems to be the unavoidable consequence of being glued to a dinky little tablet, reduced to twittering language, dispersed all over space, addicted to instantaneousness, tethered by connectivity, together with all sorts of illusions about wisdom accruing from infinite information, and the blessings of foreshortened time, are humanly deleterious and the prelude to a psychic implosion.
There was an obnoxious wisdom late in the last century—obnoxious since it was of the “like it or not” kind—that “the medium is the message.” It was catchy hyperbole in any case. The medium merely abrades the substance, but that moderated version has come true: the content reflects the format, and the media format is not substance-friendly. Yet, as always, the people who know how to confine the medium to a means can do wonderful things with it. But that takes reflection—self-searching and self-control.
I think that the psychic implosion in store for an addicted generation will be awful, more so when the confident prophecy of a total-immersion virtual world, generated from within the brain, begins to be realized. Imaginative conservatives should prepare to resist, though they probably can’t expect to have their political operatives with them in this battle.
My half-shelf of books on the digital age is full of references to “virtual reality.” “Virtual” means “inactual,” for God’s sake.
It’s necessary to talk once more about the soul. It is a currently proscribed term; mind or consciousness are allowed. Their contexts are utterly different. I’ll pick just one aspect. The soul is traditionally regarded as embodied, though separable in thought and perhaps in death; contemporary mind or consciousness is either an emergent aspect of the brain or simply identical with it. It would take pages to explicate this, so let me stick with “soul” because, since I’m not a brain scientist, I have no obligation to be a reductionist. An interim compromise with those who deny that they have a soul would be: You do without it and give me mine. Since some of the soul-deniers are relativists; they, at least, shouldn’t balk at this solution. The reason the soul comes up again is because the novel world of the previous paragraph was technology-based, which leads to a scary division between cluelessly dexterous users and technique-savvy insiders—parasitical profiteers and controlling operators. That makes me ask, “What are imaginatively conservative modes of thought?” They can’t be either of the above.
Far above, I said I would argue the claim that conservatives should be philosophical—nay, more: interested in the deepest delving into Being and its account, ontology.
Conservatives, in the tradition of their English forerunners, tend to be suspicious of rationalism in human governance, of the impositions of righteous reason, and rightly so. They know the dark undersides of bright ideas. But insofar as this aversion makes them anti-philosophical and causes them to forego theory for practicality, it rests, as I said, on a misapprehension. Philosophy is rational only in stretches and rationalistic never. Sometimes thinking things out requires rigorous episodes of correct reasoning; it cannot, as the love of wisdom, ever mean shoe-horning the way things are into logicistic preconceptions—and that is what it means to be rationalistic.
I think there are modes of mindfulness that should appeal to a conservative, especially an imaginative one. I use the prescriptive “should” because when all is said and done the notion that a conservative could afford not to think his way as far into the depths as possible is just absurd. What is his tradition but a mutually responsive series of attempts to touch bottom or take the heights? “We’ve always done it that way” or “That just isn’t done” are humanly considerable arguments, but they work for settled custom, not to our ever-inchoate tradition as I understand it—they’re conservative but not so imaginative.
Here, then, are some non-rationalistic mental modes relevant to imaginative conservatism. First, conservative imaginativeness. All memorable philosophy—this is not the last time I’ll say it—has recourse to images, some resplendently panoramic, some denudedly diagrammatic. Images provide both the levering devices of thinking on its way and the embracing completion beyond reason’s reach. Philosophy also relies on analogical insights, which are the chief works of philosophical imagination; in fact, analogy is to thinking what metaphor is to poetry. Both render manifest the same structure in different domains; both are imaginatively coherence-producing without rationalistically forcing identity.
Second, conservative thinking. It is almost a redundancy. Even mordant, skewering critique or refutation is destructive only as a finality; as a prelude to positive inquiry, it just clears the approaches to an object of desire. Inquiry itself, question-asking, is carefully conservative of its aim; a bona fide question is an premonitory intimation that cautiously seeks its substance, an anticipatory outline that tentatively lays itself about its object. It is the opposite of murdering to dissect.
Given these two mental modes, imagining and thinking, here are, further, two philosophical approaches that a conservative might welcome. I call them hierarchy and comprehension; they are complementary.
