To the child, from the beginning, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery; to him our stalest commonplaces are great news, our dullest facts prismatic wonders. To the baby who has never seen a red ball, a red ball is a marvel, new and magnificent as ever the golden apples were to Hercules.
You show the child many things, all strange, all entrancing; it sees, it hears, it touches; it learns to co-ordinate sight and touch and hearing. You tell it tales of the things it cannot see and hear and touch, of men “that it may never meet, of lands that it shall never see”; strange black and brown and yellow people whose dress is not the dress of mother or nurse—strange glowing yellow lands where the sun burns like fire, and flowers grow that are not like the flowers in the fields at home. You tell it that the stars, which look like pin-holes in the floor of heaven, are really great lonely worlds, millions of miles away; that the earth, which the child can see for itself to be flat, is really round; that nuts fall from the trees because of the force of gravitation, and not, as reason would suggest, merely because there is nothing to hold them up. And the child believes; it believes all the seeming miracles.
Then you tell it of other things no more miraculous and no less; of fairies, and dragons, and enchantments, of spells and magic, of flying carpets and invisible swords. The child believes in these wonders likewise. Why not? If very big men live in Patagonia, why should not very little men live in flower-bells? If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? The child’s memory becomes a store-house of beautiful and wonderful things which are or have been in the visible universe, or in that greater universe, the mind of man. Life will teach the child, soon enough, to distinguish between the two.
But there are those who are not as you and I. These say that all the enchanting fairy romances are lies, that nothing is real that cannot be measured or weighed, seen or heard or handled. Such make their idols of stocks and stones, and are blind and deaf to the things of the spirit. These hard-fingered materialists crush the beautiful butterfly wings of imagination, insisting that pork and pews and public-houses are more real than poetry; that a looking-glass is more real than love, a viper than valour. These Gradgrinds give to the children the stones which they call facts, and deny to the little ones the daily bread of dreams.
Of the immeasurable value of imagination as a means to the development of the loveliest virtues, to the uprooting of the ugliest and meanest sins, there is here no space to speak. But the gain in sheer happiness is more quickly set forth. Imagination, duly fostered and trained, is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.
But Mr. Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly, the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David. There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubts about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the Spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little Materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?
Sir Thomas Browne was an exalted mystic [whose mysticism] owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not merely mean sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis; when he went over his work again, he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism; for the mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.
-G.K. Chesterton, The Little Things, from The Speaker, December 15th, 1900. Read it online HERE.
Let me put it this way—imagination to me is not the capacity to invent what is not there but the capacity to see and develop what is there.
To hell with the things you can think up. The world is oversupplied with people who can think up things. But looking at yourself, looking at people, getting a viewpoint on them that clarifies them, gives them meaning, and expressing that viewpoint in a form—that is the highest of arts.
-Samson Raphaelson, The Human Nature of Playwriting, Kindle loc. 318, 1473
I read an article on Vox the other day that highly recommended this book. It said that the book has been out of print for quite a while but has recently been released for Kindle. Raphaelson was a famous play-write and screenplay writer, maybe most famous for writing The Jazz Singer. He taught a workshop at a University years ago; the contents of this book are the transcripts from that workshop. It sounded too good to pass up. It’s been quite interesting.
In the above quotes, Raphaelson makes the point that imagination is not the ability to make things up. Rather, imagination is the ability to see what is already present, but to see in with a perception, a depth of insight, that others may lack.
If you buy this, then the key to developing your imagination is living with your eyes open; it’s not simply being able to visualize or invent. Look at the world, yourself, and your experiences, and turn them over and over in your mind. See what’s there. Don’t be content to make up new worlds; look at the old worlds and find what’s there. Hopefully I’ll post some examples of how this works, from the book, in the coming days.
The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…
-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.65
This is pretty much in line with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that the imagination is the ‘organ of meaning.’ The imagination seeks to grasp for, and embody, truth through metaphors and story. The good stories still deal with the age-old issues relating to the truth of reality. This is a good quote to keep right next to Lewis.’
Are you cultivating an imagination bent on grappling with truth? Are you a metaphor-maker? Are you content to live with abstractions? The word, says Dorothy Sayers, always needs to become flesh.
