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What’s Imagination Got to Do with It?

The 1993 hit movie based on Tina Turner’s autobiography, “what’s love got to do with it”, told a powerful story of human transformation through poverty, opportunity, exploitation, perseverance, violence, fear, power, triumph and, above all, love. While admirers around the world marvel at her talents and guts of authoring one of the most dramatic rags to riches stories of all time, Tina said simply in an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS in 1996 that she has always been an optimistic person and never lost hope of one day getting what she wants. Even though it took nearly twenty years of difficult struggles for her to achieve eventual fame and wealth, she never felt bitterness or pity for herself or anyone else who struggled along her, including her ex-husband, Ike Turner who controlled and abused her for most of their 16 year marriage. As the old saying goes, happiness is all alike but misery has infinite variations.  How do we develop the sense of optimism that sustained Tina through the downs and ups of her career and life? The best clue that I have come across came from the French painter, Henri Matisse. In an interview in 1930, Matisse explained that “in art, what is most important is the relationship between things. Most painters require direct contact with objects in order to feel that they exist, and they can only reproduce them under strictly physical conditions. They look for an exterior light to illuminate them internally. Whereas the artist or the poet possesses an interior light which transforms objects to make a new world of them – sensitive, organized, a living world which is in itself an infallible sign of divinity, a reflection of divinity. That’s how you can explain the role of the reality created by art as opposed to objective reality – by its non-material essence.” Matisse went on to define the role of modern painting as having “a calming influence on the mind tired by the working day of the contemporary man”. Clearly, two conditions must be met in order for such calming influence to be felt by another human being than the original creator. First of all, there must be some ‘hidden’ structures of the human imaginations and their relationships with physical objects for the art works to stand out of random fancy. Secondly, one must possess at least some imagination to be able to appreciate the original works by an artist or poet. Enter science. Another grand master, Albert Einstein, traces the root of science in 1918 as following, “man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.” Notice how similar Matisse’s description of arts and Einstein’s description of science are, respectively. In their vision or imagination of reality, the pursuit of non-material essence is the shared purpose of all arts and sciences. Contrast that with the pervading views of arts (subjective) and sciences (objective) as opposite ends of human experience, there is little wonder that our age is full of man-made conflicts and crises (e.g., political and religious ideologies resulting in wars and government shutdowns). To overcome such crises and revitalize civilization on planet Earth, we must restore human imagination to its rightful place as the indispensable link between our daily experience and the deeper reality of cosmos. If love is the secret of human happiness, then our imagination holds the key to discover it through a new chapter of science, philosophy and spirituality.

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