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Our Lost World: Anthony Esolen on Killing the Imagination

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 07, 2011

Anthony Esolen is rapidly becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers. I first encountered Esolen when I read his brilliant 2007 study Ironies of Faith, a marvelously engaging and profound introduction to great literature. Now Esolen is back with what we might consider a more pragmatic title: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, from ISI Books.

This is a frontal assault on the tendency of modern culture to flatten everything unique and wonderful about being human in favor of shaping eminently manageable cogs in a great commercial machine. I think the author would agree that the culture is driven as much by a deceptive desire for emancipation from the past and from God as by commerce, but the commercial motive is certainly present, commerce is a great palliative, and the commercial image fits well as it is evocative of mass production. In any case, the scope of the book is well-indicated by the chapter titles (the ten ways):

  1. Keep your children indoors as much as possible
  2. Never leave children to themselves
  3. Keep children away from machines and machinists
  4. Replace the fairy tale with political clichés and fads
  5. Cast aspersions upon the heroic and patriotic
  6. Cut all heroes down to size
  7. Reduce all talk of love to narcissism and sex
  8. Level distinctions between man and woman
  9. Distract the child with the shallow and the unreal
  10. Deny the transcendent

Each of these chapters has an intriguing subtitle. For example, chapter 5 is subtitled “We are all traitors now”, and chapter 9’s subtitle is “The Kingdom of Noise”. The subtitles alone provoke thought.

Why ask Why?

In fact, the whole book provokes thought in a way which is both compellingly principled and delightfully concrete. Esolen draws on a wide range of social observations, childhood memories, personal experiences, famous figures, historical episodes, works of art, and instances from literature to paint a clear picture of how the tendencies of our culture stamp out the sometimes squalid, often noble, and always remarkable messiness of human life—of life fired by the imagination which, if allowed to run free, constantly moves us into new dreams, new experiences and new achievements.

Esolen understands that the imagination is intrinsically open not only to the creative rearrangement of physical things, but to the exploration of both the moral and the spiritual. It is chiefly the moral and spiritual imagination, of course, that modern culture seems so determined to repress. This is no mean feat, and the author returns again and again to its difficulties. He adds bite to his case by shaping the book as a how-to manual for suppressing the imagination (remember Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal). A passage in chapter 9, on endlessly distracting the child, enables us to glimpse the work as a whole:

Recall that the imagination is a natural faculty in man. Some people make the mistake of fostering it, but it is often so powerful on its own that it will assert itself if we simply allow people to live what used to pass for an ordinary life. If you are breathing hard from the airborne soot of a city, all it may take for your lungs to clear again is to spend a week in the country. And all it might take for the imagination to breathe again is some time in solitude and silence. Then solitude and silence must be abolished. You can deny the existence of God, and of any meaning in the universe. You may take out the democratic steamroller and flatten all heroes in sight, or, perhaps more wisely, raise every ordinary selfish fool to the status of a hero. You may laugh at manhood and womanhood, and deprive boys and girls of ways to express longings natural to their sex. You may douse the flames of love of country, and convict your forefathers of wickedness, for not doing everything as you do. You may see all the world through the lens of politics. You may schedule a child into submission. You may keep him from witnessing honest and ingenious labor. You may muffle him up indoors. It will be in vain, if you allow him moments of silence and solitude. (202)

The book is full of gems like this, and the result is that we find ourselves yearning for a time and a place where our own imaginations can run free, so that we can somehow become more fully what we would like to be.

All that Dulls is not Dross

Esolen's case for the human imagination is extraordinarily important. But a small caveat would be that not everything which tends to suppress the imagination is blameworthy. There is more at work here than the relentless egalitarianism, moral licentiousness, immersion in vicarious experience, and flight from God which pock-marks our contemporary culture. There are also forces which most ages and cultures have had to deal with in one way or another: New difficulties; increasing complexity and specialization; pressing social and economic change; technological development and its related regressions; and even the incessant sacrifices of growing up and accepting adult responsibility.

It is not entirely deliberate that our neighborhoods are so often more urban or suburban than they were in Esolen’s boyhood, nor that the dangers to unattended children are more severe and frequent than they were fifty years ago, nor that new forms of entertainment have replaced old, nor that both parents in a household work all day long, nor that there are so many more organized activities available for our kids than there were when we ourselves were young. All of these things are caused in part by shifts in values that cry out to be unshifted, but they are also caused by the kinds of changes which mysteriously afflict all cultures, causing people in new circumstances to submit to (and sometimes even to favor) new patterns of daily life. These do not necessarily kill imagination; they may simply alter the conditions in which it flourishes.

