A History of The Imagination: Norman Lock’s Life in the Bush of Ghosts



Norman Lock: A History of the Imagination

A History of the Imagination

by Norman Lock 

(Fiction Collective 2)


Available from FC2 or Powell's














Go tell your stale friends,
go tell false prophets,
And drug traffickers,
Not to try to push our bodies any faster
We're dancing with disaster,
And the first will be the last,
It's nearly Africa,
It's nearly Africa,


--Andy Partridge, XTC

































































































































































































Smashing Pumpkins Moon
































From the moment that you realize

Most of this Isn't real

To the moment that you decide

Shall we go out tonight

And we'll swim from these island shores

Till there's a fear of drowning

A little old fear of drowning


--British Sea Power



Africa’s been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s because the Bushier this country gets, the riper it is for escapism. Or maybe it’s because I’ve acquired a recent taste for Tanzanian Peaberry and find my mind wandering to know what kind of fertile soil would produce such splendid coffee. Or maybe it’s just because I am virgin to African soil, or at least was, until this past week when I had the privilege of venturing to the Dark Continent of Norman Lock’s imagination.

If we consider visits to Africa in this sense, then I guess you can say I have traveled vicariously to the fantastic Dark Continents of Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe or Fela Kuti, or even to the postindustrial and de-pigmented Africa of William Kentridge—but traveling with Lock was a different experience altogether. For all I know, he’s never been to Africa and lacks black pigmentation like me, but this matter is no obstacle in redefining the object of Africa in the subjective retrospect of an outsider whose continent has drifted in not-so recent history from the motherland of Pangaea. Lock’s Africa is an empty slate to project his primal Id. This in a time where TV and movies (Hotel Rwanda and the Aviator are the current blockbusters) are blurring the boundaries of truth and fiction—undermining our perception of history or influential figures like Howard Hughes. Lock undermines our perception of fiction by infusing history, or at least his history as divined through his dreamtime imagination.

 “A History of The Imagination” reads like a collection of short vignettes that are each able to hold water on their own. I have witnessed these fragmented histories here and there in journals and online sites such as Café Irreal, Elimae, Pig Iron Malt, and Barcelona Review but when collected together in such an imaginative faux-historical context, we really see the holistic brilliance of Lock’s mind. The interconnected pieces come perfectly together to form a jigsaw “novel” (as Lock himself calls it on the title page)—a novel novel.

The cast of supporting characters: (Freud, Einstein, Méliès, Ziegfeld, and the Wright Brothers to name a few) are such a far-fetched team of superstars that suspension of disbelief is entirely thrown out the window. Yet, Lock asks you to come along for the ride, and his writing is so convincing and sincere, that you travel with him. To begin with, we are introduced to Prince Kong in “A Treatise on Desire.” Yes, Prince Kong—a juvenile Kong, before he was provoked to become King and turn against humanity—a Kong on the bottom story of the Empire State Building when it was just an idea that had not yet been conceived. Lock’s Kong is a dignified and debonair gorilla that haunts the dreams of the fair maiden, Mrs. Willoughby. The Narrator “N” (or Norman—you decide) is the jealous guardian of Mrs. Willoughby’s dreams, who remains on her threshold to keep Prince Kong at bay. N consults none other than Sigmund Freud (or “Siggy”) for advice on this interesting case of ape visitation that has “fallen on his lap.” This is how Lock’s “A History of the Imagination” falls into your lap, impregnating you with a seed of primal familiarity, and sung with such purity you can’t help yourself to not eavesdrop more.

There’s nothing hidden or subtle about the metaphors and Freudian slips that Lock lets loose, and although his writing at times resonates poetically, Lock puts the prose in prosaic. The metaphors are always un-slipped in their right place and time. On page 19, N disclaims that, "one isn't responsible for acts committed while asleep" and he ends the chapter with the line, "desire begins in sleep." And even though N. Lock spells most everything out, he does so in a non-obtrusive way, so there is no reason to take offense at this apparent insult to our intelligence. There is enough going on in the intricate jungly plot that it’s a relief not to get tangled in the vines of language. He has the uncanny ability to weave and unravel all these histories with the delicate precision of a brain surgeon. There are a few historical characters or esoteric references, that for the not-so-well read as myself, may fly over the head or leave a bit to the imagination (such as Mrs. Willoughby—she is reminiscent of something from a Jane Austen novel that perhaps I was forced to read back in high school, I just can’t put my finger on it).

