Centenary Special 1913-2012
COURTING THE IMPOSSIBLE
By Andrew Porter
The question is, why do we let the leaden day, and current dynamics, dominate us? We have known something much more golden in our dreams.
These days, being idealistic is out of vogue, but maybe it will, like an underdog team that is down, come back. Speaking of dogs, the old parable of the ungrateful dog who 'dropped irretrievably the bone he had been given in order to snatch at its shimmering reflection in the water' might, today, be leveled at the idealist, who chases chimerical dreams and lets reality gets lost—but I think it could be reinterpreted. The ungrateful dog is the person who leaves the true bone of ideals in order to snatch at the shimmering reflection of the 'realistic'. We might be better advised to consider if this abandonment might get us drowned.
Because when people say that an ideal is ridiculous, we ought to be clear about where the ridiculousness lies. They are quick to say 'you can't just wave a magic wand and have everything changed'. To try to do so is ridiculous and unrealistic, a facile solution, people and philosophers (who are also ostensibly people) will say, because it is so far away in relation to what exists, and therefore can easily be written off. What huff and puff can blow down a brick wall?
But they forget what the impediment is to the full implementation of the ideal being advanced. The impediment is not the salve that would solve the problem and redress how errant the givens are; it is the stubbornness of the givens themselves. Is a situation freed from correction by the claim of obstinacy and inelasticity? Such a state of affairs would be as if fire said that water were a ridiculous means of putting out a blaze because it is not fire. So in fact what is ridiculous is the firm foothold (and brainhold) a current situation and its elements have on the people who decry a solution.
If the ideal is not a solution, it should be criticised on those grounds, but if it is, the only thing standing in its way is the topical mode of reality that humans have made. Then obstruction is the proper object of criticism. What is, is always somebody's idea of ought. A solution to a troubling issue can never be called ridiculous without repelling the magnet that joins 'is' and 'ought'. There is ridiculousness involved, but it is in the problem the solution offers to settle. We must be clear about this, and not take heed of those who scorn moves toward renewed integrity.
It is true that the imagined scenarios we dream of are like sidelined players that never get in the game, but rather warm the bench just on the edge of the field. They came into the stadium of our mind wearing uniforms a bit of a different colour, but they would certainly play and be distinguished. Their talents are great, their readiness striking, but they are sidelined during the entire game.
Their particular coach wonders at the game that is played, seeing it played as if the dividing line in front of his players were necessary to the game. The names on the backs of these sidelined players' shirts are the same, a lot of them, as the players on the field. Maybe they are brothers or sons, the specialty coaches (who never take time to find out) guess. So the able-bodied players on the sidelines, not permitted to be players, imagine a game of their own, very similar to this one, where they go in and save the day.
They imagine it, and know that in reality they are ready to make it happen, but the time left in the half ticks down and they still do not put the lines behind them. Their coach does not forget them, and talks to them attentively, almost forgetting the game. They have won their game, he says, just by being so full-fledged here in this stadium. They feel the camaraderie, understand how they are winners, and imagine there is more than imagining.
Too often we give the standard lumpishness of the way things are too much weight, acting as if we are not party to its character. Why should we bow and concede to it, as if it were not in our control? Reality is poised to accept the suggestion our dreams spur it to hear, since it has the suggestion within it anyway. Why do we let the leaden day, and current dynamics, dominate us? We have known something much more golden in our dreams.
In philosophical circles, it is commonly believed that those who assert that 'what ought to be' holds a deeper reality than 'what is' are not quite serious, that they say it to make a point but don't really believe it truly, and thus deserve a smirk and a bridle. But we might ask who is the one assuming, and which has more broad sanction.
A potential reality only deterred by one's choice is a reality at least equal to the one you have before you. If that situation would be good, better than the current state of things, it is more real, it has more being, than the demi-creation sitting upon the throne at the moment. Why does a potential good have more reality than a 'concrete' set of events and factors that is less than good? Because it is aligned with nature, or the balanced scheme of things, which prioritises what promotes biological health, life, and equilibrium. Because the ideal is altogether possible, were your choice to cease from debarring it, and because this seed is productive of good, it has the title to reality to a greater extent. All that is creative and sustaining issues from it. And yet it 'doesn't exist'.
The ideal and the real have kindred, analogous aims. Cogent idealists are not fanciful cloud-dwellers who dismiss corroborating evidence, but are rather the sincerest realists by taking the practical, so well in hand, and aiming it toward realising its own true nature and potential.
It has been said that if we imagine a better life we will be well on the road to achieving it. Imagination with better virtue in mind is life at the vanguard. Non-contingent, unconditional goods like peace, enlightenment, truth and beauty, justice, love and health are possible, and the static stance of 'what is' only serves as the starting point. 'What is' tends to browbeat our idea of what is possible so regularly that we call much impossible. But if we bring the guillotine of choice down in favour of what is, and divide the way things are from what would be soundly better, what is our envisioning capacity for?
A real ideal is present at all times, but latent like blue sky behind clouds until issued in by its gallant, choice. It is a particular ability of the human psyche to envision the ideal when it cannot be 'seen'. The chickadee outline awaits the embryo's maturation, but is it too, living the fact that in so doing it is not distant from itself.
Ideals know that reality is not a different order. Envisioned betterment manifests a fresh version of reality which reality knows in its heart of hearts to be an aura of itself. Dreams that love reality know how liberal and elastic situations can be, and will brook no restraint.
However, the 'practical' world is intent on producing an 'official version of events', and it cracks down on any varying from that line. Ideals are not realised by going there. They see from a distance and within the thick of things that the practical world is forcing with brutal means—enforcing that all are conduits to the 'official version of events'. Yet ideals are realised in themselves, and natural consequences flow from them. If possible and ripe with potential, to what extent are they brought to fruition? We can at least assert that those who hold legitimate ideals are 'self-realised'. The means used to get ideals seated in those who strongly possess them were not the means sold by the practical world.
Ideals find their legitimacy behind the lines we see, like a sky full of stars hidden behind cloud cover. They may well override the current practical world, in parts, but that is not the important action. That they came to be realised, often right under the aegis of the practical world, is the interesting and amusing action.
In Greek mythology, Atlas held the world above his head, feeling the weight of what has potential energy. It would be ridiculous to give potential no weight. So I suggest that the time we spend on ideals is life, not a retreat from it. Life is never quite as it seems, especially in light of our dreams. Ideals may be waiting offstage, dressed up and ready to act, just listening for their cue, but they are alive in the present. Ideals may be players who inhabit the wings, kept out of the play by forces they will reckon with, but how real they are. They are the life that ours seeks to imitate.
Address for correspondence:Andrew Porter, writing in Lexington, MA, USA