Rosenblatt: Imaginative literacy can transform the world

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Roger Rosenblatt, distinguished professor of English and writing at Stony Brook University, speaks in the Amphitheater Tuesday morning.

“The stone’s alive with what’s invisible.”

­—Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney,

“Seeing Things”

Imagination is elusive: Scientists can’t find it, philosophers can’t define it and, sometimes, humans can’t control it. But writer Roger Rosenblatt thinks it’s the key to understanding people’s place on Earth.

Rosenblatt spoke about imaginative literacy and the transformative effects it has on the world — both for good and for ill — Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater. His lecture was part of the Week One theme, “21st-Century Literacies: Multiple Ways to Make Sense of the World.”

Rosenblatt’s most recent work is The Book of Love: Improvisations on a Crazy Little Thing, published last January. This November, Rosenblatt will be presented with The Kenyon Review’s Award for Literary Achievement, an acknowledgement of his lifetime of writing. He previously worked as a journalist at The Washington Post and Time until 10 years ago when he dedicated himself to his personal writings.

He spoke about imagination, the great and terrible tool of humanity.

“Imagination can breathe life into the world, and imagination can murder the world,” he said.

For all the research in to the human brain, Rosenblatt said where the imagination comes from remains an elusive question. Unlike memory or senses, it is unknown where the imagination comes from inside our minds. 

“It’s too big, too uncontrollable. It imagines itself,” he said, his first reference to the cyclical nature of the human imagination.

To Rosenblatt, imagination is as important to people as breathing. Minds wander in every state, in sickness and in health, in whimsy and in stress.

Imagination can make the intangible a reality, he said.

“Sometimes the most important things in our lives are the things we can’t see,” Rosenblatt said. “We can’t see love. We can’t see God.”

The most imaginative writer who ever lived, in Rosenblatt’s opinion, was Charles Darwin.

“He saw the invisible stages of evolution that nobody did,” he said. “And in the third edition of On the Origin of Species, at the end, Darwin attributes the evolution process to a primal force, to God.”

While some argue he added it to stave off critics, Rosenblatt never believed that was true.

“He did know the entire amazing story of evolution had to come from something he couldn’t see. He was the master of things he couldn’t see,” he said. “God is the great imaginer. God imagined us, and we imagine God.”

Rosenblatt had never met a transgender woman, until teaching a writing class at Kenyon College Summer School last week. The greatest thing about her, Rosenblatt said, was that she imagined herself. As a young boy, she instead identified as a girl.

“We all imagine ourselves,” Rosenblatt said.

While we live consciously in three tenses, Rosenblatt said dreams and memory are untethered from linearity as products of our imagination.

“Imagination holds sway over past and future and, of course, the present,” Rosenblatt said. “Why was time invented? To prevent it all from happening at once. … Nobody has an accurate memory. Memory is an act of faith. It’s what we wish to believe.”

Love, humor, destiny — they are all concepts Rosenblatt said are beholden to imagination. To Rosenblatt, the phrase “love at first sight” is a fallacy. People spend their lives carrying the image of their ideal partner, Rosenblatt said. In truth, it is “love at last.”

Humor shows humanity’s relationship to the absurd and irrational, a point Rosenblatt illustrated with a joke: “A rabbi with a parrot on his shoulder walks into a bar. The bartender asks where did he get it. The parrot says, ‘Brooklyn. They got thousands of them.’ We are ever eager to dwell on the preposterous.”

Storytelling is much more than an act, Rosenblatt said. It is a philosophy of life. The Jews who faced the horror of the Holocaust in the Warsaw ghetto would write messages on scraps of paper and hide them in the walls.

“Why did they do it? They did it because they had to,” he said. “It’s the message in a bottle. We have to write it. We have to express ourselves and say ‘we are here.’ ”

Rosenblatt said the determination of self-expression is inherent to the human condition. The subject of the novel and film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, was denied all motor function by a stroke — with the exception of his left eyelid. With that single instrument of movement, he blinked the alphabet and wrote his memoir.

This instinct can be found across literature and history.

“We are a narrative species,” Rosenblatt said. “In the Bible, Job said, ‘I only alone am left to tell thee.’ In Moby Dick, Ishmael echoed him, ‘I alone am left to tell the tale.”

But imagination is also inextricable from good and evil. The power to tell a story can be used for greatness or for horror.

“Pol Pot told the best story. Hitler told the best story, in his time. So did Lincoln. So did FDR,” Rosenblatt said.

It is not a moral quality, he reiterated, but a narrative one.

“We live on the edge of dreams, not precariously, but comfortably,” Rosenblatt said. “How shall we use our imagination? It can breathe life into the world or it can murder the world.”

Throughout his talk, Rosenblatt would break into song with dashes of self-deprecation. At the end, he promised only one more song. When the music of the John Lennon song “Imagine” echoed throughout the Amphitheater, he led an impromptu, powerful sing-along, reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s use of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the victims of the Charleston church shooting.

