To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything

magical fairy woods

Nothing exists except that which is imagined.

“Monsieur Sylvestre Bonnard,” she said to me, “you are nothing but an old pedant. I always suspected as much. The smallest little ragamuffin who goes along the road with his shirt-tail sticking out through a hole in his pantaloons knows more about me than all the old spectacled folks in your Institutes and your Academies. To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything. Nothing exists except that which is imagined. I am imaginary. That is what it is to exist, I should think! I am dreamed of, and I appear. Everything is only dream; and as nobody ever dreams about you, Sylvestre Bonnard, it is YOU who do not exist. I charm the world; I am everywhere—on a moon-beam, in the trembling of a hidden spring, in the moving of leaves that murmur, in the white vapours that rise each morning from the hollow meadow, in the thickets of pink brier—everywhere!… I am seen; I am loved… I make the little children smile; I give wit to the dullest-minded nurses. Leaning above the cradles, I play, I comfort, I lull to sleep – and you doubt whether I exist! Sylvestre Bonnard, your warm coat covers the hide of an ass!”

She ceased speaking; her delicate nostrils swelled with indignation; and while I admired, despite my vexation, the heroic anger of this little person, she pushed my pen about in the ink-bottle, backward and forward, like an oar, and then suddenly threw it at my nose, point first.

by Anatole France (16 April 1844—12 October 1924)
from The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881)
(Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard)
image – Steve Weaver

Do you exist?

The speaker is a tiny little fairy, outraged at Monsieur Bonnard’s exclamation of wonder that she is “still to be seen in this age of railways and telegraphs.” Her outrage reminds me of the old expression, “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

The book and its language are very 1800’s – outmoded. Who, today, would expect to encounter “the dullest-minded nurses” or ink-bottles? “The smallest little ragamuffin who goes along the road with his shirt-tail sticking out through a hole in his pantaloons” is not common language, but if you’re like me, you take this sentence and easily imagine something like ragamuffin pantaloons the kids next door.

Not so, earlier in this chapter, when the fairy enters Monsieur Bonnard’s awareness. She is sitting on a book – a big German book, “bound in pigskin, with brass studs on the sides, and very thick cording upon the back.” When is the last time you saw a book with brass studs on the sides?

Did you know books were bound in pigskin? Could you identify the skin of a book, on sight or even in principle? Would this sort of book be common at the time this piece was published, or is the world of the character Monsieur Bonnard what needs to be believable here?

Tell me to pick up the pigskin book, and I’ll give you a very odd look and ask, “the whatskin book?”

Today’s hobbits, Harry Potters and Pirates of the Caribbean would have no problem navigating such a book, encountered within the genuineness of their characters. Tell them to pick up the pigskin covered book.

If I did not want to imagine, I would not be reading

If characters are at home with “the skin of the book,” and the author has insured that I can identify with the characters, a book can take me anywhere. I need landmarks, temptations and challenges. I don’t need previous familiarity with the specifics of brass-studded books or ink-bottles.

What do you think? Does participating in the reading process infer a willingness to dream reality into a book’s possibilities? What effects how far you’re willing to go?

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