The wardrobe of our imagination


When I was younger I got it into my head that those inclined to view things negatively were more realistic. They seemed clear-eyed, level headed and less likely to falsely prettify the world. In contrast, I viewed positive people as Pollyannas indulging in lots of wishful thinking. They mistook their own niceness for the niceness of the world, thereby distorting reality and making themselves easy prey for those who were less nice.

I think I imagined that the most realistic way to view things, even more than painting everything as black as possible, was to try to imagine yourself a robot, or a camera, as Christopher Isherwood did in the book Goodbye to Berlin, Jean Paul Sartre in Nausea and Vladimir Nabokov in the short story ‘Terror’. Humans then start to look like thinking lumps of flesh and bone; the Lake District becomes merely an area where big rocks rise ominously out of some clear liquid called ‘water’, which accumulates on the surface of this planet, kept there by a force called gravity. Beauty, you say? Where? I see only flesh, rocks and water.


Of course, I never actually saw things like that and now think it was daft to even try. This realisation came home to me the other day when I was reading an article by Paul Gottfried. He opined that some progressive men and women now view each other as essentially the same, save for a few piffling anatomical differences. This reduction in difference between the sexes has diminished sexual attraction, which thrives on sexual otherness.


Meanwhile the non-progressive slobs still believe in sexual dimorphism but think that if we are honest with ourselves, sex really just amounts to ‘two minutes and 52 seconds of squelching noises’, as Johnny Rotten once said. All talk of romance is for sissies and dreamers. Miley Cyrus would probably agree.

Both of these attitudes have robbed sexual attraction of much of its enchantment. It seems that feelings of awe and mystery are needed to transform a merely carnal act into something more elevated. Theodore Dalrymple suggests here that humans are unique in attaching meaning to sex, though some people believe that this is just a pretense. Paul Gottfried says that people of civilised societies have often dressed each other from ‘the wardrobe of their imagination’ and it is this wardrobe that those obsessed with diminishing sexual difference, as well as those who view sex as no more magical than eating a hamburger, don’t possess.

Camille Pissarro -The Boulevard Monmartre at Night

I like Gottfried’s idea and not only in regard to sexual attraction but to everything. Rather than seeing the world as neutrally as a scientist might, it feels right that we dress people and things in the ‘wardrobe of our imagination’, just as an artist paints his impressions of a scene. The resulting work of art can be more beautiful than the scene itself, as in this painting by Camille Pissarro.


While Robert Frost wrote that The woods are lovely, dark and deep, the people who think that nothing is either better, nor very different, from anything else might write that The woods are lovely, dark and deep, though no more so than a rubbish heap. Johnny Rotten would probably say that The woods are just woods.  


Though the imagination can’t rescue everything from ugliness and nastiness it can help. If you have a rich imagination the world will probably be a more interesting place to you than it is either to someone who wants to imagine away all differences for the sake of ‘equality’ or to someone who thinks that using the imagination is just a dishonest way of pretending that we are no more refined than baboons.


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