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The word has not survived, except in the far reaches of rock music, and some off-beat business ventures. Imaginator. One who makes it all up. The word became entangled in the seventeenth century with the Docetists, which might have led to it being treated warily. The Docetists believed that Jesus was all God; that he impersonated manhood, so as to cheer the rest of us along to redemption. But he was all God really, so he didn’t in truth suffer at all during the Passion and Crucifixion. He was just funning us.

All representations are made by imaginators. So all imaginators are bi-locaters. If I create a representation of myself, then I am in two places at once: I am here, entangled in my own flesh, but I am also there, inside that representation. You can’t be in two places at once, they say. You can though, the minute you get started on representation. A representation makes me otherwhere and otherwise. Amongst the very first representations we ever made on cave walls, we portrayed ourselves as therianthropes—half man, half bird. And so, while standing in the blank darkness of the cave, we flew away. The imaginator shows us all how we might become escapees. Biologically imprisoned, trapped in the coordinates of time and space, we can still fly off out of the darkness into the light.

What ocular procedure is that, which bypasses the optical forms of vision, to see something other?

Why were our earliest representers, our first imaginators, driven to portray a creature they had never seen? If they had seen it, then it was, as Hamlet put it, ‘in my mind’s eye, Horatio.’ What ocular procedure is that, which bypasses the optical forms of vision, to see something other? We tend to talk, a little blithely, of imagination. But what is that? Representation can never be separated from desire. We always want something out of it. If we imagine something into being, we are fulfilling a wish. You made me minus wings, Mother Nature. I’m going to give myself wings anyway, and fly.

Certain types of neurologists have lately been trying to identify the exact areas of the brain which come into play when certain types of mental activity take place. The lights flash on and off, like a city at night. This might well be edifying, but it can also lead to a pretty dismal reductionism. A schizophrenic man who had been subjected to this sort of analysis for a year put the matter succinctly: ‘You don’t get to understand the plot of Eastenders by taking apart the television set.’ We are the television set, and we are also our own transmitters. We are inherently linguistic and representational. We may not be the only linguistic creatures (great apes can employ systematic communications), but we are the only representational ones. No other species has littered the globe with images.

One speculation about the therianthropes in caves, particularly those bipeds with wings, is that they represented healers, who often flew in their shamanic trances. The act of representation has brought together two things nature had kept separate: a bird and a man. In doing this, we are shaping the world by re-shaping it. We could employ another word which never really found a home in the language: esemplastic. It was Coleridge’s word for what he elsewhere called the shaping spirit of imagination. It represents our facility for creating worlds, other worlds, out of the world we find before us. We have been at it since the beginning, but why?

But we fill the dark with figures, some of them fabulous, whether it is the dark of the cave or the dark inside our minds.

We seem to have suffered an ontological loneliness from the get-go. We need to people our minds, and the hinterland immediately beyond our minds—cave, parchment, canvas, paper—with creatures who were not there when we started painting or writing. We accompany ourselves on the instrument of our lives. We can never define imagination, because it is the imagination that is doing so much of the defining. The hermeneutic circle here transposes itself into the paradigmatic circuits of Dante’s Hell—but fortunately, of his heaven too. But we fill the dark with figures, some of them fabulous, whether it is the dark of the cave or the dark inside our minds.

What the makers of those therianthropes on cave walls were doing 40,000 years ago, Lewis Carroll was also doing in Alice in Wonderland. Charles Dodgson did not believe in Hell. He was therefore unable to fully subscribe to the 39 Articles. He was heterodox, but he kept it quiet. However, Alice going down down down to the kingdom beneath us discovers a hell that was always a fiction. She understands that by moving through this fiction she starts to become fictional herself. She grows enormous; she grows tiny; she almost drowns in a pool of her own tears. And many of the creatures she meets are therianthropic in one sense: they are nonhuman creatures but blessed with human language. Only human language permits the imaginative expansion of grammar to the point where it can create a world. Those cave-painters filled the darkness of the cave with creatures who could not be seen up above on the earth. Dodgson started telling a story, to accompany the boat ride, and then he became Lewis Carroll when he wrote it all down. We seem to need to accompany ourselves in life with representations. We are noumenally lonely, but we are equipped with the mental and spiritual gear to create creatures to accompany us. When that imaginative gift turns evil on us, we create the Third Reich. But when it is pointing in the right direction, we create Alice.

