Monday, October 21, 2019

Confessions, Surprises, and Apologies

On Saturday evening last, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Associate Professor at John Brown University, presented "'Maddened Beauty': Imagination as Knowing in C. S. Lewis" at the Inklings Festival for Eighth Day Institute. It was an interesting lecture, but did not seem to fulfill all the promise of the abstract:

All over C. S. Lewis’s work (fictional and nonfiction), Lewis speaks of imagination as a way of knowing. We’ll consider The Abolition of Man, Experiment in Criticism, The Discarded Image, Reflections on the Psalms, and even Lewis’ biography Surprised by Joy to understand what this means for us. How might poetry and Norse mythology offer knowledge that arguments will never grasp? What’s the difference between irrational, rational, and transrational? Lewis compels us to cultivate our imaginations not as a path of escape but as a deeper road to understanding reality and as a higher road towards the knowledge, ultimately, of God.

We really did not "consider The Abolition of Man, Experiment in Criticism, The Discarded Image, Reflections on the Psalms", although she mentioned the Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image. Her focus was Surprised by Joy and how to understand the role of imagination in Lewis' conversion and his conversion story. She began by citing an important hint in the Preface to Surprised by Joy: "The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less "Confessions" like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau." She noted that if Lewis told us that we should know what not to expect in Lewis' book.

Then she read the beginning of Rousseau's Confessions:

I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.

I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood. Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast read my inmost soul: Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.

Contrasting the beginning of St. Augustine's Confessions:

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation. Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee. Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first, to call on Thee or to praise Thee? and, again, to know Thee or to call on Thee? for who can call on Thee, not knowing Thee? for he that knoweth Thee not, may call on Thee as other than Thou art. Or, is it rather, that we call on Thee that we may know Thee? but how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? or how shall they believe without a preacher? and they that seek the Lord shall praise Him: for they that seek shall find Him, and they that find shall praise Him. I will seek Thee, Lord, by calling on Thee; and will call on Thee, believing in Thee; for to us hast Thou been preached. My faith, Lord, shall call on Thee, which Thou hast given me, wherewith Thou hast inspired me, through the Incarnation of Thy Son, through the ministry of the Preacher.

And how shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord, since, when I call for Him, I shall be calling Him to myself? and what room is there within me, whither my God can come into me? whither can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? is there, indeed, O Lord my God, aught in me that can contain Thee? do then heaven and earth, which Thou hast made, and wherein Thou hast made me, contain Thee? or, because nothing which exists could exist without Thee, doth therefore whatever exists contain Thee? Since, then, I too exist, why do I seek that Thou shouldest enter into me, who were not, wert Thou not in me? Why? because I am not gone down in hell, and yet Thou art there also. For if I go down into hell, Thou art there. I could not be then, O my God, could not be at all, wert Thou not in me; or, rather, unless I were in Thee, of whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things? Even so, Lord, even so. Whither do I call Thee, since I am in Thee? or whence canst Thou enter into me? for whither can I go beyond heaven and earth, that thence my God should come into me, who hath said, I fill the heaven and the earth.

Tracing Lewis' encounters with "Joy" in his childhood imagination, Hooten Wilson developed the theme of that longing for "Joy" that Lewis tried to describe and hold on to--the yearning, aching, desire for something beyond himself:

The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's "enormous bliss" of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to "enormous") comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit-tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. [Greek: Ioulian pothô] --and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamoured of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible--how can one possess Autumn?) but to re-awake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, "in another dimension".

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow's
Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead----

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

Then Lewis describes how that joy left him through bad education and poor choices for achievement (reading the right books, knowing the right people, etc) and how he rediscovered it when he began to read Norse mythology again, drawn by Arthur Rackham's illustrations for Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods.

But I admit that when she started talking about Lewis' childhood experiences of Joy, I thought of the beginning of another story of a conversion, Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua--also a work unlike either Rousseau's or Augustine's Confessions or Lewis' Surprised by Joy--but one that begins in imagination:

IT may easily be conceived how great a trial it is to me to write the following history of myself; but I must not shrink from the task. The words, "Secretum meum mihi," keep ringing in my ears; but as men draw towards their end, they care less for disclosures. Nor is it the least part of my trial, to anticipate that, upon first reading what I have written, my friends may consider much in it irrelevant to my purpose; yet I cannot help thinking that, viewed as a whole, it will effect what I propose to myself in giving it to the public.

I was brought up from a child to take great delight in reading the Bible; but I had no formed religious convictions till I was fifteen. Of course I had a perfect knowledge of my Catechism.

After I was grown up, I put on paper my recollections of the thoughts and feelings on religious subjects, which I had at the time that I was a child and a boy,—such as had remained on my mind with sufficient prominence to make me then consider them worth recording. Out of these, written in the Long Vacation of 1820, and transcribed with additions in 1823, I select two, which are at once the most definite among them, and also have a bearing on my later convictions.

1. "I used to wish the Arabian Tales were true: my imagination ran on unknown influences, on magical powers, and talismans … I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel, and all this world a deception, my fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me, and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world."

Again: "Reading in the Spring of 1816 a sentence from [Dr. Watts's] Remnants of Time, entitled 'the Saints unknown to the world,' to the effect, that 'there is nothing in their figure or countenance to distinguish them,' &c. &c., I supposed he spoke of Angels who lived in the world, as it were disguised."

2. The other remark is this: "I was very superstitious, and for some time previous to my conversion" [when I was fifteen] "used constantly to cross myself on going into the dark."

Newman displays some of the same diffidence that Lewis does about disclosing so much about himself and risking irrelevance. But for both Newman and Lewis, those childhood glimpses of something beyond themselves lasted for a lifetime. Newman's recollections of fairy stories and a dream world, and angels in disguise in the real world did have a bearing on his later convictions, so much so that they inform his chosen epitaph: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (From shadows and images into truth).

Jessica Hooten Wilson is an elegant and winsome presenter; it was good of her to fill in when the scheduled speaker could not come because of his wife's illness; I look forward to her participation in the 2020 Symposium: For I Am Holy: The Command to Be Like God!!

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