Sunday 29 May 2011

The poison of literalism - the necessity of 'fantasy'


One big reason why traditional thought seems impossible to so many modern people is the 'literalism' of our discourse - its fragmented, specialized and over-precise nature.

So that when we try to discuss fundamental matters that can only be comprehended in mythic poetry; what actually comes out is professional, bureaucratic, procedural prose.

(This applies particularly strikingly to modern 'poetry' - which is professional, political, partial, prosaic; never mythic.)


Many people have noticed this, of course - including the Inklings - but I got it from a post-Jungian psychologist called James Hillman (whose work I would *not* recommend in general. Flashes of light amidst oceans of confusion and willfulness).

So modern Christianity tends to be very prosy, very legalistic - somehow it cannot connect all its aspects - all its transcendent qualities - simultaneously.

Instead of being able to comprehend multiple poetic and mythic meanings from a single word, sentence or passage - we are reduced to picking it apart and sequentially describing its ethics, its philosophy, its historical meaning etc. Each of which, taken alone, rings false - and is dull, unengaging, indeed aversive.


We see this dissecting to death, this vivisection of reality, when people analyze and describe poetry - but it applies more fundamentally to theology.


Of course, the wholeness of thought is not altogether dead: it lives on in childhood, in dreams, in visionary glimpses, and in fantasy.

But wholeness does not live (or only exceptionally and dwindlingly) in 'real life', or in public discourse - at any rate it is dying.


It used to be possible for The Law to be regarded as beautiful - C.S. Lewis in his book on the Psalms points at the way some ancient Jews loved and hymned their Law - it was seen as virtuous, but also and at the same time true and beautiful.


But now it seems that Laws are merely rules.

Modern humans are dying of starvation, because the food of their souls has been broken down into its chemical constituents.

We hunger for meaning and purpose and a relation with life - for life to be myth and poetry; but we are given merely dry, professional, rational prose.


A decade ago, when I was a kind of pagan, I wrote about recovered animism:

I would regard this diagnosis as accurate but the prescription as partial and hazardous.


What we hunger for, at root, is a recovery of the 'animistic' world view in a context of Christian reality.

Animism that is not psychotic, not self-gratifying, not a seeking after power or diversion; but instead a continual awareness of our relation to everything.

But this is not animism repetitively checked and constrained by Christian rationality; so much as animism contained-within the greater frame of Christian Truth - so that we connect with the reality of life spontaneously.


At present, for many or most people, this can be had only in private - in 'fantasy' (in Truth-full fantasy) - but if so, if public discourse is deficient, then fantasy is of primary importance.

For modern people, fantasy may be the secret thread running through self-perceived earthly existence, absorbing into itself all that our souls recognize as real.

And from this mythic inner perspective, we discover that the trivial morass of literalistic modern culture - formal education, jobs, media, laws and rules, politics, bureaucratic committees and procedures... all of this nightmare of crushing but meaningless literalism dissolves in retrospect into a cloudy illusion.


dearieme said...

I remember a yarn about one of the Archbishes of C being asked for a quick description of Chritianity and replying that it was hard to beat "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so".

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - I wonder how long ago. It's hard to imagine any of the recent chappies saying anything like this - except when being ironic.

The other factor is that until several decades ago it was possible to provide brief summary reminders about the nature of Christianity since the population were well-grounded in it.

Nowadays a snappy definition of Christianity means pretty much nothing, because it will be operating on falsehoods and ignorance which cannot swiftly be overturned.

Jaz said...

No doubt that reading the Bible like a laywer does absolutely kills it--just look at the Pharisees.

Wurmbrand said...

I warmly recommend Spenser's Faerie Queene. C. S. Lewis said that to read it is to grow in mental health (see the last two or three pages of his Allegory of Love). To whet one's appetite for The Faerie Queene, read two papers in Lewis's Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, "On Reading 'The Faerie Queene'" first and then "Edmund Spenser, 1552-99." One may also glance at the last two or three pages of The Allegory of Love as just mentioned.

Having begun to read the poem, one may consult Graham Hough's A Preface to The Faerie Queene, perhaps first referring to his discussions of the various books of the FQ as one goes along. Hough says that Lewis contributed more than any other scholar to his reading of the poem.

One will also want to read Lewis's own account of Spenser in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Do not miss a book Lewis appreciated very much, Janet Spens' The Faerie Queene: An Interpretation. But I don't want to daunt readers with an impression that to read the FQ at all, one must arm oneself with hundreds of pages of commentary.

I recommend the Penguin Classics text of The Faerie Queene, the notes to which seem sensible and relatively minimal. The American publisher Hackett publishes The Faerie Queene in five paperbacks. I have been reading the volume with FQ Books 3 and 4 and am afraid there's rather too much on "gender," etc.

Rather, as Lewis wrote, "The Faerie Queene can now do us one of the services for which (among other things) we read old literature. It can re-admit us to bygone modes of thought and enable us to imagine what they felt like, to see the world through our ancestors' eyes." Again, too, the moral imagination in Spenser's poetry "if receptively read, has psychotherapeutic powers" (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, pp. 138, 140).

Brett Stevens said...

The modern method appears to be deconstruction, which is the way the individual reduces the world from complex cause/effect relationships to simple attributes of effects to the properties of objects.

This makes those effects tangible, and reduces the need for "the invisible world" which requires intelligence and dedication to decipher, as it requires measuring multiple factors at once and balancing them against one another. Such a process is inherently anti-democratic and inaccessible to most people even after a liberal democratic education.

Mythic imagination, which is my longhand for what BGC calls "fantasy," is another way of viewing the world. Deduction, induction and imagination are balanced to produce a metaphorical view that, because it is flexible in regards to detail, is often more accurate than linear calculation.

It doesn't work for everything. I think I'd like the literalists to design the passenger planes, and so forth. But when we make decisions that reflect the battle for our souls and civilization, the simpler methods of the literalists fall all too short, it seems to me.

This is one of my favorite pieces on this blog. It is extremely well done.