Imagination in practice
Leaving definitions to one side, let us turn now to Lewis’s understanding of Christianity and look at the role played by imagination in his journey towards acceptance of the faith. It is worth doing this because his theoretical understanding of the relationship between imagination and truth seems to be strongly related to his personal experience, insofar as we can reconstruct it from the history of his Christian conversion. Lewis’s own imagination was, he said, ‘baptized’ in a certain sense when, in the second half of his teens, he read a book called Phantastes by the nineteenth century Scottish writer, George MacDonald. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains how his early life had been haunted by powerful, fugitive sensations of longing and beauty, experiences which he labels ‘joy’, similar to what the German romantics would have called sehnsucht (yearning). The effect that Phantastes had upon him was somehow to make these moments less transitory. He writes:
Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert … Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now [as I read Phantastes] I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow … In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.6
We do not have time to go further into Phantastes or George MacDonald and investigate more precisely why this book and its author had such an impact on Lewis’s imagination. We just need to note that it happened. What Phantastes did was to awaken Lewis’s imaginative capacity for understanding ‘holiness’, so he said. For the first time, he was able to attach some meaning to the idea of sanctification, the sanctification of all common everyday things, not by throwing them out in order to make room for some transcendent but alien reality, still less by replacing them with an irrational, fantastic never-never land, but by changing their meaning from the inside, transforming them, illuminating them with a different light.
‘That night,’ Lewis records, ‘my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took a little longer.’ In fact, it took about another fifteen years for the rest of him to be baptized7 and for his whole outlook, not just his imaginative outlook, to be converted.
He became a Christian when he was 32 years old and it is imperative to note that, at the decisive moment, it was his imagination that first had to be addressed; it was through his imagination that his reason and, ultimately, his will were transformed. The organ of meaning had to be enrolled before his ‘natural organ of truth’ could get to work; and both imagination and reason had to be satisfied before the core part of him, his ‘command centre’, the will, could turn about and receive supernatural truth.
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