A “hierarchy” is a sacred rank-order. It seems to be an indwelling urge in human beings’ thinking to assign gradations of worth, of superiority and inferiority. As a conservative I’m not so much for designations of inferiority, especially when it comes to human beings—and their diverse powers, which tend to be respected inversely to their functional scope. (Example: In traditional philosophical gradations of human capacities, that very imagination I so esteem tends to rank low—even though it is pervasively employed.) But, to be sure, where excellence or greatness is marked out, mediocrity and smallness are apparently implied. In hierarchical judgment, however, there is gradation, yet every member of the sacred order is, ipso facto, dignified. Another way to put this, one particularly relevant to humanity is this: In many respects, both natural and conventional, we are certainly rankable and so, unequal, but by this very fact of our common humanity, we are actually incommensurable, not subject to a common measure. It seems to me a conserving—and an imaginative—way to see the world: dignifying hierarchy.
As hierarchy pertains to gradation, so comprehension concerns inclusion. Meditations on life and world will, I think, inevitably dwell on what’s in and what’s out. I mean what is estimably thinkable and what is beyond the pale. Perhaps the primary, the ultimate, example, is Being and Non-being: what can manifest itself in existence, in specific “thisness” and its respectabilities, as against what has no underlying substance or apparent qualities, what is pure denial, perfect devoidness, total negation. For believing Christians, the representatives of these oppositions are respectively the Creator and Satan, the Adversary; for philosophical pagans (among which I rank myself), Being and Non-being are, as I said, the ultimate categories. Of these, Being has my cordial sympathy, Non-being my fascinated respect.
“Comprehension,” as I intend it, is the mode of thinking that finds a way after all to include both members of the opposition, the In and the Out, in a whole. One way to inclusiveness is to consider that the confines of what I positively approve are equally the limits of its negative complement: the latter therefore cooperates in the definition of the former and is thus a necessary aspect of all positive being. A related way is to consent to live with enough duplicity (in the literal sense, enough ambivalence) to accept even the devil’s going to and fro in the world because his presence puts the whole Creation on alert, just as Non-being, when conceived as scattered through Being, invigorates it by diversifying it: every this shapes up by being not that. The greatest piece of ontology known to me, Plato’s Sophist, achieves the triumph of philosophical cunning by interpreting Non-being as Otherness, Diverseness, the ontological ground of that very inclusive diversity which is a current American preoccupation: every not-Me is an Other, necessary to the deep constitution of the world.)
Political conservatives are not famous for tolerance. So much the more ought they, in their proper thoughtful mode, to gain a reputation for an inclusiveness more deeply grounded than in the unreliable vagaries of mere putting up with each other, called “tolerance.” I’m suggesting that a notion such as “comprehension” might serve.
One more, last, conservative approach that comes to my mind (surely there are others) starts from the second most fundamental question of ontology, that of universal-and-particular. Earlier I referred to the unique incommensurability of individuals, which ultimately puts them beyond common measure that gauges equality and inequality. Yet, I intimated, we could not be individuals were we not instances of a genus, tokens of a type, particulars of a universal—be it “rational animal” or, as an ancient wag said, “featherless biped,” or the highest creation, or “person,” or some more recent conceptual construct.
But always the question is: What are we more, the representative of a kind or an ultimately unique individual? The question becomes politically charged when our highest belonging is reassigned, as it is in “identity politics,” from a common humanity to a religious, racial, ethnic, or gendered essence. Note that I have written a conservative prejudgment into the phrasing of the problem, namely that our essence is being human and the other categories come afterwards in importance, or are perhaps even just contingent constructs—intellectual underpinnings devised intentionally to support struggles for special acknowledgment and for power-bestowing rights.
That’s my first sense of this future-fraught matter, but my considered belief is that it is encumbent on conservatives to think it out on the most fundamental level: how true essences, the basic natures that are universally attributed to a group, are to be determined, and how they are preserved and modified—“specified”—in individuals. We cannot respect, preserve, save, or conserve, that to which we have not extended the regard of our thoughtful consideration. Well, to be sure, we can, but we will do it ham-fistedly (or as the British so pungently say, “cack-handedly”).
To me it seems an assignment that a conservative must not only accept along with everyone else, but is particularly well constituted to carry off, for conservative thinking traditionally prides itself on its concreteness, and that is what’s wanted here. Look at this concrete particular and try to see him or her (of course I’m thinking of someone I know) now as a concretely particular realization of an assembly of categories, say, female, African-American, working woman, praise-singer, AME member—and then again as a human being, essentially a walking universal and only accidentally an instance. Is there a right order for my listing of categories? How is the order manifested in the concrete being? What must I take in, what look past, to do the actual person justice? What wonderful (no, wondrous) melding of complexion and character make for concretely human, not abstractly ideological, respect and affection? I call this episode of attentive thinking “applied ontology.” (Of course, I don’t go around doing it all the time—in fact too rarely.) You can call it what you like—though perhaps better not “psychology.” ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished that more of us fairly right-minded people would try to be frequently mindful as well.
