Ep. 24 | Dr. Malcolm Guite – Keys To The Imagination Pt. 2
~ Dr. Malcolm Guite
This is the second of a two part series with Dr. Malcolm Guite. In this episode, Dr. Guite reflects on how leaps of imagination can free us for innovative thinking. Imagination, he says, fuels our understanding of ourselves, our relationships and our social systems. Without imagination we will not progress from “the world known to the world unknown.”
Dr. Malcolm GuiteDr. Malcolm Guite is a parent, poet, and priest, as well as a respected Cambridge professor and author. Raised in Nigeria by parents who embraced language and literature, Malcolm was nurtured through diversity of culture and rich appreciation for the imagination.
His reflections on family and imagination, demonstrating a passion for living vibrantly within the complexities of life.
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Transcript: Ep. 24 | Dr. Malcolm Guite | Keys To The Imagination Pt. 2
We are picking up this conversation in the last minute of part 1, as Dr. Guite describes the necessity of imagination to apprehend and advance our understanding of life.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So, we have an idea of what the world is like and we think it’s the total reality and it never is. So, the classic example is when everybody, quite understandably thought the earth was the centre of the cosmos and that the sun went around the earth. And nobody could imagine or guess anything else until you got Copernicus saying, “Just imagine for a minute, if the sun was the center.” And that was a massive act of the imagination. And suddenly, all this stuff that didn’t quite fit with the old model made total sense. So, a leap of the imagination actually changed a model of knowing and gave us new insights. And it’s happened again you know, with Einstein. And it’s going to happen again. I mean, the models we have now are temporary.
Rachel Cram – Well, which really brings into question the way we’ve constructed our educational system where I believe we really want to, hope to, make space for wonder and imagination but sometimes instead, I think we get distracted by other pursuits.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Absolutely. When kids are at school they tend to be taught towards an examination in a fairly formulated way. If you write an essay on Hamlet you’ve got to say the following five things or you’re not going to get the marks. And you’re kind of more or less given a kind of kit to write the essay. But there’s no original thought involved there. Now, going back to Cambridge, I’ve said all the difficult things about competition, but one of the fantastic things about Cambridge is – the first thing we say when we’re teaching English is, “Forget the kit. Just expose yourself afresh to the text. Let the text talk to you.”
And then you’re saying to that student, “I want to know your opinion.” I genuinely do.
Rachel Cram – Well, I think often students have a really hard time believing that somebody like a professor at Cambridge genuinely wants to know their opinion. Do you genuinely want to know?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yes, because I learn! I do genuinely want to know! Partly because I think the way that say, a play like Hamlet works is that it’s got so much wisdom in it, much more than Shakespeare himself could have consciously known. Hamlet will become a new play and have genuine new insights every time it’s read in another generation. So I’ll give you an example. There’s a very strong feeling, quite understandably and in fact entirely correctly on the part of the rising generation, you know if you think about Greta Thunberg; that the adults, my generation, are screwing up the world and not paying attention to the essential realities. And that we’re trashing the world and they’re going to have to fix it if they even survive in it. So I heard a brilliant exposition of Hamlet in which they pointed out,
Rachel Cram – From one of your students you heard this?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – From one of my students, in which he pointed out that if you think about Hamlet in terms of two generations, the old generation, you know Claudius and Gertrude and Polonius, are all entirely corrupt, they’re self-indulgent and they’re destroying the state. And it’s the younger generation who see that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark and are trying to do something about it. They’re actually protesting. And in fact, all the young people at the beginning of the play in the court, are trying to leave it because they can see how awful it is.
Now, I hadn’t thought about Hamlet in generational terms at all. But this person didn’t just give an opinion, they showed in the essay, in scene after scene, how that actually works. Now that’s an insight that they brought to the table because of their circumstance right now, and the way the world is. And that’s part of the genius of Hamlet as a play, is that it’s so full of truth to life that it’s adequate to each new generation. So that kind of thing is really exciting. If I was teaching in a high school where they just have to say the following five things that everybody knows about Hamlet, we’d have never had that conversation.
Rachel Cram – So you’re talking about these academic kits that don’t engage the imagination. I wonder if we use kits because we don’t trust the imagination to serve as that bridge that you talked about, between the known and the unknown. Do you think that everybody has an imagination?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Oh totally. Yeah yeah. I mean I would say one of the most important ideas, I think is a radical revolutionary idea, is the idea that each human being is made in the image of God. That God takes something and makes it a beautiful independent thing that can move by itself. And that if you like, is what a work of imagination is. So actually I think we are works of imagination, God’s imagination, and therefore every single human being has a creative imagination.