The opening chapter on the visitation by apes in dreams sets the stage for other surreal visitations by prominent historical characters of the 20th century. One by one, Lock reveals these histories—he pulls them from the recesses of our collective unconscious from a time when this world was malleable. The stars that Lock invites into his stories (or his histories) all share one thing in common: they have all changed our perception of accepted notions or norms. Einstein changed our perception of the universe, Edison shed light on our nocturnal world, Freud altered the understanding of our own unconscious minds and the Wright Brothers changed our perception of travel, time and our geographical place in the world.

Lock takes these influential figures and objectifies and disfigures them into seemingly uncompromising positions to serve his metaphysical needs. If "desire is a projection of one's need upon an object" (page 97), then these characters are merely metaphysical puppets that carry the weight of the comprehensive implications of their discoveries or deeds. And by displacing these figures to the landscape of Africa, N turns Nobel laureates to noble savages within the framework of these warped fish out of water tales. On page 160, Lock continues on this thread, "’We're all creations,’ I asserted. ‘The products of desire. And imagination is a precondition of desire.’" And while all these characters and tangents might seem random, self-serving or downright silly, and perhaps Lock is taking excessive luxuries in the passage of time to piece all this together, it is all calculated to perfection in Lock’s mind and articulated so that it somehow all makes sense.

If you are willing to come along for the ride, you will partake in journeys into space and time that are not even technically feasible but still take place if your mind is open to it. In “Longing for Africa” N travels with Wilbur Wright from Africa to Ohio. They flew “entirely by unscientific means, which cannot be duplicated" (page 106)— just like conventional knowledge of physics and aerodynamics tells us that the bumblebee can’t fly, yet the fact is bumblebees fly. So there is no reason we can’t accept this flight as plausible, even though it was before its time. To Gustave Eiffel, “the aerodynamics of dreams is perfect. The dreamer ascends without wings, without any other means of propulsion other than his own wish to escape earth, which is a grave.” Locks’ Eiffel wants to express this principle of the aerodynamics of dream to the Wright brothers, “so that they can leave history and become myth." In “Hunting Icebergs” the mode of transportation is a submarine that submerges in a lake in the interior of Africa and emerges in the North Atlantic, which is as sublime of an image as the intentions of their journey: to hunt homicidal icebergs. In another story, travel takes place by steamship in the heart of Africa, into the heart of darkness. For N, “travel had become a thought" (page 188). For the reader, the induced thoughts become travel.

The canvas of historical Africa is the underlying firmament that holds it all together. Africa, or Prince Kong, represents that which we came from. Kong is to night, what modern man is to day. Lock’s Africa is to dreams, what the here and now is to the waking hours. Kong is the potent history of possibilities of which the 20th century man is the realization. "Mine is a history of possibilities..." claims N on page 156, to which a fictional H.G. Wells rebuts, "They are fictions!" And N answers, "But no less real for being so." (At which point this distraction in their hunt for icebergs turns into a physical fight over the same Mrs. Willoughby from the first chapter, and N pushes Wells over the side of the ship—demonstrating the power of sheer will over history, or mind over the matter of the Dark Continent.

Even more so, the personified Africa of Kong is the missing link, "Evidence of the species that once stood between man and ape. Mediator between the human and simian world" (page 181). Besides the biological equivalent of Kong being that from which we evolved genetically, if you replace genetic evolution with memetic evolution, Africa is the Kong of primal memes from which our 20th century myths and universal culture evolved from. Africa is a wistful yearning to return to the womb of innocence. As none other than Darwin himself argues on page 185, "the more evolved species yearns nostalgically for its primitive ancestor." And while this reeks of the vicious cycle of academic types critically analyzing the sense in Zen parables, and biologically we all will inevitably die—in reference to Darwin, N reminds us that, "his ideas persist and, with them, the man" (page 179).

Of all the star-sightings in Lock’s imagination, the cameo by Madame Curie is worth mentioning. She is an unsung icon in my mind, not just because she was the first woman in a man’s world to win a Nobel prize, but because she was the first to get Nobel prizes in different fields (since then only Linus Pauling has repeated this feat). Ironically it was her exposure to her own discoveries in radiation that caused her death. In reference to Curie and Einstein on page 140, Lock’s use of language is capable of quantum tunneling through the ageless pages:

"The starry night was an x-ray film showing the sickness of the world. Marie Curie dazzled by radium computed the arithmetic decay on the abacus of her bones. Box cars heavy with wretchedness rolled towards smoking towers. Albert, whom I had once guided through the impossibilities of Africa, covered his bare head under a strange rain. The dead who had died in the century that was to come tugged at my sleeves."

