S. Lewis possessed a fascinating perception of the imagination. Because it was a world he inhabited so frequently, his understanding of it was not limited to a single definition but was distinguished as finely graded parts of a whole. This enabled him to wield one of his greatest powers as an author: using imaginative depiction to enable readers to see a particular thing or truth more clearly. This nuanced understanding has important implications not only for deepening our understanding of Lewis, but for how we use or abuse our own imaginations in matters of life and faith.
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis outlines three distinctions of the imagination. First, he describes wish fulfillment, which he also calls reverie or daydream. This is often an unhealthy use of the imagination; it is self-referential and positions the self as the center of the universe and hero of the story. We can easily relate to this. Our daydreams of wealth, power, sex, heroism, and fame are rooted squarely in this type of imaginative fantasy. If we’re honest, we employ this function of the imagination on a daily basis, often without awareness.
The second distinction is invention, at which Lewis was so proficient—the power of depiction, of clarifying one’s vision. It enables us to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. The benefit here is an enlargement of our being, of seeing the truth of something more deeply through a skillfully composed image or a well-told story.
The third distinction of imagination describes the perception of realities beyond us. This includes experiences of what Lewis calls joy. He writes that of the three categories of imagination, this is the highest, even the only, distinction that truly matters. This joy is concomitant with sehnsucht, a deeply emotional German word denoting an ardent and unfulfilled longing. The end of this imaginative joy is to orient our longings toward a true object, One who will fulfill these longings at the appointed time.
Though Lewis writes extensively about his experiences of joy—the highest attainment of the imagination—his power as a writer is centered in the second distinction of imagination: depiction. For readers this ability to craft images and story contributes to an enhanced clarity and understanding of the world. Lewis writes elsewhere that “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”1 Stories and imaginative depictions bring truths to life out of the dry-as-dust regions in which reason often strands us. This does not mean we should denigrate the truths of reason; rather, we should recognize that the imagination gives us an additional bearing on reality.
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