Whenever I teach about the nature of the imagination, I almost always start by presenting a particular kind of image, a gestalt image, to illustrate how we as human beings perceive the world. It’s one of those sorts of images that seemingly change their appearance while we look at them. Most often, I use an image that first appears to be an oval composed of a hodge-podge of bigger and smaller black splotches – no splotch ostensibly more or less important than any other. However, while one is looking at the splotches, the splotches quite suddenly and seemingly magically reveal the image of a giraffe head, almost as though they reorganize themselves independently of the perceiving subject, which of course they don’t – nothing on the sheet of paper changes; rather, something within one’s seeing does. The philosopher and historian of consciousness, Owen Barfield, calls this change in seeing or the process of making giraffe head out of splotches “figuration.”
The point I try to make with this particular exercise is that the act of perception is formative; one does not in fact see a reality that is already there but instead helps to construct it. Unfortunately, when we look at the world apart from the special case of gestalt images, we are not aware of our figuration in constructing that world and therefore come to the conclusion that our seeing has no impact on reality. Though we may concede that one whose imagination is more developed can see more variety in the world, we would be unlikely to admit they see more reality. We are over and over again asleep to our own figuration and its radical, world-creating potential.
We are also over and over again recreating the same world for ourselves, mostly unconsciously. We are each of us expert at doing this. Ever since I first had the experience of seeing the giraffe head, I have been unable to not see it each time I look at the image. I have been unable to return my consciousness to the time before I saw giraffe head. Quite literally, I have been unable to un-see it. Now imagine the world we see is the way it is because of a habit of mind, because we can’t – and haven’t even thought that we could or needed to – un-see it.
All of this points to the importance of the inner life in perception. Who’s to say that the giraffe head is the only image really in the oval of splotches? And who’s to say that the world as it is, even down to our very perception, is the only world that could be? I’ve heard my students say they’ve seen witches and other creatures in the oval. Have not there also been those among us who’ve pointed to other expressions of reality? These would be hallucinations only if they never became a shared reality. What one realizes as one cultivates an inner life of imagination, is that the outer world seems less outer, and the inner less inner, and each seems less fixed, more mobile, and strangely enough, more ethical in the sense of being subject to ethics. One begins to feel more responsible for the world and more capable as a co-creator of it. It’s high time we take up this work.