Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Imagined Reality, Part 1 of 3

Most writers were influenced by certain books, books that either changed the way they looked at writing or the world in general or if you were lucky enough, books that changed everything.  For me, one book stands above others when I think about my writing and the themes that continue to occupy me, and it wasn’t a work of fiction.  Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson was required reading for a history course I took when I returned to college, a little late but much more focused.  With apologies to Mr. Anderson, a highly esteemed historian, I, a lapsed history minor, will attempt to summarize its premise.  The book is about nationalism--how it came to be, and how it spread across the world.  Anderson argues that at one time, people couldn’t conceive of themselves as members of a nation and that because of certain phenomena, at some point they could.  These “imagined communities” bound people previously unlinked by certain considerations.  Some of the processes that contributed to this were “the decline of antique kingship,” “the territorialization of religious faiths,” and “changing conceptions of time.”  There are many others (actually, it’s a very complicated and painstakingly-argued thesis, an entire book!), but one that jarred me most:  “the creation of the novel and newspaper.”  According to Anderson, “these forms provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.”  Because of the novel, which included episodes that took place simultaneously while other episodes took place, people were able to think of people in different locations existing at the same time that they existed elsewhere.  By imagining the world contained in a newspaper and by seeing replicas carried around of the same newspaper, the imagined outside world became visibly pertinent to everyday life, the “real” world. 
It was (and still is) a shocking revelation to me that we have the ability to perceive ourselves a nation, and thereby create the nation, not through territory lines or military bases, but by the intent of the people.  It’s unbelievably empowering to me to think that the world as we know it is the product of singular and collective imagination.  And it gives me a small sense of importance to think that the written word could have the power to unlock this imagination.
How do Anderson’s theories about the beginning and rise of nationalism help me write novels?  Did all of those history courses go to waste?  What does any of this have to do with modern psychology or the Dalai Lama?  More to come in Part Two.
Further information on Anderson and his widely read book on nationalism here and here.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka