An edited extract from my book ‘Waking Dreams’, from chapter 5 ‘Animistic Imagination’:
Animism is the attribution of human qualities and status to non-human creatures, places, and things. While the original coinage by Victorian anthropologists was a pejorative description of the spirit beliefs of so-called primitive people, in recent times animism has been having something of a renaissance.
A “new animism”, removed from the distortions of these colonialist origins, has captured the interest of contemporary psychologists, philosophers, and scientists for the study of consciousness, ethics, and ecology.1 It offers an emerging rehabilitation of animism that provides the context in this chapter for a discussion of the animistic aspect of imagination, which is to say, the inherent personifying tendency of imagining.
Animistic imagination presents a challenge to the scientific belief in trees, rivers, and rocks as insensate, inanimate matter; however, as we shall soon see, this modern view is at best only a partial reflection of how we experience the world. In hidden nooks and crannies, animistic imagination is alive and well in everyday life, the most obvious example being the enchantment of childhood.
Imagine a broad Highland river with grey gravel banks, a summer evening stillness of trees. Imagine humid air, a steady murmur of wild water running out to sea. Imagine as if you are a child—a child crouched beside a tidal pool at the river’s edge. Imagine your hand as it reaches out over the cool surface, a moving dark line. Imagine a tiny fish darting out from cover, appearing and disappearing amongst the algae-bearded rocks and weeds, a sustained moment of fascination. Imagine as the lonely fish cruises about in search of its brothers and sisters, wondering where they have all gone and how long it will take to find them.
I was that child by the rock pool. The story ends when my grandfather, fly fishing up-stream, sent his hook into my hair. I will never forget the sudden violence of that steel barb against my scalp; yet, I like to think the memory has remained with me for other reasons—as a reminder of how absorbed I was during those drawn-out damp moments; how the murk of weeds and the glide and hover of a fish once captured my whole attention; and how the animistic entry into the thinking and feeling of a tiny fish once felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Children just simply know how to extend imaginatively across the species barrier and converse with animals, plants, and places. Everything has a story path. A tree is lonely, a cloud is cold, and a stone wants to join its friends on the opposite side of a stream. As writer and wilderness advocate Jay Griffiths puts it:
‘To a child, everything is lit with intent, following its story path, coursing with will. Ascribing a liveliness to the world brings the child’s imagination alive; it refuses to allow either the world or the mind to be inert.’2
Crouched on the gravel banks of a Highland stream, my childhood self did not ask what the tiny fish meant. It was not a symbol; it did not represent anything other than itself. I simply beheld the wonder of its mysterious being, an animistic imagining of a little fish person with brothers and sisters, hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, just like my own.
But childhood animism does not last. Acculturation into inanimate modernity begins early. Cute stories about lonely fish and sad clouds soon become frowned upon, then ignored, and finally dismissed outright as silly make-believe, a division of the world between real and unreal that ushers doubt into a child’s imagination, a doubt exacerbated by the indoor confinement of the classroom, where sensual attention is directed away from puddles, clouds, and puppies towards the flatness of the page, whiteboard, and screen.
In this way, the animating magic is withdrawn from the surrounding world, no longer a perceptual interaction with trains, plastic action figures, and raindrops snaking down window panes. However, animistic imagining does not entirely disappear. As David Abram writes, animism in modern times has become specialized in reading:
‘The “inert” letters on the page now speak to us . . . a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone.’3
It is an animistic imagining that we can perhaps trace back to the mysterious process of learning to read, when the slow running together of letters resulted in that delicious moment when an image would suddenly appear (“C . . . a . . . t: Cat!”)
Of course, adulthood proficiency means the familiar letters and words no longer impinge upon us as they once did; we can now skim past the text and forget the page is speaking to us and conjuring a world of imagination, but hopefully, as you read these words, you will be aware that this book is not written by a robot. Something of my author personality and narrative voice will come across in my word choice and sentence construction—an imagined author personality, perhaps similar to the actual me, but really the result of imagination filling in the gaps between the words, a co-creation between reader and text that is no different to that of animistic childhood chat with plastic dolls and puppies.
1. Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World, 2nd ed. (London: Hurst, 2017)
2. Jay Griffiths, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (London: Penguin Press, 2013), 84
3. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 131