Failure of Imagination

The first plant I ever owned was a single ivy vine. I bought it from a tiny shop on Rogers Park, Chicago that was stuffed with plants in various stages of life and decay. I asked the clerk if he had laurel or myrtle. He told me that these were trees and that they would not grow well in doors. So I chose ivy, sacred to the god Dionysus.

My ivy was just a thin, wispy tendril back then, growing out of a little divot of soil. I took it back to my apartment, nourished it and managed to keep it from dying. I believed the ivy to possess special magic. To me it signified the gift of imagination. It stood for spontaneity and raw passion. I came to think of this particular ivy plant as an embodiment of my own faculty of imagination. This was a time when having an imagination might have been useful to me. I was young and looking for something to do with myself. Also, I was vain and selfish, and thought I might want to be an artist.

The ivy never really thrived in my care. It always just held on. At best I think I got it to grow four separate vines, each a couple feet long. Then it would get mishandled during a move to a new apartment, or its pot would get knocked over at a party. I didn’t know anything about what it needed to grow. I never repotted it. I gave it water whenever I remembered to. I don’t believe it every really had a chance. The best it was destined to do was stagnate.

Later on, after I finished more school and became more employable, I took a job in downtown Denver working for a big corporation. I commuted more than two hours each day, and when I got there I’d do web development work in a mental doldrum for 9 or 10 hours. I found it to be utterly stultifying. It felt like I was traveling great distances every day, just to arrive at a place where I could trade my vitality and human potential for a modest amount of money. Nothing that I accomplished at this job meant anything to me, but I was very broke and had no other option. So I just kept showing up each day.

I brought the ivy with me to the job. I kept it in my cubicle for half the day, and the other half I would leave it next to a window where it could get sun. I wanted to see if being in the office would cause the ivy plant to die. A corporate office of the kind I was in is to the imagination as what an oil refinery is to that part of oil that just gets burnt off or extracted and thrown away. The plant did not grow, but for a long time it survived. I watered it and tended to it regularly. Then finally, as I was about to enter my second winter with the company, parts of the ivy began to fail. I pruned away the dead vines until all that remained was the one stem from which the plant had started.

It died at the end of my last day in the office.

I had found another job and was cleaning out my desk. The ivy was packed into a box with a lot of other things. I carried everything home on the bus. The weather was bitter cold outside. I walked a mile from the bus stop to my apartment with the ivy exposed to the winter air. The few leaves it had left fell off the next few days and the stem became brittle. The death of the ivy plant was a cause for dismay like I had always thought it would be, at least not consciously. I think I have stopped believing that it had magical significance. Or rather, I’ve come to acknowledge that it could be magical, but not in any sort of way that I would be capable of comprehending.

The Laurel, The Myrtle, and Winding Ivy

While it remained common for classical poets to open longer works with an invocation to the muses, it was understood that these muses were simply agents of creative inspiration. The masters of generative force, as with all forces in life, were the gods. It was rare for writers to address the olympians directly, as they would a muse, but they could be certain it was gods who were behind their thoughts and visions, and it was the gods to whom they were grateful for those gifts.

John Milton had no reservations about entreating the gods of antiquity directly. They were nothing but allegory to him. In his elegy “Lycidas,” Milton recites the gods’ emblematic wreaths:

Yet once more, o ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Mytles brown, with Ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

The Laurels to which Milton refers represent Apollo. The myrtle bough is sacred to Aphrodite: it grows in abundance on Cythera where she was born. And the ivy is Dionysus’s vine. Of course, Milton’s address of these gods is figurative; these were puritanical times in England, after all. He is trying to focus his strengths on each of the artistic faculties that they are supposed to symbolize. Apollo commands the sun and gives light to the world so that the mind might comprehend it. His inclusion in this litany is meant to signify the intellect. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and romantic desire. She fortifies the artist’s heart and imbues him with sensitivity. Dionysus is the god of animal passions and spontaneity. He excites the artist’s imagination and compels him forward. Together these godheads and the faculties they govern are what compose artistic genius:

mind, heart and imagination;

intellect, sensitivity and spontaneity.

From spontaneity the artist derives passion and the will engage in the creative enterprise. Out of imagination springs the raw material from which the work will be hewn. Sensitivity acts is the artist’s guide into the unknown realms of the new. Without it he is blind and prone to inelegance and error. In the invocation, Milton sees the ivy vine winding around the myrtle tree. This is because passion and sensitivity are intertwined. In one respect they are divergent because passion is brash while sensitivity is calm and gentle, but they both issue from the same place: the dark regions of the human soul. Intellect, on the other hand, is a thing that resides in plain sight. It is the highest expression of human consciousness. We use it to put order to things, to analyses and understand.

I have found that most good works of art will make good use of at least two of the trinity. A yeoman artist might be able to make do with a healthy strength in just one, but such work is never of lasting value. The great works are products of all three. It is a rare and beautiful thing when that happens: a work that is sentimental, imaginative and smart all at the same time. To experience an expression of all of them makes keenly aware of what it is to be human. It would be a summation of all mortal capability. Even the best artists are usually deficient in at least one area, and these we still esteem to be masters of their craft.