American Renaissance

Sarah Wider on Emerson and Calling the Imagination Home

These remarks constituted the keynote lecture at the 3rd Annual Ikeda Forum, September 30, 2006, called “Emerson and the Power of Imagination.” Dr. Wider is Professor of English and Women’s Studies, Colgate University and former president of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society.

Sarah Wider Keynote

Listening. Waiting. I am wonderfully and unhurriedly waiting. I stare off into the distance. Down the track. Listening. Imagining. For once I have time, given this precious gift by a student who shared her imagination with me. There I was, trapped in a day without time, when suddenly she opened time for me. At that moment, imagination returned to wait with me. In all honesty, I hadn’t seen my imagination for a while. It had gone into hiding, and I can’t say I blame it. Inhospitable climate. I’d have gone along with it, if I could, but one of us had to stay behind. It would have been better had I left my imagination in charge.

So there we were, waiting by the tracks. Waiting for a train to come. It would arrive some time. We weren’t in a particular hurry. At least not now. Emerson showed up. I thought he would. I was sure he would have something to say, waiting for the same train of thought, an on-time arrival whenever it came. We didn’t need to rush. Though I was sorry there wasn’t a station. I’d like to get back here again, and I wasn’t certain I’d be able to find my way now that I was traveling again, thanks to my student’s encouraging words, this quiet young woman, her generosity present with me as I puzzled over the many recent days in which imagination has gone hungry, gone wanting, been kicked out of our homes, our lives, our hearts.

Look around. Speaking about young people, Emerson comments, “If we can touch the imagination, we serve them”… not if we touch “their” imagination, but if we touch “the” imagination. He doesn’t make the imagination some small, limited thing. It is larger than any single individual. It encompasses us all, from the child born today in Baghdad, and yes, we must imagine the reality—children continuing to be born in Baghdad — to the person dying even this moment in that very city, to the student studying for mid-terms to the person wondering if they can stay in this country. Without imagination, there is no understanding. Without imagination, I am tempted to say, there is nothing. But with it… there is, well, quite simply there is every possibility we can imagine. And more. Such is its power. Such is its potential. Such is its energy.

Listen to imagination speak its mind and its heart around the table. I wish we could switch languages at this moment, though my knowledge is so small, and yet the little I know from those who have been so patient with me as I ask and ask again, delighted with what I have begun to understand from Japanese… I have learned that were I speaking in Japanese I could say heart and mind with one word, that I could speak to you about imagination and it would presuppose a collaborative venture, a seeing or visioning with the heart together. Imagine people present with and to each other. Real conversation. The words sounding and resounding. A grand musical instrument in which we all form a part. Musical conversing at home around the kitchen table.

If we want to make imagination feel at home, generosity shows us the way. How else can imagination thrive but in the place where welcoming comes first and where judgment feels no need to speak. Finally feels no need to be. Open hearted, open handed, open minded, equivalent to the expansiveness Emerson promises his listeners when they come into the “wide country” and can “see the world” and not their own pinched narrowness. When Emerson talks about generosity, he connects it with a large understanding. If we are generous, we see well beyond ourselves and our individual limitations. We are generous of “sentiment,” of “mind,” of “affection,” of “intellect,” of “sympathy.” It may well be the primary catalyst for the imagination.

I imagine generosity as a fundamental within human experience, not an overtone, not an accidental, but the note one strikes which all know and to which all respond. If we begin with generosity, we really don’t have to worry where we’ll end. We can welcome imagination home with open arms. If it looks a little peaked, pinched in the face, circles under the eyes, there’s bound to be stew on the stove and oven bread and plenty of space at the table. And if it’s looking a little piqued, curious, filled with thought, then it’s time for a good conversation, everyone included, time stretching out all around us and no one shutting the door. There is plenty of imagination to go around, and the time to go with it, for as Emerson remarked, “The imagination is not a talent of some men but is the health of every man.” To our health, we might say. To every one’s health.

