contemplative life, imagination

Imagination: the power that sees

Milk, pearl, pale, flat, middling, sky, queen’s, turkish, watchet, garter, mazareen, deep, and navy.

These are the thirteen shades of indigo, as described by E. Bemis in his 1806 The Dyer’s Companion. I came across this list in a useful but dry reference book on natural dyes, and these names fascinated me, as though they were a kind of incantation. I have known for years that indigo is the plant that gives our denim and chambray fabrics their blues, but I had never noticed thirteen different shades.

Milk, pearl, pale, flat, middling, sky, queen’s, turkish, watchet, garter, mazareen, deep, and navy.

For the last month, I’ve been teaching a weekly seminar called “Reclaiming Imagination for the Common Good” through a think tank here, The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. During our first week, we talked about what “imagination” actually means.

We often think about the imagination as the faculty that frees us from reality, offering an escape into private fantasies and unbounded visions. Such assumptions, I think, can cause a great deal of harm without being grounded in the more fundamental work of the imagination: it is, first of all, the power that sees.

Scientists have known for years that the raw data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, and nerves is not identical to what we experience as sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Images from our two eyes must be flipped and collated into the single image we see. Beyond this basic level of perception, our imagination is our image-bearing power. It calls images up from memory when the object of sight is no longer present. It frames our attention, so that instead of lumping all hues of a certain range into the single name of “blue,” we notice subtle shades and distinctions, thirteen varieties from a single dyepot.

More mysteriously, the imagination weaves together these images, noticing connections between something we see here with something we once saw there, providing the foundation for metaphor, and perhaps for language itself. Thus these thirteen names call back a whole world. “Sky,” like “milk,” or “pearl,” evoke the natural world and gives us images of blues that we might have seen on a fine summer day, or in the faint tinge in the cream we pour in our tea. “Mazareen,” on the other hand, probably comes from Hortense Mancini, the Duchesse de Mazarin, a seventeenth-century French noblewoman and mistress of the English King Charles II. Whoever named this deeper, darker blue, might have imagined the rustling of silks in the royal court, the mingling French and English laughter at a decadent feast. A blue that, like night itself, conceals what moves on the earth, even as it reveals the bright courses of the stars.

If we say we wish to be students of wisdom, imagination is one of our most powerful tools. It can do mighty works. but first we sharpen it by seeing, by turning the eyes of our head and heart to the world around us. Noticing not merely, “That is blue,” but realizing that there are thirteen blues–or more–in a single pot of dye, and then giving meaningful, mysterious, clarifying names to each.


2 thoughts on “Imagination: the power that sees

  1. And here’s a bit of pre-modern historical context (which, Bethany, I’m sure you already know). The Medievals used the term “common wit” to describe the mind’s ability to synthesize sense data from our five senses into unified impressions. And, of course, they said that “imagination” was the ability to call up mental pictures of objects not immediately present, whereas “fancy” was the ability to mentally combine and modify mental images into new things.

    Was it Coleridge who switched “imagination” and “fancy” around?


  2. Pingback: Imagination: the power that creates | Wisdom's Workshop

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