And one of the things that makes me concerned about issues of social justice is that to exercise your imagination well requires a little bit of leisure, a little bit of free space, a little bit of time to draw in the dirt or model a pot or whatever. And we’ve created a society in which some people have to work so hard that they have no leisure at all.
And we’ve also changed the nature of the work. There was a time when everybody who was just an ordinary laborer was actually carving their own stuff or growing their own food. And there were creative elements to the poorest ordinary human work. But now, because of industrialization, we’ve created modes of work, low paid modes of work, which have no creative element in them whatsoever.
So we’ve simultaneously deprived people of the leisure to exercise their creativity and of the possibility of exercising their creativity at work. Now I think starving and repressing a person’s imagination is just as bad as starving and repressing their body. Possibly worse.
Rachel Cram – And do you think that’s what’s happening in our culture right now?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – I think it is to some degree. And I think it’s not just true actually for the low paid. I think there are lots of people in quite high paid jobs whose actual work is essentially dehumanizing. And thanks to the iPhones and emails and everything they didn’t even leave work at work, they bring it home. So the very time when, let’s say their children, might be re-humanizing them and teaching them to live in the present, and inviting their parents to exercise their creative imagination by telling their children a story, the wretched parent is answering an email because they’re afraid that if they didn’t answer this email now they won’t get promotion or they’ll lose their job.
So I think it’s a real oppression going on actually, at all levels. I sometimes think one of the most beneficent things that could happen to the world would be a six month total
Rachel Cram – Power outage?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Blackout and power cut. So just everything is powered down and we rediscover each other. Then when the power went up again we might have just a slightly more sane way of using all this stuff.
Rachel Cram – That would definitely shake things.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – I wonder. It’s good to question our leisure and our desires I think.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Absolutely. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – It’s so easy to lose our way between what we want and what we actually pursue. We get off track and we don’t notice we’re heading in a completely unintended direction sometimes I think.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah. There’s a great phrase of St. Augustine’s where he said, “God may not always give us the desire of our hearts but he will give us the heart of our desires.” And when I say,’ I want something,’ it’s really worth questioning, ‘What is it I want?’
So if somebody says, “I want a good job,” is that the end in itself? Or are they saying, “Well no, what I want is to be accepted as successful. What I want is enough income to be able to take care of my family.”
So then you say, “Actually, so what you want to do is to take care of your family? The ‘good job’ and the ‘income’ are a means to taking care of your family?”
Now, as soon as you know that, then you can make some very practical decisions. So if the ‘good job’ happens to be a job which has such demanding hours that you will destroy your family, then it’s no longer a good job.
Rachel Cram – And that can sneak up on you so easily.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Even though it’s in fact labeled a “good job” and everybody says, “Well, you got the chief executive post there.” But there’s absolutely no point in having it if the purpose of it was to do something which the job itself destroys.
So this thing of questioning your desires. You know, some Christian mystics and certainly all Buddhists would say, “Keep questioning, and everything you think you ever wanted turns out to be wanting something more.”
And you know, “The ‘something more’ maybe already here and ready to unfold,” a Buddhist would say. “Or the ‘something more’ may be a thing that only God can give you.” So actually you may be chasing completely vain and wandering desires and be in a state of constant frustration.
Rachel Cram- That’s such a struggle. I think often not something we realize until the second half of our life. I think our parents or grandparents can tell you that’s what’s to come but you just don’t get it when you’re younger. You don’t believe it’s going to be true.
There’s a quote. I think it’s Thomas Merton who says, “You can spend your whole life trying to climb the ladder of success, only to get to the top and realize you’ve got the ladder against the wrong wall.”
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah yeah. I mean that’s why the U2 song, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, is so honest and so superb. It’s just kind of
Rachel Cram – A great song.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – Malcolm can we circle back to your comments about questioning what it is we really want versus chasing in vain. Because I feel this topic is a huge one, like when a parent drops their child off at school even. What’s the message that you’d recommend that they be giving to their child? What’s the question that a parent wants to lead a child to be asking? What gets them on the path that lets them attend to the present and get all they can out of those years?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – I mean, I’m not sure that you can do that all in one question on the first day.
Rachel Cram – No?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – But I would certainly want to say, in fact I probably did say to my daughter, “Enjoy every minute. Just enjoy. This is a wonderful thing in itself.”