And yet as we look at our children, as we look at ourselves, we find it difficult to say we are healthy. Increasingly, it would seem that the imagination is not touched within our schools. Increasingly the imagination is not touched within our daily lives.

Stop for a moment to think back through your days. Can you recall one of Emerson’s memorable days, a time as he described in his essay “Beauty” that “vibrated to some stroke of the imagination.” Or do you face the reality he found most likely for his audiences: we gorge on materials that cannot satisfy true hunger and fail to thrive because the very elements of life are denied to us. Like Emerson’s audiences, we are a harried, hassled group of divided individuals whose imaginations are either starved or bloated. Perhaps your days have felt more like that. Perhaps you don’t feel that far from the world Emerson described in the mid 1860s: “the prudential and economical tone of society starves the imagination.”

Listen carefully to the tone of our present society. See how the imagination is checked, cruelly distorted or starved by being fed a steady diet of fear. When I think about the United States government’s response to the violence on September 11, 2001, when I think about the United States government’s decision to invade Iraq, I want to ask, “Is that all you could imagine? Meeting violence with violence? Why that takes no imagination at all?” Our freedom is prostituted; those in power play on fear, play on sorrow, play indeed with our capacity for empathy and compassion by subverting it. We live within a horrific divide that chokes the self, stifling the compassion that allows “me” to identify with “you” and enables “you” to feel with and understand “me.” Instead, inconceivable pressure is placed upon “you,” upon “me” upon “us,” to divide what should be brought together. We are devastated within a no man’s land of “us” versus “them.” We are told, “You are with us or they will be against you”: the phrasing is certainly awkward, going against our natural impulse to sympathize largely, to feel for and identify with our fellow human beings, for we are all fellow human beings. Many of the leaders currently in power lead us astray, or as President Bush said a few weeks ago, “We face an enemy determined to bring death and suffering into our homes.” I grieve to think how much truer that is for so many Iraqis who have suffered the loss of their family members, who have no homes because those homes have been destroyed by the war that the United States began.

Goaded to imagine the worst, we had better put our imagination to work in a different direction. It is not unimaginable. There are models readily available. I think of the words from Daisaku Ikeda’s poem “Fighting for Peace”:

Where life is cherished
there peace is found
where people are united
in the richness of their hearts
there peace exists
as a tangible reality

I shared those words with students in my Emerson/Thoreau seminar on September 11 of this year, a day in which we also discussed Emerson’s essay “Politics” and Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. Students spoke to the power of asserting and affirming peace as a tangible reality. Now. We all know the daily violence that arises from the failed imaginations of those in power, causing deaths upon deaths upon deaths, so many people’s lives ignored — I might say unimagined — while a few remain in places of enormous privilege and continue to live as if the world is theirs to consume. We can’t let ourselves off either. We’re in this too. Our imaginations have failed all too often.

The clock ticks. Business as usual. Another deadline looms. I cringe as I think of that word. Deadline. It’s a sorry word, no two ways about that. What does that word mean to you today? Have you just missed one? Is one facing you, tripping you, that line drawn in the sand? Emerson was not a person of the line. As many of you know, he preferred circles and wrote a marvelous essay of that title. In “Uriel,” a poem written after his strongly and imaginatively unsettling words at the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he reminded his readers:

Line in nature is not found
Unit and universe are round
In vain produced, all rays return
Evil will Bless, and ice will burn

For some, these words affirm a long tradition of intricate relations. There is no news in what Uriel says, simply another resonant voice in the chorus of interconnectedness. But for those living within a world that manages mostly through one-way streets, it may be hard to imagine a world in which such powerful transformations occur. When you’re living in a one-way, my-way-or-no-way world, you really don’t want that way to return. You don’t want what you send out to come back to you. That, in all honesty, would be starkly frightening. Put one foot in front of the other and don’t look back. In the world of this kind of deadline, there is always an enemy.