In my penultimate consideration, I come to the term closest to my heart—imaginative, for me the dominant term in this phrase “imaginative conservative;” I’m a conservative primarily because this adjective, I’ll claim, correctly modifies its noun, though the converse also has its force: imaginativeness tends towards conservatism. For example, imagination gives political ideas their concreteness and forestalls, to some degree, unintended consequences. You have a cure-all program: tell me in concretely imagined detail how it will work out in real life, and also where you may get exactly what you don’t want. That takes imagination of the literal sort I’m about to lay out. I was talking to a sympathetic friend about this essay, and by way of keeping me from one-sidedness, he said: “But the others [liberals, he meant] also have imagination.” “For instance?” I said. “Well, they envision a better world, a world free of… [a litany of ills].” We both began to laugh, because neither of us could see a thing—neither anyone’s real land (there being some three-hundred plus countries, as I recall), nor any specific desire (there being an infinity of those), nor any concrete plan (with escape routes). These goodhearted wishings were not imaginations but ideations, resulting in “ideas,” bright ones. Once, long ago, “idea” did indeed connote ultimate repleteness; now it mostly means mental fixation on a gift-wrapped thought-package.
At this near-last moment, I ought to define the conservatism whose imaginativeness I have wanted to analyze. Definition is dictionary business, and I often have recourse to Partridge’s Origins (an etymological dictionary), in part because he’s not overscrupulous about morphological fact, but very attached to what words mean or meant to their speakers. So: con– is an intensifier to servare, Latin for “to keep safe.” Conservatives, then, are people deeply concerned with preserving, with keeping things safe. I go on from there: because they know things worthy of safekeeping; the implication here is that there might be a kind of conservatism attached to unworthy preservation, or to holding on for the sake of holding on. To some degree, hold-outs are, as I’ve said, to be respected, first, because it is the way of the world that what goes round comes round and what seems retrograde this day may be progressive another day. But more importantly, these folks try to protect stability, and without stability the soul goes blindly shallow with anxious hustle, and the imagination fails in the face of a life oscillating between fast-forward and rewind. That is not to deny that being dug in can also be grave-like and suffer its own obliviousness. Some kinds of conservatives can only chant destructive slogans; the living sense is gone; reactionary movements are the clattering dance of the dead.
The bridge, a long one, between past and present is memory—the memory bridge is a figure for my more literal claim above, that memory is all the past there is. Along this long bridge, some of the past worth saving may, by a misapplication of the memory-mode called memorizing, be turned into sallow ghosts, thence into petrified effigies; the latter particularly in our public or external memory. Similarly, moving thoughts can become rigid abstractions (as in philosophy textbooks that trade in “isms,” idealism, realism, rationalism, empiricism, etc., etc.). Poignant visions can become inert abridgments (as in those infamous Study Notes students don’t admit to using.) This whole educational cemetery is laid out, I think, according to misguided notions concerning the afterlife of human works, the most acute case of wrongheadedness being that so-called delivery systems are separable from their content, that the concrete specificity of the original texts (in which I include responsible translations) is not inextricably involved in what is said, and that our students’ fictional or philosophical imagination can be aroused by informational abstractions. Derivates are not only failure-prone in finance.
Now to that imagination itself. It is a power and has products. Our souls imagine and bring about works, works of two sorts, mental imagery and external images. Most external images, verbal, visual, even auditory are—the ins and outs of this would be worthy of a big book—imitations of interior imagery, although some external images have no internal originals. (Example: conceptual art; some artists [egged on by their estheticians] claim to visualize only as they are drawing, that is, ex post facto; so they are not imitating psychic pictures but originating manual gestures. Some people say they relish such productions.)
There is behind this account of the imagination a deeper view of the soul, called “epistemological,” that is, “giving an account of knowledge.” In this account, which has ancient and modern versions, imagination has a Hermes-like function. (Hermes, recall, is the conductor-god who transfers souls from earth to the underworld.) Thus the imagination takes delivery from the senses, which give us the world in its solidity and gravity, and rarifies their content into transparent weightless images (sometimes taking these even further down to the mere schemata, the idea-diagrams just mentioned) until they are fit to be presented to the intellect—de-materialized, quasi-spatial presences, on which the mind can think, or, in neuro-peak, which the brain can further process.
