I’ve been reading a lot of Patrick Harpur’s books lately and it’s through these I’ve become familiar with this fascinating phrase: non-literal reality which, so far as I can tell, equates to the world of imagination, a world most of us do not consider to be real – even those like me, writers of fiction, who spend a great deal of time exploring it, and inventing stories in it.
Imagination is strange, entertaining, and very useful in that we can imagine scenarios and rehearse them “imaginatively” before doing things for real. Also by imagining what others will do, it grants us the ability to outwit them, to second guess their defences and thereby defeat them in combat or in competition. Simpler creatures, no matter how physically superior, are ultimately no match for the imagination of mankind, and this has ensured our dominion over them.
But for all of that, once we turn our focus back into the real world, into literal, tangible reality, we do not suppose for a moment that the imaginative, non-literal reality continues to exist. We simply switch it on when we need it. Imagination, we suppose, is confined to the insides of our heads and does not dwell in an independently existing imaginal continuum.
Partick Harpur’s thesis is that the imaginary world does indeed exist, and that much of our philosophy, from the pre CE Greeks to the Nineteenth Century European Romantics describe ways in which we can maintain a healthy relationship with this imaginal world. The imaginal world is what has been called by various cultures the otherworld, the underworld, heaven, the afterlife, or in New Age speak, the non-physical plane – and that once we quit our mortal coil we return to it; it is a real place and we can make our way in it as conscious, self aware beings, just as we do anywhere else.
Chinese Daoist philosophy also tells us that human beings exist at this interface between heaven and earth – the imaginal and the physical, the inner and the outer, the yin and the yang, that we can see reflections of the one in the other and in order to live properly we must be respectful of both. If we focus too much on physical reality, if we become too materialistic, utilitarian, and clinical, it’s bad for us. Similarly if we shun the material world and retreat completely inside our own heads, we risk madness. These are old lessons, like how we are taught that smoking and drinking will kill you, and we know these lessons are true, but equally we ignore them.
So, the imaginal world is real, but we must be careful not to take it literally. The reality of the imaginal world can explain all manner of Forteana – the strange creatures, the fairies, the goblins, the spooks, the demons, even the more modern UFO’s and alien encounters that no one of a rational frame of mind will ever take seriously, but which others have none the less repeatedly spoken of witnessing with compelling sincerity.
There will never be any convincing evidence that these things exist (in literal terms) because in literal terms, they do not. That they do exist is evident from the things people tell us they’ve seen, but their reality must not be confused with their actual physical existence. This sounds like a paradoxical statement. They do exist. They have always existed, but if we go looking for them, looking to define them in literal, physical terms, if we try to measure or capture them, we will fail because we are looking for literal certainties where there are none.
The imaginal realm is something that exists inside of nothing, as indeed we apparently exist inside of nothing ourselves. The cosmos as we can see it is an infinitely small percentage of the cosmos as it truly is, because the cosmos is infinitely big, and anything divided by an infinite bigness equals nothing, as any pocket calculator will tell you. It has no size. It is therefore just as easily nothing as it is infinitely large, for both concepts have no physical meaning, and therefore all the cosmologies that mankind has come up with must deal with this paradox of something coming out of nothing.
But how difficult is this to imagine, really? In literal terms we seem to agree that life on earth began in the oceans, a long time ago, that it began from nothing, from a mixture of the right physical ingredients coming together by accident and that the rest, the route from creeping slime to consciousness was simply a steady process of improvement by adaptation. And if the universe consists of a background matrix of purely non-literal, indefinable, non-measurable energy, as quantum physics seems to be telling us it does, then how much greater a step is it to imagine that there might have evolved an underlying conscious plane of non-physical reality that came about by the right twists of non-literal energy coming together,… purely by accident?
Clearly we exist, and if we accept our existence, as we self-evidently must, then how can we offhandedly deny the reality of an inner world as being fanciful? Equally though we have to respect the boundaries and not go looking to establish the physical reality of what is not physically manifest. Each in it’s place, and all that.