I can think of another instance in which a piece of fruit had cosmological significance, but this time we’ll focus on Newton’s apple:
Now, when Isaac Newton observed a certain relationship between and likeness between the behavior of the falling apple and that of the circling planets, it might be said with equal plausibility either that he argued by analogy from the apple to a theory of astronomy, or that while evolving a theory of astronomical mathematics he suddenly perceived its application to the apple. But it would scarcely be exact to say that, in the former case, he absurdly supposed the planets to be but apples of a larger growth, with seeds in them; or that, in the latter case, he had spun out a purely abstract piece of isolated cerebration that, oddly enough, turned out to be true about apples, though the movements of the planets themselves had no existence outside Newton’s mathematics. Newton, being a rational man, concluded that the two kinds of behavior resembled each other – not because the planets had copied the apples or the apples copied the planets, but because both were examples of the working of one and the same principle.
-Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, pp. 124-125
Doesn’t it seem like this story could have come out of a fairy tale? This is one of the reasons I am glad I was encouraged to read Polanyi: he reminds us that science and imagination cannot be, and therefore are never, separated. Newton’s articulation of the law of gravity was a massive act of the imagination which saw an explanation of the workings of the cosmos in a falling apple.
It almost sounds as if he were a poet. Keats heard a nightingale and thought of ‘Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’ Newton saw a falling apple and thought of the workings of the galaxy. Chesterton’s idea that everything is poetic really isn’t that far fetched.
The story also reminds us of the importance of analogies. As a preacher it reminds me that analogies are important for engaging the imagination, which in turn can lead to a better grasp of the truth. Call it a reminder of the need for ‘whimsical’ preaching.
In my mind, at least, I always believed that the ‘imagination’ had to do with images. Hence I always believed that I did not have a good imagination, for I was never good at producing mental images. Even when my football coach told me that I needed to visualize a game happening in my mind, I couldn’t produce it. The Waterboy (Adam Sandler reference), however, could do it quite well.
As a young preacher this especially bothered me. Early on I read a lot of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons. He was a master of images: a spider hanging over a fire comes to mind (from Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God). I read that, and it moved me, yet I still couldn’t draw up the image of it in my mind. Even now, as I write, I try to force the image into my mind and it just doesn’t come easy. But, here’s the but, the idea is there even if the image is not. And even without a mental image, the idea still comes to me with power and force.
I have never been one to insert myself into stories, at least not for the most part. I don’t picture myself standing in the multitudes as Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, nor do I picture myself standing at the foot of the cross. But that sermon has come to me with force nonetheless, and so has the cross. The images aren’t there, but the ideas are, and I do not believe that they are less forceful.
Let me move on to the point here. In his essay entitled Image and Imagination (from a book with the same name), C.S. Lewis has a mock-dialogue on the subject of what the imagination, or, more specifically, what an imagined thing is. One of the points he makes there is that an imagined thing cannot simply be an image (or what we might call a mental picture). For instance, using the example of an imagined tower, he makes the point that an imagined tower is not the same thing as a mental image of a tower:
Take away from the tower all its implications and it ceases to be an imagined thing and becomes merely an image. But images are not enough: for the way in which they affect us depends, not on their content as images, but on what they are taken to be. Mention a tower, or a king, or a dog, in a poem or tale, and they come to us not in the nakedness of pictured form and colour, but with all the associations of towerhood, kinghood, and doghood (Image and Imagination, p. 44).
Let me stay with the idea of a tower here. If you picture a tower in your mind, what do you picture? Do you imagine its foundation? Do you imagine each brick that it consists of? Do you imagine the particles of each brick? The mortar? Each piece of furniture? The subtle shadows depending on how the sun is shining? And when we introduce the sun, we stretch outside of the tower, to the world in which the tower exists. Do you imagine the sun? Do you imagine the dirt or grass outside the tower? Do you imagine the country in which the tower sits? Or the world in which the country sits? Or the universe in which the world exists?
The answer to all of these questions is likely ‘No.’ Therefore, Lewis is arguing, to truly imagine something, to imagine it with any sort of depth, is not simply to have a bare mental picture of it. That kind of picture is not worth a thousand words. The thousand words come from the context surrounding the image. We are stretching ourselves out from a bare picture of one object to entire worlds. But as we stretch out, we also narrow our focus in on individual blades of grass. Our image has grown substantially, and become substantially more detailed. We now have more than an image, we have a story. We have moved from the image of a castle, to a specific castle, in a specific country, in a specific world, in a specific universe. Whether this castle, world, or universe actually exists is irrelevant at this point.
