This continues on from yesterday’s post, which itself is part of a talk I gave this week. It was for a church audience, so is very much given within the Christian perspective.
The Re-enchantment of the World: fantasy, the imagination, and Christian life, Part Two
Humanities scholars know (as do all good scientists) that it is impossible to be fully objective. We bring our own biases to our reading of things, whether the thing being read is the Divine Comedy, the text of Scripture, or the text of that other book, the natural world. One of these that we face as moderns is that it is very difficult to believe that the world is pointing to God if we cannot bring ourselves to read what we might acknowledge is ‘revelation’, the Bible, as if it were actually revealing something to us of that most hidden of hidden things, the lux inaccessibilis that is God.
We see what we expect to see: this is why as scholars we spend long years learning to see our own biases and assumptions and try to reduce them. Otherwise the scholarship ends up telling its audience far more about the scholar than about his subject, which is not really what we are aiming for.
I once went to a talk on Dante given by a visiting professor, who spoke on the examination of faith Dante is given by Saint Peter towards the end of Paradiso. The lecturer’s main point was that since Saint Peter famously doubted his own faith, he was not a good choice for an examiner on the topic, and that this could be therefore understood as an interpretive key to whole Comedy. In the question period there was silence for a while, before someone stood up and asked the presenter, “Are you suggesting that Dante was an atheist?” Which indeed he was. The lecturer had not only missed most of the story of Saint Peter as received within the Christian tradition and the entire point of the Divine Comedy, but also showed a lamentable inability to understand human psychology, which in my mind includes not only the spiritual paradoxes of Christianity but also the amount of effort people are willing to put into a practical joke.
Not all of us want to become humanities scholars, or read medieval literature or scholarly analyses thereof. (Though I would, and freqently do, recommend Dante to anyone.) Yet we can learn things from the past: It is good to look at the Gothic and see a splendour both mathematically rigorous and exuberantly, even flamboyantly, passionate. Many of us like the lush complexities of the Romantic, many the simplicities and clean lines of the Classical – and many of us, I think, yearn for a bridge between them, between the head and the heart, which includes both the soaring intellectual rationality and the gargoyles and stained glass. This is the theme of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night; it is also what she discusses in more directly theological terms in The Mind of the Maker.
It is good to note a curious feature of the medieval world view, that when the supernatural irrupts into life people are deeply surprised but not shocked: their understanding of the universe is big enough to hold mysteries. One of the few instances of such shock as we would expect to find in an account of a living man meeting a ghost is in the reactions of the ‘ghosts’ of Dante’s Commedia to meeting the living man: but then for Dante those whom we call dead are the truly living.
For those of us hoping to redeem our imaginations, re-enchant the world, and perhaps even more for those who do not know that this is even possible (let alone desirable), reading the literature of the past is a great help. As C.S. Lewis writes, studying the past helps us break out of the parochialism of our own era, as travel broadens our spatial horizons. Not only can we see instances of Biblical analysis of a far different sort than is practised today, but we come up against a very different cast of beliefs and assumptions about the world. Some of these have been demolished by the advances of natural science, but many more are simply categories of thinking we have forgotten ever existed. Reading that a writer in the twelfth century thought of himself as one of the moderni is, I think, a salutary lesson.
Perhaps it seems too hard and too alien to jump into a world of sacraments and miracles and accept them as history, or even accept that real people, intelligent ones, people deeply thoughtful and critical about the world, ever truly believed in things we do not, and feel cannot. That modern people believe in them is perhaps even harder. We assume they are escapists, unintellectual, fools. (Perhaps they – we – are: we should remember we are speaking of things that are a “stumbling-block to the Jews, and a foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).) This is where, I would like to suggest, the novelists come in, and particularly genre novelists. They too are often looked down upon as escapists, unintellectuals, fools.
The writers of fantasy literature and of detective fiction, in particular, — though I suspect this is the case with romance, as well – tend to deal with the ultimate questions in a way that presupposes a deeply moral universe. In detective fiction order triumphs; in the fantastic the extrordinary exists. Artists have the strange vocation to look at the wide and wonderful variety of the universe and decide it is insufficient. Fantasy novelists in particular do this: return the lost enchantment to the world.
This is because the modern world is lacking in something fundamental. We are lacking those enchantments and mysteries that sophistication dismisses as crude and vulgar.
As G.K. Chesterton says about the poor, to each of us our own lives are melodramas. We tell them as such to ourselves and our friends (our soap-opera affairs of the heart, our daring escapes and cunning plans); and this is because to the religious mind they really are about heaven and hell, knavery and glory. Our actions are significant, our choices have meaning; the whole journey of history is not just one thing after another, but a story.
The story of creation, for us, has a definite beginning, middle, and end. We are, we presume, somewhere in the middle – because we live after the Incarnation, we tend to assume we are somewhere towards the end … and we, like anyone reading a story they do not already know (or even one they do, so long as it is a new telling), must have a certain faith that the author is competent, that the ending will be a good one, that the final result of all these twists and turns, and ups and downs, dire choices, last stands, great betrayals and greater loves – that all of these in the end will have meaning.
Father Capon talks about how the story of creation is that fundamentally and perennially popular one, the romance – that the end will be the marriage of Christ and his church, the happily ever after of the romance genre convention. I’ve already mentioned my views on its structure as a fairy tale. This is the tale of the Christian faith. It is, again, a fairy tale we hold to be true. We must hold it as both: a tale, and true.
Much to the dismay of my logical philosopher friends, who seem to be the ones I discuss my religious beliefs with the most, I think this a profoundly helpful way of looking at the tenets of the faith. It is a fairy tale — it is about the poor child raised in obscurity who turns out to be the son of the king — and if we are Christian we assert its truth. Christianity is built on open paradoxes. The principle of Being becomes a human being; the creator of all dies. And I say, even if we are not Christians, nevertheless we as human beings — we need mysteries. I think we see this in what is popular in literature, in what we ‘escape’ to as better than the ‘real’ world – what speaks more to the homes of our souls, however barren imaginatively some of them may seem. Oh, sometimes the fantasies of power, wealth, office, lust, celebrity – the false goods – are what we seek. I think people looking for them in romance or thrillers or fantasies or crime fiction are probably looking for the Good that lies behind the false goods, the same as they are in life. But more, I think people are looking for the savour of story – for the adventures, for magic, for love triumphant, for beauty drawn out of chaos and disorder and death and despair.
The more we find ourselves crushed by the apparent rationalisation of the universe, the more we find fantasy literature rising up in popularity. Not necessarily good literature – but very definitely fantasy.
Perhaps our deep unspoken need for mystery is why Easter and Christmas outweigh Pentecost in the modern era, because this is where the paradoxes are joyously proclaimed, shouted from the rooftops, rung out in bells and finery and strange rituals: because this is what we need. I make no claim we do not need Pentecost, but merely that, like Dante’s Paradiso, it is so important it is hard to fathom. We don’t realise what we need about it; certainly I find it a puzzling and difficult moment, if a beautiful one, in the church year. I am sure that, like Paradiso, the more I attend to Pentecost the more I will find in it. That’s the thing about great art – and especially the greatest of all – there is always more meaning. You change and look anew, learn to see differently, come at it from a different angle, and there is more to be found. Sometimes we are not ready to hear the words; another time each sentence is written for our ears alone.
 C.S. Lewis, “Introduction” to Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, revised ed., 1996), pp. 4-5.
 G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 157.