So, I’ll tell you a thing I do say to my students when I’m teaching them how to write. I have to show them how to pass the exams, I have to give them some idea of the kind of writing that’s involved. And one of the things I say to them is, I say, “You know it is when you visit a place with beautiful buildings and there’s certain things you’re really hoping to see but unfortunately they’re all covered in scaffolding. And the scaffolding sort of obscures the view and you’re really annoyed. And you think, ‘Well I’ll come back someday when the scaffolding is not there and I really enjoy this building.’ As far as I’m concerned the entire process of assessment and examination is just ugly scaffolding, necessary scaffolding, but ugly scaffolding around the great edifice and cathedral of literature.”
And I said, “I have to teach you how to climb the scaffolding and pass the exam but my main concern is that you should actually enter the building and take possession of it. And that you should come years after this, with no thought of any honor or reward and with not the least shadow of an exam crossing your path; that you should remember Hamlet and remember Milton’s Paradise Lost and remember these beautiful tales of Chaucer. And think when you’re waiting for a bus or you come home and nobody else is at home and you pull a book off the shelf, and you should wander into these books you read and enjoy them for their own sake.”
Rachel Cram – I love what you’re saying there and I’m thinking as a parent it requires a deeper kind of question. A different view to supporting your child’s educational journey. Because I think the easy question can be, “How did you do on your exam? What did you get on that essay?”
And it requires a much deeper understanding of your child even, to be able to ask those type of questions.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – And I think, ‘What did you enjoy?’ is a really good question.
Rachel Cram – Fabulous question. Can you give a few other questions like that? I think sometimes we just need some launching questions. What did you enjoy?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So, What did you enjoy? What did you discover? Tell me what surprised you in your subject. That is sometimes really quite interesting.
The other thing of course that always happens in university, that certainly should happen if the university is doing its job, is that all the treasured assumptions about what the world is like and how it works, including their own faith, are suddenly open to radical question.
Rachel Cram – And that can be alarming to parents.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – And that can be alarming to parents and actually quite alarming to children.
So, I think that one of the things that university teaches you to do is first of all to question your assumptions. And then, to realize that questioning your assumptions is not necessarily as scary or chaotic as you think it’s going to be. That sometimes you question your assumptions, you realize they’re solid, and you believe in them and there much stronger afterwards. Sometimes you question your assumptions, you realize they’re false and you make progress as a result of that. You begin to see the world in a new way.
Rachel Cram – Well do you ever stop questioning your assumptions?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Well not exactly.
Rachel Cram – Well, and it’s even not just faith. I love the example you gave before about the discovery of how the planets move. It is really with everything isn’t it, that you have to question. Is the world flat? Should women have a voice? Are all skin colors of equal…?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah exactly. These are questions you have to ask. And the very capacity to ask the question is itself a gift and therefore you should treasure it. And of course if you treasure something, you take it out of the treasure box and you turn it over. And if it’s a ring you wear it and you look at it and you get to know all its facets. So, to treasure a question is not to rush immediately to his answer but to let the question dwell in you as a question and keep asking itself.
And obviously Copernicus did that with certain questions, as a result of which changed the view of the universe; the view of the world that we had.
Rachel Cram – It’s a very different way to do education; through the power of questioning.
Dr.Malcolm Guite – It is. Yeah. But it ought to be. I mean in terms of foundation of education the greatest example of the power of the question is in the dialogues of Plato where Socrates, you know the famous story that somebody went to the Oracle at Delphi and said, “Who is the wisest man in Athens?”
And the Oracle at Delphi said, “Socrates.”
Now, Socrates was a stonemason, he was a working chap but he had very good conversations with students. He wanted to know more.
And so somebody came back and said, “You know, you’re the wisest man in Athens.”
And Socrates said, “Well that can’t possibly be the case. I know nothing, that’s why I’m always asking questions. I’m afraid I can’t just take this at face value. I’m going to have to question this verdict.”
So, he says, “Obviously the people who rule Athens, the actual politicians, anybody that sets out and deliberately puts themselves forward to be in charge of something must be aware that they’re wiser than others because it would be folly for anybody not wise to try and guide people wiser than themselves. So I’ll go and ask a series of questions about truth and wisdom of the politicians.” Which he does and of course he realizes their completely foolish and self-contradictory.
So he writes, “Oh gosh. Well they’re not very wise after all.” And then he goes and asks the poets. And then he discovers that when you talk to the poets individually, they don’t know any more than you do about what’s really going on in their poem. And then gradually he goes through all the classes of society and he realizes that everything that appeared to be knowledge turns out to be disguised ignorance. So he’s really confused.
