The unimaginable: “a green thought in a green shade”
Have you ever tried to imagine the unimaginable?
I was blowing my mind today, in the style of a child, having a go at imagining ‘before’ the Big Bang.
The trouble is, that if time, space and matter sprang into being simultaneously, there can’t really be a “before” if there was no time as a dimension in which to conceive of a ‘before’.
Just like that tree that ‘silently’ falls over in a wood with no one to hear it, I was also trying to imagine how the Big Bang could or would sound, with no one there to hear it for thousands of millennia, despite the fact that apparently there are still echoes of it, somewhere…
What else is it impossible to imagine?
Here’s one from my philosophy days: Imagine a bed (without someone naked in it).
But yet, it is possible to imagine unicorns quite easily, despite being perfectly aware that they don’t exist.
In Andrew Marvell’s poem, “The Garden” aka “Thoughts in a Garden”, he expresses some interesting ideas about imagination.
In the previous stanza to the relevant one, the poet has just described being physically seduced by the garden. In this stanza, his mind too succumbs to the charms of the garden. The mind is described in terms of a metaphor – the mind is an ocean:
“The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find”
I think the idea being described here is that anything in physical or conceptual existence in reality outwith the mind could and would be recognized by the mind – the mind would, from birth, be filled with dormant innate knowledge and ideas that would map to outward reality when that reality was experienced in life. Each “kind” – each thing – would find something akin to it in the mind – “its own resemblance find”.
So, our unicorn, that doesn’t exist, can be conceived of – because every element of what it is to be a unicorn (or indeed not to be a unicorn) is already in the mind, ready to be summoned into a concept.
But (well done if you have followed me so far… I am barely keeping up with myself) the part that interests me, given the thinking-about-time-before-time thing, is the following section of that stanza:
“Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.”
The poet here is marveling (aptly) at the mind/imagination’s capacity to “create” – not in a physical sense, but to conceive in thought. In a state above physical existence, the mind can create, transcend and surpass physical reality in every way… apart from the fact that the things that are conceived don’t exist.
I am interested by the kind of inverse creation in the annihilation of “all that’s made”. By imagining so intensely, the physical world is reduced for that moment in importance so that, as the poet is consumed by the garden, the whole of actual creation is reduced to “a green thought in a green shade”.
Is our imagination only able to manipulate concepts and experiences we already have, or can the imagination create beyond that?
How much of existence (or whatever preceded existence) is so far beyond our experience and understanding that we cannot even imagine it?