Lewis goes on,
On this point I speak with some authority, having been an extreme visualist, and having learned that this unruly power – in truth not the ally of imagination, but a mere nuisance to it – must be corrected and restrained in dealing with literature. Our imagination uses our images for poetical purposes, much as a child uses material objects for its games. An imaginative man can make of very scanty and crude images all he needs for appreciation of the greatest books, as a child worth its salt can make a liner or a railway station out of the first two or three bits of furniture it finds in the nursery. It is not the children with the costly toys who play best: or if they do, they do it in spite of the toys (p. 45).
Lewis is arguing that having a good imagination does not demand our having good mental pictures. In fact, the pictures can be a hindrance to the imagination. Which brings me back to where I began.
Images are frowned upon in the Scriptures. The third commandment immediately comes to mind. One of the problems with us, as a species, is that we want to craft images, whether in the mind or with our hands. One of the Hebrew words the KJV translates ‘imagine’ has to do with making a ‘form,’ another has do with etching or plowing, creating lines. These are always frowned upon as mental acts. Perhaps the reason for this is that the creating of forms, mentally, actually causes us to lose our perspective of bigger things, and smaller things as well. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the whole world. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the grains of sand that hold it together. And in the process of losing the world and the sand, you also lose any emotional affect the castle might have – you lose the affective mood or flavor. But move from the image to the ideas – castlehood – and now you have something. You have the universe, the world, the nations, the counties, the cities, the dirt, the grass, kings, knights, princesses in distress, and you have a mood that those objects set. And it will be the mood, most likely, that moves you emotionally.
To bring this back to the examples I used earlier of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount or dying on the cross, let me say this: As for the cross, if I focus on the image of a man being crucified, perhaps it will evoke something within me, like horror or sadness. But these emotions are nearly animal (animal spirits, as Jonathan Edwards called them). They are physical reactions as much as they are mental, they are a reflex against horrible sights. But if you go beyond the image, outside of it, and into the details, that’s where we find meaning. We have a man dying on a particular cross, on a particular day, at a particular place, in a particular world, for a particular purpose. All of this demands context, and bare image cannot supply it. It must come to me as an idea, or as a story, or a poem, or what have you, if it is to have true imaginative force. This is precisely what poets tend to do. They take small objects and relate them to the world, or even the cosmos. They look at a Grecian urn and end up thinking about flowery tales, deities, and priests offering sacrifices. Or they take a nightingale and, before you know it, they are thinking about ‘perilous seas, in faery lands forelorn.’
I do not mean by all this that one should not have mental pictures. What I do mean is that the common notion of the imagination simply as something that supplies mental images is wrong, and deadly (as far as the imagination is concerned). Someone who uses their mind to build castles in the sky is useless. Someone who can tell me a story about castles in the sky is quite useful.
Perhaps this post is an attempt to justify my own mental bent, or justifying my own way of imagining. But I hope that will encourage anyone who is not an ‘extreme visualist.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have a good imagination. In fact, you may be better off.
This short essay by Chesterton is one of my favorites. In it, he meditates on the act of lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. Many would consider this inactivity. But, considered rightly, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling should be an act. Chesterton ponders whether this was the very act that inspired Michelangelo in his work on that other famous ceiling.
This probably wasn’t the case, but it is a great thought nonetheless. Chesterton himself considers the great possibility of art on what may be the only extended blank surface in a house – the ceiling. I read the essay to my 7-year-old daughter and she immediately wanted to start painting the ceiling.
This is why I read Chesterton. I am a Reformed Protestant. He was, for a good part of his life, a Roman Catholic. I am a Calvinist. He was a staunch anti-Calvinist. He would probably dislike me immensely. But I love the man because of his imagination and wit. Because he can take mundane things and expose the fact that they are not mundane. A ceiling is not mundane. Lying on your back and staring at a ceiling does not have to be boring. In fact, it can be inspiring, depending on what your eyes can see via the imagination. A bored teenager sees his ceiling as a blank space that doesn’t compare to a computer screen. Michelangelo sees it as a canvas. A bored teenager sees walls as controlling borders. A child sees them as the holding place for adventure indoors. God sees them as a piece of paper to write, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin. God the graffiti-artist.
And beside his ruminations on ceilings themselves, and on art, Chesterton contributes some very solid reflections on the condition of the world. Though the essay was published in 1909, it is timely. He notes modern disdain for lying in bed. The world is too busy for such inactivity. He notes that early rising is no mark of greatness:
Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle. A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon.
The point is simple. The modern pharisees of the world are often of the sort that judge someone for the hour they rise, the type of food they eat, and the type of car they drive. They judge a man for his carbon footprint but do not care what foundation his feet are planted on. As I’ve heard Doug Wilson say, they will allow a woman to have an abortion, but malign her if she smokes while she is pregnant. They will praise her if she eats organic, but tear her down if that organic food makes her overweight. They build cities with no sidewalks and then demand that we walk three miles a day. To lay in bed and do nothing is atrocious, but to lay on the couch and text is the norm.