When I heard President Bush’s speech from the most recent September 11, I wondered if he could imagine how the words he used to describe “the enemy” — his phrase — were words that could as readily describe the United States. I only had to change one word. I will, sorrowfully, read those sentences. They are difficult to read; they poison the air, but poisons can be turned into medicines, perhaps even such poison as this. Here is what President Bush said with one word changed. I am sure you will easily hear which word I had to substitute for Islam: “Since the horror of 9/11 we’ve learned a great deal about the enemy. We have learned that they are evil and kill without mercy — but not without purpose. We have learned they form a global network of extremists who are driven by a perverted vision of democracy — a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent.” I have no doubt that President Bush would be appalled to think that any of this applies to his United States. But his United States is not the place many call home. Talk to people in the gay community of this country. Talk to those whose skin color does not resemble his and whose economic background bears no resemblance whatsoever to the world he has known. Talk to women who understand their lives differently from what a male-dominated society dictates… I am not even going to have to bring fundamentalism into this.

Think about the at least 62,000 people dead because of this war. There are probably more but our government cannot count the lives it has taken, though it must be called to account for those lives at some point in time or perhaps in eternity. We have surely killed without mercy? War is merciless. Are we not intimately connected with those deaths even if we did not explode the bombs? Certainly we have created a network of extremists by acting outside the law, going against the United Nations, and indeed stifling dissent in our own country not to mention holding prisoners without charges for years on end. I am still trying to wrap my mind around how simulated drowning is not torture, how holding a person naked and shackled and exposing that person to extremes of heat and cold is not torture. And so when I changed the phrase, “a perverted vision of Islam” to “a perverted vision of democracy,” it seemed to fit. What has happened to democracy in the United States? Can we still imagine it? Did we ever imagine it? Or have we been too much like the society Emerson described in his 1840s essay “Politics”: “Vain of our political institutions… ostentatiously prefer[ring] them,” unwilling to acknowledge the “practical defects” that plague our government just as they plague every government.

Dead. Lines. Whose lines are we standing in? And if we are in line, what are we doing? That is Uriel’s message. There are no lines in this interconnected world of ours. Every line drawn is truly dead, truly a dead line. We are fundamentally all in this together. Are we seeing the dead? No, still not, not in the news that keeps those deaths from us. We only hear numbers most of the time. We must continue to imagine those lives, just as every day I am still imagining the little girl who died in al-Zarqawi’s so-called “safe house” the day one of the most wanted terrorists was killed. The news reports gave no name, just a guess at her age, somewhere between 5 and 7, just the ages of Amber and Melody, the daughters of a good friend of mine. I think of her, this child who died on my birthday, who never had a chance to become a strong woman as I trust Amber and Melody will become strong women, knowing their mom and their grandma and their auntie. “Where our hearts are strong, we will go on,” Sandra, their mother said to me one time, not long ago, a time when things were a little rough for us both. I’ve seen her daughter dance the whole day for Corn dance, young in years but strong and growing stronger. We need her to grow into a strong woman of this world. We needed that little girl who died on June 7 to grow into a strong woman as well.

There are so many dead these days. For so many, in so many parts of this world, the lines of the dead, the dead lines ask that those of us cherishing life, wherever we may be, to imagine their lives, to realize their deaths, to walk forward in shared commitment to another way of being and of being together, in this world. Where our hearts are strong:

we must stand
we must stand for peace
in peace
with peace

My students ask me how we can create a peace culture. It is almost as if they cannot imagine it. I am reminded of the Aristophanes play about Peace. She has been imprisoned, and when she is finally freed, no one knows how to welcome her home. The children are willing, but every song they know speaks the language of war. The merchants complain because their businesses languish: how will they make a living now that war is over? They have nothing to fall back on. And so it goes. They cannot return to the old ways because peace is not even a memory for them. They have to imagine it anew. They have to create. As the story unfolds, one good man with imagination and hope enables them to create songs they could not remember and to rebuild the community they did not have.