What Alice realises more and more is that assertions of authority should be treated with grave care.

Alice is a bright and sassy young woman, but she is also a heuristic principle. She has to fathom the significance of the creatures paraded before her. She has to analyse their power, not the power to which they lay claim, but their actual power, which is frequently indistinguishable from bluster. As below, so above then. Power is asserted, and largely obeyed, down in that curious kingdom. Curious is one of Alice’s favourite words, and it means amongst other things, that something is worth looking into with care. That is the etymology of curious. From the Latin curiosus, meaning careful. Full of care. What Alice realises more and more is that assertions of authority should be treated with grave care. Who says you have this power? Prove it. The text, with Alice as its chief explorer, has a genius for debunking piety. Piety sounds harmless, but it is not. Those who live inside pieties also make them their defences, and use them as missiles when they invade other countries. Pieties are lethal. Alice is the uninvited visitor to another country, and the pieties are ranged against her, and they have barrels. But as she discovers, the gunpowder is really fairy dust. Alice is a precocious hero of scepticism in the face of authority. The world she has entered is full of people telling her what’s what. Some wear uniforms; some wear crowns. Some like the White Rabbit merely wear a waistcoat with a relentlessly ticking watch inside it. The Rabbit, like so many of us, is a martyr to chronology. That watch is beating out the time of his life. His actual life does not correspond to life’s expectations of him. He is living a dissonance.

The Red Queen is a martyr to her sense of her own authority. Her angular relation to the world is voice-led. Since she is so full of authority she must obviously spout authoritatively at anyone who comes within range. She is constantly calling for their heads to be chopped off—their heads remain resolutely on their shoulders. Such authority is, as the old phrase used to have it, all mouth and no trousers. Alice learns quickly not to be intimidated.

The text of the book yields up its own authority, by showing that the words here are not tied to single, immovable senses. The word one can be the originary cardinal number; but it can also be the universal impersonal pronoun. Puns and ambiguities show that language comes to the surface of itself, shows itself to be a system of conventional signs, and thereby admits its signifying volatility. The Formalists often obsessed over the Alice books for this reason: this was a book that owned up to its own facticity. Like language itself, it was fashioned, and as such could be re-fashioned. Everything that is thus can be otherwise.

Alice enters a non-Euclidean world, but she remains robust. She keeps her feet firmly on the Euclidean ground.

Given his profession and his reading, Carroll probably regarded the greatest realm of the imaginator as mathematics. Euclidean himself, he was surrounded by non-Euclidean geometry, and was fully aware of the fact. Alice enters a non-Euclidean world, but she remains robust. She keeps her feet firmly on the Euclidean ground. She cannot be budged into the realm of fear and apprehension of the White Rabbit. She does not have an ominous clock of doom ticking away inside her pocket. She relies on her intellect, by which she tests everything and everyone that comes her way. She is, in fact, an exemplary thinker. She refuses to be bamboozled by authority. The grander the talk, the more dubious she becomes. She sees how the pieties of those in authority become castellated. She constantly demands evidence to back up assertions. She often exemplifies the thought of Carroll’s remarkable contemporary, the mathematician W. K. Clifford. He said that to give your belief to something without sufficient evidence was not merely unwise but immoral. Belief was not gratuitous, like God’s grace; human belief must be earned, and the manner of its earning was evidential.

It might be worthy of remark that Clifford also belonged to that movement of thought which preferred the Old English over the Latinate. He shared this with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both thought that Latinate predications had too much of a tendency to move away from the subject. The older English words were tougher, more specific, less prone to abstraction into a realm of linguistic flexibilities. Linguistically, Alice is part of this world too. But what does that actually mean, behind the polysyllabic flummery, she constantly asks: What are you actually saying? Both Clifford and Hopkins reckoned it was said more clearly with fewer syllables: in Old English formulations. You were closer to the reliable logic there. Otherwise you might find yourself dying in the wrong ditch. And as all imaginators must always remember, William Blake said of Dante’s Inferno: it is true not despite the fact that it is imagined, but because of it.

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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