We often talk about ‘imagination’ as if it’s a fixture of the human mind. Human beings, as common sense would have it, are inherently able to imagine what is different; we bring what is distant near only by thinking it so. In the middle of a blistering New England winter, for instance, we might picture ourselves on a sandy beach in Florida; in the mess of rapid and haphazard “development,” we might imagine pristine, virgin land.
But imagination—like all of our most transcendent capacities—exists not invariably, of course, but in degrees, in flux, in varying quantities and qualities, and sometimes—that is, in some minds—hardly at all. I was reminded of this last week following the death of North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Il, which caused me to reflect upon (and imagine) the lives and minds that comprise a nation with only one permitted text upon which to project its fantasies—the doctrine of North Korean socialism.
And yet this extreme example serves only as a limiting case, one which indicates a more universal difficulty. We’re all always limited in our imaginings. We block their course, sometimes deliberately, but also sometimes mechanically, and often blindly. This is what makes routine possible, and what makes even our most arbitrary and destructive habits seem perfectly natural. We cling to what is readily available, forgetting the partial nature of our given sphere. While imagination brings what’s distant near, habit forgets the possibility of distance (and difference) at all.
Cultivating one’s imagination is a privilege, one which we ought to covet and guard with jealousy. I was granted this privilege this past summer, when I was able to stay in Kumily, Kerala for two months—Kumily, a place so unlike any of the other places I call home in custom and in ambience, in ethic and in landscape. I wrote previously about how the hills and depths of the Periyar moved me, and about how Raxa Collective’s work with the Forest Department and the Development Committees humbled and inspired me. But in that post I neglected to mention one of the more memorable moments of my stay at Cardamom County, one which broadened the horizons of my imagination even more than the occasional monkey-encounter or motorcycle ride through Tamil Nadu. Continue reading