And then it suddenly dawns. “Oh! I get it now! I’m the only man in Athens who admits that he’s ignorant. We’re all ignorant but I’m the person who says I’m ignorant, I need to ask questions. And the only reason why I’ve been called wise by the Oracle at Delphi is because I’m the one person who recognizes there’s a limit to his knowledge and wants to ask the next question.”
So Socrates’ technique is to constantly ask questions about what we think we know in order to advance knowledge. Of course in the end that gets him into trouble and he’s arrested and executed for corrupting youth because he encourages young people to ask questions.
But that’s actually the foundation of Western philosophy. It’s precisely Socrates asking questions.
Rachel Cram – This is going to go off on a little bit of a tangent, and I don’t know if you’ll be able to jump onto this or not but I’m going to go for it with you. One of the quotes that led us into doing this podcast was one by Mahatma Gandhi where he says, “If we want to reach peace in the world we must begin with the children.”
And I think that speaks a little bit to what you’re talking about right now. That we’re not living out the foundational truths that Western society is built upon. It’s not about asking questions anymore. It’s not about listening. Right now there’s so much speech that’s vitriolic, there’s so much speech that is imbued with certainty. And it doesn’t get us anywhere healthy. Can we teach people to be inquisitive, to be imaginative? How do we nurture…
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah, well ‘nature’ is probably better than ‘teach’ there because I think the fact of the matter is that children start off as both imaginative and inquisitive, in spades. So much so that we’ve hardly got time to answer all their questions. So the question is not whether we can teach them I would say, but as I said before, whether they can teach us.
I mean, obviously that imaginativeness and inquisitiveness has to be channeled to some degree and kids have to learn how to brush their teeth and put their clothes on the right way round even if it be imaginatively more interesting not to.
Rachel Cram – But I think we think there’s a lot more ‘have tos’ than there really is.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah. There are some. There’s a modest number of ‘have tos’ which we have to learn to do but that must be kept to a minimum. And by contrast we must compensate for that by invitations to imagination. And in terms of the imaginative child, I mean, I think the great key to that is story and play.
So telling a child a story and then stopping part way and asking the child how they think this story would go on. Or reading stories that the children love and then saying, “Let’s make up one of our own in the same world.” My father read to me The Hobbit when I was really quite young and it was really interesting because he really enjoyed doing it. And he had different voices for all the different characters. So he, just in the very act of reading, showed that he was imaginatively engaged in it. And he was a busy man but he always took the time in the evening.
At our bedtime, we had a very clear routine and our bedtime routine included we would eat earlier, actually before dad got home, and then we got ready for bed. And then when Dad came home, I think before he had his supper, he would come through and read to us. He’d say, “Well that’s it. That’s the end of the chapter,” and we would say, “Oh just one more chapter Dad!”
And he’d sometimes stay on and read another one as a special treat.
Rachel Cram – Now you also mentioned play. You gave a great example of story, which made me want to run home to read to my kids more so thank you for that, but you also said that play is a key to imagination. Can you say more about that? There’s so much that we’re discovering about play.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah absolutely. So my father read, but my mother would tell me stories about King Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere and Galahad and I would ask more questions. It was great. And she would answer spontaneously and tell me more, or tell me another story.
And after my mother had told me those stories, my mother made a shield for me which she covered in embroidered cloth. And somebody carved a sword for me, a wooden sword, and I would go around sort of imagining myself on a horse and play out in my mind all the stories. And I’d be the different parts. And then, my sister didn’t always want to do this, but if I could get my sister to kind of engage in it, we would act out those things which we’d heard and make up new adventures.
Rachel Cram – And what does that do for your mind? What does that do for the mind of a child to have that kind of fantasy play.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – I wouldn’t want to answer that as a direct question. If I answer, ‘what does it do for the mind,’ that immediately makes it a utilitarian thing.
Rachel Cram – Good point.
Dr.Malcolm Guite – You’re saying, like, what’s the use of it? I mean, how do I use stories to make my kid more imaginative so they can be a success in life is the way,
Rachel Cram – I like how you said that. Okay.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – It’s just fun. It’s play, and I just delight in it because the stories are marvelous. Now, much longer term I could say that, to hear stories in which a young naive new knight, who hasn’t won his spurs yet, is apparently threatened by dragons or ogres or wicked enchanters and somehow in spite of it all, against all the odds, manages to defeat them. That actually lays down a pattern in your mind.
