Into the Imagination


As a naive non-scientist, it’s probably foolish of me to try to present a picture of the universe in which we live, but as long as you can forgive any scientific inaccuracies, I imagine it goes something like this:

At the base of everything lies a primal material out of which everything else is made. It’s called ‘dark matter’, I believe, presently, but probably only because we can’t see it or in any way detect it — I expect a better name will be invented if we ever find any.

Then, like the tip of an iceberg (a useful image, which will come up again and again) out of that sea of ‘stuff’ emerge the basic sub-atomic quantum particles which to some extent we can identify and ‘see’ (but only if we look).

Imagine those fundamental units gathering together in clusters, then those clusters swirling together into super-clusters (also an image that will recur as we go on) and we begin to see the kinds of things we learned about at school: protons, neutrons, electrons and so on, which together form what we’re still calling ‘atoms’.

Following the clustering and super-clustering pattern through to higher levels, we get molecules; repeating the pattern on an ever-increasing scale, we get compounds.

Something even more interesting happens then: though the vast bulk of those compounds remain inert, an iceberg tip pokes through of animated substances — Life enters the picture, in other words, in the form of cells. Whether ‘Life’ is just a more complex or mysterious version of the same kind of thing, or whether something outside our framework ‘touches’ things in some way to create a new order of thing, the same pattern is still followed: clusters of cells form, and super-clusters, and we get the kind of organic bodies with which we are highly familiar. The big difference between the animated and the unanimated substances here is purpose: living things seem to possess a sense of direction or a motivation which unliving things do not.

Anyway, we can extend the pattern even further: we can get clusters of bodies (families or groups) and super-clusters (species) and if we keep going we can get whole ecosystems. If we want to, we can make the leap into space and call a star system a kind of ecology of objects; and that can then be taken even further into clusters of star systems, then a super-cluster, then a galaxy.

You get the idea: there can be clusters of galaxies, super-clusters of galaxies, extending out to the universe. Going beyond that into realms science has not touched upon except theoretically, we could postulate the existence of clusters and super-clusters of universes and so on.

But what has this to do with writing fiction or the imagination?

Just for the sake of exploring ideas, I wanted to run by you the notion that the same kind of picture might occur when we look at how the imagination works.

The bedrock of everything imaginative might be pictured as a primal material, not really a ‘dark matter’, but a kind of ocean of potentiality, out of which, like the tip of an iceberg, emerge disassociated glimpses of parts of things, paralleling sub-atomic quantum particles.

If we imagine those fundamental glimpses gathering together in clusters, and those clusters swirling together into super-clusters, we might get not protons, neutrons, or electrons but ‘thoughts’.

Following the clustering and super-clustering pattern, we could get ‘associated thoughts’; repeating the pattern on an ever-increasing scale, we might get ‘ideas’, then ‘complex ideas’.

So far, though, in our imaginary parallel universe, these partial units lack direction. They drift around and bump into each other randomly, as when we dream. Only if they are touched by something for which we scarcely have a name — Reason? Purpose? — does the iceberg tip poke through of something paralleling Life: motive, impetus, intention. Things get animated. In the physical universe, that produces cells; in the imagination, perhaps that is what produces ‘scenes’ — not disassociated collections of random images but targeted scenarios with outcomes. Clusters of scenes equate to narratives; super-clusters might be novels.

Extending the pattern even further, we get clusters of novels and super-clusters (entire opuses); beyond that, we start to get something resembling ecosystems: a whole genre of writing.

Just as we made the leap into space and called a star system a kind of ecology of objects, we could gather all these genres together and call them a ‘literature’, then collect them into an even larger grouping of artistic works and call it a ‘culture’.

Hopefully, you get this idea, too: there can be clusters of cultures, super-clusters of cultures, extending out to the world of human beings and time. Going beyond that, we could perhaps postulate the existence of clusters and super-clusters beyond humanity itself.

When I was younger, I came across a National Geographic magazine with one of those fold out ‘maps of the universe’ which they used to do — perhaps you know the kind of thing: it started with a picture of a person, then in the next picture was a city, then a picture of a nation, then the globe of the earth, then the solar system, the galaxy, the galactic cluster, the known universe, and so on. I remember getting a headache after looking at it: I had at that time not seen through the façade of ‘sizeism’, the partly unconscious conflation of ‘size’ with ‘significance’, leading to the erroneous belief that smallness equalled insignificance. My remedy at that time could apply here: I flipped things round and went ‘back into’ the magazine. Starting with the known universe, I journeyed down into the super-clusters, the clusters, the galaxies, the star systems, and back to the earth and its nations and cities, right down to the level of the individual. The headache vanished; I felt larger than before.

The same thing can be done to enhance one’s sense of purpose and significance as a writer: jump back into the global culture of humanity, diving back down through super-clusters and clusters of culture into separate literatures and then further down into the ecosystems of genres, clusters of novels, narratives, sequences of scenes, right down to the nitty gritty of individual scenarios and their purpose, and deeper still to the core of basic ideas of which they are made.

It’s a journey that might help an author find his or her place in a wider universe.

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