Real Life and the Red Herring of Imagination

Genuine concepts and meaningful words are distinguished from fake concepts and fake words by their pedigree — by the possibility of retracing that pedigree back to their source in sense-experience.

The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer

People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc, to give them pleasure. The idea that these [artists] have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

For Beethoven, whom someday everyone would declare a revolutionary, the process of becoming a proper composer was not to come up with revolutionary conceptions but something like the opposite: to base the future on the past, to master the traditional crafts of the art and then to embody that knowledge in his own way. From beginning to end, but especially in the early Vienna years, Beethoven was obsessed with technique.

Beethoven, Jan Swafford

It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him.

Robert Henri

I know, Henry, what it is that’s wrong. It’s not just this painting, or the one before, it’s my whole life that’s wrong. A man’s work reflects what he is, what he’s thinking the livelong day. isn’t that it?

Plexus, Henry Miller

The man of imagination without culture has wings without feet.

Joseph Joubert


Real life is taboo in the narrative arts. It signifies either reportage (the ‘shocking true story’ or ‘personal and intimate journey’ schools of writing) or stupefying minutia (the schizoid-modernist view that artistic truth means microscopic focus on details), or it is disparaged by post-modernists who consider the author to be dead and reality to be a shifting multiverse of viewpoints, or, most commonly of all, it is dismissed as being somehow inferior to imagination. Unnecessary even.

Leo Tolstoy saw it otherwise, as did Charles Dickens, as did Henry Miller. Even a casual read of William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde or D.H. Lawrence makes it very clear that they considered deep reality, nature and how people actually think, feel and behave to be of supreme importance in storytelling, with imagination and plotifying and the craft of writing being a means to intensify, shape, structure and add colour to what is.

This does not mean, of course, that books or plays not set in ‘real life’ — the ‘objective’ world ‘out there’ — don’t count; quite the opposite. This ‘real life’ (in scare-quotes), the literal, surface, formal, concentrated, abstract, collectively agreed succession of events that people take to be reality (also occasionally and laughably called ‘the real world’) is ultimately an illusion which art has no more duty to honour than ponderously utilitarian moral systems founded upon it. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to take one example, is set in a futuristic world of androids, quasi-religious virtual reality visions and penfield mood organs. Hardly ‘realistic’ — but it is based on Dick’s intimate experience of psychological reality, of empathic connectedness and of the shoddy but inspiring endeavour of ordinary human beings to overcome their petty fears in a simulated world built upon them — all of which came from Dick’s own supersensitive experience of his own life and the world around him. Imagination and plot are then used to bring that strange real world into art; in Dick’s case, sci-fi. Underneath all his wild ideas is real life — what I call the world behind the world — which Dick, like Tolstoy in War and Peace, or Lawrence in Women in Love, or Gilliam and Stoppard in Brazil (which, as Gilliam points out in the director’s commentary, has almost nothing which isn’t ‘sourced’ from real life), the author of the Puranas, the Aboriginal guardians of the dreamtime and all our greatest writers honoured above all else. This is why Dick will still be read in a thousand years1 and JK Rowling and George RR Martin will be forgotten in twenty five.

In this sense there is no such thing as ‘A True Story’. All stories are fantastic adventures in wonderland. An autobiography is, essentially, no different to a fantasy epic — both are, ultimately, abstract representations. We do get a particular kind of ‘realistic’ wow from Mawson’s Will or Wild Swans which is  absent from ‘unrealistic’ stories like Notes from Underground or Brave New World — we are impressed that it ‘really happened,’ and that’s fine, it’s good to be impressed in this way — but in all four cases we only enjoy the story because of the artistic truth it expresses, not because of how realistic it happens to be.

Good writing reveals lived experience and, underneath that, the timeless or mythic intensity of life, not merely the marvellous tricks of the imagination. Few can tell the difference — which is why Wittgenstein exhorted us to look not to scientists but to artists for understanding; for what separates irrational reality from mere emotional caprice or mental fact-sifting. That artists instruct us by entertaining us is not (as Tolstoy mistakenly believed) a trick to lure the crowds into the lecture hall, but a consequence of the fact that their teaching is not a teaching about life. It is life — in all its bizarre, bright, thrilling, dark, death-saturated, sensuous, strangeness. By enabling us to experience the mysterious truth we learn, in our own experience, what that truth is.

This truth is also lived by great actors. Acting schools, run by the same ignorant folk as creative writing classes, teach their confused charges to summon up emotion, get into the character, explore its back-story… anything but act. The clue is in the name; actor. Great actors don’t stir up their inner lives in order create imaginative fictions; they do what needs to be done, which of course means they are aware of what needs to be attended to. From the simplicity and purity of their awareness and action, come the qualities which the confused and superficial player, seeing such qualities win oscars and globes, seeks first, corrupting herself and us.