He began the Q-and-A segment amid a standing ovation and thunderous applause. 


Q: The Kenyon Review, which, in my opinion, is one of the best literary reviews in the world, this November is awarding Rodger the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. This is a lifetime award. One of the recipients of that award is the great Seamus Heaney, who died in the last year or two years. One of the last things that Haeney did, ironically, was to tweet to his wife, and left a message in Latin which is not often tweeted, “Don’t be afraid.” So I’m wondering if you could comment on the absence of fear in the presence of imagination.

A: Wonderful question, and a wonderful last wish, “Do not be afraid.” I also wondered why it was in Latin. I don’t know, maybe it gives it a certain classic exultation. It’s a wonderful thing to wish someone, particularly a person you’re leaving for a fearful — naturally fearful place — what is death like? We cannot imagine death. We obviously try, and we have certainly in various depictions of the world of the dead to do it, but it’s never quite persuasive.

And maybe this is just the line where it’s drawn, where our evolution stops, because we’re not able to do that. Since there is that line, it would be natural for a man great as Heaney to have wished his beloved wife, “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid, I enter the world that is associated with fear now, but you are still alive. Live a life without fear. How it’s possible to have imagination without fear? I don’t think so. Because you can also imagine the worst, and the most dreadful things. That’s why it’s so uncontrollable. But still, it’s a beautiful thing to have wished his wife with all the things that one might wish his beloved when he could no longer reach her.

Q: Last night, Nancy Gibbs talked with a certain amount of passion about how she thinks the presence of all this technology is enlivening news in making us more informed in reading voices that can move solutions to problems, for example, in an astounding rate. So the question for you is: Should we worry that all the cell phones and iPads all of these technologies will kill our children’s imaginations, or do you think it feeds them?

A: I don’t know how to answer this question — you’re asking someone who doesn’t use a computer. I don’t know what the hell Nancy was talking about. My best guess is that people are people, that we have not evolved in any great extent, as you can tell by our behavior from time to time. Ergo, if we haven’t behaved any better, we also don’t think any better or worse. So I think the imagination will simply be affixed to whatever new machine we come up with.

Q: What stimulates your imagination? Be careful here, will you, please?

A: You saw her too, didn’t you? First of all, just like everyone here, the imagination is mobile, it moves from event to event. What interests me is, in “Citizen Kane,” there is a moment when the editor — I forget his name — but the real editor of the paper tells a story about a woman he passed. He was in one train, and she was in another, and the trains passed, and he said, “Not a day of my life has passed that I don’t remember her.” It’s just the romantic imagination. Is this life sufficient, or is there something else possible? That’s why I say America is important in the imagination. We always think something else is possible. It doesn’t have to be a man or a woman. It could be a life, or a line in a piece of writing. We live in a state, this dream state, where we will believe anything, and we often come up with the very thing that is hard to believe.

Q: What capacity is imbued to us when we collectively vocalize the sages past — Lennon, King, JFK? What is lost if they’re relegated to print alone?

A: I think something is lost if they are relegated to print alone, because in print you can’t really have layers of a song, however good the lyrics may be. The beauty of “Imagine,” the beauty of any of Lennon’s songs, is they’re just as simple as pie. It’s not the layers of the song that get to us. There are no layers to the lyrics. It’s the idea that he has hit just the right words. I teach writing, and I try to teach my students, “Write with restraint and precision. Don’t get fancy. If you have the goods, just write the goods. Let the reader do the work. The reader is valuable, the reader is smart, the reader will fill in the blanks.”

“Imagine there is no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today.” You see how much thought goes in between the heaven and the hell and the living for today? It’s a leap in the thought. But he doesn’t fill in the blank, he doesn’t fill it in with a lot of extra verbiage. So the song can do something that the writing can’t do. The writing can do something that the song can’t do.

I was talking to my friend Anne Tyler, about a movie made of the book, The Accidental Tourist, and I said, “I thought it was a great movie. Did you like what the movie made of your work?” And Anne said, “Yeah, but it wasn’t the layers of my book.” So that medium was fine in itself. It was a really fine movie, but it wasn’t her book. So all these things, I think, exist quite compatible, in the world of arts.

Q: A very similar question is asking you to fill in the spaces in Lennon’s thoughts.So what is your beleif in the future, or dream, and, to put it differently, how do you imagine the world when James and your grandchildren are older?

A: I sure would like to imagine — I certainly imagine it like this, but I fear, from too much experience, that it would only be a construct of the imagination. I will tell you this, and maybe you even saw it, I can’t read these lyrics without tearing up. The whole idea — this is possible, you know? Within our grasp, and you have the savages of ISIS and the savage character in the church in South Carolina — we’ve got all these things knocking at us left and right. We know, we know we know, that the words of the song: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope one day you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” It would be nice. For the moment, we have to take solace in at least the aspiration that that will go away.

