Imagination, Myth and Meaning (Part 2)…

Cave painting - Lascaux (France) c15,000 BC

Cave painting – Lascaux (France) c15,000 BC

In Part 1 we started to think about the working of the imagination, of how it is an especially active faculty in children, and how rather than inevitably leading to illusion or falsehood, the imagination can lead us instead to a deeper and richer appreciation of the meaning of things. Here in Part 2 I want to explore in greater depth the power and potency of our imaginative faculty, including the way in which image and metaphor turn out to be ubiquitous features of the human quest for knowledge and understanding.


That our imaginative response to the world, even in works of deliberate fantasy, can lead to a truer – more realistic – grasp of what things are like, might at first seem counterintuitive; but it is a point made repeatedly by Tolkien, who argued that the value of all good fantasy and fairy stories lies precisely in their power of Recovery – i.e. their ability to help us recover a fresh sense of the true significance and meaning of the familiar or the mundane. Tolkien says, ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.’

Chesterton makes the same point when he writes about fairy-stories: ‘These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.’ What imaginative literature and story can help us recover, then, is the wondrous sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary, an inkling that can easily become diluted by overexposure, not to mention the narrow and demystifying world-picture afforded by the lens of natural science, through which we moderns have become accustomed to looking at things. While the myths and legends of ancient societies did much to preserve an imaginative appraisal of reality, we have been largely immersed in another kind of story, according to which things that don’t yield to a high degree of predictability and control (things like value and meaning) are said to either fall beyond the range of genuine (rational) knowledge, or else not to exist at all. By contrast, as John Knox has observed, for the ancient and pre-moderns, ‘What we call the literal and what we call the figurative or symbolic could flow together… to an extent they cannot for us. What for us must have the character of a figure of speech could for him be also a more direct and factual account of reality.’ Such was the potency and importance of myth in ancient times.


Not surprisingly, and on a similar basis, Chesterton argued against the view that the pagan mythologies entailed a muddle-headed personification of nature, wherein abstract powers were falsely attributed personal qualities. Instead, he maintained that the impersonation we find in such stories is not of something that turns out to be wholly impersonal – as modern science would have us believe. Chesterton had great sympathy for even the oldest and crudest of myths, describing them as man’s attempt to reach God through the imagination. He writes, ‘Some myths are very crude and queer like the early drawings of children; but the child is trying to draw. It is none the less an error to treat his drawing as if it were a diagram, or intended to be a diagram. [So too] The student cannot make a scientific statement about the savage, because the savage is not making a scientific statement about the world. He is saying something quite different; what might be called the gossip of the gods.’


In this way, Chesterton argues that the ancient myths are not mere allegories, wherein X stands for Y. It is rather that the myths, and the images they contain, were at the time (and quite possibly remain) the very best (and maybe even the only) means by which the human mind can approach the kind of transcendent truths towards which they were directed. To be sure, the mythical images remain images, but they are images that may afford a real glimpse into the quality of the thing being described. Alister McGrath, writing on the imaginative power of myth as understood by C.S. Lewis, observes that a myth ‘is not a false story told to deceive, but a story that on the one hand resonates with the deepest structures of reality, and on the other has an ability to connect up with the human imagination.’ This is an important point, regarding the true nature of ‘myth’, that cannot be overstated and must not be overlooked here.


Now, it might already be apparent that the power of imagery in ancient mythology is similar to the power of metaphor in poetry. After all, a metaphor is precisely that, an image – one that works to convey not just the superficial appearance of things, but some underlying and essential quality of the thing being described. Metaphors describe one thing in terms of something else, and at their best, as Orson Scott Card suggests, metaphors ‘have a way of holding the most truth in the least space’. But it’s not only in a literary context that metaphors are indispensible. The images fashioned by writers and poets have the ability to convey meaning to the reader because there is first of all meaning in things, and our encounter with images (whether firsthand in the world, or as mediated by the printed word) is always an opportunity for our understanding of reality to be either enhanced or diminished. In this way, the imagination sits alongside reason itself as a vital cognitive power. Poet Wendell Berry writes, ‘The power of imagination is to see things whole, to see things clearly, to see things with sanctity, to see things with love’. In other words, as C.S. Lewis points out, while reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the natural organ of meaning, and it takes both working together to see the world aright.


In Lewis’s view, reason can only operate if it is first supplied with material to think about, and it is the imagination’s task to supply that material. Of course, this doesn’t mean something is true simply because we imagine it to be. Lewis writes: ‘Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.’ In other words, there can be no correct reasoning about things without the input and guidance of the imagination. Both reason and imagination are necessary for knowledge and understanding, and must work together, as do the left and right eye, to provide as an accurate picture of reality, in its proper depth. Indeed, writing on the function and cultivation of the imagination, fantasy writer George MacDonald points out: ‘To enquire into what God has made is the main function of the imagination. It is aroused by facts, is nourished by facts, seeks for higher and yet higher laws in those facts; but refuses to regard science as the sole interpreter of nature, or the laws of science as the only region of discovery’.


