Howard Jacobson: Conspiracy theorists lack imagination

In our determined unimaginativeness, we turn Kelly and Blair alike into less than men
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The Independent Online

So what is it with those who see a conspiracy in the fall of every sparrow?

Too much time on their hands? Paranoia? An overactive imagination? They invent where invention is not called for; they reject plain and feasible explanations in favour of elaborate and unlikely ones; they mentally inhabit a middle earth of spies and secret agents, of liars, double-dealers, hypocrites, and murderers. Is the world explicable to them only as a place where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted to tell the truth? Search me. But of this I am sure: suspicion might be the word for it, daydreaming might the word for it, but imagination is not.

"The living power and prime agent of all human perception," was how Coleridge described the imagination, distinguishing it from fancy which he relegated to the performance of more mundane tasks. (Such as weaving conspiracy theories.) For George Eliot the imagination was imbued with the moral; it was the faculty that enabled us to grasp "with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling" another person's "equivalent centre of self". To stimulate the imagination, so conceived, was for George Eliot the sacred task of literature.

We will never set every mind at rest about the death of David Kelly. Once the monkey of conspiracy is out of the cage, there is no getting it back in. But the calmer counter-explanations which appeared last week had the virtue of restoring to David Kelly the dignity of "an equivalent centre of self". Instead of the blind and innocent victim of malign political forces (for which read the "Bliar" Blair, or those he had unloosed), we were presented with a man more like ourselves in nature and in circumstance – a challenge to our imagination in the sense that profound fellow-feeling for suffering is always difficult when we would rather root out blame and apportion punishment. That David Kelly might have hacked away inexpertly at his wrists out of disappointment in himself, in shame and damaged self-esteem is not what we want to hear when we're hot on the tail of Blying politicians and their corrupt ideologies.

David Kelly dying in solitude and disgrace, brought down by false promises and disloyalties – for some of which he must take, and clearly did take, the blame – remains one of the most desolating events of the build-up to the Iraq war. I am not saying that is the end of the matter. There is, of course, room for us to sorrow over Kelly's private tragedy and to rail against the duplicitous warmongering of the time if that's how we see it, but even how we see that is necessarily affected by our willingness, or not, to exercise imagination. And if you think that's a prelude to my arguing that Tony Blair, too, has "an equivalent centre of self", you're damn right.

Like recurring twin parables of the human soul, Kelly's fate and Blair's became entwined again this week. Blair being Kelly's executioner; Kelly, by the same reasoning, Blair's nemesis. Go along with this and Blair's decision to donate the earnings from his memoirs to the British Legion will look like blood money. Let someone ascribe it to Blair's troubled conscience and the cry goes up that Blair has no conscience. Suggest that as a Christian who led the country into an unpopular war which he continues to assert it was right to wage, he might nonetheless regret the loss of life, and you will be scoffed at. Blair a Christian? Come off it.

And so, in our determined unimaginativeness, we turn Kelly and Blair alike into less than men. When it comes to Blair's religious beliefs we want it all ways, arguing on the one hand that such views are a monstrous impertinence in a man bloodied by war and made glossy by cash, while on the other doubting that a man like Blair could genuinely hold them. But why shouldn't Blair be a devout Christian? He won't be the first believer to have spilled blood. A man can go to war and not want to go to war. A man can go on defending that war and still sorrow over its consequences, still pray to God, still hope to make amends, still seek redemption. The money from those memoirs might strike some as a profound insult, but that doesn't make the gesture false.

Remember that scene where Hamlet comes across his uncle – the adulterous, incestuous and murderous Claudius – absorbed, as Hamlet thinks, in prayer? It appears to be the perfect moment for Hamlet to exact the revenge demanded of him by his father's ghost. "Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a praying." Except – except, Hamlet reasons, that would be no revenge, that would be "hire and salary" because to kill Claudius while he prays would be to send his soul the quickest way to heaven. And so the moment passes. In fact, as we know, having heard Claudius admit to himself that he cannot honestly ask forgiveness for the murder he committed because the things he murdered to attain he still desires, he is unable to pray. "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below," he ruefully acknowledges. Murderous or not, Claudius takes seriously the theological implications of prayer. And thus the joke is on the lesser theologian, Hamlet, who seems to think you need only bend the knee and that's you in the clear with your maker.

We could argue about which of the two men is the more religious in this scene – the sinner who would repent but can't, or the avenger with his eye on hell who fails to estimate the subtleties of his adversary's conscience – but there can be no doubt that Claudius's understanding of repentance is deeper than Hamlet's, as Tony Blair's, for all we know, might be deeper than ours. Concerned only to condemn, assuming hypocrisy where there is none, Hamlet becomes the dupe of his own blunted imagination. And in the process loses out on what would have been an exquisitely timed moment for revenge, with Claudius in torment, rooted to the irreligious here and now.

Do not those who loathe Blair miss out likewise by assuming he is able easily to put his conscience to sleep? What if, in the stillest reaches of the unforgiving night, Blair cries as Claudius cries, "O wretched state! O bosom black as death!", as the soul that would be free becomes more and more ensnared in falsity?

I am not saying Blair does, but allow him his humanity and he just might. Forget conspiracy: only think what hellish satisfactions we forgo when we let politics ride roughshod over our imaginations.