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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Imagination In Work

Title:     The Imagination In Work
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

The uses of the imagination are so little understood by the great majority of men, both trained and untrained, that it is practically ignored not only in the conduct of life, but of education. It receives some incidental development as a result of educational processes, but the effort to reach and affect it as the faculties of observation, of reasoning, and of memory are made specific objects of training and unfolding, is rarely made. It is relegated to the service of the poets and painters if it is recognised at all; and so far as they are concerned it is assumed that they will find their own way of educating this elusive faculty. As for other men, dealing with life from the executive or practical sides, it is taken for granted that if they have imagination they can find no proper use for it. Individual teachers have often understood the place and function of the imagination, and have sought to liberate and enrich it by intelligently planned study; but the schools of most, if not of all, times have treated it as a wayward and disorderly gift, not amenable to discipline and training, and of very doubtful value. There has always been, in every highly civilised society, a good deal that has appealed to this divinest of all the gifts with which men have been endowed; there have been periods in which the imagination has been stirred to its depths by the force of human energy and the play and splendour of human experience and achievement; but there has never yet been adequate recognition of its place in the life of the individual and of society, nor intelligent provision for its education. The movements of thought along educational lines in recent years show, however, a slow but steady drift toward a clearer conception of what the imagination may do for men, and of what education may do for the imagination.

So long as the uses of the imagination in creative work are so little comprehended by the great majority of men, it can hardly be expected that its practical uses will be understood. There is a general if somewhat vague recognition of the force and beauty of its achievements as illustrated in the work of Dante, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Wagner; but very few people perceive the play of this supreme architectural and structural faculty in the great works of engineering, or in the sublime guesses at truth which science sometimes makes when she comes to the end of the solid road of fact along which she has travelled. The scientist, the engineer, the constructive man in every department of work, use the imagination quite as much as the artist; for the imagination is not a decorator and embellisher, as so many appear to think; it is a creator and constructor. Wherever work is done on great lines or life is lived in fields of constant fertility, the imagination is always the central and shaping power. Burke lifted statesmanship to a lofty plane by the use of it; Edison, Tesla, and Roebling in their various ways have shown its magical quality; and more than one man of fortune owes his success more to his imagination than to that practical sagacity which is commonly supposed to be the conjurer which turns all baser metals into gold.

That splendour of the spirit which shines in the great art of the world shines also in all lesser work that is genuine and sincere; for the higher genius of man, which is the heritage of all who make themselves ready to receive it, is present in all places where honest men work, and moulds all materials which honest men handle. Indeed the most convincing evidence of the activity of this supreme faculty is to be found, not in the works of men of exceptional gift, but in the work of the obscure and undistinguished. It is impossible to energise the imagination among the workers without energising it among the artists; and artists never appear in great numbers unless there is in the common work of common men a touch of vitality and freshness. A real movement of the imagination is never confined to a class; it is always shared by the community. It does not come in like a group of unrelated rivulets fed by separate fountains; it comes like a tide, slowly or swiftly rising until it enfolds a wide reach of territory. The presence of a true art spirit shows itself not so conclusively in a few noble works as in the touch of originality and beauty on common articles in common use; on furniture, and domestic pottery, and in the love of flowers.

The genius of a race works from below upward, as the seed sends its shoot out of the hidden place where it is buried; and when it becomes luminous in books, painting, and architecture, it grows also in out-of-the-way places and in things of humble use. The instinct for beauty, which is more pronounced and fruitful among the Japanese than among any other modern people, shows itself most convincingly in the originality, variety, and charm of the shapes which household pottery takes on, and in the quiet but deep enjoyment of the blossoming apple or cherry, the blooming vine or the fragrant rose. It is the presence of beauty diffused through the life of a people in habit, taste, pleasure, and daily use which makes the concentration of beauty in great and enduring works not only possible but inevitable; for if a people really care for beauty they will never lack artists to give enduring expression to that craving which, among men of lesser gift, shows itself in a constant endeavour to bring material surroundings into harmony with spiritual aspirations.

This play of the imagination over the whole landscape of life gives it perennial charm, because it perpetually re-forms and re-arranges it; and the free movement of the imagination in all occupations and tasks not only makes work a delight, but gives it a significance and adequacy, which make it the fit expression, not of a mere skill, but of an immortal spirit. The work from which this quality is absent may be honest and sincere, but it cannot be liberalising, joyful, and contagious; it cannot give the nature free play; it cannot express the man. Patience, persistence, fidelity are fundamental but not creative qualities; the true worker must possess and practise them; but he must go far beyond them if he is to put himself into his work, and bring his work into harmony with those spiritual conditions and aims which are the invisible but final standards and patterns of all works and tasks.

One may always get out of hard work the satisfaction which comes from the consciousness of an honest endeavour to do an honest piece of work; but the work which inspires rather than exhausts, and the doing of which gives the hand more freedom and power for the next tasks must be penetrated, suffused, and shaped by the imagination. The great lawyer, physician, electrician, teacher, and builder must give his work largeness, completeness, and nobility of structure by the use of the imagination in as real and true a sense as the great poet or painter. Without it all work is hard, detached, mechanical; with it all work is vital, co-ordinated, original. It must shape, illumine, and adorn; it must build the house, light the lamp within its walls, and impart to it that touch of beauty which invests wood and stone with the lightness, the grace, and the loveliness of spirit itself. We begin with the imagination; it holds its light over the play of childhood; it is the master of the revels, the enchantments, and the dreams of youth; it must be also the inspiration of all toil and the shaping genius of all work.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: The Imagination In Work