Wendell Berry on Imagination


William Hogarth, Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, 1738

Excerpted rom the 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Council on the Humanities given by Wendell Berry:

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.


William Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress: Interior of Bedlam, 1763

From William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty:

How great a share variety has in producing beauty may be see in the ornamental part of nature. The shapes and colors of plants, flowers, leaves, the paintings in butterflies wings, shells etc. seem of little other intended use, than that of entertaining the eye with the pleasure of variety.

All the senses delight in it, and equally are averse to sameness. The ear is as much offended with one even continued note, as the eye is with being fixed to a point, or to the view of a dead wall.

Yet when the eye is glutted with a succession of variety, it finds relief in a certain degree of sameness; and even plain space becomes agreeable; and properly introduced, and conflated with variety adds to it more variety.


Jan van Eyck (and workshop), Crucifixion and Last Judgement, circa 1440

“I love hell. I can’t wait to get back there. In fact I’m running, I’m almost back there already.”
–Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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