On Imagination

The imagination is powerless. All it does is repeat things it’s seen and heard, repeat them in an altered voice, attempt to commit sins that were already committed long ago.”

– Andrzej Stasiuk, Dukla

I have thought about this quote, off and on, since I read it almost five years ago. It’s a provocative statement for anyone who understands themselves as a creator or their life as an act of creation. Sometimes I take my reflections seriously and jot down notes or try to bring the quote into conversation with other things I’ve read about imagination. But most of the time, I just repeat the words in my head—drifting off into other thoughts, riding the river to nowhere—as all meaning falls away. I suppose this is when my subconscious starts to do its work. Compiling, synthesizing, if Stasiuk is right, readying accumulated ideas to fool me into assuming I am the source.

I was once accused of this, cryptomnesia, over an idea in a graduate paper that my professor felt must have been derived from Weber. I explained to my professor that I had, in fact, never read Weber. But, he dismissed this as impossible. When I persisted, he responded that I must be suffering from cryptomnesia, “It happened to Nietzsche.” I never knew if I was supposed to take a comparison to a man with syphilis as a compliment, but nevertheless I found the idea that I did not know that my ideas were not my own far more disturbing than any accusation that I might be overtly dishonest. All that aside, Nietzsche had been accused of just this mistake. It’s documented—for whatever that’s worth in a case like this—that he reproduced a portion of a book that he had read in his tween years while writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He, apparently, believed the words to be entirely his own.

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Nietzsche wasn’t the first to be accused of cryptomnesia. The term was coined by Théodore Flournoy who employed it as part of his strategy to discredit spiritualist mediums. The problem was that at séances mediums often gave out information that it seemed they couldn’t possibly have known. This could include anything from descriptions of places they hadn’t been to episodes in which the medium spoke in a language they did not know. Flournoy’s answer to this complex problem was to argue that the mediums did know all these things, but had forgotten that they knew, and reproduced the information in altered form from their subconscious.

Carl Jung wrote about the Nietzsche case in Man and His Symbols and the case of mediums in On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena. Both are worth reading. The term has since been incorporated into psychological literature and pop culture in increasingly modified ways. A few years after my experience with the professor, when my own course in life seemed stalled, I read a lot of Jung’s work. Having actually forgotten at the time that I’d encountered it before. I was particularly moved by the period of his life in which he decided to leave teaching and focus on writing.

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A few weeks before I followed Jung’s decision, believing it to be my own creative solution to my life’s problems, I had—in a fit of existential rage—booked two tickets at the last minute to Greece. We stayed in a student’s apartment near the Acropolis and mid-way through the trip took a four-hour train from Athens to Kalambaka to visit the monasteries at Meteora. The priests ask you not to take photographs inside the monasteries, and so I avoided any internet images or travel descriptions of the interiors and instead began to imagine for myself what they were like inside, what the lives of the people who painted the walls and prayed between them had been. The fantasies came naturally to me. I’d been engaged in a similar act of predicting my future post-academia for over a year.

When we arrived, we walked up the street from the small train depot to the town center where there’s a small fountain that emulates a grand water fall and a few restaurants near statues of men I had never seen before. The next morning, we rose to see clouds surrounding the fingerlike cliffs of the monasteries from our balcony window. We drank coffee, and I continued to compose dramas about my imaginary painters and monks as we made preparations for the hike to Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas—the first monastery we would visit. By the time we reached the doors of St. Nicholas Anapausas, I felt almost as though I had been inside—a feeling that eroded immediately upon stepping into the chapel. I had been wrong about how it would look and feel inside, about how I would feel about what the future immediate and distant would hold. My imagination was powerless.

Alexander Hogan is the Managing Editor of The Flexible Persona.

Right now, somewhere in the multiverse, I’m walking around in a house in the northern woods with a copy of Bullfighting in the pocket of my robe and a mocha in my hand. The house is lit by beeswax candles. Outside, it’s always twenty-six degrees and snowing.