One-man Bands and Silver-painted Spooks on Pedestals
I’m a sucker for standing & watching street entertainers: particularly one-man bands and silver-painted spooks on pedestals; perhaps they hold up a mirror to myself.
I’m also an unrepentant sucker for simple jokes which I hoard for the grandchildren. “Tell us the one about the camel,” they demand—but in the here & now that’ll do for another time…
Have this instead…
Mummy Tomato and Daddy Tomato are walking along a country lane and Little Lad Tomato, who didn’t want to come anyway, is dawdling miles behind them. Daddy Tomato turns and shouts, “Come on, ketchup!”
What is it makes us laugh? Why laugh anyway?
The English writer Richard Hughes used to visit schools to tell off the cuff stories. He would say to a class, “Give me the names of any three things you can think of and I’ll write them on the board. Come on, any three things… Now!”
To fill the silence, to start things off, the teacher, feeling sympathetic to his initial uncertainty, might say, “Sympathy!”
Perhaps he looked a wee bit startled at the abstract nature of her contribution but soon two bright sparks, catching on, might say in quick succession, “Spider!” and “Ice-cream!” After he had written these three things on the blackboard (which it probably was in those far-off days), Richard Hughes’ self-set task was to improvise for the kids a story containing references to those three things in some way or other.
How would you connect these three things?
I was reminded of the way that he probably produced the little curious stories in The Spider’s Palace (1932) when I wrote this poem for the amusement of my younger grandchildren:-
with the stripy legs
stuck there upside down
in the middle
of his laborious web
for more than a week
without a catch—
no pizza or nut roast
no humous sandwich
or bit of häagen dazs ice cream
what a miserable existence!
from time to time though
he’s not there
at the centre of his world—
I wonder if he goes off
for a crafty snack
elsewhere and leaves
me to think that he’s
starving just hoping for
this bit of poetic sympathy
I like to think that this poem was the product of my ‘imagination’, as everything is with us. From time to time, so as not to interrupt its natural flow in my self I wonder how what we choose to call ‘imagination’ works. In the literature, it often gets submerged under the heading ‘being creative’ but I’m sure that in essence it’s simpler than that. As simple as the process suggested in what follows…
A core text that I frequently go back to is Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation (1964) in which his Big Idea is that ‘imagination’ or ‘being creative’ is about forcing two heterogeneous ideas together (as Dr Johnson said of the Metaphysical poets’ practice); or, as Graziella put it, in her note dated 17th September, it’s somewhere in the moment of making ‘…a bridge between one realm of existence and another…’ between one hitherto totally unconnected ‘world’ and another… There is a pattern in all ‘imaginative acts’: one thing, at least, has to be connected with another. We have to decide to be active in the making of the connections.
The pattern… is the perceiving of a situation or idea… in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference… The event… in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were… —this unusual situation… is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two. I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane’, as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall… show, always operates on more than one plane. The former may be called single-minded, the latter a double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.
Bisociation results in what Koestler calls ‘creative instability’. He shows that this is how jokes work: the world that contains Mummy & Daddy Tomato is totally distinct from that of the supper-table with a bottle of Ketchup on it; link the two by forcing them into the same context and for a moment there is a spark emanating from the resulting friction, an instability which can be resolved by laughter, even if only at the idea that a person who imagines himself to be a grown-up could possibly be so amused by what some might call ‘corniness’.
Similarly, a spider dangling upside down at the centre of its web is not of the same world as that which contains the savouring of Häagen Dazs ice cream. The grandchildren laughed!
These are examples of Playful Imagination at work. Artistic Imagination works in a similar way: in watercolour painting the artist’s design to set one colour against another, to relate one space division to another contributes to the way we are made to appreciate a different way of looking at the world; the result is not laughter perhaps but often something very like it—the explosive feeling that can be described as Wow! The words we have invented to depict emotions conspire to make us think that feelings are separate and distinct from each other when they are all just a sudden uprush of a certain something-or-other from inside us.
