In my research into ecstatic experiences, I’ve become interested in the idea of poetry as a door to transcendence. Has our imagination withered as scientific materialism became the dominant world-view? Have we lost poetry’s subtler way of knowing in our desire for quantifiable and testable facts? Can we get it back?
With such questions in mind, I recently read a book called Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, by Malcolm Guite, which brilliantly explores these topics. Guite is himself a poet, a priest, and also a songwriter. He was kind enough to chat with me about poetry and ecstasy.
Jules Evans: You’re a poet, a priest and a rocker. Which came first?
Malcolm Guite: My love of poetry goes back a very long way. Both of my parents liked poetry and quoted it unhesitatingly in their natural conversation. My mother in particular had a great fund of it, and I’ve inherited from her the ability to remember it. Poetry never occurred to me as a child in a bookish context, it was always more incantatory. We used to travel by sea a lot, and on the way my mother would almost automatically begin ‘I must go down to the sea today, to the lonely sea and the sky’.
I got more seriously and personally into it when I was 16, and I discovered Keats. I was dragged by an improving aunt to Keats’ house in Hampstead, not knowing anything about Keats, expecting some boring old fart, and I was utterly amazed. The Ode to a Nightingale was written on one of the walls. I stood in the room looking out through the french window to where the nightingale had been, and read this poem, and had a kind of epiphany. Keats wrote:
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Around the same time, I was in the process of rejecting my parents’ Christianity, and adopting a more reductive scientific view. When I read Keats’ Ode, I suddenly felt there was mystery again. I didn’t want it to be God, because I had a lot of issues with the Bible at that time. I convinced myself for a while that I could simply enjoy poetry on the side, without challenging or disrupting the increasingly narrow or materialistic view of the world which I was adopting. And I eventually realized I couldn’t do that. Deep within me, I knew when I read that poem that it wasn’t ultimately going to be enough to say ‘I know exactly how the world works’ with one side of my mind, and then just read poetry as a consolation.
JE: So poetry brought you to faith?
MG: Maybe it was the other way round. It was only when I had become a priest, and had a more formal sacrament, that I started writing poetry – because then I was freed to let poetry be its own sacrament in its own way, rather than being a substitute for religion.
I was ordained as a priest in 1990, and for seven years I was very busy working as a parish priest on a demanding estate in Huntington. I got fully engaged in it, loved it in some ways, but it was very draining, and I didn’t write any poetry during that time. Then I was offered a sabbatical for three months. And I thought, what do I want to do with it? And suddenly, rising from the depths, I thought, I’ve got to read poetry again. So I sat down and re-read all the poetry that’s referred to in Faith, Hope and Poetry. And I experienced it as a kind of life-saver.
I realized my faith had become, if not threadbare, then very functional and works-oriented, very much a practical faith to get me through the week. I’d lost my sense of those infinitely receding depths and hinterlands. And what happened as I re-read a huge amount of poetry was that, even when the poetry wasn’t about my faith, it simply opened up my access to this intuitive and imaginative way of knowing. That open way of reading flowed back into how I read the liturgy and Bible. So in that sense I can say there is poetry, even secular poetry, that gave my faith the kiss of life again.
JE: In the book you explore the idea – which one finds in thinkers like TS Eliot and CS Lewis – that reason-thought and imagination-feeling have become divorced in western culture since the Scientific Revolution. Could you summarize that argument?
MG: One of the questions being asked at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution was about exactitude and quantity, about being able to know and predict the way the world behaves. In order to achieve that, in order to do rigorous experiments, the first scientists and philosophers found it necessary to exclude from their minds the whole affective and mythological way of thinking. If you’re trying to find out whether air contains oxygen, you may have to exclude from your mind the intuition that it’s also the breath of God. Having set certain things aside temporarily, we forgot we’d set them aside. Having chosen to concentrate on the purely material causality of things in the world, we then became so intoxicated by the apparent accuracy of our results, that we thought that was the only type of causality. We didn’t realize there could simultaneously be other kind of things.
Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society, and he prefaces it by saying he must specifically exclude what he calls the delightful deceits of fancy. That conscious purging of language of its metaphorical content, that desire to approach ‘mathematical plainness’, strikes me as necessary for a certain kind of scientific technique, but it’s absolutely deadly if it’s mistaken for a total picture of the whole sum of reality. And that I think is the great error into which we fell.
JE: You described how various poet-seers saw this danger happening, and tried to prevent this split from happening. You put forward a wonderful reading of the argument between Theseus and Hippolyta, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, as an argument between these two ways of knowing. Theseus gives a Platonic account of various forms of ecstasy, only to dismiss these experiences as ‘tricks’ of the imagination:
Hippolyta: Tis strange my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
Hippolyta: But all the story of the night told over
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
JE: It strikes me that the arguments Theseus puts forward are precisely the sort of Skeptic arguments put forward today by thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Jesse Bering and Derren Brown – that our inference of some agency or presence behind ecstatic experiences are really just ‘tricks’ of ‘strong imagination’.
MG: Yes. What’s interesting is the pair of terms that Theseus uses. He says ‘if it would but apprehend some joy / It comprehends some bringer of that joy’. I think the distinction between those two ways of knowing – apprehend and comprehend – is actually very helpful. The ‘prehend’ part of both words is about picking things up, like a prehensile tail. The idea of ‘comprehend’ is that you comprehend something by completely surrounding it, so that your mind completely understands it. But perhaps there are some things we can’t comprehend. In the King James Bible version of St John’s Gospel, it says, ‘The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not’, which I don’t think means the darkness didn’t understand it, but rather there was something about this primal light which could not be surrounded by the totality of the mind, because it is bigger than the mind. Therefore the mind can’t come to a final conclusion about it.
Heaney with a pint of the dark stuff
‘Apprehend’ is something else. When you apprehend something, you’re not saying you’ve completely got a hold of it, you’re saying you’ve grasped something of it, and are moving towards it. One of the best opening lines of a poem ever is from ‘The Forge’ by Seamus Heaney. The opening line is ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. Taken as a statement by itself, it’s wonderful. We get to the end of what we know, and what we find is a door. To go through that door, we need imaginative apprehension.
JE: I was reading your book while also reading a book by a psychiatrist called Iain McGilchrist.
MG: Oh, The Master and the Emissary? I haven’t read it yet, just bits of it.
JE: It’s very much about these two ways of knowing, embodied (he argues) in the two hemispheres of the brain. He also thinks they have become increasingly divorced since the Enlightenment, with the left hemisphere’s rationality becoming dominant and tyrannical. He ends by suggesting poetry might be one way out of left-brain tyranny back to a more harmonious marriage of the hemispheres. Anyway, I thought of it when I came across the quote from CS Lewis in your book:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’.
Your book, like McGilchrist’s, suggests that there were various poet-prophets since the Enlightenment – Coleridge, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Tolkien – who have tried to prevent this great divorce of reason and imagination from happening (McGilchrist would include various continental philosophers like Heidegger, Nietzsche and Hegel). Do you think they failed?
MG: I think it’s too early to say. The jury is still out. CS Lewis, Tolkien and Owen Barfield, three members of the Inklings, they may be outliers or forerunners, who got a little ahead of us. It’s ironic, as they’re mainly dismissed as being reactionaries. I think they may be harbingers of a change that’s to come. The other thing is that obviously I’ve concentrated on poetry as the imaginative art form that is the most transformative, which can genuinely change your opinion of life, but also your whole mode of knowing. I quote Owen Barfield’s description of the moment that you ‘get’ some poetry, as a ‘felt change of consciousness’.
But if I look at the way the imagination is at work in contemporary western society, for example in the students in my chaplaincy, it’s clear that music and film are as important for them as poetry is for me. Look at the success of the Lord of the Rings films, for example. The real question to ask is, are they going to consume music and film simply as another consumer item, as a private consolation for a materialist world-view that remains unchallenged. That would be a worst-case scenario, where the arts, far from healing, contribute to the divide by marking out their own territory. Or, are they going to encounter film and music that has a transcendent effect which transforms all the other areas of their life.
