25 March 2009

Jan Clausen

[from Jan Clausen's essay "The Political Morality of Freedom" from her Books & Life, Ohio State University, 1989]

The endeavor to be good works against the operations of the imagination in at least two ways. On an obvious level, it confirms that deep down we think we are bad. The imagination is dangerous, therefore, because it springs from our erring nature undisciplined by conscious control. As I observed in Part I of this essay, such a reaction is sometimes evident in the politics of language debate, when feminists behave as though words were capable of unleashing an evil force. The most exhaustive feminist discussion of the dangers of the imagination has certainly been in the context of the sexuality controversy, in the course of which some women have suggested that we should be training ourselves not to have politically retrograde fantasies.

Though it has rarely been discussed so openly or heatedly, the issue of imagination in fiction is, I think, closely related. For fiction, like desire, cannot really be made "safe." Though we may not choose to publish every word or perform every sexual act that pops into our heads, neither can we, so to speak, run out in front of our imaginations and arrange their contents to conform with our mere ideas. If we cease to give feeling plenty of leeway, we will be dealing with hackwork and correct sex, not fiction and desire.

The second way in which an effort to be good may thwart the imagination is by reinforcing that fundamental distrust of the imaginative act itself which I alluded to earlier. The basic idea here is an old one in western culture: that virtue and pleasure are incompatible. There may in fact be some psychological link between fictive imagination and sexual fantasy, and therefore a taste of the forbidden in the former as in the latter. I know that a puritanical part of me suspects there's something not quite right about the intense pleasure I derive from conjuring up scenes and situations which, though their taproot is sunk in the stuff of my real life, exist not of necessity as real life seems to do, but because I have chosen them. And I infer from observing the hostility with which imagination's fruits are sometimes treated that others share my suspicions.

Books & Life

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