IMAGINATION IS FUNNY
By PETER FREDSON
As I sat on the edge of my bed today, preparatory to meeting daily challenges, the words of a popular song intruded like a mobile banner in my head: “Imagination is funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny…”
I don’t know the lyricist’s actual intent. I don’t think ”funny” meant “humorous”, but had connotations more like “peculiar” or “odd” Perhaps it had the sense of “spontaneous”, “unfettered”, “limitless”, or “not limited to prosaic, banal or pedestrian thought.” At least, I like to think that is so.
Imagination is not limited to humans. We know, through the patient observation of primatologists, that the Great Apes are highly imaginative. Their play, social intercourse, rain dances, use of natural objects as tools, feeding behavior, vocalizations, emotional interchanges and other behaviors show a wide range of imagination. We know that other creatures express a range of emotions and have equivalents of aspirations, hopes, fears, etc.
Humans are less satisfied than other creatures to be only themselves. They aspire to excel, to succeed, to be more than whatever they are. Many humans are outraged to be categorized as animals, specifically mammals. They want to be “more”. They want to be beautiful, to be loved, to be admired, to run faster, to lift more weight, to live longer, to be slimmer, to be wiser, and to be classified as just below the Angels.
All over this planet you will find people trying to “better” themselves. They are doing tai-chi, meditation, Yoga, taking correspondence courses, reading self-help books, walking on Tread-Masters, dieting, watching “carbs”, taking hormones or vitamins or hallucinogens. I’ll not mention all of the beauty parlors and preparations available for “beautification.”
People try to hit a ball faster, make a ball go through a hoop, or kick a ball and other activities with balls which are self-entertaining though functionally dubious as when a football is kicked and thrown for several hundred yards for several hours, after which players pat themselves on the back or butt, and do the same thing over again next week after next week after next week. Imagination leads players to believe that a basketball score of 130 to 132 is a “great victory.”
Their fans also believe it, so they go out and turn over cars, smash store windows, set things on fire, and have to contend with riot police, mace, handcuffs and heavy fines. And next year they will do it all over again. That takes imagination!
Plastic surgeons have a legitimate function in doing reconstructive surgery, as when a person’s appearance is altered by accident or disease. But the recent fad of adding mammary tissue to human females is a ridiculous exercise of imagination. The prime function of breasts is to suckle young, but the secondary sexual aspect today takes precedence. For instance, when using computers, full information is available concerning breast milk and suckling young, but the vast majority of randy young male computer users dial up and gaze upon female breasts as objects of beauty, stimulating their imaginations. The ratio of viewers selecting breasts for ogling as beauty objects, far outnumbers the more staid viewers wanting information on child suckling.
We know that to characterize women as being merely, ‘a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair,” does too much to counterbalance the opposing imaginative view that one woman is more beautiful or more desirable than another. Certainly I have made mental lists of which women I would prefer to do things with, if preference was ever realizable. Ah, my imagination can go wild there.
We know that humans of past ages used imagination. The pathos of early burials of humans, together with food and drink, tools and clothing, may reflect that death was considered like a coma, and that the dead individual would recover, needing to drink, eat and have tools available. The sprinkling of cinnabar on the dead body might be an imaginative metaphorical attempt to revive the rosy flush of life. Some anthropologists have speculated that this practice signaled the rudimentary beginnings of religion, with perhaps some idea of an after-life. We don’t know, as their thoughts were not reduced to writing or any other symbolic system.
Human imagination has created imaginary places, situations, conditions, events, existences, regardless of any necessity.
For instance, the sun and the moon have been regarded as having some sort of aware existence, as being “spiritual” beings. The moon is said to shine purposefully on young lovers, and the lovers blissfully concur that it shines for them.
The moon was considered as some sort of deity, or as containing “the man in the moon.” A Nursery rhyme affirms that a cow once jumped over the moon. The moon was thought to be made of cheese. The Aztecs thought the moon was the head of a female, Chalchiutlicue, a temple maiden who picked up a ball of feathers and stuck it in her bosom, then discovered she was pregnant. Her outraged brother, who didn’t believe that story, angrily cut off her head and flung it up into the sky, where she became the moon. Legends of the moon were largely disproved when astronauts landed a space craft there, stepped out onto the dusty surface, and planted a symbol (the flag) to show that America was better at traveling expensively into barren space and visiting uninhabitable planets than any other country.
This imaginative exercise in flying goes back many centuries.
