It intrigues me that people can still ask: what does it mean to be Canadian? It's a question, I've been told, that was asked of a British parish priest some decades ago, after he'd returned from a visit to Canada. What were Canadians like? He received so many versions of this question that he finally decided to answer them all from the pulpit. And this is what he said:
"I want you to imagine the entire population of the world walking along a highway together. At one point, this great multitude comes to a place where the road branches off in two directions -- each direction labelled with a sign. Most of the people choose the branch whose sign proclaims: THIS WAY TO HEAVEN. Meanwhile, a relatively small number of people wheel off onto the other branch. These are the Canadians -- and they have chosen the road whose signpost reads: THIS WAY TO LECTURES ABOUT HEAVEN!"
What follows is not a lecture about heaven. It is not a lecture about anything. To paraphrase a well-known poem: they are not long, the days of beer and lectures...And for you, those days are past. There may well still be beer in your futures, but lectures -- no. Unless, of course, you have chosen the field of education, in which case it will be your turn to baffle, irritate -- and, we all hope -- illuminate.
Light. That's the purpose of it all -- to pull up the blinds in the mind and let in the light. Ignorance is darkness -- and in darkness -- in the dark -- lies danger. But it's not enough merely to move into the light. It's not enough merely to get rid of ignorance by replacing it with knowledge. What matters most is what is done with knowledge. And this requires -- above all else -- creativity. Sensitivity. Imagination.
I believe imagination is our greatest asset, as human beings, and I believe it is our best, perhaps our only weapon against despair. I believe imagination is our best, our ultimate means of survival, all of us together -- each of us apart.
My life as a writer is dedicated to the exploration of the imaginative responses to being alive. Writing fiction provides me -- and other writers -- with the opportunity to articulate the experience of being alive in ways that reality itself cannot possibly provide. In the reality of daily life, we are assailed by the mess and by the mass of what we call necessity. The jumble of our emotions -- the confusion of the rat race -- the demands of having to make an increasing number of seemingly vital decisions. We fall in love. We don't fall in love. We make friends. We make enemies. We climb up five steps and fall back three. We want -- and most often cannot achieve -- happiness. There's no point lying about it: yes, there are wonders out there -- but some of these wonders are dragons.
Too many people are defeated by their encounter with reality. Far too many accept the status quo -- which means they accept the standard responses to the question: what am I doing here?
Let me illustrate the dangers of "standard responses." An experiment was done a few years ago, with high school and university students. It involved calculators that were "rigged" so that some of the results they showed were incorrect. Over 95 per cent of the students simply accepted these wrong answers -- and of the very few who questioned the validity of what the calculators showed -- all were high school students. By the time they got to university, most of the young people were so accustomed to the standard of absolute faith in technology, they failed to challenge it. Why? Because they could not imagine technology might be wrong.
It has been said that cruelty is nothing less than a failure of the imagination. The same can be said of capitulation: of surrendering to standard answers.
In our society, so I believe, there is too much capitulation of that kind. Far too many of us give up our dreams because they're just too damn difficult to achieve...in the scheme of things as they are; in the formulated destiny we punch up on our screens.
To hell with our screens. What they provide is always one program short of now; two programs short of tomorrow. Is anyone else getting as sick as I am of yesterday's disks being pronounced dead today? The Dead Sea Disks. Yes? Well...
Because we are nurtured by television, we are infused with mundane, useless, melodramatic, ridiculously romantic versions of reality. Because we are reared by technology, we have come to believe that the answers to all our problems can be solved by tapping our way into the system.
But systematic answers have no nuance. Nothing of subtlety. Nothing of the nervous edge of personal survival. That requires imagination.
Sadly, it is my belief that our present mode of education has turned its back on the imagination. Imagination is something of a dirty word, these days. Don't ask -- just listen. Sound familiar?
To me, it does.
Government in this, our time, asks less of our creativity than it does of our acquiescence. And acquiescence is just another word for capitulation.
My work -- my job -- involves a daily refusal of acquiescence. That is what I do, I refuse.
But out of my refusal, I write books. This, for instance, from Headhunter:
A book is a way of singing: a way of singing our way out of darkness. The darkness that is night -- and the darkness that is ignorance -- and the darkness that is fear. The people drawn on the page by the makers of literature are distillations of our thwarted selves. We are their echoes and their shadows. They move us through our muddled lives at a clarified pace. What we cannot describe, they articulate. What we cannot imagine, they reveal. What we cannot endure, they survive.
In the last book I wrote -- The Piano Man's Daughter -- an autistic woman is enamored of fire. In the flames -- even of the smallest fires -- she sees and hears the shadow and the echo of her ancestors. She finds her way all the way back to those who dwelt in caves -- all the way back to the absolute darkness which humankind first overcame with fire.
Let me leave you with this image -- an image of those people found by another character -- a writer, caught in the fascist bombardment of the northern coast of Spain in 1936, at a time when darkness was descending over all of Europe and most of Asia.
This encounter with the past takes place in the famous caves of Altamira, where my writer takes refuge as the bombs are falling:
There above us, clustered in juxtapositions the meanings of which are lost beyond the barricades of time, were the drawings of all those animals whose shapes have long since been altered and disappeared from the view of men. "Bison" I know they were called, though little enough like any bison I had ever seen; and "deer" that were recognizable as such, though longer of leg and more delicate of hoof than the deer I remembered...and "men" as simply drawn as any stick men made by the children of the human race since the dawn of time and pencils. And waving blades of grass -- or were they trees? -- and constellations here and there of fingerprinted stars: black dots.
And out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something irresistible above my head, seen in the ebb and flow of the swinging light: the imprint of a human hand.
God only knew how long ago it had been put there. Maybe ten -- and maybe twenty thousand years before. This is my mark; it said. My mark that I was here. All I can tell you of my self and of my time and of the world in which I lived is in this signature; this hand print; mine. I saw these animals. I saw this grass. I saw these stars. We made these wars. And then the ice came. Now, the stars have disappeared. The grass is gone; the animals are calling to us out beyond this place -- the frozen entrance to this cave.
In days or hours we will have died. We cannot breathe. The lanthorn flickers. All the air is gone. I leave you this: the imprint of my hand as signature beside these images of what I knew. Look how my fingers spread to tell my name.
Some there are who never disappear. And I knew I was sitting at the heart of the human race -- which is its will to say I am.
I am. You are. We are.
One -- and many.
To survive, we must imagine more.