The timelessness of this passage relays the understanding, in convoluted retrospect, of the greatness of their achievements, not only in science, but in the historical importance once the implications of their discoveries became realized.

In “The Sorrow of the Porters,” Lock pays homage to, or at least acknowledges, the existence of, the common man, or porter—the sherpas that brunt the day to day load so the great historical idols of this modern world can plant the flags of their conquest. It would be too predictable and compromising for Lock to be sympathetic to the porters. He is a realist, and what’s more, the porters are not instrumental human beings who will survive in our memories, but are merely figments of Lock’s imagination—common men who are weeping because they “have been too long on the margins” of his story (page 143) and perhaps crop up to appease N’s latent guilt in his weakness for celebrity sightings.

The only character that matters after all is said and done is the narrator N. This is the history of Lock’s imagination—his story. Whether he admits it or not, Africa is a springboard for N to reveal the metaphysical desires that are all in his head. At various points in the book, different characters ask him the question outright: “What is it you do here in Africa?” and the answers he gives reveal the dichotomy between what is spoken and what is thought in the head:

  • On page 59 he states inwardly (not in quotes): “I came out to hunt, to go on safari.” But then immediately afterwards, he answers out loud to Henri Matisse (in quotes): “'I drink gin and make love to women, when I may.’”

  • On page 112, he responsds to Houdini, "’Adventurous, outdoor things’.” But inwardly he says to himself, “I was determined to keep silent about the audacious, metaphysical things I did in Africa."

On page 181 he turns the question around to Darwin, to which Darwin responds, “to find the missing link!”

Does N. Lock aim too high? Perhaps. But just like in “A Trip to the Moon,” (the inspiration for the chapter “A History of the Cinema”) the tongue of campy wit doesn’t get too buried in his cheek that he forgets it’s there—he never takes himself too seriously. And if he does aim too high, perhaps this serves to keep him aloof of pretense. In the Borgesesque chapter “The Catalogue,” N solicits the help of Dewey (of Dewey Decimal System fame) to help classify the mounting and daunting catalogue of the unclassifiable and unmanageable phenomena of Africa. "Our taxonomy was stretched to the breaking point,” he admits on page 168. Then, "Saturated, we entered the realm of the purely subjective." N. Lock keeps himself honest and grounded by introducing new characters at will to balance out the arguments or even to mock himself. Later on in this chapter, a renowned naturalist from the Smithsonian with “an aversion to unlicensed imagination,” is “unhappy with our ‘escapism,’ not to mention our use of native pharmaceuticals.”

At the turn of last century, classical physicists thought they had reality pegged and that there was nothing left to say (until the likes of Einstein and Curie came along). Similarly, we now live in a time when it seems every story has been told and rehashed in countless ways. Each new writer, artist or scientist must stand on the shoulders of previous giants to create anything novel. From Lock’s perch atop Mt. Olympus, he is able to deftly manipulate a cast of characters across time and space to spin his ambitious version of “Hearts of Darkness,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Tarzan” all wrapped into one. And to understand these accomplishments, to some extent, we too must have a grasp of this history. Thus, “A History of the Imagination” risks reaching a smaller audience, but for those that it does, the reward is higher. Does it achieve these lofty expectations? The conclusions drawn on page 192 is that “history is a figment" and "All histories lie" and finally, "Maybe nothing can be proved in Africa."

If you spend too much analyzing it, the greatness of Lock’s history can be almost overwhelming—it is a seemingly incomprehensible sum of the compounded interest of histories that we cannot possibly fathom. But as one of his alter-ego’s tells us on page 96, “A sea is vast, cold, and desolate; but it is only thinking that makes it so” and again for emphasis, "The sea in itself is not in the least frightening. It is only the idea of drowning that makes it so."

Where the book really works its magic, much like a fairy tale, is not in the density of rich metaphysical knowledge packed within the pages, but the witty and engaging manner in which it is spun. If you are in no mood to plunge the depths with a grappling hook, then you can skim what you want off the top. It is a perfectly choreographed symphony that even if you can’t comprehend everything it means metaphysically, you can still enjoy the language of the music for what it is.

"There is another history. There is another history that exists side by side with the one you know … You are reading it here: A History of the Imagination” (page 192). Will Lock’s history measure up in the greatness of human history? As Lock has Einstein say on page 78, "Ask me tomorrow after I have re-measured what I measure today." Only time will tell. 


--Derek White


Also check out the review of Norman Lock's Marco Knauff's Universe by Gary Lutz


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© 2005 by Derek White