This same truth is lived by children. The common-to-the-point-of-cliché exhortations of teachers and journalists to ‘stimulate’ or ‘develop’ our ‘children’s imaginations’ and the widespread belief that children are intelligent, perceptive or truthful because they are imaginative utterly misses — in fact cynically ignores — the point. Children are not truthful because they are imaginative, they are imaginative because they are truthful. They inhabit a spontaneous and direct mode of consciousness, which perceives the living quality in ‘inert’ matter and which is sensitive to the ‘mythic structure’ of ordinary experience — this ‘mode’ automatically generates what we call ‘imagination’ and ‘creativity’. Children don’t need to be taught imagination, any more than they need to ‘learn to think’ — thought and imagination without the truth of life are, as everyone knows, suffering (aka self-doubt, worry and addictive wanting). What children need, what everyone needs, is to be free of thought and imagination; to meaningfully experience, express and play in the weird truth which precedes and creates meaningful abstraction.

As we get older we learn to deny, ignore, co-opt and corrupt this truth. The writer who endeavours to perceive and express it artistically is faced with an extraordinarily daunting task. It is hard enough to master the massive amount of technique that every great writer must in order to do justice to life, but to really experience it — i.e. to have something to say — goes far beyond what technical manuals and writing clubs refer to, or what practice could ever achieve, no matter how many times you’ve read Truby, McKee or Gardner.

Not that practice, technique and craft are useless of course, far from. Every great artist has, consciously or unconsciously, intuitively understood Stravinski’s comment…

A real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present.  In this sense the paradox which banteringly maintains that everything which is not tradition is plagiarism, is true…

…and built something new from the amalgamated forms that tradition hands down, while every mediocre artist — emerging from an education system which virtually guarantees philistinism, lack of taste and lack of culture — has, consciously or unconsciously, inevitably ended up creating the known from the known, creating what we call derivative work. The special effects and the actors are new, the language and the slang are new, the lyrics have been rearranged and the presentation slightly altered, but it’s all, essentially, the same; essentially the same in that there is no essence, and so no way to even know that something is missing, and so no desire to reach, through detailed study of the masters who preceded us, the pinnacle of technical mastery, the only place from which the artist can do justice to the essence.

Note that essence comes first. Lack of technique and ignorance of tradition are still not, however, anything like as serious an impediment to creating great art as lack of essential character or inner truth, which is why so many masters of technique produce brilliant emptiness and why even novice songwriters and painters can, occasionally, hit on the eternal. This is not a question that is ever intelligently addressed in guides to writing songs or stories, or to painting and drawing, nor can be. A notice writer, for example, might understand that he needs craft — a scholarly understanding of language, of plot, of myth, of characterisation and so on and so forth — to improve work burdened by an excess of literary language, ponderous lack of flow and lots of hand-waving (‘suddenly he saw…’ or ‘Would you like a bacon sandwich because you’ll soon find out I’m a serial killer?’), but it is a rare artist indeed to intuits that his excess of exposition, his tricksy attempts to cover a lack of story with sex, violence, swearing, sentiment, and shell-like tales (all ‘Big Ideas’ and sentimental ahhs with no hand-in-the-flames truth behind them; aka ‘plot-driven’ as opposed to ‘character-driven’ stories) and the sense of so-what? that his end credits engender in the audience have nothing to do with craft. The writer just has nothing to say. And he has nothing to say because he has not really lived.

And he has not really lived because he has not really died.

How much of what we read or watch on teevee is produced by people who live mundane lives? Most of it. Most writers, showrunners, directors and playwrights, like most journalists — and certainly most producers, agents, adminstrators and such like tradesmen — are wealthy, middle-class (or risen to the middle-class), institutionalised employees who do not use their ‘imaginations’ to express life, but to cover it. The result is no different to advertising — shit sprayed with glitter. Not that you need to pilot steamboats down the Yangtse to have ‘had a life worth writing (or painting or singing) about’ — in some ways ‘adventure’ is even a hurdle (as face-clawingly dull traveller’s tales testify). But you do need to strive to uncover the undertruth of life, to encounter genuine uncertainty, to expose yourself to the void, to plummet to the depths of your own experience, to drive your heart through the big whys — why am I still discontent? why is love so painful? why is there anything at all? — down into the self-stilling (i.e. death-seeming) subterranean vastnesses of what.

The attempt to experience the mysterious truth of what is, and the compulsion (at all costs) to express the miraculous truth of it, is the source of a life worth living, a painting worth seeing, a book worth reading and a film worth watching. When I stand before the Velázquez crucifixion, or I contemplate Akutagawa’s Green Onions, or the credits roll on Life of Brian, or the final chord strikes of Bach’s B Minor Mass or I wander around Kelmscott Manor, it is not the artists’ imagination I am appreciating — that thing there which I here am enjoying. It is, through the prism of his character and imagination, our life that I am experiencing — that extraordinary reality which, at heart-depth, everyone has in common, but which the artist has realised and re-presented. He has struggled to immerse his soft attention into the depths and to master his craft sufficiently to shape it into a form which does justice to the intensity, beauty, depth, sweetness and subtlety of what is.

But this life is my life. I am that; which is why great art is not, ultimately, ‘moving’ — it is stilling. There is nowhere to go to enjoy it.


  1. Or would be if literacy had much of a future; which is unlikely.