Even though I took classical Greek in college, we did not translate this play. We read Thucydides The History of the Peloponnesian War. I know this story thanks to my Emerson and Thoreau professors from college. When my daughter was three years old, they gave her this Greek play in a children’s adaptation. She fell in love with it, particularly because it suggested that you too could put on your own play in your own home, no Greek temple required, and put on plays we did. Since we were a small family with two adults and one child, and many stuffed animals, the stuffed animals played all the parts, with my daughter’s imaginative direction. She, or perhaps I should say they, performed that play. I was the audience. My husband was the technical crew. My daughter grew up playing peace. It was easy. It only took one thoughtful gift, one good old story, and we were ready to participate.

You can then imagine my daughter’s dismay when she entered kindergarten and found out what other children played. About the third day of kindergarten I asked her how everything was going. Casually, as a modern mother does. Oh, she liked “everything,” she told me. Casually, as a modern child responds. We looked at each other knowing there was more. Well, she continued, she liked everything, except recess. Now this floored me. Here was my daughter telling me she did not like recess, the one time in the day when she had the opportunity to play on the absolutely fabulous play structure that she had begged to go and play on every day of her pre-school life. What was up? Come to find out, there was a particular game that repeated every recess period. It was the boys’ game of choice. They called it “killing girls.” When I recently reminded my daughter of that time six years ago, she looked at me knowingly and said, “And then I got used to it.”

I continue to think about how we normalize war. The United States, of course, has never been a peaceful society. We have always been waging war somewhere in the world or in many places at home. We retain war language for other policies as well — the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and the now infamous war on terrorism. We have not often been encouraged to imagine different stories, different ways of thinking about how we might be in the world doing the hard work that needs to be done.

We live by our imaginations, by our admirations, by our sentiments.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson tells us in his essay “Illusions,” “We live by our imaginations, by our admirations, by our sentiments.” One might well say, as Emerson does elsewhere almost in so many words, take care what you imagine. It will be what you live. Emerson asks only one thing, and it is indeed the hardest work we will ever do. He calls us to “a strict and faithful dealing at home and a severe barring out of all duplicity or illusion there.” For those who might think of home as a refuge or escape, there is no solace to be found in Emerson’s challenging place of residence. Where imagination dwells, there also must be absolute plain dealing. This is not “playing pretend.” “Whatever games are played with us,” he says, “we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth.” Neither indulgence nor escape, imagination is in Emerson’s words “true insight, a very high sort of seeing” that, in fact, transforms the intellect. Without imagination, intellect is static, unable to move and unable to communicate with others. Imagination affects a powerful change: the intellect becomes “where and what it sees.” These are his counsels for the poet in his essay of that title. Emerson makes one thing clear: poetry is elemental, necessary for the health of any individual and essential to all relations.

The key is empathy. Every time we step into a classroom we know this. A week ago, I returned to second grade and came home with imagination filled to bursting. The children drew pictures for us. I told them about you, saying that all of us grown-ups needed to have our imaginations stirred. I asked them to draw the homes they imagined for the imagination. “Every one needs a home,” I said, “the imagination too.” They liked the thought. They drew pictures — pictures of their heads. That’s where the imagination lives, they told me. They drew pictures of many-windowed houses. That’s what the imagination needs. They drew pictures where the imagination sleeps in a rainbow colored sleeping bag, pictures of homes built entirely out of Nature. I had read them Emerson’s phrase, “Nature speaks to the imagination.” They worked together, suggesting this or that to each other. Their imaginations made pizza, played soccer, went to the beach, lived close to their grandmas.

But there were other moments. One boy said his imagination’s home was on fire, set ablaze by someone who doesn’t like it. He could see that the teacher and I were concerned. He told us the imagination got out. I asked if the imagination would build a new home. He reassured me, “Oh, it can always find another home.” Hardest of all was the child who said he used to have an imagination but didn’t any more. “Do you dream?” his teacher asked him. He replied, “I only dream about real things like the Twin Towers falling on me.”

We need to stand with our children every day to know where they are, what is falling on them, what is weighing so heavily on their hearts, to understand why the imagination has left home and doesn’t feel comfortable returning. What have we done to our children’s imaginations, their most precious gifts to the future?

