Sophie and Calcifer in "Howl's Moving Castle"

The heroine Sophie is awed when she first encounters a magical fire-demon named Calcifer in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. “The fire spoke,” she gasps. Keep in mind that Sophie’s no stranger to spells. The Witch of the Waste has already turned her from a shy young hat maker into an old and bent, if adventurous, woman.

Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli have in recent years produced the most critically acclaimed and top grossing films in Japan. A retrospective of the studio’s work opened Friday at the IFC Center in New York. It’s impossible to fully describe the visual beauty and emotional depth of Miyazaki’s grand imaginings. It’s like his stories are scripted by the writing team of William Blake, William Wordsworth and Zen philosopher Masao Abe, with visual design by Auguste Renoir and Tomioka Tessai.

My reaction to Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, or Princess Mononoke is the same as Sophie’s was to Calcifer: “The fire spoke.”

We are running rather short of talking fires these days, and there’s a temptation to assign any chatty incandescence we might come across to irrelevant child’s play in a woebegone world we think is more in need of hardheaded realism than fantasy.

Our collective unconscious, however, is busy telling us otherwise. Hence the popularity of Harry Potter, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or graphic novelist Alan Moore’s Promethea. These works are not escapist, they are, among other wonderful things, warnings about the dangers of disenchantment and reminders that our survival depends on our imaginations.

A certain hubristic curse has accompanied our journey from the Age of Reason through industrialization, modernism and post-modernism. We think of ourselves as Reasoning Masters of the Universe. But we’re no angels, much less gods. The illusion that we are disenchants even as it leads to dangerous and superficial magical thinking (global warming can be wished away; a divine free market will provide sustenance for all).

Maybe Calcifer the fire-demon is also speaking to us when he tells Sophia:

I don’t envy you lady. That is one bad curse. Curses are tough. You’re gonna have a very hard time getting rid of that one.

Calcifer makes the moving castle move. He also protects and transforms the wizard Howl, Sophie and just about everyone warmed by him, including the Witch of the Waste. The fire is, of course, a symbol of the human imagination.

The modern flight from the imagination has led us into a trap. We think we’ve escaped from superstition into the Land of Reason. We’re just as superstitious as we ever were (the Invisible Hand of the Market? Really?), but we’ve weakened the imaginative ability to let go of yesterday’s fantasies in the face of experience and on behalf of tomorrow’s tales.

Imagination is fire, not firewood. It’s a process not a thing. Those who cling stubbornly to one ideology or another are like monkeys clinging to a single tree branch. Sooner or later they’re going to run out of food. Monkeys are smarter than that, of course. Only humans make the mistake.

Speaking of the way some Tibetan Buddhists conjure sacred places in certain practices and ceremonies, Rice University philosopher of religion Jeffrey J. Kripal writes about how the conjuring teaches them to see through our illusions, not cling to them. When we learn how to conjure cities, we notice that the cities we live in are conjured just the same. Change, then, becomes more imaginable. Kripal writes:

…the fantastic, handled properly, might help us to realize the true nature of the real, which is fantastic.

I don’t think it takes much imagination to notice that our collective grasp of the real is not what it could be. If it were, the permafrost would not be thawing. “Grab this branch and never let go” is a consistent refrain in today’s public life. The last thing the powers want is a reinvigorated imaginative public bent on the re-enchantment of the world.

The powers may not be smart enough to let go of the limb they are on, but they are smart enough to know that they must persuade the rest of us to hang there with them if they are to remain any time at all.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident and president, died this morning. Havel, a playwright, understood the power of imagination and brought that understanding to the Velvet Revolution and to his subsequent leadership of the Czech Republic. He knew imagination as “the power of the powerless.”  I dedicate this modest piece to his memory. Havel’s gone. We could use more like him.