To regard science as the sole interpreter of nature is basically how Chesterton defined insanity, observing, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Of course, Chesterton was speaking of ‘reason’ as it came to be redefined – so very narrowly – under the influence of Enlightenment philosophy. For when the ancients [and pre-moderns generally] spoke of man as a rational animal, they didn’t mean that he was narrow, abstract and analytical. Rather, our rational nature was held to include our emotions, as well as our moral and aesthetic sense. Throughout pre-modern philosophy and practically all the world’s ancient wisdom traditions, it has been a basic part of reason to wonder at the beauty of the heavens.

This notion of wonder, I suspect, cuts to the heart of what I’m talking about – we often say that people who aren’t moved to wonder by some natural spectacle, or who seem insensitive to beautiful art or music, are somehow lacking in imagination. What’s more, we might question whether people who aren’t moved to wonder in this way have actually fully grasped – intellectually – the object or experience in question. Again, imagination, linked to wonder, seems integral to human understanding more generally. The great Greek philosopher, Socrates, seemed well aware of this, suggesting that philosophy, i.e. the rational quest for truth and wisdom, begins in wonder (in awe), while biblically we read in Psalms as well as Proverbs that the beginning of wisdom is ‘Fear of the Lord’. Surely, wherever there is wonder, wherever there is a sense of awe and due fear, we will find a healthy imagination.


Imagination and the life of the mind, therefore, are intrinsically linked. So then, also, are imagination and education. Without a healthy imagination, our capacity to reason suffers. We need both to feed and flex the imagination if we want to educate the whole person. But not all images are equal to the task. The truth is, we’re never without images when we’re investigating and describing the world around us. Metaphorical language turns out to be an inescapable feature of our search for truth, and the more concerned we are with the kind of truth that ultimately matters – moral, aesthetic and other kinds of spiritual truth, the truths of theology and religion, as well as emotional experience – the more metaphorical our language becomes.


As Owen Barfield has argued, ‘If we trace the meanings of a great many words… about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realise that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things – a solid, sensible object, or some animal activity.’ For example, ‘an apparently objective scientific term like elasticity, on the one hand, and the metaphysical abstract, on the other, are both traceable to verbs meaning ‘draw’ or ‘drag’… epithet, thesis, anathema, hypothesis, etc., go back to a Greek verb, ‘to put’, and even right and wrong, it seems, once had the meanings of ‘stretched’ and so ‘straight’ and ‘wringing’ or ‘sour’.


In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis makes the same point, observing that all our language about spiritual reality is necessarily metaphorical – being embodied creatures, living in time and space, we cannot speak of that which is transcendent and intangible except in terms of things which are local and concrete. ‘All our truth, or all but a few fragments,’ Lewis writes elsewhere, ‘is won by metaphor.’ Or, as George MacDonald points out: ‘Take any word expressive of emotion – take the word emotion itself – and you will find that its primary meaning is of the outer world. In the swaying of the woods, in the unrest of the “wavy plain”, the imagination saw a picture of a well-known condition of the human mind; and hence the word emotion.’


It would seem, then, that once upon a time we were all poets. That was, until we grew up and became insensitive to the poetic aspect of all naming, through the repeated experience of everyday speech. And in so growing we perhaps started to lose that childlike sense of wonder at the utter strangeness of the world. But whether or not we are aware of it, metaphorical language, working in unison with the imagination, remains basic to all forms of human enquiry, poetic and scientific alike. Again, allow me to quote from MacDonald:


“But how can the imagination have anything to do with science? That region, at least, governed by fixed laws?… the facts of nature are to be discovered only by observation and experiment.” True. But how does the man of science come to think of his experiments? Does observation reach to the non-present, the possible, the yet unconceived?… It is the far-seeing imagination which beholds what might be a form of things, and says to the intellect: “try whether that may not be the form of these things;” which beholds or invents a harmonious relation of parts and operations, and sends the intellect to find out whether that be not the harmonious relation of them… the poetic relations themselves in the phenomenon may suggest to the imagination the law that rules its scientific life. Yea, more than this: we dare to claim for the true, childlike, humble imagination, such an inward oneness with the laws of the universe that it possesses in itself an insight into the very nature of things.


Likewise in our study of history, MacDonald writes:


To discover its laws; the cycles in which events return, with the reasons of their return, recognising them notwithstanding metamorphosis; to perceive the vital motions of this spiritual body of mankind; to learn from its facts the rule of God; to construct from a succession of broken indications a whole accordant with human nature; to approach a scheme of the forces at work, the passions overwhelming or upheaving, the aspirations securely upraising, the selfishness debasing and crumbling, with the vital interworking of the whole; to illuminate all from the analogy with individual life, and from the predominant phases of individual character which are taken as the mind of the people – this is the province of the imagination. Without her influence no process of recording events can develop into a history.


I confess to finding all of this very interesting, both as a writer and as an educator. I don’t think it would be too controversial to suggest that the core business of education is about providing students with the intellectual and imaginative resources to make sense of the world. As such, and in light of all that’s been said above, it strikes me that the images, the metaphors, the stories, indeed the myths, that we plant in the minds of our young are of utmost importance. We may well then ask: What sorts of images govern our thinking today? What are the presiding metaphors and myths by which secular society tries to make sense of things? Such are the questions I hope to address in Part 3.

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