If there is hope for renewal, we must listen to everything our young people have to tell us. With gratitude, I think about the students I met this past June at Soka Junior and Senior high schools in Tokyo who so kindly and forthrightly shared their thoughts on the imagination with me. “What do you see as the importance of the imagination for today’s world?” I asked. These young people spoke directly to its power of realization: if you could imagine it, you could do it. And then one young man took us to the place we all need to go, we all need to live, we all need to be. Here was a young Emerson speaking for the imaginative intellect, words that brought the whole room to life. What he felt was so important about the imagination, he said, was its capacity to develop empathy within us. We could imagine ourselves into another person’s position. It enabled us to understand what they were going through, what they were feeling, what they were experiencing. And then he so beautifully tied it to the importance of expansive thinking and study. Everything he learned, he said, took him outside of himself, took him beyond his limits as an individual. By studying, by learning, he went far beyond what he had known before; he himself grew larger, thus expanding his own abilities to understand others. Here was a young man who had so much to teach the leaders of our world. Here was Emersonian insight.

Imagination encourages us to move beyond the boundaries that divide us from understanding, that divide us from each other, that indeed divide us from ourselves. Whatever else it does, as we all know from our most joyful experiences with the imagination, it connects. When my imagination is in its dancing mood, I want to share… call up all my friends and have an imagination party. Which might mean sitting around the kitchen table trying to understand what has gone wrong or sitting in a classroom seeing how we can keep students and faculty and community members remembering that what happened with Katrina has not gone away, that what was wrong before Katrina continues, that we each can do something and quite simply must. Imagination connects: it reaches out, it invites and welcomes and calls us home or calls us to confront the fact that there are no homes for all too many in this world.

If you are at home in the imagination, where are you giving the imagination a home? Think where you can take that quality into the world. Think how it can affect the work you do and the people with whom you work. Where we find imagination the most diseased and distorted, just what shall we do? Certainly we cannot settle. As my daughter said to me recently when I was looking futility straight in the eye, “Mommy, we just don’t have time to give up hope.” She touched my imagination that day.

So where do we find ourselves? A good Emersonian question. It opens his essay “Experience,” as some of you know. I stand at yet another station with Emerson in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. It’s a place that apparently Martin Luther King found promising as well. If he were alive today… Imagine that. If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated in 1968. Imagine that. Imagine any moment of his life and work. When he was asking the people of the United States, and indeed the people of the world to undertake the greatest act of the imagination there is: a world of peace with social justice for all.

As Anita Haya Patterson, here with us today, has shown, King incorporated lines from Emerson into his speeches. One place where both thinkers agreed vitally was on the importance of structuring human societies upon a different principle than the familiar one of domineering power and assumed distrust. Rather than presuming that the first thing another person wants to do is take advantage of you, both men suggest, it is possible and indeed wise to think differently. Yes, I know, there are many who will say that the nature of man is violence fueled by greed. If so, how do we live in such a world? The way the United States has been living? I find that intolerable.

And so with King and with Emerson, why not try building the new state based on an absolutely untried principle. As Emerson commented in his essay “Politics,” an essay written as the United States was beginning to come apart in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a bold new experiment to be ventured. While the Constitution struggled to protect, but often downright denied, the rights of those who lived within the borders of the United States, Emerson suggested that a higher revolution was in order. The American Revolution paled in comparison. This was not a matter of limited rights to be parceled out by those in power. Emerson imagined a revolution in its fundamental and primary sense, a continual turning, an ongoing orbit of celestial bodies, and we were all celestial bodies. Imagining this revolution, Emerson speaks to the way it connects otherwise divided individuals. No longer are people separated out into this party or that faction, but they are united by their humanness, the “primordial roots,” of which Daisaku Ikeda writes. No longer are they impoverished by property or limited by personal freedom. This larger revolution, he says, “promises a recognition of higher rights than those of personal freedom, or the security of property. A man has a right to be employed, to be trusted, to be loved, to be revered.”