At the end, Chesterton gives his qualification for lying in bed:
…If you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get up a hypochondriac.
He is giving us insight here into the world’s strange morality that will stamp all kinds of acts as virtuous if there is some scientific or popular fad surrounding them. Eating oats can become a virtue. Taking a certain vitamin can become a virtue. If Dr. Oz says the word, lying in bed could become the next great viral sensation.
Do what you do, first, because you are a human being. Next, do it out of conviction from first principles, that’s the point. Or else you will be tossed around ad infinitum from one morality to the other. God doesn’t care what you eat. He doesn’t tell you how long to sleep. He doesn’t tell you when to wake up or what breakfast to start your day with, or whether you should have breakfast at all. What he does tell you is to eat the book, that you do not live by bread alone, and that when you do lie down, as well as when you get up, to let that word dominate the conversation (Deut. 6:7).
I noted a couple of weeks ago that I would write some posts as I read through Present Concerns (a collection of articles by C.S. Lewis). This is my first attempt.
The article entitled Hedonics recounts a particular trip to London taken by C.S. Lewis. As one who never lived in London, much of the city remained a mystery to him. With this being the case, on this particular trip, he was unexpectedly swept away, as it were, by the simple romance of travel.
As he rode on the underground train, observing his fellow-passengers, he writes,
If anyone had asked me whether I supposed them to be specially good people or specially happy or specially clever, I should have replied with a perfectly truthful No. I knew quite well that perhaps not ten per cent of the homes they were returning to would be free, even for that one night, from ill temper, jealousy, weariness, sorrow or anxiety, and yet – I could not help it – the clicking of all those garden gates, the opening of all those front doors, the unanalysable home smell in all those little halls, the hanging up of all those hats, came over my imagination with all the caress of a half-remembered bit of music.
Lewis’ imagination had come under the spell of the mysteriousness and magic of…the human race – other people. He continues,
There is an extraordinary charm in other people’s domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else’s garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens.
Lewis describes other experiences from this trip, but I can’t spoil the whole thing. Let me comment on the above quotes.
As I read this article, I found myself agreeing with Lewis. But I also found myself amazed that I had never seen it in quite this way. We all know what it is like to walk into a strange home. When you walk into a house in which you have never been, there is a certain magic about it – only we don’t recognize it as magic. There are so many memories stored in such houses, such life has been, and is, lived there. So many stories, so many smells, so many relics are present. It can be, and often is, like walking into a new world. We are like Alice or Dorothy. Or, more appropriately, we are like the Pevensies, only instead of walking through a wardrobe, we are simply walking through the front door. Perhaps we would care more for fellowship in unknown houses if we saw the front door as a door to another world.
To those on the other side of the door, the house is simply home. The smell is always the same. But to those on the outside, it is a different story.’ Every lighted house,’ he says, ‘seen from the road, is magical.’ Every lighted house marks the portal into an unknown world. It is like the technicolor of Oz in the midst of a black night, if we have eyes to see.
And to think that our own homes are unknown worlds to those on the outside. Yet we don’t invite them in. But I digress.
Lewis concludes the article the by asserting that pleasure in the ‘little things’ of life, such as a visit to a strange city, or a strange house, though perhaps small pleasures, are pleasures nonetheless. And these are pleasures that should be valued. Lewis believed that the hardness of the world, and the pompous desire to be ‘grown up’ could fight off such pleasures. Our job therefore is to accept the offer of such small pleasures. He wrote of the joy he had experienced that night:
They did not actually impose this happiness; they offered it. I was free to take it or not as I chose – like distant music which you need not listen to unless you wish, like a delicious faint wind on your face which you can easily ignore. One was invited to surrender to it. And the odd things is that something inside me suggested that it would be ‘sensible’ to refuse the invitation; almost that I would be better employed in remembering that I was going to do a job I do not greatly enjoy and that I should have a very tiresome journey back to Oxford. Then I silenced this inward wiseacre. I accepted the invitation – threw myself open to this feathery, impalpable, tingling invitation. The rest of the journey I passed in a state which can be described only as joy.
We would all find much more joy on our journey if we did the same more often.
On a side note, this is one of the most moving bits of Lewis I have ever read. I would suggest that you pick up Present Concerns for this article alone. It is little nuggets like this short essay that make me continue to read him. It seems that every time I read him his words cause me to wake up to the life that is all around me.
