31 October 2005

Ghost of Halloween past

It has never been easy for me to embrace this annual celebration of all things supernatural. Even we skeptics and secular humanists are expected to disguise ourselves as specters from the afterlife or some such ridiculous thing, and if we happen to be living in a sufficiently densely populated neighborhood, say goodbye to a perfectly good hour or two distributing nutrition-free snacks to children similarly attired. To devote an entire day, and in the case of the shopping displays an entire month, to the bizarre notion of an “All Hallow’s Eve,” when instead we should all be marking a much more auspicious event –- my birth -– always seemed grossly unfair to me a child, and even today I have trouble with much of the associated nonsense that revolves around what North America has done with the last day of October.

But I have recently reconciled myself with essence of Halloween. Not because I am getting older and therefore more tolerant of others’ points of view. Not because the kids (at least those not cursed by the demands of sharing their birthday with the event) seem to love it. And not because the day seems to drive fundamentalist Christians nuts (although it most certainly does, as this fact-deprived screed, a version of which appeared a few days ago on the bulletin board at the Saluda Post Office, attests).

No, I have grown to accept, even treasure, this day because it serves to remind even the most rational and cynical among us of the power and necessity of imagination.

Before I go any further, I must include one caveat. My definition of Halloween tends toward the traditional. Its origin in the shortening days of the harvest season, when the forces of decay and death brought broader swathes of the visible spectrum to the forest and fields, inspired the ancient mystics to describe a weakening of the walls between this world and that of the dead. Dressing up as clowns, film stars and superheroes, on the other hand, represents a modern, commercial corruption of the day, and I will make no concessions to such rot.

The true Halloween spirit embodies the power to imagine the disembodied. To step away from the here and now and consider the possibilities, however remote they may be, of the hereafter. In the context of psychological counseling (séances), medical diagnoses (evil spirits) or attempts to understand the troubles of the less fortunate (reincarnation), such musings can be dangerous in the extreme. But without at least some appreciation of flights of fancy, I doubt that life would be quite as interesting.

Imagination is not just a luxury. It is what powers science. It is what allows us to transcend the seemingly intractable, and find alternatives to the unacceptably grim status quo. Without imagination, we would not have powered flight, or powered anything for that matter. Without imagination, men and women of state would not have the ability to see beyond military solutions. Without imagination that dares to stray from the familiar, our literature would be as dry as a technical manual.

And you can’t put fence around imagination. You can’t restrict dreams to the tried and true. Because you can never know just how far-fetched an idea really is. While I am almost 100 percent certain that the universe of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (or even better, Philip Pullman’s Lyra) does not now and never will exist, I suspect millions of children would be spiritually poorer without it. Who would really chose to visit a library that doesn’t include Mary Shelley’s reanimated monsters, Edgar Allan Poe’s prematurely buried or Ray Bradbury’s long-dead Martians?

The trick to surviving as an individual or a species, as 3.5 billion years of biological evolution have shown us, is the ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Those that can better analyze sensory data and extrapolate the future from the present, thereby acquiring food and avoiding becoming food, are more likely to pass on their genes. Anticipating the future requires an accurate model of reality, not one hobbled by wistful notions of the occasional violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

But that’s only part of the story of the success of Homo sapiens. When it comes to explaining who we are and why we have come to dominate the planet -– just as important is our ability to imagine possibilities that other species cannot. If the price of that success is an annual festival honoring that which is not natural, I say, “Rise up, ye demons of the dark.”

By the way, I’m 41.

5 Comments:

Blogger Regan said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY "OLD MAN"

Regan

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Yeah,

Happy Birthday!

That is, if you beleive that birthday wishes, actually mean anything...

9:54 AM  
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3:52 AM  

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