So GK Chesterton said this, he said, “Some people say you shouldn’t tell children fairy stories like the story of Jack the Giant Killer because they shouldn’t be frightened by monsters and giants.” And Chesterton said, “It doesn’t take fairy stories. Children already know about monsters and giants because they have to live with adults.”
It’s not that they’re not going to know about giants. But they may never hear that little Jack can defeat the giants; that actually the story of the slaying of the dragon, the story of the overcoming of the ogre, is the story that the child needs to hear. That’s the important thing.
So I do think that narrative and story helps a child to make a connected thread of all the episodes of their own life and to feel that they might be in a story. And therefore when they come to a difficult episode in that story, to think that there might nevertheless be a happy ending.
Rachel Cram – I think the whole Harry Potter series is kind of a contemporary version of that; of watching a boy go through incredible difficulties without being saved by anybody.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah, exactly so, exactly so. And one of the great things about Harry Potter is the discovery that he has resources within him that he didn’t know he had and which can be released. There’s a wonderful episode in the first one, which speaks really well to children’s sense of growing up into their own identity of who they are. There is a bit where Harry Potter begins to wonder whether the Sorting Hat had put him wrong and whether he might really be in Slytherin, and he feels that. But when he’s having that comforting conversation with the Headmaster, and he says, “Should I have been in Slytherin?”
And Dumbledore says to him, “You pulled from the hat. The very thing you did, shows you who you are.” And, you know, Harry kind of grows into a sense of his own identity through reflecting on what he was surprisingly able to do. You know, I think there’s a huge amount of wisdom in that for kids.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well we’re so fortunate because there are so many excellent books for children and for young people now that really do address that capacity for resilience in the face of adversity. And I would love to talk to you about that more. But I think we’re kind of running out of time. I wonder, as we’re about to close, is there a last thought you’d want to offer regarding how we can nurture, and I love how you picked up on that word, how we can nurture the imagination in ourselves and in our children. What would that be?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Well, I think the nurturing of imagination is something we receive from other people’s imaginations. To read a great story, you know to read poetry or see art, to immerse yourself and see a great film actually, that has that sort of imaginative quality, that’s not simply like a moment when you have “consumed” something as though you’ve got it and then you discard it. All of that is laying down deep in your soul patterns and images with which to think.
And in fact, you’ll see that many of the great stories are actually people remembering much older stories and retelling them in different ways. We’ve mentioned Harry Potter but the story of the person who doesn’t really realize who he is, and is living with somebody who’s not his parents, and who has to discover, in a strange way, against everybody else, who he really is; well that is actually straight out of the Arthurian Legend. That pattern is a deep mythical pattern.
Now that’s not to say that J.K. Rowling is in any way being unoriginal but you can bet your bottom dollar that she knew and loved those stories as a kid and that they were deeply patterned in her. So one of our problems generally in our culture is that we privatize and individualize everything and we all see ourselves as isolated little individuals. Right? And we think of, therefore, imagination, as limited inside our skull and some kind of private possession that we then nurture as though it were some sort of ‘pot plant’ you know, in some corner of our private apartment. But actually, imagination, the human imagination, is a big continuum. It flows in and out of our different minds. There is a collective power of myth making, shaping and storytelling; a stream into which we’re born or a tree of which we are a branch.
And we can’t imagine privately, even when we’ve made up our own peculiar little story.
We’re actually taking and reshaping all the great stories that are out there and throwing them onto another generation. So to read everybody else, to hear stories from others, and to tell a story in response to a story, that’s how human culture started. And you know we have to get back to doing that in some way.
Rachel Cram – Wow, what an amazing answer. Malcolm, thank you so much. I know that you are at the end of a very busy speaking tour and this conversation has gone much longer than we planned. But thank you so much for sharing it this way and for your time. There’s so much more I would love to ask you but my imagination has certainly been stirred by listening to you speak and I thank you so much.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – That’s great. Thank you.
The Singing Bowl celebrates the recovering of what was never lost. Over and over, Malcom Guite invites us to rediscover what is most constant. These poems are a mantra, a chorus, a celebration and a lyrical reminder to pay attention to what is most important.
The bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses forty poems from across the centuries that express the universal experience of loss and reflects on them in order to draw out the comfort, understanding and hope they offer.
Some of the poems will be familiar, many will be new, but together they provide a sure companion for the journey across difficult terrain. Some of Malcolm's own poetry is included, written out of his work as a priest with the dying and the bereaved and giving to the volume a powerful authenticity.