JE: You’re a big fan of rock music, and are in a rock band. Do you think that some of the greatest rock artists took up the baton of being poets for their society, like Bob Dylan, or David Bowie, or Morrissey?
MG: Absolutely, particularly Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who are still producing really fine work. Cohen’s most recent album, Old Ideas, really addresses some of this stuff quite strongly. Also the album Ten New Songs. There’s an amazingly transcendent song on that called Alexandra Leaving, which is about an epiphany in a moment of sorrow. The singer acknowledges something transcendent and beautiful, which puts his personal sorrow into a different perspective. There’s a great line in it:
And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving
Alexandra leaving with her lord.
Very simple language, but pointing to a very different way of reading the situation to the basic ‘who’s the winner and loser here’ attitude.
JE: So, going back to poetry, I used to read it at university, I even wrote it a bit. But I haven’t written it or even read it since I graduated. What I enjoyed about your book was it gave me a way to enjoy poetry again, a way to find meaning in the practice of close reading. It’s almost like the return of close reading to its sacramental origins after decades of arid literary theory.
MG: Exactly. One of the things I got very frustrated with in coming back to poetry was a lot of the secondary reading. The high-end literary theory ends up distancing you from the text rather than opening you up. You’ll notice there’s almost no reference to the immense secondary literature on these poets. Instead, I try to open up why these poems are transcendent and sacramental to me, in the hope the reader will get the same thing.
JE: You tie that search for the transcendent in poetry to a very old Christian practice called lectio divina. Could you tell us a bit about that?
MG: Lectio divina is about a slow savouring of the text, almost a tasting of it. One of the classical expressions of it talks about tasting the word. The Latin phrase is palatum cordis – the palette of your heart. The medieval Catholic practice of it survives into Anglicanism, in a famous collect by Archbishop Cramner: “Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’. So even though the book is a collection of symbols and words, there’s the idea that you nevertheless receive them into you almost as a substantial thing, and the deepest nutrient elements of it become part of who you are. It’s very different from simply processing information.
JE: It reminds me of the Stoics, who talk about digesting philosophy and making it ‘a part of oneself’ as Seneca put it. They would memorize fragments of philosophy and of poetry and make it a part of their inner logos. (It also reminds me, by the by, of Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, about the art of spiritual reading).
MG: That Greek tradition obviously informs St John’s Gospel, and the idea of Jesus as the Logos made flesh. So when Jesus says ‘man does not live by bread alone’, and says ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’, there’s something extraordinary going on.
JE: So you talk in the book about some of the ways we can learn to savour a poem – its twists of meaning and perspective, its images and metaphors, how the words relate to each other, and also how the poem relates to other poems in the past.
MG: Yes. TS Eliot had this great phrase, ‘the auditory imagination’, by which he meant that certain words and phrases, by their cadences and rhythm, summon up the echoes of others. Particularly when you’re reading within a great literary tradition, where the masters of that tradition are themselves consciously drawing on their predecessors, and engaging in some kind of dialogue or conversation, then a very beautiful and complex web of allusion and connection becomes possible. Eliot turned that into an entire technique. The Waste Land is really an assemblage of allusions to other writing.
Tom present and Tom past are both perhaps present in Tom future
JE: It’s a bit shamanic, isn’t it, it’s the poet channeling the spirits of the tribe.
MG: Yes – he used to refer to The Waste Land as ‘He do the police in different voices’.
JE: He’s a voice-hearer.
MG: He’s a voice-channeler.
JE: But it’s quite an artful form of shamanic channeling, it’s not like some of the awful automatic writing that came out of the spiritualist movement in the late 19th century.
MG: Yes. It’s a balance of the conscious and the unconscious. There’s a great phrase in one of Coleridge’s essays on Shakespeare, where he says Shakespeare was ‘directing self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness’.