Images themselves have a wonderful ontology, mentioned above and implied in my description of image-formation. They are and are not what they represent. Pull a picture from your wallet and say, “That’s my grandson.” If I responded, “No, it isn’t,” I’d be infuriating, but I wouldn’t be wrong. For an analysis of image-nature yields that very melding of Being and Non-being which so attracts and astounds the intellect attempting to think comprehensively: An image is a present absence—or an absent presence. It is a mystery of disincarnation, of which the willing mind, cunningly compromising its logical requirements, just manages to take hold. (Cognitive science and neuroscience provide explanations of mental imagery that are more sharp-edged but less illuminating in my context.)
Memory, the imaginative conservative’s special domain (since, as I claimed above, it makes the past have being and the present vitality), is the imagination’s supply house and workspace, for imaginative material is, I would say, basically memorial; who can imagine anything, even a futuristic prospect, that is not a modification of the past?
The imagination, then, is the worker within this memorial store; it transmutes, transfigures, and transforms memories. Sometimes it falsifies, but I think that in its invention it is less liar than interpreter. I’ll put it this way: the well-conditioned imagination is a myth-recalling and myth-making imagination. It puts a background of meaning to present experience. Human meaningfulness almost always has, I think, a sense of depth to it, which in memorial space acquires the feel of “out of the past.”
So it’s time to meditate on the sources of memory. There are basic external origins, of course, sensory experiences and their evaluations—reality-derived memories. Among these are external images, crafted by painters and other visual artists or developed by cameras and other recording devices, snapshot-style or posed, unretouched or doctored, intended as honest testimony or passed out with a deceitful agenda—true or lying imitations.
And then there are internal images, imaginative images, effects of the productive imagination working on its psychic material. And these images of the soul raise the most acutely wonderful of all questions concerning the imagination: What are the originals of imaginative images? Whence comes the material that the working imagination contributes on its own, drawing on presences not found in experiential, this-worldly memory? Most quasi-sensory elements of inner images must, for such as we are, indeed be world-derived. But there are beings, events, atmospheres that have never yet eventuated in this world, or at least were never within our sensory reach. When poets and novelists make them external for us (and we in turn internalize them) we call them fictions, but falsely, because we may find them more actual than merely real facts.
The question concerning the originals of imaginative images is, I think, ultimately theological. Explanations in terms of the sub- or unconscious are subterfuges—no one can actually locate these limbos; explaining away is not explaining. When I say “theological,” I have in mind the Muses who live on Olympus and are invoked by poets from Homer to Milton, who both had access to the realm of divinity, where the Muses are quartered. So also great novelists express, more prosaically, some sense of being visited from Beyond. And it is no accident that the greatest phenomenologist (that is, an account-giver of inner appearances, in this case of memory and imagination, in his Confessions) was also among the greatest theologians, namely Augustine of Hippo (354-430). In sum, the originals of memories are mostly external and come to us largely through the frontal doors of perception, but the originals of the imagination on its own are imparted—who knows whence?—to some hinterland of the soul—which, once again, it’s no use to call the unconscious, for if it’s just neural, how does it issue as “conscious,” and if it’s conscious, how is it “un?”
So much for the ontology, activity, sources, and originals of the imagination; as I said, a culpably condensed treatment worth a big book. And now, one last time: Why is the imagination a specifically conservative concern so that it is rightly attached adjectivally to the noun “conservative?”
The imagination should be anybody’s interest, a common interest, for just as articulateness damps rage, so imaginativeness relieves alienation. Thus, as the preservation of expressive (non-twittering) language should be a social concern, the saving of the imagination should be everyone’s care. I will argue below for the implication that nothing matters more to our psychological security than the protection of children from degraded speech and vulgarized images.
What are the dangers? First, the outsourcing of the imagination, the riffing, as it were, of the in-house working imagination, to be replaced by the inundating hyper-productivity of an industrial image-source. Next, the loss of worldly originals, particularly the paving over of nature, the systematic replacement of what is given to us, is of slow growth, is deep and mysterious, by what is made by us, is quickly produced, and is complex and so completely analyzable—without being at all understood. The practical business of resisting the transmogrification of first into second nature belongs to those uncomfortable kin of conservatives, the conservationists; they are lately learning not to ride rough-shod over people’s livelihoods in their enthusiasm and to find mutually satisfactory accommodations, so that conservation can become a win-win game—in the conservative mode, one might say, chuckling.
