Imagination, the engine of history
Imagination is a theme that, in the course of recent decades, has become more and more the object of discussion, not only in literary and artistic terms, but also in historiographic, scientific and interpretative ones, since it is considered as the true driving force of the journey of humanity. This is the theme addressed in a powerful new book by Francesco Monico.
The author picks up on Jonathan Gottschall’s research on storytelling, in which the human being is conceived of as homo fictus, constructed by imagination, a mode of thought quite different from programming and computation: “Human beings are the only animals that create stories about themselves and their surroundings, and believe them” (p. 227).
It is precisely to imagination that we owe the idea of progress, understood as universal growth to be imposed on the whole of humanity, without considering its historically situated origin: “As Lev Tolstoy wisely wrote: ‘We have noticed the law of progress in the duchy of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, with its three thousand inhabitants’” (p.62).
This imaginative mode prescinds from the earth, from the fragile truth that constitutes us as living beings and that ends up turning against the project itself, with catastrophic consequences.
Consistent with the style of homo fictus, the book presents this ambitious project through a story, Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which the attempt to subjugate nature leads to the conjuring up of forces that mere mortals are unable to control.
This literary reference shows how the idea of progress is in fact a taken-for-granted grand narrative that gives direction to our greatest efforts, but that has also led humanity to alarming situations. The separation from the earth leads to a life that is more and more artificial, which causes thought to atrophy, reducing it to mere calculation: “Humanity produces technology far beyond its ability to fully assess the consequences: for millennia we imagined more than we could make; today we make more than we can imagine” (p. 86).