And Eliot also says a wonderful thing in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, where he says all poems compose a ‘simultaneous order’ in the mind of the reader. Whether you’re reading Seneca or McGilchrist, for a moment they can all be in conversation in your mind. And when that happens in poetry it’s particularly fruitful.
JE: So there’s a speaking with shades, with spirits, that you get in a lot of poetry, in Heaney, or Eliot, or Dante. And it’s a trip, because it’s messing up your sense of time and causality, of what happened when and how people and events are connected.
Dead Poets Society
MG: Exactly. One of the problems with 19th century reductive mechanistic science was that it wasn’t playful enough with time and space, whereas modern physics is. There’s a curious way in which science has caught up with poetry, and its shift in perspectives and sense of everything as being connected to everything else. There’s a lot of that playfulness with time in Eliot. In ‘Little Gidding’, for example, he walks through the ruins of London during the Blitz, and he meets the figure ‘of some great master’, who you realize is Dante. This character has come to him at an intersection of time – there’s something about London in the Blitz that connects to Florence during an earlier war. And they have this conversation about the nature of poetry, how it urges ‘the mind to aftersight and foresight’.
I had this experience reading Eliot myself. I read The Waste Land when I was a teenager and absorbed the line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’, about London commuters. Many years later, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, and came across that very line, which Dante uses to describe the souls in limbo. And I thought ‘wow, great use of an Eliot quote!’ even though of course Dante came first. The Divine Comedy shapes how we experience The Waste Land. But it’s also the case now that The Waste Land shapes how we experience The Divine Comedy.
JE: There’s a hope that the practice of lectio divina won’t just help us read a work of art, but also to read the book of life. A hope that the cosmos is a work of art which we can learn to appreciate.
MG: Absolutely. Because we tend to read books in a rather literal way, we assume that’s the way we should read the cosmos too. There’s a wonderful passage in Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, where he imagines his son’s future, and he says:
so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
It’s a notion that the phenomena, the appearances we observe, might have the character of being logoi themselves, filled with meaning and intimately connected to one another in a semantic web.
JE: The skeptic in me would say, is life really like a work of art? Is it so ordered, patterned, and full of meaning? Maybe that’s why we turn to art, to poetry or novels, because life is much messier and more random and chaotic than that.
MG: To turn to that extraordinary word Logos, if we think there is some kind of meaning both ‘out there’ and ‘in here’, then there has to be a Mind which gives structure or meaning. So it leads to some notion – and I’m not rushing here to a Biblical or Christian God – some notion of Logos or Mind behind things. Now obviously we could look out at the world and think ‘well, it’s a completely chaotic mess’. But we should be hesitant – you can think that about a poem sometimes. It takes time for its meaning and shape to emerge. The chaotic, puzzling or even frankly repellent aspects of existence may be things we need to think about more.
JE: One of the things poetry seems to do, then, is to help us transcend time and space and perhaps feel closer to God. It can be a sort of ecstatic vehicle.
MG: Yes. A poem that leaves you in exactly the same place that it found you, knowing neither more nor less, isn’t a particularly successful poem. A poem must always in some sense bring you to what Keats calls ‘the magic casement’. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a gushy Romantic poem. The classic example of a modern poem which does that, by a pretty bleak poet, is Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’.
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
It doesn’t tell you what you see through the high windows, or whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it just suggests this quality of transcendent more-ness. And instead of leading you through a series of increasingly beautiful things, he actually leads you through a series of increasingly degrading things, and then suddenly opens up.
JE: Which is something Eliot and Baudelaire do too – finding transcendence in the banal and ugly.