A final slew of dangers I can think of is the concentration of physical vision into the field of a miniscule window, where occurs “texting” with its digital modes: literal fingering, calculational figuring, verbal frittering. Concurrently, imaginative visioning is overwhelmed by image-inundation, and keen intellectual appetite is spoiled by a surfeit of information.
But then, what’s all this to the imaginative conservative in particular? Well, we ought to be glad and close observers of all givenness, green nature above all, great sniffers-out of the corrosive vapors issuing from the excessive ingestion of the original world, the world that is, for faith, God’s creation, or for philosophy, Being’s appearance. Another way to put it: Imaginative conservatism means, to me at least, a grounded flexibility functioning between ideal and real, the imaginative space in which concrete specificity and universal essentiality meet—the twice-lived world, once in experienced fact and again in imaginative reflection.
Twelfth: Eccentric Centrality
Finally, an imaginative conservative will have, against all odds, an abiding faith in eccentric centrality. A nun I used to know once explained to me that the energy which moves the world has its center in out-of-the-way places, remote from the mere epicenters of secular power. I agree. The spirit lives in the sticks, in backwaters, small towns, in self-sufficiently recalcitrant, contentedly unregarded places, in local orchestras, neighborhood groceries, in libraries that still have books on shelves—not multiple copies of best-sellers but accumulated collections of middlingly good novels—and, above all, in face-to-face schools that transmit the tradition, its treasures of beauty and of reflection. Of course, they all must scramble, accommodate themselves to “current conditions”—a potently polymorphous notion, the correct discerning of which takes more practical wisdom than most of us possess. Thus the imaginative conservative’s practical project is survival without loss of soul.
So that’s the imaginative conservative I’m willing to own up to being—call it “modified Burkean,” if it’s better off with a label. Do I then have “the Conservative Mind?” I hope not. A mind-set is a major liability for a person wanting to be thoughtful—and a premature fixative of imaginative reflection to boot.
In fact, it is legitimate history to claim that an imaginative—let it be said, a Burkean—conservative will be politically a classical Liberal in the nineteenth-century English sense: of Lockean ancestry, believing in the ultimacy of individuals over groups; ready to trust elected representatives with projects for political reform but resistant to administrative compulsions of social justice; attached to private associations as loci of excellence; and, above all, cherishing liberty over the forcible equality of ideological egalitarianism—as opposed to the equality grounded in our common nature or creation. This is the merest sketch of a politics that seems to me compatible with imaginative conservatism.
My first and last care, however, is not politics (a late-learned duty) but education (an abiding passion). Education seems to me inherently conservative, being the transmission, and thus the saving, of a tradition’s treasures of fiction and thought. (I can’t think the desperately “innovative” gimmickry which diverts attention from contents to delivery systems is able to reconstitute failing communities of learning.)
But education is also inherently imaginative, because from pre-school to graduate school, it consists, or should consist, primarily of learning to read books (in whatever format), books of words, symbols, diagrams, musical notes. For entry into all of these, but perhaps books of words above all, imagination is indispensable. Great poetry requires visualization to be interpretable; the word has to become a vision to be realized. (Specific example, perhaps the greatest moment of any: at the climax of the Iliad, Achilles is searching for the vulnerable spot in Hector’s armor-encased body. The armor Hector is wearing is the suit he has stripped from the body of Patroclus, the friend of Achilles’ heart, whom Achilles has sent heedlessly into battle to fight in his stead, clothed in his own armor. Now he drives his spear into Hector’s gullet. Whom is he killing? Homer is silent. See it and shudder.)
Similarly, works of reflection require a kind of reverse imagination, since practically all speech about non-physical being is by bodily metaphor: The transfiguration, the transcending, of such philosophical figures is practically the same as thinking reflectively. (A not so very specific an example, but perhaps among the grandest: Hegel tells of the Spirit coming into time, of God entering the world, through a “gallery of figures,” human incarnations, even identifiable as historical individuals. But, he says, that’s not how we are to understand his Phenomenology of Spirit, meaning his account of the phenomena by which divinity becomes manifest in the world; he is not presenting imagined figures but incarnate truths. It is the most hellishly difficult but most rewarding of image-interpretations known to me; it requires ascending from visualizable images to purely thinkable originals.)