Watching birds, like eagles and hawks, swoop gracefully into the sky certainly led to imaginative attempts to fly. You know the story of Daedalus and Icarus, in which Dadedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers in order to escape from a prison island. He cautioned Icarus not to fly too low as the waves would swallow him, and not to fly too high as the sun would melt the wax. But Icarus, delighted at the freedom of flight, flew too high and the sun did melt the wings and Icarus was lost in the sea that bears his name.
Many attempts at flight were made before the Wright Brothers succeeded at Kitty Hawk. Leonardo da Vinci seems to have invented an early version of a helicopter. Santos Dumont of Brazil has the Brazilian vote for precedence in flight. Going up in balloons was practiced for artillery observation during our Civil War.
Today we can fly faster than the speed of sound, can fly past Mars, and can live in an airless space indefinitely in a space vessel. We will probably build motels on the moon within another century, catered by Millennium Corporation no doubt. George Bush said he would like to go to Mars, and I am perfectly willing to let him go there.
Human imagination has created huge airbuses with luxurious accommodations like screens on which one can watch the 3 Stooges, or “Gone with the Wind” or “Harry Potter”, while drinking champagne and eating tasteless foods prepared two thousand miles away, if you are in First-Class, or eating a sandwich with a handful of peanuts if you are in Second-Class. You then can step out of the plane onto “foreign soil”, to marvel at the differences from your home town, or complain about the insolence of the natives.
I have long been interested in the rise of civilization, the early villages and towns, and their connection to discoveries in agriculture. That will be a topic for another day. I want to examine early exercises in imagination, particularly in the area of religion.
We know that survival was difficult for Paleolithic peoples, becoming slightly better in the Mesolithic period, and then again becoming unpredictable in the Neolithic period with the establishment of empires and roving armies of incredible brutality.
Uncertainty is a fertile ground for imagination. In early times small societies had people who thought much about uncertainty, and became specialists in imaginative attempts to control it. Shamans became consultants for uncertain events and conditions, to assuage fears and bring psychological and social harmony back into some group beset by fate or bad luck. Accident or disease or waning food supply were very serious matters. Death required a special use of the imagination. Shamans evolved rituals, ceremonials, paraphernalia to be used to combat ill-fortune, remnants of which are still used today for the same purposes. As villages became towns and towns became cities the self-taught shamans gradually became displaced by more sophisticated educated priests, with writing to connect their generations.
In most societies the priesthood was the main guardian of symbol systems, which became self-perpetuating through the establishment of priestly educational institutions. In some societies only priests could write. They gradually intruded themselves into the social and political systems with imaginative stories, myths and legends, dealing with invisible intangible places, beings and occurrences.
Greek people of knowledge were remarkably diversified. Their philosophers were also naturalists and theologians. They were exceedingly curious about sensate objects. Aristotle tackled the problem of classifying “things of Nature.” He also classified things of “the spirit”, and like Plato talked about souls, spirits, gods and other topics that are still found in religious taxonomy and concern.
India and China and other places of early civilization had similar imaginative systems, and people of learning. The Middle East became particularly obsessed with gods as shown in their clay tablets, with hundreds of stories about supernatural beings, places and incidents.
Most of the societies interchanged their ideas and inventions. Herodotus relates many of their beliefs, customs and practices. We know that there were dozens of religions, some having multiple deities, with considerable overlap of beliefs. If one religion waned and died, another took its place, or split into several with competing ideas. No culture or society had a monopoly on genius or on imagination, although some claimed superiority and went slaughtering other peoples to prove their superiority.
Religion is the product of human imagination. Imagination created several thousand gods and goddesses. Imagination created non-existent geographical spaces. Imagination conquered death, at least in the minds of True Believers, by inventing several kinds of immortality like transmigration of souls and cyclical resurrections.
And True Believers, like the football or basketball fans that become delirious because a ball entered some mythical space, also become delirious under the impression that death has been conquered, that they will live forever and that everybody, except people they hate, will go to some imaginary geographical place to play on golden streets, strum harps, and strap on angel wings to go flitting above the clouds while some imaginary deity treats them very kindly.
Others will fold their hands in a formalized ritual, and ask an imaginary deity, to suspend all the laws of nature for their benefit. Some believe that reading a collection of ancient manuscripts, an anthology written by largely unknown True Believers, containing apothegms, proverbs, adages, metaphors, some local history and fantastic stories about imaginary entities and places will make them better people.
Yes, Imagination is Funny.