Why Imagination Matters

Eddie Ejjbair
6 min readAug 7, 2022

Men, we are often told, favour visual stimulation. Camille Paglia, for instance, argues that Western culture — which is or has been a predominantly patriarchal culture — suffers from an ‘inflammation of the eye’:

The power of the eye in western culture has not been fully appreciated or analyzed. The Asian abases the eyes and transfers value into a mystic third eye, marked by the red dot on the Hindu forehead. […] Western culture [by contrast] has a roving eye. Male sex is hunting and scanning: boys hang yelping from honking cars, acting like jerks over strolling girls; men lunching on girders go through the primitive book of wolf whistles and animal clucks. Everywhere, the beautiful woman is scrutinized and harassed. […] Islam is wise to drape women in black, for the eye is the avenue of eros (Paglia)

‘I have heard thee with the hearing of the Ear but now my Eye seeth thee’ by William Blake (1825)

Judeo-Christianity, she continues, placed a ‘taboo on visual representation’, but ultimately ‘failed to ‘control the pagan western eye’. Today, the eye is given free rein. We see way too much. There is less privacy, more images — and not just any images, but what Nikolaas Tinbergen termed ‘supernormal stimuli’:

Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen coined this term after his animal research revealed that experimenters could create phony targets that appealed to instincts more that the original objects for which they’d evolved […] Animals encounter supernormal stimuli mostly when experimenters build them. We humans produce our own: candy sweeter than any fruit, stuffed animals with eyes wider than any baby, pornography, propaganda about menacing enemies. Instincts arose to call attention to rare necessities; now we let them dictate the manufacture of useless attention- grabbers (Barrett)

An unintended and under-acknowledged consequence of this ‘inflammation of the eye’ is the devaluation of other modes of seeing. With visual saturation, not only does the eye atrophy, but so too does the ‘mind’s eye’ — which was already severely devalued by scientific empiricism (i.e. the belief that that knowledge is derived primarily from sensory experience).

‘Newton’ by William Blake (1795)

The difference between seeing with the eyes and seeing with the mind’s eye is the difference between the visual and the visionary. No one understood this distinction better than the artist William Blake. He spoke of seeing things with his ‘outward eye’ and possessing a ‘double vision in which he sees ‘two contradictory realities at once’

In Blake’s writings there are confusing references to the importance of seeing ‘through’ rather than ‘with’ the eye. This was another way to state his belief in the superiority of double rather than single vision. To see the world with single vision was, for Blake, to be robbed of everything that mattered in life– one of the many ways in which he was in opposition to the spirit of his times (Higgs)

It is not surprising, therefore, that he was once described as having ‘large, strong eyes’. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard eyes described as strong before).

Another word for ‘mind’s eye’ is imagination and it was by ‘exercising his imagination’ that Blake was able to ‘express what he experienced’: ‘for those who have never had even a whiff of a vision themselves, the work of William Blake can do more than anything to convince them that such experiences are real’ (Higgs).

However, it is not just in the domain of art that the mind’s eye is important. It is also integral to the development of love and love-inspired action. This was well understood by medieval knights who — as a part of their chivalric tradition — would maintain a ‘paradoxical prohibition against attaining [their] desired woman’:

Therefore, it is likely that the knights had as their focus not real women but rather a “woman of the mind” linked to a practice of evocations, a “lady” who basically had an autonomous reality independent of the physical individual who could act perhaps as an aid and, in a certain way, embody her. The “lady” was actually imaginary, and it was on a subtle plane that the knight brought his love, desire, and exaltation into action. This is how we must understand everything that we have studied so far; in fact, the woman to whom a knight dedicated his life and for whom he performed dangerous undertakings was often chosen in such a way that the possibility of actually possessing her was excluded from the very beginning. She could belong to another man, and therefore hope of marriage was impossible; she might be renowned for cold unapproachability, though her “cruelty” was accepted and even exalted; she could even be the image of a woman who indeed existed but had never been seen. Nonetheless such a woman fed men’s desire and drove them to service leading even to death, while in any other respects such men, as warriors, feudatories, and knights, obeyed no other law but their will, were not used to subjection or renunciation, and were averse to any sentimentality (Evola)

The love triangle of Sir Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur (also Don Quixote’s idealization of Dulcinea) is a good case in point. Without the ‘woman of the mind’, the chivalric tradition is meaningless.

‘Lancelot and Guinevere’ by Herbert James Draper (1890)

For those still in doubt, I will end with an intense description from Edward Carpenter’s The Art of Creation in which the intermingling of the visual and the visionary creates an awe-inspiring experience:

The young man sees the girl; it may be an ordinary face, a random figure from the most trivial background. But that sets things going. A memory, a confused recollection arises. The outer mortal figure is pervaded with the inner immortal one and then there emerges in the consciousness a bright and glorious form not belonging to this world. . . . The arousal of that image intoxicates man and it shines and burns within him. A goddess, perhaps Venus herself, is standing in her holy temple; a feeling of splendor and awe invades him, and the world is transformed for him. . . . He makes contact with the very real presence of a force . . . and feels this vaster life within himself, subjective and at the same time intensely objective. In fact, it is also evident that this woman, the mortal woman, who provokes such a vision, also has a close relationship to it as much more than just a mask or an empty formula that brings that vision to his mind. Inside her, as in the man, deep unconscious forces are acting, and this ecstatic appearance of the ideal in the man is linked to that force which (as an objective archetype) has acted so powerfully in the heredity of the woman and contributed to the molding of her form and figure. We should not wonder, therefore, that her form reminds him of it. In truth, when the man looks into her eyes, he sees a life much deeper than she herself realizes and which belongs to him as well, an everlasting and wonderful life. That which is immortal in him looks at that which is immortal in her, and the gods descend to meet in them (Carpenter)

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’