Imagination, Myth and Meaning (Part 3)…

windmillIn Out of the Silent Planet (the first book in C.S. Lewis’s stunning Cosmic Trilogy) the philologist Elwin Ransom is abducted by the scientist Dr Western and his entrepreneur accomplice Dick Devine, and is whisked away on an interplanetary journey to the world of Malacandra (Mars). Unaware that Western and Devine have singled him out as a suitable (i.e. unwitting and compliant) human sacrifice – to be offered up to the sorns of Malacandra – Ransom’s initial challenge is simply adjusting to life in outer space.

While the journey to Malacandra is not a comfortable one, it affords Ransom many a spectacle and plenty of time for contemplation, during which he finds certain of his most worldly preconceptions falling short of the lived reality of traversing the cosmos. Indeed, his very notion of the wider universe as ‘space’ is one of the main images to be found wanting. Here is how Lewis describes Ransom’s imaginative awakening:

‘A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.’

Towards the end of the book, Lewis (the author) is revealed as Ransom’s confidant, the pair supposedly having collaborated to recount Ransom’s adventures in the guise of fiction in the hope of winning over an incredulous public with some of the important cosmic truths Ransom discovered while on Malacandra. In a purported correspondence between Ransom and Lewis, the philologist suggests:

‘What we need for the moment is not so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas. If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.’

Clearly, Lewis is reminding us here of the power and importance of ideas, and especially the images shape our conceptual landscape, and determine the direction and quality of our vision of the world. In the example just given we have two words, ‘space’ and ‘heaven’, both used to describe the same thing but each offering us vastly different images and promoting equally different conceptions of the universe. The image supplied by the word ‘space’ is that of a vast yet dark and empty void, cold and without meaning; the image supplied by the word ‘heaven’, by contrast, is of an equally vast yet divinely ordered and lively realm comprising principalities and powers beyond our reckoning, a kind of divine ‘festival’ (as Lewis suggests elsewhere). Moreover, each conception entails differing attitudes, i.e. differing judgments about what things are like and what they do or don’t or might possibly mean.

To repeat a point made in Part 2, almost every word is connected (originally, if not in our everyday understanding) with some kind of image; at least the words we use to talk about the most important things in life. We are never without images when it comes to thinking and reasoning. Just as much as poetry, our science makes use of certain words and images while discarding others in order to convey the kinds of truth with which the scientist is principally concerned. In so doing, scientific discourse urges us to conceive of reality in some ways rather than others (or perhaps one way rather than any other). Consider the images that enable science to speak intelligibly of the macro and micro universe: the ‘fabric’ of space-time, or a ‘curved’ universe, quantum ‘fields’ and ‘wave’ functions, ‘excited’ electrons and the ‘flow’ of time and electric ‘currents’. Ultimately, we are our powerless to speak of such hidden realities at all without the use of images, and likewise powerless to conceive of such phenomena (let alone investigate them successfully) without a healthy imagination.

Quite possibly, the natural sciences are well advised to avoid the use of images that are overtly personal – perhaps simply for methodological reasons it makes better sense for the astrophysicist to speak of ‘space’ rather than ‘heaven’. Or perhaps not – such ta way of speaking didn’t seem to hinder the work of Copernicus or Galileo. But what must not be overlooked is the value dimension of the language we use to talk about the world, and the need for not just a scientific but also a poetic ‘reading’ of the world in our quest for knowledge and truth.

Another point I’ve stressed throughout this series of posts is that human reason needs the imagination to help furnish us with an understanding not only of what the world is made of and how it works, but ultimately also what it means. Because of the close connection between reason and imagination, I suggested at the end of Part 2 that the images, metaphors, stories and, indeed, the myths that we plant in the minds of our young are of utmost importance. School and university teachers obviously have a key part to play on this front. But so, too, do poets and other creative writers. While I don’t intend to detail precisely how the poet or fiction writer might seek to revitalise the public imagination through his or her work, I do suggest this is an important dimension of the writer’s vocation. At the very least, I suggest every writer spend time considering what kinds of images govern our thinking today, and how such images shape contemporary beliefs, attitudes, cultural priorities and ways of life.

