Here’s a story about how imagination changes the world, even in the worst possible circumstances. It involves the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos.
Desnos was Jewish. During World War II, he went underground to fight for the Resistance. He was captured and sent to the concentration camps.
One day, along with many other men, Desnos is crowded onto the bed of one of the trucks that transports prisoners from the barracks. The men fully understand where they are going. The trucks always leave the barracks full and return empty. Their destination is the gas chambers and the ovens. No one in the truck bed speaks. The mood is resigned, stricken. Eyes lowered. Faces grim.
When the truck arrives, the prisoners slowly and silently descend, as if in a dream. The guards, normally full of jokes and banter, fall silent, unable to avoid catching the prisoners’ mood. But this almost religious silence is abruptly interrupted. One of the men in the line of prisoners suddenly, with great animation, jumps up, pivots, grabs the hand of the man behind him. Astonishingly, his nose almost touching the man’s hand, his body coiled tight with energy, he begins to read the man’s palm.
“I am so excited for you!” he exclaims happily. “You are going to live a very long life! You are going to have three children! A beautiful wife! Wealth! So fantastic! So wonderful!”
His excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, in shock and bewilderment, thrusts out his hand. Each one receives the same sort of prediction: long life, children, wealth, exciting career, beautiful surroundings, peace, happiness, success, joy unending.
As Desnos reads palm after palm, the atmosphere of the moment — drop by drop at first, and then, as if in a sudden tidal wave, breaking all at once — completely transforms. The prisoners are smiling, laughing, clapping one another on the back, their burden lifted, their reality transformed.
Even more astonishingly, the guards also are affected. Like the prisoners, they had been living a dark spell in which the marching of men to slaughter was a normal and acceptable everyday occurrence. But now, with this absurd and unprecedented event, this sudden and gratuitous evocation of an alternative reality, the spell is broken. The guards are disoriented, confused. The reality they had been living a moment ago has been somehow suddenly cast into doubt, all but shattered. They are no longer sure what is real and what is not. Perhaps their better natures — long suppressed in an effort to conform to the Nazi madness that defined their world, long numb to the grief, the guilt, the horror — were stirred by Desnos’s powerful commitment to his absurd, but perhaps not absurd, vision. Who knows?
They are, in any case, so undone by the jolly scene in front of them that they no longer know what to do. They can’t go through with the executions. So they march the prisoners back onto the truck bed and send them back to the barracks.
Through this spontaneous exercise of imagination — precisely the sort of move Desnos constantly makes in his poetry — he and these men were saved from execution.
Desnos survived the camps but, sadly, did not survive the war. He died of typhus a few days after the liberation.
I have this story from poet Alan Bernheimer, a translator of Desnos, who got it from the writer Susan Griffin, who heard it from her friend Odette, herself a writer and a survivor of the Holocaust. When I first heard it, I was tremendously moved. But then I thought, is it true? Did it really happen? It sounds a bit too good to be true. I don’t know Susan Griffin, but I contacted her to ask. She said she believed it. Odette, Susan wrote me, didn’t witness the event but had heard of it from people who said they had.
For weeks I carried the story in my heart, like a Zen koan, wondering about it, turning it over and over in my mind. One day I had a realization: Of course this story is true! Definitely, absolutely true. One way or another, it happened.
When I say I am absolutely certain this story of Robert Desnos is true, I don’t mean I am certain of it as an objectively verifiable occurrence. I mean that the story, as a story, is certainly true. I feel its truth and it changes me, because it expresses something essential about who we are as human beings.
The imagination is powerful. It creates its own self-validating truth strong enough to effect inner and outer transformation. The Bible and other religious texts, folktales, myths, rhymes, poems, plays, novels, anecdotes, music, ritual, pictures, dreams — all imaginative productions rise up from the unconscious to expand the soul, to help us feel who we really are and what the world really is. Imagination isn’t an escape from reality. Imagination deepens and enriches reality, adding texture, depth, dimension, feeling, and possibility.
The 21st century is busy and rough. For privileged people with demanding careers, social lives, families, and myriad interests, life is better than it has ever been. But it is also more difficult, more stressful and demanding. The possibilities for growth and accomplishment are dizzying: One must be more, know more, experience more, have more fun — and all of this at an ever-accelerating rate. It is hard to catch a breath.
The imagination doesn’t measure, devise, or instrumentalize. Its nature is to open, to mystify, to delight, shock, inspire.
For the majority of people, who do not enjoy such great expectations, the daily struggle to survive in ever more trying social and economic circumstances is relentless. The top 10% of the world’s population owns 90% of the wealth, leaving the other 90% scrambling to get by. More and more people simply cannot manage.
Privileged or not, we are all aware of the world beyond our households through the now ubiquitous news media, which has become our collective nervous system, twitching our attention with constant jolts of true and false information about political, environmental, economic, and social problems. This becomes the stuff of our psyches and conversations. What will the future bring? What’s the world going to be like for our children and grandchildren? Will there be a world? Dread fills the air. Sometimes we feel it; mostly we don’t let ourselves feel it. It’s too much. What can we really do about it?
I am convinced that the world could be, and actually is, otherwise — that its possibilities aren’t limited to the tangible, the knowable, the negotiable, to the data we are constantly collecting about practically everything measurable. Data gives us the illusion that we know the world. But the world is more than we know. The imagination doesn’t measure, devise, or instrumentalize. It doesn’t define or manipulate. Instead, its nature is to open, to mystify, to delight, shock, inspire. It extends without limit. It leaps from the known to the unknown, soaring beyond facts to visions and intensities. It lightens up the heavy circumscribed world we think we live in. It plays in the deep end, where heart and love hold sway.
Spiritual practice is one of the key sites of imagination. I don’t see a big distinction between spirituality and religion, as many do these days. To me, spiritual practice is simply authentic religion, connected to observance and experience, beyond ideology and belief. I realize my view is unusual. Many people in our time, having been brought up without any religion, naturally feel religion is weird, unnecessary, and old-fashioned. Many others shy away from religion because they were raised within a religious atmosphere that seemed dedicated to scaring them out of anything risky, joyful, or open, keeping them safely on the straight and narrow.
I have studied religious teachings and practices in several traditions and I am convinced that, at its depth, this is not what religion is supposed to be doing. Religion is supposed to help us live more completely within our human imagination. In doing this, it provides a counterforce to the gravity of a human world that has always been full of trouble and strife. Karl Marx famously called religion the opiate of the people. But he also called it “the heart of a heartless world.”
Even at its worst, religion has a glowing coal of wildness hidden in its contemplative, mystical side — in texts, teachings, practices, and experiences that come from the uncharted expanses of the human imagination, religion’s heart and soul. The word “spiritual” evokes this essential and powerful side of religious life, the source of creativity, the spring from which the dreamers and visionaries of the world drink. I choose to retain the word and the idea of religion because despite their many sins, the great religions of the world contain a wealth of lore, languages, practices, and rituals that we can’t afford to jettison now, when we need them more than ever.