My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Esolen is a favorite author of mine, and while I did enjoy this book, I think it misses the mark: not in content, but in form. His Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child is written in the style of the Screwtape, a conceit that is perhaps designed to justify the periodically sarcastic tone of Esolen's thoughts on the subject of the formation of children's minds. Not that such sarcasm is unjustified--certainly not; so much of what he points out as laughably inadequate to the task of initiating young men and women into adulthood hits spot on.
Esolen does a fine job of specifying what exactly we should understand when the word "imagination" is used. It carries a meaning of fantasy or dreaminess that can often dismiss it as something proper only to children or the lazy. But in a more philosophically precise sense, imagination is the faculty by which we conceive images; and in this sense, imagination is active every time we make use of images, which is just another word for sensory input. Words are images. So are smells, textures, and sounds. All of them, mediated by memory and in concert with one another, become what the ancient Greeks recognized as "the doorway to the soul."
If the activity of our mind is mediated by the imagination, its structure and content takes on paramount importance. Reflect for a moment on the symbolism of a beautiful cathedral. Consider the scene: though what’s important is front and center, beauty is on all sides and leads one to a greater appreciation of the central reality of divine worship. Think of the windows. Is there not a subconscious effect exerted by these windows’ artistic beauty? In the process of allowing light to enter, a magnificent work of art is made visible which heightens the experience of the light and what it illuminates. Consider the effect that mundane or even ugly images in those windows would have (not a difficult exercise given the churches in which many of us worship today--a subject on which Esolen has no shortage of words).
I would liken the imagination to the windows of a cathedral. Much like the scenes upon the windows, the contents of the imagination affect the workings of the mind and heart, and ultimately, how we perceive reality, as it streams in through our senses. By taking advantage of the memory and the influence it has upon the imagination, men have the power to adorn the windows of their soul with truth, goodness, and beauty, all of which lead one to a heightened appreciation of the mystical quality of daily life.
We sniff at memorization, as hardly worth the name of study. That is wise of us. For the most imaginative people in the history of the world thought otherwise. "Zeus became enamored with fair-haired Memory," sings the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, "and she produced the nine Muses with their golden diadems, who enjoy festivities and the delights of song." The great epic poets invoked the Muses not to stir in them something supposedly "original," which usually is merely self-centered and peculiar, but to give them the twin gifts of memory and prophecy. "They breathed into me their divine voice," says Hesiod, "that I might tell of things to come and of things past, and ordered me to sing of the race of the blessed gods who live forever, and always to place the Muses themselves both at the beginning and at the end of my song."
A few points that stood out for me include the section on "piety of place." Being a Kansas resident, I do realize that my state is everyone's favorite fly-over state to hate. Yet I was encouraged by Esolen's insistence that attachment to place, a particular place, is constitutive of thought and imagination. Drawing from the work of Shakespeare and Flannery O'Connor, it's clear that the enemies of imagination find a great enemy in a love for a place and a country:
We see here the products of easy cynicism. Learn to despise the place where you were born, its old customs, its glories and its shame. Then stick your head in a comic book. That done, you will be triple-armored against the threat of a real thought, or the call of the transcendent. Some people have no worlds for God to pierce through.
I also enjoyed his perspective on food, and the hunting by which one may acquire it:
Deer hunting was a popular pastime in the rural Pennsylvania where I grew up. People who know nothing about the subject suppose it is for beer-drinking men who want to show off their prowess. Encourage that bigotry in your children.
Do not let on that you know that hunting requires actual knowledge of anything, which a young person must learn from someone who is proficient. You have to know how to clean and take care of a rifle; what the difference between one gauge and the other is; what "trajectory" means. You have to coordinate your efforts with those of your fellow hunters, sometimes flushing the game, sometimes waiting, with numb fingers and aching knees, for the quarry to come. You are, at best, pitting your skill and your strategy against the animals, appreciating their strange ways, and not at all taking them for granted as creatures of strength and speed and keen instinct.
Many of the points he makes are grounded in his own experience of growing up in Pennsylvania, and so there is a decidedly autobiographical thread that runs throughout his catalog of imagination-slaying practices. My own opinion is that he should have stuck with autobiography--and the sarcasm would have come across as curmudgeonly and in earnest rather than being forced to carry the weight of a publisher's desire for an "angle."
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