Think about when Emerson was writing and the challenge, the demand he was placing on his readers. The essay was published in 1844. Great Britain had ended slavery in its colonies while the United States continued to enforce slavery within its borders and began to look interestedly toward acquiring new lands. Emerson writes an unwavering reminder of what liberty could and should mean: “A man has a right to be employed”: stop holding that person as a slave, stop looking down on him. Don’t just grudgingly use vague language about equality in the eyes of God. Here we are together in community: trust, love, revere.

Emerson reminds us that power or strength arises from connection. It builds from what it brings together, not what it tears apart or what it breaks down. In his essay “Success” he writes, “We are not strong by our power to penetrate, but by our relatedness.” Everything is, Emerson told his audiences throughout his life, everyone is. In its various forms, the word “related” appears more than 300 times in his essays alone. That doesn’t take into account the sermons, journals or lectures. If we perceive that centrality of relation, then we understand those “higher rights,” the ones involving trust, love and reverence. Known for his radical ideas, Emerson may well be at his most radical when he suggests as he does in his 1844 essay “Politics” that there is another way of organizing a state than the democracy of which they are so proud. He tells what he knows will be his incredulous audiences, “The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never been tried.” He immediately hears the naysayers, for his next sentences are directed toward them. He assures them that they need not worry about indulgence and license and all the poor failings of the imagination they raise as argument against his suggestion. Don’t worry, this state based on love won’t happen prematurely, he tells them because “there will always be a government of force, where men are selfish.” One could readily add, that as long as human beings cannot imagine human beings as anything other than selfish, we are pretty much stuck where we are.

That said, are you satisfied?
Is that all you can imagine?
You might well ask that question.
I keep asking it—
of myself,
of others
(Is that all you can imagine?)
(What can you imagine?)
(such longing in the voice, such longing)

It is the refrain of the hour, and certainly, it is Emerson’s refrain. As he himself said, at the end of “Politics,” continuing to revise the very essence of that word: “Could not a nation of friends even devise better ways?”

Can’t you just imagine it?
If not, try again.
And again,
As long as it takes.
Imagination takes time,
and I am glad for imagination to fill all the time I have.
It is little enough. Perhaps it is long enough.

Emerson Quotes & Sources

“If we can touch the imagination, we serve them, they will never forget it” - “Education”

“As the imagination is not a talent of some men but is the health of every man, so also is this joy of musical expression” - “Poetry and the Imagination”

“There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination.” - “Beauty”

“Whilst the prudential and economical tone of society starves the imagination, affronted Nature gets such indemnity as she may.” - “Books”

‘Line in nature is not found; -
Unit and universe are round; -
In vain produced, all rays return; -
Evil will bless, and ice will burn.’-
- “Uriel”

“In this country we are very vain of our political institutions… and we ostentatiously prefer them to any other in history. They are not better, but only fitter for us… But our institutions, though in coincidence with the spirit of the age, have not any exemption from the practical defects which have discredited other forms.” - “Politics”

“We live by our imaginations, by our admirations, by our sentiments… There is none but a strict and faithful dealing at home and a severe barring out of all duplicity or illusion there. Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth.” - “The Poet”

“This insight, which expresses itself by what is called imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.” - “The Poet”

“Nature speaks to the imagination; first through her grand style, —the hint of immense force and unity which her works convey; —secondly, because her visible productions and changes are the nouns of language, and our only means of uttering the invisible thought” - “Country Life”

“It promises a recognition of higher rights than those of personal freedom, or the security of property. A man has a right to be employed, to be trusted, to be loved, to be revered. - The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never been tried.” - “Politics”

“We are not strong by our power to penetrate, but by our relatedness.” - “Success”

“For, according to the order of nature, which is quite superior to our will, it stands thus; there will always be a government of force, where men are selfish.” - “Politics”

“Could not a nation of friends even devise better ways?” - “Politics”