MG: Yeah, I think he owes something to both of those poets. The danger of the kind of Romantic poetry that I love is that it ends up like being endless reams of William Morris wallpaper that people can paper over things with. It has to deal with terrible things too, which the best of it does, like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
JE: OK. Perhaps poetry can open a door or window onto the Other. But we can’t always be sure what Presence we’re meeting. It’s true that Coleridge found ‘haven’ in Christianity at the end of his career. But that wasn’t necessarily the case when he was at his most creative, when he was writing ‘Kubla Khan’, for example, and imagining a woman ‘wailing for her demon lover’. Think about how many poets say their ultimate inspiration is not the Holy Spirit, but something very different – for Ted Hughes and Robert Graves, for example, the Muse seemed to be more a chthonic earth-goddess.
MG: I take that point. I might want to play a bit with the word ‘ultimate’ – I obviously would want to make the case that, in so far as I have a theology of Logos, I do think there may be a single ultimate source of all these things, but I’m very interested in how it’s mediated and incarnate.
‘Kubla Khan’ or Hughes’ work are really good examples – I don’t want to rush to presume upon an explicit Christian meaning in a non-Christian poem. But I do want to suggest that, if it’s the case that Christianity is true, then it’s a truth that needs to accommodate the power and beauty of what is going on in this poem, without defacing it or opposing it. At the deepest level, the Christian idea that there is a profound transcendent backdrop to everything helps us to account for the consistency with which poetry and other art forms – Christian or non-Christian – have pointed to such a backdrop. But that’s not to say the individual poet is persuaded of the Christian case.
In fact, I would go further – one of the problems with people who are persuaded of the Christian case is that they then just read ‘safe Christian writing’. If they’re really persuaded of Christianity, then they ought to be able to read anything, even the apparently hostile stuff, and think how does this fit into the Christian cosmos. There is a problem with rushed transcendence in Christianity, it’s not sufficiently engaged with the world which it claims God so loved or with the flesh which it claims Jesus became. So I understand and empathise with the radical critique of it made by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, where he says the gaps of transcendence have to be closed so people can learn to love their own world, to love the dust. There are deep resources in Christianity for that, but they’re not used. It takes a poet like Ted Hughes to make us realize how like a goddess the Earth is, how deeply she gives, and with what mutuality and feared love one should return to her.
Lucifer Rising, a purportedly Satanic film with a soundtrack by Jimmy Page
JE: OK. I’d ask a similar question about rock and roll, which I think was also a ‘vehicle for ecstasy’ in the second half of the 20th century, a really important one. But many of the great ‘rock-prophets’ (as it were) would say that if their inspiration came from anywhere, it wasn’t from a Christian God, it was something altogether more pagan – think of Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Voodoo Chile’, or the Stones’ flirtation with Satanism, or Led Zeppelin’s fondness for magic, or Jim Morrison’s self-identification with Dionysus. These artists were into the Beyond, into the unconscious, and the supernatural, but not Christianity.
MG: This relates to Blake’s comment about Milton, that he was of the Devil’s party, without knowing it. What he’s saying is, in Milton and others, the supposedly non-Godly is the thing which is actually represented with most power, energy, excitement and engagement, and God is increasingly represented as this state of completely detached passivity and stasis. There’s a complete failure in some Christian theology to show dynamis, or power, which is actually all there in the theology of the Holy Spirit, but which had completely fallen into abeyance in the West.
And then it was revived in the culture which ultimately produced rock and roll – the African-American Pentecostal and Baptist churches, which utterly emphasized the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, and reclaimed that fire and energy as of God. But it has to be said that this was not happening in the average English parish church in the 1950s. If you went to an English church then, and you were of the generation of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, you would not say ‘wow, the mysterious powerful ever-present Dynamis of flame is here!’. You’d say ‘this is just another bloody jumble-sale’. Then you’d tune into Radio Luxembourg, and you’d hear great music that has come out of the Pentecostal tradition and become soul or blues. That’s where the power is. I’m not sure how deep the Stones’ flirtation with the Occult was. I think it was that ultimately it sounded more transformative and transcendent to them.
JE: I think part of rock music’s flirtation with the Occult is, firstly, a rejection of authority – this is partly why people get into magic and the shamanic, because they don’t want to get into any hierarchy. And also, the thing about operational magic is that it’s often a power-trip.