Ken Myers, of Mars Hill Audio, recently gave several lectures on the subject of music and meaning. Videos of the talks are available HERE. Myers addresses the nature of music and cultural trends and problems in modern music. I must confess this is an issue I have struggled with over the past few years, but I think Myers does a fine job of crystallizing some of the issues with modern popular music, and especially modern music in the church.
One of Myers’ points that I found helpful was the idea that, in general, music has evolved in recent centuries from what he calls ‘cosmo-centric’ music to ‘self-centered’ music. I think Myers is right in his contention, and that this paradigm shift can be found in more than just music. Take poetry for example.
This was illustrated to me in a discussion I recently had with a university student on the subject of poetry. I discovered that this student basically thought of poetry as nothing more than pithy self-expression. Poetry, for her, is a way of expressing yourself eloquently, but that’s about it.
Compare that to C.S. Lewis’ statement about Geoffrey Chaucer:
Poets are, for Chaucer, not people who receive fame, but people who give it.
You can see his point quite clearly by considering the famous ancient and medieval poems. Take the Odyssey and the Iliad for example. Homer’s work was to spread the fame of Troy, the gods, and Odysseus – not himself. The ‘modern’ view of poetry, however, as expressed by the viewpoint I noted above, will yield primarily introspection and personal emotion. It turns inward, and points readers to the poet, rather than attempting to spread the fame of someone or something ‘outside itself.’
Myers is arguing that much the same is the case with music. My family and I explored this idea by listening to several pieces of classical music. As we listened to, for example, several of Bach’s violin concertos, I asked my daughters to tell me the impressions the music made on their minds. They gave answers such as ‘fairies frolicking in a meadow,’ ‘fairies being chased by a wizard,’ ‘sunshine,’ etc. The common thread in all of their answers concerning the various pieces we listened to is that they all pointed outward. They never said, ‘that piece of music makes me think of my emotions.’ They easily related to the music, not because it pointed them to the song-writer, or the music itself even, but to outward reality and imagination.
I am no music-snob. I know relatively nothing about classical music. But I understand Myers’ point. Much of the classical and ancient music I have encountered tends to set the mind on things outside itself. It’s easy, almost necessary, as you listen to many classical pieces, to begin thinking about thunder and lightning, or sunshine, or the sea. The music was cosmic-centered – it exposited, and pointed to, the grandeur, beauty, ugliness, etc of the world around us. Whereas much of today’s popular music is highly flippant and ego-centric, pointing to nothing outside itself other than the emotions of the song-writer or singer. It exists to spread the fame of the artist rather than something outside the artist, and so the artist lives to spread his own fame rather than the fame of another.
Does this mean that modern poetry and music is bad? Not necessarily. Modern, self-centered, music can be very good, for example, at expressing empathy. A good-songwriter can use his own experience and imagination to eloquently express the human condition. Old country songs about loss and heartache can be a balm to a soul that has suffered those experiences. As a matter of fact, I think the psalter does this exact thing. The psalms give us examples of, and words that we ourselves can appropriate, for expressing and praying our own emotions through song and prayer. Yet I believe there is something to be said for the classical practice of turning our eyes off ourselves in music and poetry, and using the imagination to capture and exposit the world around us.
Let me make one final point. A while back I read something from C.S. Lewis (I think it was in Surprised by Joy) where he talked about the different ways in which people use their imagination. Lewis noted that there is a difference between sheer fantasy and imagination. By fantasy, he was primarily thinking of using the imagination to think about oneself – from visions of grandeur, to lust, and in various other ways, man uses fantasy to make himself the center and hero of the story taking place in his mind. In the other form of imagination, man uses his mind to build worlds of which he is not necessarily a part. Lewis used as an example that he would often use his imagination to create landscapes and the like.
As I read this I took time to reflect that I had rarely, if ever, used my imagination in this way. It seems that my imagination always terminates on one subject – me. I’m always involved. In my own mind, as I imagine, I am always either the hero, or the victim, or the centerpiece of the story. I wonder where I picked up this type of thinking(?). Myers has given me one answer to this question.
Our music habits contribute to how we see the world – especially when they implicitly lead us to think primarily, or only, of ourselves. We become the world, and, more than that, we become the sun – everything revolves around me and my own fragile psyche. This world – me – is surely not as glorious as what is outside it. I pray that I, like the poets of whom Chaucer wrote, will learn to spread the fame of others rather than myself.