The Dangers of Imagination Without Borders

May 24, 2021 Updated: May 27, 2021

Use your imagination—compare the modern monsters Godzilla and King Kong to the ancient monsters Pegasus and the Chimera. In this comparison spanning eons lies something of the imaginative purpose of monsters. While the giant ape is outrageous, his essence projects alpha-male strength, whereas the atomic lizard (with perhaps a nod to the dragon) is more egregiously outrageous. Some monsters are more monstrous than others.

This contrast exists within the other set of combatants as well, distinguishing them too on either side of a strange boundary of the imagination: Both Pegasus (a winged horse) and the Chimera (with lion head, goat trunk, and dragon tail) are a hodgepodge of beasts, but there is something naturally fitting and noble in the former and something unnaturally chaotic and crazy in the latter. Pegasus is a beautiful monster, if such a thing may be, in his cohesive symmetry and is, as a result, the steed of a hero.

The Chimera, on the other hand, is a brutal monster in its random juxtapositions and is, as a result, in need of slaying. These monsters are symbols of imaginative consonance and imaginative dissonance, with one image that reveres the truth and the other that rebels against the truth. Though the imagination is capable of any conjuring, perhaps there are some images that should not be imagined.

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Some monsters are more monstrous than others. A lobby card for the 1962 Japanese film “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” (Toho)

The Margins of Imagination

University of Kansas professor and writer John Senior possessed a strong imagination, which he once leveled against Walt Disney’s Dumbo. With apologies to any with affection for that pachyderm, “Dumbo is an abomination of the imagination,” he said. “Elephants can’t fly. Horses can fly.”

Dr. Senior’s statement suggests that even the imagination should have boundaries, which is not a common notion. It is obvious that there are limits to the moral imagination—that is, it is clearly wrong to conceive some things in the mind—but it is less obvious that the creative imagination has limits as well. But when the creative imagination is disconnected from expressions of truth and reason, it becomes susceptible to falsehoods (or chimeras!), which is ultimately a motion toward disorder and even immorality.

Though its realm is the “unreal,” and as an aesthetic act it is prone to subjectivity, the imagination should reflect reality rather than exalt the bizarre. In other words, imaginative horrors that are simply or strangely incoherent should not be imagined. Or if they are, they should be recognized as dangerous to mental and moral health. One challenge, then, in restoring a culture of truth is recognizing the margins of imagination.

The first step is to recognize that the imaginative life, like the intellectual life, is perfected in truth, the conformance of mind to reality. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.” The fact of a forest, for instance, is made more wondrous, even more real, by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents. There is tree-like truth in their watchful whispering and their careful, rooted constancy that complements and extends the perception of woodland reality.

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A drawing of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ent. Like the roots of trees, but far more rapidly, Tolkien’s Ents could break stone. (TTThom/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In such ways, the imagination can be fantastic without losing its connection with the truth. The truth is, after all, quite fantastic, and the imagination embellishes the fantastical truth of things. The whole point of the imagination, therefore, is to draw out and augment reality and its suggestions, giving real objects a representation that is not seen in reality but is sensed as integral to their nature. Hence, we have the imaginative pattern that foxes are sly, owls wise, donkeys stubborn, and lions regal. This is not simply a convention; it is an imaginative expression based in reality and recognized ever since Aesop.

Fantasy or Reality?

Given the symbolic quality of things, the imagination presides over an invisible aspect of the visible world, conceiving something unreal without utterly denying reality. Even in their distinction, the real and unreal should retain some poetic relation. Hence the fittingness of a flying horse over a flying elephant, for there is a very real sense in which a horse can be said to “fly” and no real sense at all in which an elephant can, with its massive weight and plodding gait.

While both are unreal creations, the former is a magnification of truth; the latter, a departure. The principle at work is this: The imagination is ordered not to outlandish fantasy but to the hints of reality—to the proportion of flying horses as opposed to the disproportion of flying elephants.

As traditional fairy stories show, evil can be portrayed as ugly in its imaginative conception, and such is the truth. But it should exist in clear contrast to the good and beautiful, maintaining the moral compass. In other words, wolves should be big and bad, trolls should be nasty, and dragons terrible. On the other hand, heroes should be strong, life should be sacred, and the world wondrous. In short, the imagination should be a mirror of sorts, not a psychedelic portal, transcending reality without renouncing the transcendentals.

But when the unconstrained imagination conjures teenage mutant ninja turtles, how is truth enhanced? Though ostensibly harmless, what is the purpose and the effect of such arbitrary creations, such settled strangeness?

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As stealth is not an attribute of a turtle, the idea of ninja turtles goes against our understanding of reality. A publicity shot from “Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles III.” (Paramount Pictures)

While ninja turtles or flying elephants may be considered within the category of imaginative abominations, they are certainly not as dire as pornography, graphic violence, disturbing deformation, or plain immorality. But the initial movements, however small, are worth heeding for they can be the beginning of an imaginative habit or mode. If the imagination is to be moral, truth must matter in the action of imagination, together with goodness and beauty.

Imaginative relativism sets a precedent for relativism in general, and moral relativism is quick to gain a foothold if given half a chance. Ancient wisdom, from Greek myth to the Bible, reinforces the correlation and connection of the eye, imagination, and moral life.

Is the Sky Really the Limit?

Today, freaks are celebrated in imaginative distortions that blur the lines of morality. These forsake the natural interplays of reality, the consonance in the essence of things, accustoming young people to imagine beyond the margins of truth. The entertainment industry in particular is morphing norms with “new-normal” images that are more monstrous than harmonious.

With the conditioning to imaginings that are not in the image of truth comes a normalizing of the abnormal. Modern approbation for the aberrantly unnatural, for Lady Gaga “Born This Way” abominations, defy the moral imagination with creativity that defies nature even in “unnatural” conceptions.

Where, then, are the margins of imagination? Whether in art, literature, film, or music, when precisely does reality cease to be reflected? How far can the image of truth be stretched before it becomes false? Are there criteria or parameters, or is it just by Justice Stewart’s famous slogan, “I know it when I see it”?

The more extreme departures are easily judged. Artists like Salvador Dali and Zdzisław Beksinski revolt against reason. The writings of H.P. Lovecraft smell of perversity. Music and videos produced by Billie Eilish and Marilyn Manson are degenerate. The brutality of Quentin Tarantino is indefensible.

What of the talking animals from Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, or A.A. Milne? (Anthropomorphizing in the nursery is only natural.) How about Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel? (Even machines and vehicles have a “personality.”) Does the Marvel universe and the “Star Wars” galaxy extend too far beyond Narnia and Middle Earth? (Modernity must make its mythology.)

The problem of defining objective ground for aesthetics, whether creative or receptive, is analogous to the problem of defining an intrinsic moral dimension to aesthetics. Though indefinite, it does not change the principle that images which do not instinctively and intuitively serve the good, true, and beautiful should remain unimagined.

If the imagination is not bound by truth, it can drift into John Lennon’s dream that imagines heaven and hell away rather than foster a more perfect vision of the truth. There is room for fantasy, and even absurdity, in the creative imagination, but as Dr. Senior taught, it should retain a dynamic and derivative that befits rational creatures and forbid the freakish to mentally validate a trans-reality.

Ninja turtles, flying elephants, and a giant gorilla wrestling an atomic lizard may be outwardly whimsical or even wonderful, but they may also advance an inwardly perilous trajectory beyond the margins of a healthy imagination. When it comes to the imagination, the sky is not the limit. Truth is.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.