“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
I came upon this quote of Einstein’s the other day. It resonated. ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’.
My mind went back to 1990’s. A period of great turbulence for me, a time of murderous rage, burning hot and cold fury, a time of living visions and powerful entities with voices that cut through my bones into my marrow. A time of the Mental Health Act, secure units and isolation rooms. There were also times of black void, where nothingness commanded everything, where thought, when it came, was ever repeating and oh, so slow.
‘Imagination’, no this was ‘in my madness’, that place where the fantasies, images, sensations and entities become solid dogma, fusing my imagination and the literal world. All the fore mentioned turbulence was the world and I was living in it (Madness – the literal living in the world of the internal disturbance). That reminds me of the words of the poet Auden ‘We are lived by forces we pretend to understand’.
So how is it Einstein’s words “Imagination is more important than knowledge” resonated? And what has anything I have written got to do with the title ‘Imagination, my asylum’? What of the rest of the quote ‘embracing the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution’?
Explaining my resonance: this takes a story for context. A story that speaks of an aspect of imagination of the heart that comes when one is in extreme desperation.
(At that time in my life things were getting difficult. The secret person of the heart, that shrunken 2.30am person lying awake frozen and the person I had to be to get through the day. The gap was getting too great.)
I was having lunch in my work van one day, and for some reason my attention was taken by a man walking a dog. The dog I saw this man walking wasn’t his dog. It was my dog – when I was a boy on the family farm in Australia. This surprised me very much for I never thought of the past, and certainly never thought of my family and the farm – a place I left as soon as I could- a place I had to run away from. I reached for some paper and pen and started writing:
Mike the rebel farm dog and me
On an old ironstone ridge
In knee high Kangaroo grass
Surrounded by gum trees
Seared and splinted by lightning strikes.
Crouched chin deep
At the bottom end of a shady pool
Breathless as the platypus play in late afternoon light
The ripples disappearing under river bank ferns
Writing too was really surprising. I left school young. I’m dyslexic. I would never write anything.
Over the next week writing took hold of me all the time writing about my dog, about the river, about the mountain valleys. At the same time vile images kept coming up. Self-hatred and violent out-rage engulfed me. Voices, entities kept appearing. In short, in a few weeks I was in the psych ward in Wellington. I had always has this little glimpsing image of being sexually abused when young, but on the rare occasion it came up it was quickly deflected away. And I always kept moving – never looking back – different friends gained and lost. Now I was married and had children and these memories, images, feelings, were starting to explode. Shredding the fabric of who I knew myself as.
One night while in the ward I had been sitting writing. I lost my pen. It started this pin cushion feeling in my gut. I started pacing. My gut churning like a cement mixer filled with sharp rocks. My pacing quickened, the circle getting smaller, the ceiling coming in on me; I had to get out, run into another life, another me. I gripped the ward door handles. The doors were locked. Apparently I bellowed and pulled, the doors shattered – to me it was more like I was in this perfect silence and when I pulled on the handle the doors effortlessly parted. I ran down the corridor to the next locked door, the same thing. Out in the street I headed straight for the top of Mount Victoria, the world and the heavens violently throbbing in rhythm with my pounding heart, voices wailing. In time I felt shamed, responsible. I came back, still very agitated but very apologetic. They responded to that. I remember shaking the registrar’s hand.
They gave me an injection and locked me in isolation. I was very agitated, pacing in a tight circle, saying to the nurse sitting on a chair across the corridor observing me “give me a pen and paper, I need a pen and paper”. The injection wasn’t working. It was starting to build again, the stomach was starting to do its thing again. Self-loathing – reddening of the rage. Surprisingly they gave a pen and paper. I sat, stilled myself and wrote. I still have that story, all these years later. I will share it with you:
The Smell: cool dew on green grass, dampness on little feet running. In front of me the early morning sun bounces off green leather leaves of the Morten bay fig tree which arched over the milking shed. The milking shed still in the shadow of Wall-I mountain. Further ahead the narrow V of timber clad Wall-I valley gives perspective. I hesitate and think, “Why me? Why here?” but I am eager to move on before the morning toast is gone.