Q: One of the things that is inherent in technology is the ability to connect the world’s stories. We have access to people, probably unprecedented access to people writing out of different cultures. Do you have an observation about the value of that, or is there some element of another culture’s story that you’re wrestling with right now in terms of your imagination?

A: Not mine, but I love the idea more and more and more, I don’t know what a blog is, but I’m sure they’re good. I love words flowing, the good and bad. Actually, I’ll be able to discriminate to make sense of them but I’m all for language and how many stories that we can get. I heard so many interesting stories when I was in journalism, which was a long time ago now, it stopped both Time Magazine and The Newshour about ten years ago. It also stopped the money, which seemed to be interesting. “Where are those checks? Oh that’s right, I haven’t written anything.” But it was a worthwhile decision because I had to do something that I imagined, the life that I had imagined when I was a child, to be a pure writer. And however pure I am, I don’t know that I have become the only single minded writer in the last ten years, but when I was in journalism, the stories that I would get from places like Rwanda and Beirut and Northern Ireland, and Cambodia, people under the worst circumstances possible, people suffering as a way of life, suffering as a way of life, and yet the stories were always beautiful. The stories were hopeful, and they were sustained. Boys I was with in Africa and Sudan, telling stories at night with flashlights held down, the stories that sustained the tribe and stories that sustained the people. This was not an accident. I called us the narrative species, there’s evidence all around. This is how we sustain ourselves, and this, if we can make it, is how we can get out of some of the worst aspects that we face.

Q:There’s an interesting set of commentary about the listing of good storytellers you point out like Pol Pot and Hitler along with FDR and Lincoln. Can we imagine good without the possibility of evil? Is it possible to control the scope of the imagination, and is it appropriate to do so?

A: It would be nice if the realm of the destructive imagination remained hypothetical and the realm of the good imagination remained real. That is the trick. In other words, I wouldn’t want to limit the imagination because you made a great point. You cannot really know the good without knowing evil and having something to compare it to. So it’s a question of behavior, a question of the choices that we make and how we act, and they are within our capability, as they argue. And that will be nice to see when people start to think about choices while not limiting any possibility of their actions.

Q: The book that you have coming out in January — tell us about the next story you’re going to tell.

A: His name is Thomas Murphy. I know I don’t look it, but I’m Irish. I lived in Ireland for a while, my first child was conceived in Ireland, I speak a little Irish, I went back last year, I’ve been back a few times, there’s something in me — I don’t know, maybe the milkman was Irish — that grabs and embraces that country. Add that to the fact that my great, dear friend McCourt, he was a great guy. And he and I talked together in the department where I teach now, and we drank together and sang together — if you think I’m good, and boy am I good, you should’ve heard McCourt — we used to sing all night. I don’t know why this stirred in me before, but I wanted to write a satirical model, and I tried twice. And I started channeling McCourt. i could hear his voice in the dialogue. It’s about a 70-year-old guy who figures he has 20 years left, which is true now, of course, what do I do with the rest of my life. Like that song, “What are you doing the rest of your life?”. And he’s got a wife that has died recently, lives in New York, and was born in Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, and then came to America. And he is left with his daughter, Maura, whose husband is fled, good riddance, and his little grandson, William.

Guess who William is based on? I could do this forever, I could do the whole thing on William. My man Murphy has a wonderful, teasing relationship with Maura, which I have with my daughter as well. She thinks he’s losing it and wants him to see a neurologist, in order to test whether he’s losing his memory. He wants to ignore this, and he actually deliberately screws up tests in order to mess her up. She writes him a note at one point that says:

“Dad, I’m not trying to put you in the looney bin, although you clearly belong there. I just want you to be safe. I just want you to be safe and not be endangered by any loss of memory.”

And she signs it, “your loving daughter.”

He writes back:

“I’m sorry, I never had a daughter.”

She writes back:
“Go fuck yourself.”

And he writes back:

“Now I remember you.”

Q: Well, until that last moment there were people wondering when you were coming back. Roger is going to open the 2016 season with a version of “Roger and Friends.” One of those mornings he’s going to have a conversation with three editors, the editor of the Paris Review, the editor of the Kenyon Review, and the editor of the New York Times Review of Books. Maybe he just wants to get back at people?

A: Not at all. They’re great. These three people are among those who are the gatekeepers of the things we read. And there are 50-60,000 books that are published a year, and they cannot deal with more than 500 among them, all three. So I thought it would be a some interest to talk with them about making selections and other things they do. They’re all wonderful, smart people. And one other evening is Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. You may not know their names, but you know “The Way We Were,” which they wrote, and you know “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” which they wrote, and 20 other songs which we could just sing here if we wanted. They wrote mostly for Barbra Streisand. Anyway, I wanted to talk to Marilyn and Alan about what it’s like to write a song — do the lyrics come first, does the song come first, what adjustments need to be made. Then I’ll talk to Pete Hamill, he’s a wonderful fellow. I know you know him, he’s worked as a journalist and as a novelist, and just as a good, good guy, and I know he’ll love you. And then Ann Patchett is coming. So, not bad for a country boy.