on imagination

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From CS Lewis’ discussion on Paradise Lost:

It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom MIlton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action.

But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ character tht novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revleations. Heaven understands Hell and Hell does not understand Heaven, and all of us, in our measure, share the Satanic, or at least the Napoleonic, blindness. To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.

Hence all that is said about Milton’s ‘sympathy’ with Satan, his expression in Satan of his own pride, malice , folly, misery, and lust, is true in a sense, but not in a sense peculiar to Milton. The Satan in Milton enables him to draw the character well just as the Satan in us enables us to receive it. Not as Milton, but as man, he has trodden the burning marl, pursued vain war with heaven, and turned aside with leer malign. A fallen man is very much like a fallen angel. This indeed is one of the things which prevents the Satanic predicament from becoming comic. It is too near us; and doubtless Milton expected all readers to perceive that in the long run either the Satanic predicament of else the delighted obedience of Mesiah, of Abdiel, of Adam, and of Eve, must be their own. It is therefore right to say that Milton has put much of himself into Satan; but it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased. Because he was, like the rest of us, damnable, it does not follow that he was, like Satan, damned.

This explains our current creative context almost perfectly. The oft considered artistic movies are so often, these days, little more than Jerry Springer titillation for the wine sipping crowd. They delve into execrable characters with auteurs declaring them to be images of real life. Meanwhile stories of heroism or victory are maligned for being cheesy and naive. Yet, as the Lord of the Rings movies, for instance, reveal there is a depth to moral victory which the dashes of sin spattered realities can’t approach.

To speak of something more, to make a call this is not all there is can be a fanciful endeavor. It can be a Kinkade quality pining. At the same time to dwell in our present mud, to wallow in the sins of others because, well, at least “we’re not that bad” isn’t art either. It’s escapism of a different sort, a sort that says nothing beyond the obvious. “Humans are jerks.”
Thank you, I realized that when I woke up this morning… again.

How do we speak of more if we do not know more? That is imagination. That is the quest of the discovery of self, the sallying forth in our own personal crusades, to see freedom, to embrace the higher life, to wander in what may be difficult and disciplined directions, denying ourselves in part to find ourselves in full, and living to tell the story about it all. To taste of the possibilities of our lives and let our imaginations press us beyond our present capabilities, that is the task of the sanctified and living mind.

That is art.

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