A movement on the brow of the hill of the back paddock catches my eye. It forms and starts to grow – a battered felt hat, then underneath rimless glasses, a long white beard, a wooden yoke across narrow shoulders, a flannel shirt’s braces, two milk buckets swing beside each hip and grey trousers with a piece of rope tied around the middle. Last of all those feet, toe nails that I was sure made it possible to climb walls; yes Dick Bully was coming to the milking shed. (He was a hermit who lived up the back had a bark hut on poverty gully. He had carved himself a place in the rain forest.)
“Hey Dick, why is it you wear braces and have a piece of rope tied around your waist?” “You can never be too careful, boy.” His reply. Well that is how I hoped the conversation would go but this was Dick Bully, old Dick as he was known. So it went: “Hello Dick” “Day boy”. I never got much more out of old Dick. Dick keeps to himself and I was taught to respect that.
Dick would come down when his two jersey’s had too much milk. TellDdad how the back cattle were getting on, and if mixed pack of dingoes and wild dogs were causing any problems, and then leave….
It had been raining day and night. The Mary River was up. Wall-I creek was flooded. We were cut off. No Milk truck getting through today. Old Dick appears at the milking shed, two buckets of milk suspended from his wooden yoke, water still running off his felt hat. His white beard now wet grey ringlets, but still reaching halfway down his chest. I watched them bob and defuse rain drops from his oil skin coat as he spoke. “This will last another day. Where’s Bill?”
I jumped in before Mum could speak. “He’s getting the horse and slide. No way can the milk truck get through today; we’ll have to take it in cans across the ford at Derrick’s corner.”
“Might wait around” he replied. He pulls out his pipe and tobacco and lights up. I was waiting for smoke rings but just saw puffs of smoke disappear out the door into the rain.
I heard a sound, it was Dad with the horse and slide. They put the cans on the slide, stood on it, and with a flick of the reins they moved off. I ran and jumped on the back. The horse, weary of rain and mud, pulls the slide through the puddles on the track leading down to the creek.
Nearing the creek the roar of the water becomes too much. I leap off and run down to the creek. It’s going to get higher than last time if Old Dick is right. I throw in a stick and watch it sprint until it gets lost in the foam at the bend.
The horse and slide arrive. The horse stops dead at the water edge. “Come on girl” Dad urges. The ford wasn’t deep, water sweeps across it with a fury the keeps the horse firmly planted by the side of the creek. “Here Dick you take the reins and I’ll see if I can lead here across” Dad yells. Dad gets off and Dick grumbles, “Gee up”.
The old draught horse began to move, Dad still standing on the bank. As the slide gets in the water it twists. Old Dick loses his footing, lands in the ford and is swept down to the bend, and disappears, except for a felt hat half out of the water. Then up came one hand holding rimless glasses, and then another holding his oilskin tobacco pouch and his pipe. Then he was swept around the bend. We ran along the bank as far as we could, but no Dick. We gave up. Then we heard a snapping of branches and grumbling and a bedraggled, bespectacled Dick Bully appeared. Saying “I lost my bloody hat”. Then looking down at his hand he said with triumph “I still have my pipe and tobacco”.
I suspect when Einstein said those words; “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” he was not saying them in the context of madness, self-loathing, murderous hatred and fury. Nevertheless it reminded me of the awesome aspect of the imagination of the heart coming to aid when I was absolutely desperate, absolutely lost, when the very fabric of my being me was tearing into shreds. I had no me, I had no place. Being locked in isolation with only a mattress on the floor, with someone observing my every movement through a pane of glass in the door, was no asylum for the ravaging that was going inside BUT with the simple tools of a piece of paper and a pen my imagination created my asylum.
I will finish with reference to the ‘stimulating progress, and giving birth to evolution” of Einstein’s quote. This was a poem I wrote a couple of months after that story. Thank you for staying with me and reading this far.
OLD DICK AND I ARE HERMITS
His hut was set in the Australian bush and made of bark
It kept him warm and out of the rain
My hut is in my head. I live in to keep out the rain and cold
(Dick’s hut was not well insulated. Neither is mine)
Dick sometimes came out to give us milk.
Mostly he only came out to get supplies
Sometimes I come out with something to give
Mostly though I duck out to get my rations then slip back.
Dick was a married man, left his wife in Sydney during the Great Depression
I too am married and I think I have left my wife in Limbo