The composer takes a couple or so of contrasting themes and makes them work together to construct a movement in a symphony; as we listen, the aesthetic experience is about what happens in the brain (the whole body) when we are forced to deal with the intersection of musical themes, one with another and then with its variations. The grand uplifting Whoosh! of excitement, the calming Mmmm!.
And so on.
Many years ago, on an ITS (International Teaching Seminars) training, I was in a session during which we were encouraged to consider the idea that, in our other-than-conscious minds, we are all the time asking ourselves ‘virtual questions’—“What shall I do next?” “What will make sense now?” “Will what I’m about to say contribute anything much to the conversation or to the universe in general?” “What else is there?” “Is there anything else?” In the session, we then spent a long & fruitful afternoon deciding what‘virtual question’, when we had it constantly on top of our mind, would work wonders for us; after many exercises and discussions and work-outs, I came to the conclusion that the question I had actually used in this way for many years was “How can I connect this with that?” The exercise was amazingly beneficial because it brought my previously unexamined ‘virtual question’ right to the forefront of my mind. So what might this and that be? All sorts of things—for instance:-
• the last book I read and this one
• this sentence I happen to be writing and the next one
• what’s on my mind right now and another idea that’s swimming round
• what somebody in a discussion group said five minutes ago and what another person is saying now
• Mozart’s Symphony Number 39 and Eleanor Rigby
• spider and ice-cream
• a wacky idea produced in a brainstorm and current office procedure
• what I said to a person when I last saw them and what I’ll say next time
• what I was doing/saying when I was interrupted and what I will do/say when I resume whatever it was
• one poetic thought and another
The essence of true haiku works in the same kind of way:-
little girl presses
her face into the smile
on the window-pane
I am rarely conscious of the question “How can I connect this with that?”—it is a virtual question that has become a very useful habit of mind. I would recommend it—I can teach you how to get there!
So far this morning the talk has been of what we call Imagination being used in a playful, creative or constructive way; a way which we know can be positively creative or innovative. What we have to be wary of though is the fact that the self-same activity of mind can also lead us very much astray. You hear somebody say, “I know just what you mean!” but as soon as they act on what they imagine you to be thinking it becomes clear that they have no idea what you imagine you mean.
We all have a habit of building imaginary pictures of other people and what their interior life is like based on minimal surface information. A useful measure of the degree to which we do this is to note well whenever another person surprises you, pleasantly or otherwise, by the things they say and do—things which cause you to revise your picture of them. It might perhaps it be good to keep your mind open to the possibility of scrubbing it out altogether. How could you do that?
Likewise, we have imaginary pictures of ourselves: good Blog-constructor, experienced haiku-writer, amusing grandfather, brilliant teacher. These are just pictures. Distorted in a Picasso or Francis Bacon kind of way. A good virtual question to ask about your pictures of others and your own picture of your self is always “What is the reality underneath the picture?” Virtual questions keep you constantly on the qui vive?
In Commentaries (1941-1953) Maurice Nicoll wrote:-
You see a person walking along looking rather important, smiling a little, nodding, suddenly bending down to smell a flower, gazing round to see if anyone is watching, and so on. This person is in the power of a picture. Or again, you see a person striding along, looking serious, frowning, ignoring others, sombre, as if supporting the Universe. This person is in the power of a picture. Or you see a person doing as it were his best not to be a gentleman, a hail-fellow-well-met person, who laughs at everyone who has some gentlemanly picture. This person is equally in the power of a picture. Pictures of every kind exist. You can have a picture of yourself as a good democrat… or a gentleman, or a revolutionary Republican, or a toughguy, or an aristocrat, and so on. They are all pictures: they are all imagination. Behind all these pictures the real person stands, but the real person never stands in his or her pictures… What is genuine and what is imaginary can never meet. They are two different orders of experience on different planes…
How do we protect ourselves from mistaking the picture for the reality? We could develop the knack of standing back from our self to put space between observation and consequent decision, we could cultivate the ability to laugh at our self, we could demolish our pedestals…
Think of a picture you have of somebody and chip away at it any way you choose. Have in mind a picture you have of yourself and do the same.
And then what?