Essay: Imagine That

March 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know,” wrote the poet Shelley in “A Defense of Poetry.” To imagine that which we know– it could be every artist’s creed, and certainly the vow of every scientist, and of everyone who now exults at the pictures of Mars now transmitted by the two rovers’ roving eyes over terrain before only imagined.

Hugs, high-fives, cheers, giddy laughter. The people at NASA saw the planet of their dreams, and showed it to us. What was terra incognita was now cognita — 300 million miles away, suddenly in detailed images of a surface made of “strangely cohesive” clay, a different sort of mud, and the eerie gray of the rocks on a planet with pink skies and blue sunsets.

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know. From now on, we don’t have to imagine Mars, so what do we imagine? We should imagine Mars, suggests Shelley, because we know it. The thought makes artists of us all. To imagine what one doesn’t know is mere invention, the stuff of most science fiction films that depend on plot for their effects. The merely inventive mind has men from places like Mars either knocking us off or teaching us their superior ways through close encounters.

But to apply the imagination to something that one actually sees — say, a girl with a pearl earring, or a girl with a little smile, or a bird or a turtle in which Darwin imagined our entire being — applies the mind to the inner life. Shakespeare never had to make up his stories of kings, and he didn’t want to. He wanted to know, who could these kings have been? The entire enterprise of discovery is only half achieved when one finds the place. The rest consists of asking, “What is this place that we know, and what does it mean to know it?”

This is a question we’ll soon apply to Mars, after the initial period of gasps and clapping. The old process repeats itself. “What does the new world look like?” — ask the 15th century Europeans. “Is there anything but dragons over the horizon?” It is the question the Europeans asked when they no longer had to imagine the eastern shores of the new world. What lies to the West?

But the real frontier exploration comes when one knows what’s there, at which point the scrupulous, adventurous mind asks, “What’s there?” One now has Mars as a matter of fact, as one once had the moon or the ability to fly… ( explosions ) …or to make great bombs that can blow the world out of the universe. But once the matters of fact are facts, what does one make of what one knows? What does one make of Mars?

The planet in our sights could be anything– a launching pad, a distant science lab, a place of commerce. It might even offer common ground for those who are weary of the earth that seems perpetually torn between easy wars and easy pieties. Common ground — imagine that.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.