The Immersed Imagination, Part 6: The False Self

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The next installment of the Hutchmoot talk by Andy P. and me. The last post introduced the idea of the true self as found in the works of Lewis and MacDonald. In this post we come to the dark side.

In my two favorite works of George MacDonald, Lilith and Phantastes, I found the flip side of the coin of identity: the false self, an illusory self pumped up by the great Shadow. In Lilith, the character Odu speaks of this great Shadow and says, “‘He was a shadow….He came down the hill, very black…He was nothing but blackness…He came on as if he would walk over us. But before he reached us, he began to spread and spread, and grew bigger and bigger, till at last he was so big that he went out of our sight, and we saw him no more, and then he was upon us!…He was all black through between us, and we could not see one another, and then he was inside us… I felt…bad. I was not Odu any more – not the Odu I knew. I wanted to tear Sozo to pieces – not really, but like!’phantasteslilith

He turned and hugged Sozo.

‘It wasn’t me, Sozo,’ he sobbed. “Really, deep down, it was Odu, loving you always! And Odu came up, and knocked Naughty away. I grew sick, and thought I must kill myself to get out of the black. Then came a horrible laugh that had heard my think, and it set the air trembling about me. And then I suppose I ran away, but I did not know I had run away until I found myself running, fast as I could…I would have stopped but never thought of it…Then I knew that I had run away from a shadow that wanted to be me and wasn’t, and that I was the Odu that loved Sozo. It was the shadow that got into me, and hated him from inside me; it was not my own self me!'”

Odu recognizes and differentiates his real self from this false self; “It was not my own self me,” echoing Paul’s statement in Romans 7, “When I sin it is no longer I that sins, but sin which is dwelling in me.”

In Phantastes the same idea is similarly expressed. “Shadow of me!”  I said, “which art not me, but which represents thyself to me as me, here I may find a shadow of light which will devour thee, the shadow of darkness! Here I may find a blessing which will fall on thee as a curse, and damn thee to the blackness whence thou hast emerged unbidden!”

Going back to Narnia for a moment, we can see this same conception of the self in Eustace, who has turned into a dragon through sleeping on a dragon’s hoard and thinking greedy, dragonish thoughts.  Through seeing the horror he has become, and hating it, he truly repents, and begins to make himself as useful as he can as a dragon. Finally Aslan comes to him one night and leads him to a pool. The dragon Eustace goes to get in, but Aslan says, “First you must undress.” Eustace goes to undress himself by scratching off his old skin like a snake. But he scratches off and steps out of his skin three times only to find he is still a dragon each time. Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace says, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off…and there it was lying there on the grass…And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water.”

Lewis echoes this again in Mere Christianity:

“The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having got rid of all the silly nonsense about your dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order ot make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off – getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.”

I have found this same idea in other writers, as well as biblically in the idea of the old man and new man.

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Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


2 Comments

  1. Nick and Susan

    Ron,

    I’ve been reading ‘The Highlander’s Last Song’ by George MacDonald and I read this wonderful scene a few days ago that came back to me as I read your post. Christina in the story (who is full of the ‘fancy dress’ self that Lewis described) is caught in a flash flood only to be rescued by the man who has tried to show her His Saviour.

    The section is a little long, but as with Eustace, this scene is the first ‘scratch’.

    “Suddenly in danger, self came less to the front with her than usual. For the first time in her life she was face-to-face with reality. Until this very moment her life had been an affair of unrealities. Solid reality itself is not enough to teach some of nature’s reality; they must hurt themselves against its solidness before they realize its solidity, its reality. Looking at a soft river floating away in the moonlight is hardly reality to a dreaming soul. But the river was real! Christina was shivering in its grasp of her body, its omnipresence to her skin; its cold made her gasp and choke; the push and tug of it threatened to sweep her away like a log.

    When we are most aware of fact-ness, we are most aware of our need for God, and most able to trust Him. The recognition of inexorable reality in any shape, or kind, or ways tends to rouse the soul to the yet more real, to its relations with higher and deeper existence. It is not the hysterical alone for whom the great dash of cold water is good. All who dream life instead of living it require some similar shock. Every disappointment, every sorrow, every tragedy of life can work the same way – can drive one trifle nearer to the truth of being. Hence this sharp contact with nature tended to make Christina less selfish. It made her forget herself so far as to care for her helper as well as her self.”

    Susan

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