Friday, 30 December 2016

Imagination is Vision

In Bruce Charlton’s recent post on this blog he makes the point that “Fantasy or Fairy Tale (done well) feels much realler than 'real life’”. This is something that every imaginative reader recognises but few take any further. Specifically, it is not taken to the next logical step which says it feels more real because it is more real. Not in its details, of course, but in its spirit. Why is that? Bruce provides a convincing answer based on the ideas of Owen Barfield and Tolkien whose insights he combines to give a real and comprehensive theory of imagination. Here I would just like to add my thoughts on what it is that gives myth and fairy tales their enduring appeal, and the sense they have of opening reality up to something greater than normal everyday experience of it allows.

I think that good fantasy (that is, fantasy based on imagination rather than fancy as in Coleridge’s important distinction) has at least some of the following elements, and it is the presence of these that can make it seem more real than reality. And the reason they can do this is because they are actually true, just not known according to our present limited, semi-mechanical, turned in on ourselves world view. We don't know them or accept them with our rational minds but something deep within us responds to them as truth so that when these ideas are skillfully presented to our imagination, and our imagination is sufficiently finely tuned, they have the power to remind us of a time when they were consciously known in the world (the time of original participation which can also be seen as a pre-lapsarian time) or else to prefigure for us a future when their innate qualities are recaptured but in a way that includes our developed mental capacities and individuality. As I say, with our outer mind we reject these ideas because, from the standpoint of modern science, there is no evidence for them, but in our hearts we see that they do indeed correspond to reality - even when we don't believe that in our heads.

A major part of our contemporary perception of reality is the feeling of separation from the wholeness of life with a resultant feeling of meaninglessness. Imaginative fantasy restores meaning to existence by opening life up to wider horizons or adding dimensions to it that have been lost by our current contracted mode of self awareness. In order to progress from our earlier passive participation in the wholeness of life to a more active and creative involvement with it our vision had to be narrowed and our sense of reality restricted. We had to lose the feeling of oneness to gain the sense of self. This loss is deeply felt but well written fantasy can give us re-entry into a more inclusive mode of consciousness when it incorporates some or all of the following elements. Its purpose is to engage the imagination which, properly understood, is an organ of perception not just an image making faculty or fabricator of make believe.

Some of the ideas present in myth and fantasy that can make it seem more real than reality are the following. Not all of them are always included but some of them must be.

Nature is alive as a whole and, in its parts, full of spirits.

Life extends vertically as well as horizontally so there are aspects of it that we cannot perceive directly now but which can still make an impact in this world.

Providence is real.

Good will eventually triumph over evil.

Such things as beauty and nobility are objective realities and reflections of a higher order of being.

The outer world of nature reflects the inner world of consciousness and vice versa.

Feelings of mystery and awe are natural responses to something profound and true.

The list could be continued but the general point is that we currently live in an outer world where randomness and general purposelessness are the order of the day. Imagination takes us to an inner world of meaning where beauty is truth, and myth and fantasy are bridges into that world insofar as they recognise that there is something behind the scenes of outer appearance.

A final point. None of this means there is anything intrinsically spiritual about myth or fantasy or even imagination, but they can point to the spiritual. The world of myth and fantasy is a middle ground between the material world and the spiritual world, and that is why it seems more real than the former while, in its turn, is less real than the latter.

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