MG: Sure. I’ve given a very generous construction of it. But I do think there is genuinely a dark side of it. The difference between sacramental ritual on the one hand, and magic on the other, is a fundamental difference about the orientation of the soul. In sacramental ritual, the soul is giving glory to the Other, worshiping the Divine and becoming most itself – but a transformed self. Whereas I understand magic, in its worst sense, to be a power-trip – it’s an attempt to use the Holy or the Divine as a stream of power with which to get the stuff your ego wants you to get.
JE: In that sense, quite adolescent.
MG: Very. The divine pattern in Christ is death and then resurrection. There has to be a letting-go. In black magic, people think they can just wander into the realm of the sacred, and grab stuff for themselves and use it to manipulate other people. That’s purely a power-trip, and ultimately self-defeating.
JE: What do you think of contemporary Christian worship music?
MG: I don’t know a huge amount of it. There’s some of it that’s very good. There seems to be a bit of an obsession…it’s sort of like the Jesus equivalent of ‘beats per minute’ – how many times can you mention Jesus in a song, so everyone is reassured that it’s Christian. I understand there are some Christian radio stations that do that – if there aren’t three references to Jesus in a song they don’t play it. There’s a Canadian guy called Steve Bell who did an anti-jingly Christmas album called Keening for the Dawn. I notice among younger American evangelicals a real desire to re-discover depth, resonance, tradition, and waiting in darkness. What I don’t personally like is saccharine music which is one long series of highly personalised love-songs to Jesus, as though my private relationship to Jesus, my knowing how much He loves me, makes everything so good that I don’t even need to consider what’s happening in Syria. We need a Christian music which actually says ‘if the cross is true, then he’s being crucified in Syria right now, what are we going to do about it?’
Any myth will do?
JE: OK, thanks for the interview Malcolm. I love the revival of Lewis / Tolkien’s theology of imagination, and their sense of the power of story, metaphor and myth to transform us. But it seems to me that way of thinking can end up in the postmodern idea that everything is a story or metaphor, that the gospels are just another inspiring myth. We just need to find some ‘sacred fiction’ that works for us, whether that’s Star Trek, Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings (which by-the-by was voted the most popular book of the 20th century, and is obviously much loved by non-Christians.)
MG: That’s the opposite of what Lewis and Tolkien were saying. The point is, it’s about the re-marriage of the divorced parents – Imagination and Reason. It happens that it was our mother, Imagination, rather than our father, Reason, who’s been absent, and who we need to get to know again. But the point of bringing them together – the reason, for CS Lewis, why coming to Christ was so transformative – was that he loved myth, but as long as it was just myth, however moved by it he was, he didn’t feel he could re-connect it to Reason. The problem with Reason by itself was that as long as it was devoid of resonant story, it was just facts without meaning. The point about the Christian story was not simply that it was mythically resonant, but also that it was (they believed) historical fact. Tolkien said Lewis should think of the Gospels as a great myth written by God in the material of history. The previous poets had used language to tell a story, while the Author of the cosmos was able to tell a story in and through the actual material fabric of what happened.
JE: But it sounds like Lewis was saying ‘there’s various different myths, of Dionysus, Oedipus, Balder the Brave etc but my myth is true’.
MG: Well he’s not simply saying it’s true, he’s also saying it’s the truth of all the other myths as well, it’s the one that gives the other ones their grounding. It would not be sufficient to say ‘we all need a story to live by’, because someone could come back and say ‘you’re just making it up’. If you can show that something actually happened, which seems to make sense of all these other myths….There’s a great essay of Lewis’ called The Grand Miracle, in which he refers to the life, death and resurrection of Christ as like a missing chapter in a great work, the great work being the Cosmos. He says ‘if someone proposes to me that there is a missing chapter to a book I know very well, they’d have to show not only that it’s in the style of the rest of the novel, but that it makes sense of otherwise puzzling episodes’. And that’s exactly what he thinks the resurrection did.
Here’s a wonderful talk Malcolm gave on JRR Tolkien.