The two realms do have a relationship, and it’s this relationship that has granted so much richness to human life. Without it, life is sterile and pointless. The muse, who is the voice behind every written word, including these, is a dweller of these mysterious inner realms, as are other, darker creatures who can wreak havoc in the world by the same blunt instrument the gentler muse employs, namely the hand of man. These are autonomous entities, and they do exist, but you will not find them in the world because, you guessed it, their reality is not meant to be taken literally.
For a creative person, the muse is an unavoidable reality. She seems closely related to the idea of the soul, or the anima of Jungian thought. I am not schooled in these matters and can only go by experience but she seems like a facet of one’s multifaceted soul, for it is a fact that all things in the imaginal realm defy easy categorisation. She is soul, she is muse, she is both, she is none, she is lover, demon, harpy, and then muse again,… all within the same human heartbeat. But she is not a literal being, though sometimes we may project her onto unsuspecting women and pretend that she is..
How does one cope with such metaphysical fickleness? Pretty much as one copes with fickleness in real life: you accept the reality of it, you invite her counsel, but do not demand it. You welcome it when it comes, but do not chase it when it is no longer forthcoming – and above all you accept both its reality and its value to you personally and to some larger purpose of which you may have not the slightest inkling.
It is this acceptance that’s the important thing, the thing that appeases the denizens of the inner world, and grants us an inner pleasure that comes through our relationship with them. They are our kith and kin. They they tap upon the bell-jar of our consciousness, and they grow impatient if we pretend they are not there.
Our understandable incompetence in these matters is no barrier to making way, for the creatures of the inner world are possessed of infinite patience, provided we remain open and trusting, and then they will teach us what we each need to know. Individually, this relationship is essential for our sanity, for our sense of well being, and in maintaining our proper path in life. Collectively it means the difference between a world at peace, and a world on fire.
All of this is very simplistic of course. The imaginal realm is infinite in its scope and its possibilities, yet we can only think of it in terms of the pictures we have taken of our own physical reality, so anything we think or say or believe about the non-literal realm will limit its potential for us when we are eventually drawn back into it. We make what we will of the various afterlife journals that have supposedly come back to us from the likes of Frederick Myers and T E Lawrence, but they both speak of an imaginal realm that reflects very much our expectation.
If this is true I have a cottage waiting in the Lake District, at the foot of Drummaur Fell (you’ll have to read the Lavender and the Rose to know roughly where that is), oh, and a brand new pair of Scarpa walking-boots already broken in. But this otherworldly abode is no nearer a realisation of the ultimate nature of reality than is the physical nine-to-fiveness of the present workaday world. It’s still a literal interpretation, in a sense, and there is a suggestion from reading these curious afterlife journals that one’s progress tends to be further and further away from any form of literal or visually interpreted reality at all – that it becomes increasingly abstract, and even if we dismiss these afterlife journals as the rambings of an overheated imagination, we can still imagine how they might be true.
What I struggle to understand, however, is why the denizens of the other-world, if such there be, should bother themselves with us mere mortals at all. Why should they be so easily piqued by our blatant disregard of them, that they should feel the need to startle us now and then with flashes of their fantastic forms? Surely they can have no longing for the limitations of our literally interpreted reality? Compared with the infinite potential of the non-literal realm, our lives must seem sorely handicapped – worthy of their pity perhaps, but sorey unworthy even as humble pawns in their Machiavellian intrigues?
Why, dear muse, do you feel the need to speak to me at all? To have your voice travel from the world within, to this sterile world? What is it through the pattern-music of your words you seek to achieve? Is it only to remind us to look both ways now and then? Or are you not long gone from this life yourself and seek to impart your newly found wisdom of the wider reality to this enclosed one, from which you are still so freshly estranged and intimately attached? Is your dalliance with us the first stage on your journey to the abstract realms? Or have you never been flesh but eagerly await your turn?
** The picture at the top is Lillith, by John Collier (1892). If you want to see her in the flesh – and I recommend that you do – you’ll find her in all her resplendent glory at the Atkinson Art Gallery at Southport, Lancashire UK.