In a review of Paul Auster’s new book 4 3 2 1, Nathaniel Rich makes this observation:
It takes a strong imagination to see the world as it isn’t.
It takes an even stronger imagination to see the world as it is.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
So much to say, right?
Begin with childhood. In your childhood, you started the long, slow process of whittling down the great beyond to make it fit the exact dimensions of your mind …
(No, that’s not quite right. Let me try again.)
In your childhood, you used your chubby little arms to lift and place the cornerstone of the rampart you’ve been building ever since. The fortress wall, that is, which marks the boundary between you and everything else. Safe and secure behind that high wall, you decided that you hate Brussel sprouts. You realized that you’re good with numbers. You became, well, you.
To a greater or lesser degree, you also grew curious about what lies beyond that wall.
Which led to a dilemma: it’s not possible for you to venture beyond that wall into the out there and still be entirely yourself. There’s a word for the utter confusion of inside and outside. It’s called psychosis.
Which is where imagination comes in.
In the last book of Homer’s Iliad, King Priam of Troy leaves his great walled city at night to go in search of the Greek warrior Achilles. He means to retrieve the corpse of his son Hector, slain by Achilles in a duel. On taking leave of his wife Hecuba, Priam had said (translation by Ian Johnston):
If I’m fated
to die by the bronze-clad Achaeans’ ships,
that’s what I wish. Let Achilles kill me,
once I’ve embraced my son and satisfied
my desire to mourn.
Aided by the gods, Priam reaches Achilles’ hut within the Greek camp.
He came up to Achilles, then with his fingers
clasped his knees and kissed his hands, those dreadful hands,
man-killers, which had slain so many of his sons.
He pleads with Achilles, urging him to call to mind his own father back in Greece:
remember your own father, who’s as old as me,
on the painful threshold of old age …
Of the two old men,
I’m more pitiful, because I have endured
what no living mortal on this earth has borne —
I’ve lifted up to my own lips and kissed
the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Together they weep, the father thinking of his dead son, the son of the father whom he knows he will never see again.
Almost three thousand years ago, a Greek poet used his imagination to see the world as it is: merciless yet capable of mercy, savage but not without redemptive moments of kindness.
“But I’m no Homer.”
(Well, neither was he. He was merely the last in a long line of bards, generation after generation of them, telling and retelling stories that he inherited and then bequeathed to us, with some embellishment, using the great invention of that era: an alphabet.)
What Homer had, you have: the ability to imagine yourself into another person’s life, never leaving the comfy confines of your own skin.
And don’t worry that you’ll get it wrong, that you’ll never succeed in truly seeing the world “as it is.” The important thing is to try.
Tell him who you think he is. Tell her what you see.
It’ll be a beginning. Trust them to respond. They’ll correct you, fill in the blanks, answer questions you didn’t even ask.