On this front, the ‘myth of progress’ – a kind of evolutionary mythology – is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive metaphor (really an ensemble of images) by which we are, every day, encouraged to interpret reality. C.S Lewis argues that this popular evolutionism is a myth that arose not logically but imaginatively. While he distinguishes the myth from the scientific doctrine of evolution, he shows how the two are related. ‘In making [the myth],’ Lewis writes, ‘Imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence… if science had not met the imaginative need, [the] science would not have been so popular.’ It is worth quoting extensively from Lewis on this:

In the science, Evolution is a theory about changes: in the myth, it is a fact about improvements… Already before the science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind of ‘Evolution’ it wanted. It wanted the Keatsian and Wagnerian kind: the gods superseding the titans, and the young, joyous, careless, amorous Siegfried superseding the care-worn, anxious, treaty-entangled Wotan…. Having first turned what was a theory of change into a theory of improvement, it then makes this a cosmic theory… everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’. Reason has evolved out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilisation out of savagery, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilisation as we now know them are only crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things – perhaps Deity itself – in the remote future… To exist means to be moving from the status of ‘almost zero’ to the status of ‘almost infinity’. To those brought up on the myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge… It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.

But the myth of progress is ultimately tragic, for, as Lewis observes:

‘The sun will cool – all suns will cool – the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness… True to the shape of Elizabethan tragedy, the hero has swiftly fallen from the glory to which he slowly climbed: we are dismissed ‘in calm of mind, all passion spent’. It is indeed much better than Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us to the end not of a story, but of all possible stories…’

While deeply satisfying on many levels, Lewis maintains that the mythology of evolution is fundamentally flawed. In particular, it fails to adequately represent that which is of most importance – i.e. the mind of the meaning-maker. The myth asks us to regard ourselves as rational beings, even as it would have us believe that our capacity for reason has emerged entirely from non-rational matter, according to fixed, impersonal and so non-rational laws. It would have us believe the unfolding of the cosmos to be the most remarkable story ever conceived, with the one fatal flaw that it doesn’t issue from the mind of a storyteller at all. The myth of evolution, says Lewis, ‘gives us almost everything the imagination craves – irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except my reason.’

This is no small flaw, signaling a major deficiency in the mythology attached to evolutionary theory, in need of careful scrutiny and correction. But in calling this shortfall into question, Lewis urges caution because here we are not simply trying to revise a scientific theory; rather, we are contending with a myth, i.e. a story that appeals to and shapes the common imagination, providing a meaningful worldview. Furthermore, it’s a story that has a lot going for it – it is, in spite of its serious shortcomings, a story full of truth. If any correction is to be suggested, therefore, it will need to resonate at the level of the imagination in the same way – not in order to dispose of the evolutionary myth altogether, but to bring it into a closer harmony with other, more crucial insights. Lewis writes: ‘We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment.’

‘To wake the world from an enchantment’ is, I think, a suitably picturesque way of describing the challenge faced by Christian writers today. There is, on a Christian worldview, always more (not less) to the world than what meets the eye – more things on heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The human story and the story of the cosmos is not ultimately a tragic and meaningless one, but is grounded in the ultimate and eternal Source of order and meaning. We are able to discern truth and meaning by way of our rational faculties (including the imagination), because we are made in the likeness of a rational Creator, the all-knowing mind or Logos by whose eternal Word all things were made and are sustained, moment-to-moment. Writing on the distinctive character of the Christian imagination, Janine Langan suggests:

‘The Christian imagination does not see the world as a prison from which the soul must escape, but as the stage of humanity’s interaction with its God. This world makes sense. God made it with a plan of His own; it is the imagination’s role to delight in this plan and explore each person’s role in it. Neither is the Christian imagination suicidal; it does not seek to climb its way back to “dark with brightness” glory lost at birth by the fallen individual… rather, it gratefully anchors itself in the gift of reality, seeking to decipher its message…’

Further (and quoting from Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists), Langan concludes:

‘What is true of art is true of life. We are never self-made. We cannot create or re-create by ourselves. Like the imagination, we live off inspiration. Judeo-Christianity is rooted in this revelation. Since the dawn of the first day when “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters”… “the Spirit has been the mysterious Artist of the universe”… This includes us minor artists. Grasping this message crowns any Christian education of the imagination.’

In order to wake the world from its enchantment, it would therefore seem that the Christian writer is uniquely equipped to tell a better, truer story. And it is by and through the telling of stories that resonate with Christian mythology, I believe, that we can as writers make some difference in reforming (i.e. re-shaping, stretching and refining) the sorts of images that might better nourish and direct our cultural imagination.

James Cooper, 2015

One thought on “Imagination, Myth and Meaning (Part 3)…

  1. […] 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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