Similarly, we cannot prove that imagination has been deadened by comparing (as Esolen or anyone else must necessarily do) the mass of contemporary human experience with the most notable figures of the past who, growing up in a different world, wrote or accomplished this or that. It does not follow that the next generation will not look back on the same proportion of remarkably imaginative high achievers from our own day. For these and other reasons, Esolen is at his best when his modest proposal skewers the ideological—or at least the value-driven—agendas which seem so clearly designed to make carbon copies of us all; one can more easily raise objections when he fails to notice basic socio-economic and demographic changes that play a nearly inevitable role in altering the conditions of contemporary life.

Then there are possible differences of interpretation. As a quick example, I offer Esolen’s statement that he likes to “imagine a blaring sign over a gigantic shopping mall, with these messages alternating every five seconds, forever and ever: WELCOME TO THE MALL OF THE WORLD. ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE.” As a paradigm for our entire commercialized world, this imaginative sign is surely a wake-up call. And yet the modern mall has much in common with ancient marketplaces, exhibiting a full press of men and women setting up their stalls and carts topsy-turvy, hawking their wares in scenes full of color and imagination and delight, while surely also trying to get by. In another context, Esolen could as easily have praised the mall.

The point of expressing this caveat is not to point out a weakness in Esolen’s book. Rather, the book would have been weakened if the author had attempted a dispassionate and detailed classification of all the causes at work in the modern world’s propensity to kill the imagination. There is a great deal going on in any culture, and even in those places where I harbored a criticism, I found myself both enchanted and enlightened by Esolen’s extraordinary perception and wit. More than that, I found myself longing to relive the childhood of my children again, or to live my own childhood anew, as an adult.

Move Over, Peter Pan

So let me close with this final thought. A part of the weakening of the imagination for nearly all of us is the transition from childhood to adulthood, from limitless possibilities to a single vocation and a few chosen tasks, from lack of responsibility to full responsibility. It is certainly legitimate to chide our society, as Esolen does chide it repeatedly, for having way too many people working away at relatively monotonous and unimportant jobs, and then to chide it even more for apparently wanting to produce people who are suited precisely to this fate. But in fact most of us must do many things we don’t particularly enjoy when we grow up, and not always for bad reasons. Often we do these things because we discern that, in fact, they really do serve some legitimate if modest purpose, or we see in them a suitable means to provide for our families, or we discern in them God’s will.

Often this daily plod of our lives seems dull, even if we have the best jobs in the world. Doubtless we make things very much duller than they should be through our own spiritual bluntness; we are all too frequently dead to the inner reality of what we do and whom we serve. But whatever the reasons, we are all nostalgic for childhood on occasion, nostalgic for that time when we were so much freer to dream and even to live our dreams.

Therefore we can wholeheartedly agree with Esolen that it is a shame to take this imaginative freedom away from our own children any sooner than necessary; and that it is always a tragedy deliberately to weaken the wonderful human faculty of imagination. But we know too that the process of altering (limiting?) the imagination can be both salutary and inevitable as we become more fully formed and more fully responsible. Every man and every woman who has ever lived has gone through this, has lamented the loss of his childlike imagination, and has yearned to be—how shall I put it?—born again.

The key problem is the deliberate elimination of the spiritual. But as Esolen makes clear, to eliminate the spiritual we must crucify the imagination. Thus his book had the great virtue of making me plumb these depths as well, while setting me thinking no less about the dreams I myself have deferred, and about whether some of these dreams are still attainable. Truly it is as St. Augustine said: Our souls are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee. To which I believe Anthony Esolen would reply (and, in fact, he does reply): Let us not, then, deliberately stifle this natural restlessness, without which we cannot reach God.

He is right, of course. If you read this book, I can promise three things besides entertainment, though there is that in plenty. First, you will discover something critical about what is wrong with our world; second, you will never think about contemporary life and culture in quite the same way again; and third, you’ll ask yourself—possibly not for the first time—where all your dreams have gone. I can’t say that the author intended this last question. But the book makes it inevitable, and you’ll want to make sure your answer is spiritually sound.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: edwillneff3195 - Apr. 17, 2011 11:34 PM ET USA

    Anthony Esolen is ALREADY one of my favorite writers on where our Catholic faith intersects or collides with our larger and more degraded culture. His two part series recently in Touchstone Magazine on ten non-religious reasons to oppose homosexual marriage is by far the best argument I have seen on this subject. But everything he writes is extraordinarily thoughtful and beautifully expressed. Thank you for recommending Prof. Esolen -- any new readers you bring to him will not be disappointed!

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Jan. 12, 2011 9:48 AM ET USA

    I am going to buy this book for my children (ages 29 to 15).

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jan. 09, 2011 11:14 PM ET USA

    It looks like a great book that is well worth checking out. If his book is half as good as your review makes it out to be it ought to be worth the price. I know that he has a way with words that's for sure and his topic seems like a breath of fresh air.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jan. 07, 2011 9:53 PM ET USA

    I haven't even read this book yet and already I want to buy copies for my friends. What an excellent review, personal reflection, and cultural commentary. Thank you.

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