That’s imaginative conservatism for a college and its students, my particular venue and charge. But what matters most is, as I must repeat, the education of children. Looking at them from the vantage point of their future teacher, I would wish this for us: that their memories be stocked with the finest products of the tradition and their minds be—gently—turned toward the outside in close looking and articulate verbalizing and toward the inside in absorbed reading and ready visualizing. Just forget for a while about “preparing them for tomorrow” and “for being productive members of today’s society”—all that routine drivel deserves scare quotes since it’s meant to turn us into sacrificial victims on the altar of utility. It doesn’t work anyhow, since tomorrow is anybody’s guess and actual producing may be by then passé. And while I’m at it: Teach children mathematics for what it is, not dreary, opaquely operational formulas, but the most immediately intelligible language in which Nature speaks to us—and the spare armature of our vision-invested imagination.
All of this can happen if schools for all ages stay resolutely local in place and go expansively cosmopolitan in time. I mean that they should preserve themselves as face-to-face communities in particular places, but dedicate themselves to absorbing living heritage from any time. For the present is too thin to live on, and the future too inexistent.
This essay was originally published here in October 2013, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
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- “Simulacrum” because “conservative” practically means “moderate”—or should. I’m speaking here of an obtusely aggressive public persona, not of the understandably aggrieved human souls who have donned it; in some respects I sympathize with them.
- In an essay the claim to candor will, I hope, carry some credit; in politics “quite candidly” is a discrediting speech-tic.
- There is a seriously absurd notion abroad that wise planning is based on the whole informational apparatus that results from non-reflective mentation: “big” data, facts, number-crunchings, etc. My experience says that in practical judgments concerning life everything that matters—purposes above all, but also limits of tolerable deviation and of acceptable means—will have been predetermined by engaged pondering. Then you go fact-finding, either to help you bully colleagues or to persuade you it’s not worth the battle—but no one who has not once simply overridden the experts—well, I won’t go there.
Moreover stuff becomes informations and facts are found only within a given referential framework.
- Theses on Feuerbach XI: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”
- African Methodist Episcopal Church
- Though they too have a place—as indexes to very long novels.
- Such as logic and mathematical diagrams which appear, it seems, in a blank internal imaginative field in which reason—how is a mystery—can inscribe its structures. There are, of course, also external images produced by nature, such as reflections.
- I want to distinguish sharply the Non-being constitutionally inherent in images from virtuality, which is a discretionary mode of reception, hence, as I said, a danger. More accurately, virtuality is an environment, “the virtual world.” When the promise of this virtual world to come is fulfilled, it will divorce its—presumably still voluntary—participants pretty finally (if only in stretches) from the physical world; they will be cocooned in a world-simulacrum that is absolutely immediate, without intervening organs of sensation or physical distances—achieved by direct electronic stimulation of the brain that subserves our perceptions. It will be a complete environment, a replacement world, without reality-resistance and therefore completely manipulable—by the individual for his own pleasure or by the technological provider with alien motives: inactuality as world-principle—otherwise put, an image-world humanly contrived without originals. Here the wondrous element of Non-being is turned against the very images it sustained as images, caused to be images; in the virtual world, not only have mental images cast loose from originals, but instead of being within us, we are within them, as in a super-mind.
As Milton’s Satan says, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Hell, I would think. In sum, virtuality is a term from the devil’s dictionary, a good word, “virtue,” gone ambiguous as in “virtual reality,” potently unreal reality. Conservationists of the imagination should think twice. This term has suction power.
- See E. Brann, The World of the Imagination (1991).
- Here is an omen: The number of visitors to our national parks is on a downward trend; the reason given is in a headline: “Why go outside when you have an iPhone?” (Economist August 17, 2013).
- Here’s what’s “Burkean.” Edmund Burke (1729-97) is for reform that is not ideologically driven; he is radical when reason-sustained popular opinion requires it (Burke was a supporter of our Revolution); he’s for minimum moralism and conciliatory politics out of respect for tradition and care for stability; he pays deference both to Nature and historical conditions; he supports incremental change and the narrowest tailoring of planned interventions. He’s not for philosophy, mistaking it, I think, for rationalism (or maybe just being an Englishman of a traditional cast of mind)—that’s where my revisionism comes in: I’m for Burke plus philosophy. And certainly, if conservatives may, on occasion, be divided into Burkeans and bullies, I’ll declare for the former.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Temple, Fountain and Cave in Sezincote Park” (1819) by Thomas Daniell, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.