The Remedy of Imagination - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Remedy of Imagination


A little more than a century ago Warren G. Harding ran for president on the promise of a “return to normalcy.” That was what the voters of 1920 longed for after the severe abnormalities of the Woodrow Wilson years. Wilson involved the United States in its first European war, in the course of which his administration exercised extraordinary powers over Americans’ lives. He imprisoned critics, censored the mail, and demanded absolute fealty from a subservient Democratic Congress—which voters repudiated in the 1918 midterms, costing Wilson’s party control of the House of Representatives and Senate alike.

It was the first time in a decade that Republicans had won both chambers. Two years later Harding would win the White House as well. Wilson’s time in office ended with the president himself no longer mentally competent to discharge his duties after he suffered a stroke in late 1919. Wilson may have been the elected president, but for its last year and a half the Wilson administration was a ship steered by others’ hands.

The health of the country as a whole was in jeopardy at the end of Wilson’s time, too, as the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged the population. War, plague, an unprecedented expansion of bureaucratic power in Washington, and a finally president in name only combined to give Americans more than enough reason to prioritize normality—or in Hardingese, “normalcy”—in national politics.

Americans today may feel as though they are living through a scrambled retelling of this history. The president was elected on a message of returning to normal, but instead the crises have escalated. The pandemic continues, with COVID having claimed more lives in the first year of the Biden administration than it had in the last year of the Trump administration. America’s first war in the heart of Asia came to an ignoble end last year, while our in Europe stand on the periphery of an escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The president may yet be compos mentis, but at 79 years old he shows signs of waning mental dexterity. He has tried to ramrod sweeping legislation through Congress, only to fall short repeatedly in the Senate. Woodrow Wilson could at least blame the failure of grand design to join the League of Nations on the opposition party’s control of the chamber. Biden can only fulminate at the recalcitrant members of his own party.

Meanwhile inflation rages, and violent crime returns to levels last seen before the turn of the century. America seems to be moving backward, not toward normality but to many of the worst features of the Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter years. Added to this are new forms of racialized education and a complete dismantling of sexual norms, right down to the demolition of the very concepts of male and female.

Abnormality has become institutionalized—indeed, a war on normality is being waged by many of the most powerful and prestigious institutions in the country. If there were a Harding-Coolidge ticket in 2024 its sloganeers would first have to ask themselves, “Is there any ‘normal’ to return to?” If not, our politics will only grow more radical, no matter how strongly the public desires a calm alternative.

A recovery of normality now requires a feat of imagination. Just as disordered imaginings imported into science and scholarship have warped our national life, so too can the right use of the imagination help us return to reality. Great literature is potent medicine, if we read it not only with our eyes but with our capacity for creative understanding.

Unfortunately this has not been taught in schools for a generation or more—works of art and literature are now presented as mere period pieces or disguised autobiography, or worse yet as exhibits of identity obsessions. But the imagination in a natural faculty, and even miseducation cannot deprive men and women of its use. A philistine education simply makes using this power wisely that much harder.

Immature or deranged imaginings lead to utopian visions, and every great ideologue is in a sense a failed novelist. Such authors can devise plots but not characters, and their lessons are didactic never heuristic. The creator of a great work of imagination, by contrast, is not a mere visionary but a psychologist in the highest, most philosophical sense of the term, someone who understands human nature well enough to depict it in action. And so works of imagination can remind us of truths that prosaic discourse has difficulty expressing. Literature gives us not only ideas but also moral experiences—including experiences of what we are warned against.

We can indeed return to normalcy, if we first remember how to distinguish the normal from the abnormal, and what is necessary (however unpleasant it may be) from what is a madman’s fantasy (however seductive it may seem). The imagination trains us to make these distinctions, and it teaches us that what we experience today is not all there is in life.


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