Clarity of Imagination: C.S. Lewis’s Birthday

“Reason is the natural organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” – C.S. Lewis

On the anniversary of Lewis’s death earlier this week I wrote a partial reader’s autobiography of how Lewis’s works integrated into the span of my own life. Now, for the anniversary of his birthday, I want to celebrate how I believe Lewis’s attitude towards the imagination can edify human life.

My first time teaching Introduction to Literature left me somewhat disappointed. This was for a few reasons. One was entirely my fault – I overloaded the reading list and let my enthusiasm cloud what was practical. Also, I provided readings electronically, which I regard as an error for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the effect I think it has on the imagination: there are so many texts on the internet, and these just happen to be the ones our nutty professor assigned. Why are they due any special attention? As the course neared its end, I decided I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of this semester. In addition to hard copies and a lighter reading load, though, I realized that I had not clearly defined for myself the precise goal of what I wanted my students to get out of the course. Naturally it’s frustrating when they don’t like what I like, especially with the attention and devotion that goes into appreciating a text, but it’s more than that. Even when they did like the text, they often seemed to miss the larger purpose in why it was assigned. What were my students missing that I wanted them to see? What was it that I cared about and wanted them to care about, too? I wanted them to have meaningful, rich reactions to beautiful literature – not because I had assigned it or because I happened to like the particular piece of literature, but because I earnestly believed (as I told that class and still tell my students) that profound literary experience is profoundly important for a full life.

I remembered, as I was puzzling over this question, something C.S. Lewis had said about George MacDonald’s Phantastes – that it had baptized his imagination. Thinking about that phrase, I recalled that one of my favorite philosophical meditations on the imagination was MacDonald’s essay, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture.” It was then that I realized that this was exactly what was missing, in our culture, in my students’ perspective, and in my own pedagogy (which I have since developed and posted on this blog): a craft of imagination that doesn’t just treat the imagination as a given, overlooked and taken for granted, but instead sees it as an inborn capacity with a range of potential applications. Like every other inborn ability, the imagination must be developed – you need a method. From there, I designed my introduction to literature course, and it has been far better as a result. And I have realized that the philosophy of imagination I developed was centrally Lewisian in character, and stemmed from two basic texts: “Meditations in a Toolshed” and “On Stories.”

In the first essay, Lewis meditates upon a beam of light that enters into a slim crack in the toolshed door. He realizes the difference between looking at the beam of light as an object, versus along the beam of light as a tool for seeing the world. This is the fundamental issue with the imagination: we look at it as a curiosity, maybe a diverting source of entertainment – we look at products of imagination instead of looking through the imagination as a source of meaning-making. And when we do that, we lose out on the primary effect of imagination: to render a coherent picture of value out of our experiences in the world. After all, the imagination makes an image of our world, something Lewis knew medieval thinkers had developed into a sophisticated structure of rich interpretation that he discusses in The Discarded Image, to this date one of the finest introductions to the Middle Ages (and to the history of imagination in that period) which I have ever read.

Along with this meditation on how imagination fits into human life, Lewis’s “On Stories” more specifically analyzes how narrative attempts to capture in “a net of words” the things which mere words cannot capture unless they are embedded in an imaginative approach to the reactive power symbols can have on the human mind. Lewis’s essential point in “On Stories” is that the purpose of reading a story is not to have an emotional reaction – excitement, for example – but to isolate the emotional reaction itself and recognize it as rife with imaginative potential. We should not fear death: we should imagine what the fear of death means for life. Only stories can provide this enchanting distance, and the essay breathes in the air of Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, an essay which Lewis deeply appreciates and alludes to frequently in many of his own works.

I have an abiding fondness for Romanticism, but am sensible of the critique that Romantic ways of thinking can sometimes muddle the imagination. We must “inquire into facts,” as a fictional naysayer critiquing MacDonald’s perspective on imagination points out, but what Lewis makes clear in his toolshed meditation is that you cannot meditate on facts, let alone upon Truth, without an enriched imagination. Lewis brings together what is often in direct opposition for many people: a rigorous analytical process of thinking with an enraptured experience of wonder at the realities about which one thinks. The philosopher is worried that the poet might sweep us all away into sweet nothings at best and destructive falsehoods at worst, and the poet is worried that the philosopher will render us into nothing more than rationalistic and empirical events in a coldly objective world. Lewis, most poetic of philosophers, knew with a rare clarity of imagination that the height of poetic feeling could be found in the most careful of intellectual thought, and that robust rational effort was necessary to nourish a lively and Romantic experience of real meaning. The warmth of Lewis’s imagination came from its clarity of thought, from his ability to think crisply and carefully about both the mundane and the mysterious. That is the glorious weight of the divine imagine Lewis believed we all carry in the secret halls of our minds and that calls to us when we see wonder in the sacred book of creation within which all of our stories live, move, and have their being.

I remember once playing the videogame, Spyro the Dragon, and had an uncharacteristically cynical thought: well, after all, this dragon is just an abstraction we came up with from seeing a lizard, a bat, a dog, a fire…. And then I laughed. For what wondrous imagination it would take to conceive of a lizard, a bat, a dog, or fire – none of which is as complex as a mind which could consider or invent such things! That is the enchanting distance of story, as Lewis saw it, which reminds us to have joy in the creation of which we are a part. I can think of no better way to conclude this consideration of Lewis’s philosophy of imagination than with a joyful prayer – for even Lewis saw himself as a ruddy-cheeked, loud-voiced announcer of jovial wonder.

For Joy in God’s Creation. – 1928 Book of Common Prayer

O HEAVENLY Father, who hast filled the world with beauty; Open, we beseech thee, our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him by whom all things were made, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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