The Pleasures of Imagination

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 25, 2014

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
Albert Einstein

In 1862, Victor Hugo published “Les Miserables,” one of the greatest novels of the 19th century and what Upton Sinclair described as “one of the half-dozen greatest novels in the world.” The story, which takes place during 1815 and 1832, depicts the lives and interactions of several characters but the focus is on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean.

After his experience of redemption, Valjean becomes a force for good in the world even though he cannot escape his criminal past. The story weaves together major themes such as the nature of law and grace, the history of France, justice, moral philosophy, love and even the architecture and urban design of Paris. 

When I first read the book I found myself captured by the complexity of the characters and the profound impact the story had on me. To this day I find myself going back to certain parts of the book that keep on challenging me. 

One of those parts is about our imagination. Hugo said, “Indeed, if our earthly eyes possessed this power of seeing into the hearts of others, we would judge them far more surely by their dreams than by their thoughts. Thought must always contain an element of desire. The dream, which is wholly spontaneous, adapts and perseveres, even in our utmost flights of fancy, the pattern of our spirit.

“Nothing comes more fully from the very depths of the soul than those unconsidered and uncontrolled aspirations to the splendors of destiny. It is in these, much more than in our reasoned thoughts, that a man’s true nature is to be found. Our imaginings are what resemble us. Each of us dreams of the unknown and the impossible in his own way.”

I love the words our imaginings are what resemble us. There is something special about our capacity as human beings to imagine things. It must be why Mark Twain said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Or as Albert Einstein claimed, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

In June 4, 2010 Paul Bloom wrote an essay in The Chronicle Review titled "The Pleasures of Imagination." He says, “Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to a world created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create as when daydreaming or fanaticizing. These ‘pleasures of the imagination’ transport us back to that world we spent a lot of time in as normal children when we enjoyed playing and pretending.”

Bloom also says that “ … life creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens.” He then quotes the critic Clive James who once said, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”  

Hugo’s words “Our imaginings are what resemble us,” remind us that each of us imagines in our own way. The artist agrees with Pablo Picasso who said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” The astronomer agrees with Carl Sagan who said, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” The author agrees with Henry David Thoreau who said, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” 

What are your imaginings? Do you dream of places you have never gone or books you have never written or mountains you have never climbed or people you have never seen?

Michele Shea said, “Creativity is … seeing something that doesn’t exist already. You need to find out how you can bring it into being and that way be a playmate with God.” 


Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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