catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 4 :: 2013.02.15 — 2013.02.28


The language of imagination

The story of imagination is as old as the story of creation itself. Imagination is that thing which people have been striving to name and understand for centuries. From the story of Adam and Eve and the Greek tale of Prometheus to accounts from medieval writings, the idea of imagination seems to have captured our imaginations.

One such case is the medieval writer Richard of St. Victor who talked about imagination being a double-edged sword in that it is indispensable for life, yet it remains a constant obstacle. This paradox is not unique to Richard; all prior accounts talk about imagination paradoxically. The best example of this is the book of Genesis. While Genesis is a book of creation and imagination as the world comes into being, it is also a book of transgression and death. Richard Kearney in his book The Wake of Imagination shows that this creation story is a tale of a fallen imagination; it is a story of a lack of imagination. The Hebraic term for imagination is yester which is derived from the same root yzr as the terms for “creation” (yetsirah) and “create” (yatsar). When creation is constituted through Divine imagination, the word that would be used is yetzer hatov referring to the imaginative impulse for good.

What we find out through the rest of this Adamic myth is another account of imagination. Yetzer hara refers to that impulse or tendency which limits imagination and aims toward selfish gratification. Therefore, creative imagination is always in contrast to yester hara (or corruptible imagination). While creative imagination allows us to dream of the possibility of beauty and justice, yester hara is the corruptible element which limits these things. Yetser hara is the lack of true imagination. Yetser hara is what causes us to stop hoping for justice and set our sights on ourselves. This is shown by the story of Nazarite who has his hair cut off with the purpose of destroying his yester hara which had prompted him to make an idol out of his own reflected image (Num. 6:18). When a society lets its yetser hara get the upper hand, then it loses the possibility to imagine.

It seems that we live in a time when selfish imagination is powerfully distracting — a constant obstacle, according to Richard of St. Victor — and stunts our ability to strive for justice. It keeps us from creating beautiful art, music and film. It restricts us from reaching out to our neighbors. It limits the possibility to sustain community and restricts the formation of new communities. It keeps us blockaded from experiencing the true element of imagination’s power. 

Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination shows a different side of imagination. He suggests that the imaginative community subverts the message of the empire and staves off the influence of yetser hara. The imaginative community enables us to proclaim, “We are not satisfied with our present situation. We will work together to think of new ways for justice, for peace, for beauty. We will work together to imagine the kingdom!” Together we must strive for yetser hatov

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