by Stephanie on March 4, 2010

We live in a society that has no adequate images anymore, and if we do not find adequate images and an adequate language for our civilization with which to express them, we will die out like the dinosaurs.
—Werner Herzog

I read The Neverending Story when I was a teenager. I hardly remember the plot and I have only vague memories of the film (which I saw for the first time in 2009); it was the images in Michael Ende’s book that caught me—plains full of softly waving golden grass, crumbling buildings and a melting rainbow sky. There were pages and pages of this, of pure shifting shape and concept, colour, spectacle, adventure—imagination for the sake of imagination. And then, in juxtaposition, the plague of Nothing—darkness, a hollowness, sucking the colour and the joy out of the world. Sucking the world out of the world.

Artists know that the slip between reality and imagination is, in a sense, not really a slip at all. Writers know that stories exist in a way that makes the dichotomy of fact and fiction artificial. The popular fantasy genre takes as its premise that what occurs in the story exists in a world other than our own. Magical realism, on the other hand, more directly challenges our understanding of this world. ‘Normal notions about time, place, identity, matter and the like are challenged, suspended, lured away from certitude.’(1) Salman Rushdie talks about the writing of Midnight’s Children: ‘I wanted to make it as imaginatively true as I could,’ he says, ‘but imaginative truth is both honourable and suspect.’(2)  The child in Pan’s Labyrinth knows the magic is real, even if the adults have turned a blind eye. Novels like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Gabriel García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude merge history and fact with the fantastic to the point where it is almost impossible to tell where the real leaves off and the ‘magic’ begins. And this is precisely the point: by treating the fantastic as an inextricable part of the actual, such stories force us to question ‘the political and metaphysical definitions of the real’ in which we anchor our lives.(3)

It’s the job of the fiction writer to slide between the real and the imaginary and to put these concepts into words. To create something physical (a text) from something that is not (an idea). To create new worlds from those that already exist. To challenge. This is dangerous. Imagination is dangerous. It’s dangerous in the same way that fear is dangerous. It reminds us of our mortality, of our fallibility, of the slipperiness of our experiences, our knowledge, and the simplicity of death. But the imagination is bridled only by itself. We may allow of our imaginations what we would never allow of our realities, and in the private space of our minds, whole other worlds may exist. Every now and then they test us. Stories and ideas push us, push our realities and our understanding of the things we can touch and taste and see. By imagining the impossible we wonder about the realm of the possible. And this is dangerous.

Censorship attempts to limit the imagination. Censorship limits what is shown to be thought in order to limit what it is possible to think. It is at direct odds with the project of the artist, the writer, the creator and the innovator, because it curtails the hypothetical, the imaginary, the possibility. The role of art in a society is not to replicate the actual but to reflect it; to reinterpret it, to represent it: to re-present it. Its purpose is not just aesthetic but social and political. Aesthetics are the medium through which it draws attention to itself. ‘Culture’ is not a fringe concern; it is a representation of how a society understands and defines itself. It is the core of our existence as sentient creatures. Censorship is power recognising danger in imagination and representation, but mainly the danger presented to itself.

I am becoming afraid of being an artist in this country. I am becoming afraid of saying what I think, especially in a time when the world is becoming less and less private, and the relative safety of anonymity is crushed. Even now I struggle with the idea that I am still free to think as I like, that my mind is not shackled by anything except that with which I shackle it myself. And the more afraid I am to speak, the more important it becomes. Soon the only private spaces will be the ones in our heads, if they are not already the only ones left. And perhaps one day even that will be taken from us, because the more restrictions governments and power brokers place on our representations of ourselves and our understanding of the world—of all aspects of it, not merely the loving, the sacred and the benevolent, but also the dark, the disturbing and the profane, which are as much a part of this world as the things we hold dear—the closer we come to a time when even to think in certain ways is to commit a crime.

There are places in the world where these words would be considered dangerous enough to censor. I almost censored them myself, except I think they are too important. The mere fact that I can say them means they should be said, because there are places in the world where speaking your mind or creating art is considered dissident enough for jail, capital punishment, death. That place might be here sooner than we think. The wheels are already turning. The artists are always first.

(1) & (3) From the Introduction to Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology, David Young and Keith Hollaman (eds.), Longman Inc. : New York and London, 1984.
(2) Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism. Granta and Penguin : London, 1991.

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