Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

If I ever have to make a statement of my deepest beliefs, I’m going to quote John Le Carré and say,”A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger.”

Despite my flippancy and cynicism, I really believe that, you know. With imagination, a man can know what a woman feels like when she hears a catcall about the size of her breasts. A pacifist can know why for some soldiers a war is addictive, or an athlete what being twice their ideal weight is like. All it takes is courage and effort, which is why most people have all the empathy of a rock.

And if you tell me that such exercises are self-deceit? Then I’d say that you probably have a point, but that empathy is the best that we can manage, and that it is considerably better than nothing. Even a failure of the imagination is better than no imagination at all.

To many people, such statements are heretical. Today, we like to believe that each person’s experience is so unique that nothing can bridge it. But I come by these beliefs naturally, thanks to a couple of events that happened before my fifth birthday (if not my fourth).

The first happened on the front lawn of my parents’ house. The lawn is divided into two parts, with a low stone wall separating the upper from the lower. Waiting to go somewhere, I ran out to play in the yard. Like I usually did, I ran down the upper part of the lawn, prepared to leap from the wall on to the grass below, when I noticed something coiled at the bottom of the wall.

It was a snake, dark-green with black diamond markings along its eyes and matching black eyes. It was maybe three meters long, and about as thick as my leg. Its yellow tongue was moving in and out, as though it could taste me on the air.

I froze. Utterly terrified, yet strangely calm, I began talking to the snake. Once, I told it to look behind it, and, when its head moved, I said, “Sucker” in a satisfied tone.

But it was no joke. I didn’t think that I could jump past it, and I was afraid that if I backed up to the house, it would simply wriggle after me.

I was still debating what to do when the rest of my family came out, heading for the car. My mother called my name, and I turned to look at her. When I looked back, the snake was gone, and not even the grass showed where it had been. For a while, I was convinced that it must have found a place to hide in the stone wall, which I avoided until the memory was less sharp.

The second experience probably happened a few months later. I can’t be sure, because my sense of time was undeveloped at the time. But I heard a sound in the night, and started down the hallway for a look. I was just thinking I must have imagined the sound as I came to the turn in the hallway.

And suddenly, Captain Hook from Peter Pan was there. He had never especially terrfied me on the television, but there he stood, tall in red velvet, with a black hat on his head, and black boots on his feet. His hook seemed impossibly long, and was swinging in my direction.

I shouted as loudly as I could. I could feel myself waking, and started to relax. Then I did wake, screaming, and I was standing at the turn in the hallway. Naturally, I was alone, although my parents soon rushed out. I couldn’t make them understand that I wanted to search the stairs and the basement to make sure that Captain Hook was gone, but I couldn’t express myself clearly.

Consequently, it was a long time before I fell asleep again. I was convinced that to fall asleep would be absolutely fatal.

Giant snakes and Captain Hook are both foreign to the Lower Mainland, of course. The logical explanation in both cases was that I was sleepwalking while dreaming with intense clarity and wonder. Yet for several years I had a morbid fascination with snakes, and would tuck the blankets under my feet at night to make sure that impossibly thin hook couldn’t reach up from under the bed and drag me on to the floor.

Even now, knowing what must have actually happened, I am still aware of a part of me that is utterly convinced, beyond all rational argument, that the snake and the pirate actually existed, and that I escaped them only by the most coincidental of luck. And, because of that part of me, I know all I’ve ever needed to know about the overwhelming potential of imagination.

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Freud suggests that a feeling of the uncanny (or unheimlich, as he calls it) is a momentary reversion to a child-like perception of the world as vast, mysterious, and beyond your control. I can speak for anyone else, but, in my case, the observation is correct. Two of my strongest early memories are so imbued with the uncanny that they may explain my lifelong interest in fantasy and science fiction.

In the first, I run out the door of my parents’ house, and descend the upper lawn. I am about to jump off the low stone wall to the lower lawn when I see a huge green and black snake coiled in the grass at my feet. Its body is about four inches thick, and it is slowly raising its head. I start giving it childish insults, calling it, “Sucker” and worse. Its forked tongue starts flicking in and out. For a moment, I am absolutely paralyzed. I think of leaping over it, but I don’t want it behind me in the grass. Finally, I turn around and race back inside. A while later, my family walks down to the car. I am careful to keep my eye on the grass as I go down the walkway, but I see nothing.

In the second, I am walking along the hallway of my parents’ house. I turn the corner, and Captain Hook from Peter Pan is there. He wears a black frock coat, and is well over six feet tall. I can see a bandoleer of bullets and a sword at his side, and he is brandishing a silver hook the size of his head. He shouts and starts advancing towards me. I give a great shout of my own, and my parents come running, but he is already gone.

Needless to say, Vancouver simply doesn’t have such large snakes, and people didn’t keep snakes as pets those days. Nor have I ever found a snake that matches the description of the one I remember. As for Captain Hook – well, I hardly need to explain the unlikelihood of anyone or anything in my childhood home being mistaken for such a figure. Both memories are undoubtedly of dreams, perhaps combined with sleepwalking. Undoubtedly, too, I have embellished them as the years went on, and I developed an even greater imagination.

Yet that’s not how either one feels. Intellectually, I can explain the memories away. But, deep down where the instincts and nightmares dwell, I know that they happened exactly as I’ve described. To this day, a coiled snake makes me profoundly uneasy, although a snake in any other position doesn’t bother me and I have even handled some.

Nor can I suppress a sudden tightness in my chest when I see Captain Hook portrayed in either animated or live action. In fact Dustin Hoffman in Pan made me faintly but definitely uneasy.

I wonder, too, what could have provoked such dreams. I’ve looked in the books I was read as a child, and none of them are likely sources of either memory. Could I have seen something on TV? I doubt I could have made them up entirely on my own, and  my inmost conviction remains that I didn’t: I saw them because they were there.

 No wonder that, when I read The Lord of the Rings seven years later, I took to it so avidly. I was already primed to respond to the fantastic. If Wordsworth had intimations of immortality, I’ve intimations of the uncanny ever since – and, despite some moments of uneasiness, I wouldn’t trade with him if I could.

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