What Is Imagination? (2/3)

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In Part I, we considered how the imagination is the part of us most concerned with transcendent concepts, virtues of “the chest,” and pursuits that are good ends in themselves. As artists, we use our imaginations whenever we attempt to incarnate one of these “unnecessary” goods in an image—whether that image be a painting or a poem. C. S. Lewis famously described his own creative writing process as one sparked by pictures (“of a Faun carrying an umbrella”), not by characters, themes, or plot.

Russell Kirk also believed the effective storyteller was a master of images, not merely a master of language. “Images,” he asserts, “are representations of mysteries, necessary because mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by abstract reason alone.”[1] In a rare reference to his own creative process as a writer of Gothic fiction and classic ghost stories, Kirk reveals that his muse had much in common with Lewis’s:

When I write fiction, I do not commence with a well-converted formal plot. Rather, there occur to my imagination certain images, little scenes, snatches of conversation, strong lines of prose. I patch together these fragments, retaining and embellishing the sound images, discarding the unsound, finding a continuity to join them…Unless one has this sort of pictorial imagery—Walter Scott had it in a high degree—he never will become a writer of good fiction, whatever may be said for expository prose.[2]

Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

C. S. Lewis

Here Kirk refers to his imagination as an ability to “patch together…fragments,” creating a new, harmonious whole. Elsewhere, he describes the imagination as a power we are lured into—similar to the experience of “falling in love”—rather than a weapon we self-consciously wield. Lewis would likely agree, as he believed the imagination draws us into its delight, working on us in subtle but profound ways that enable us to experience true joy.

In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis notes how the imagination ignites in us a profound longing for “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited”—in other words, a longing for our eternal home.[3] Lewis then asks his audience a question, one that illustrates how he believes the imagination functions:

Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.[4]

Under such a spell of imaginative grace, humans experience a foretaste of our ultimate home and become capable of heroic virtue as we walk our earthly pilgrimage.

Second Conclusion: The imagination, then, is that part of us most perceptive to enchantments; it is the wonderstruck child we must keep alive as we grow older, since it is what makes us most susceptible to the “good spell” of the Gospel.


Read Part I here.

 

[1] Russell Kirk, “The Rediscovery of Mystery.” Imprimis. 1977. Accessed July 29, 2016. https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/the-rediscovery-of-mystery/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” Theology. 1941. Accessed July 29, 2016. http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf

[4] Ibid.

Ashlee Cowles is a graduate of Duke University’s Divinity School and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is a literature teacher at a classical high school and the author of the novel, Beneath Wandering Stars (Merit Press, August 2016). Read additional essays by Ashlee at Humane Pursuits, The Imaginative Conservative, the Russell Kirk Center’s University Bookman, or on her blog, The Wandering Writer.


1 Comment

  1. Laure Hittle

    @mrs-hittle

     

    Unless one has this sort of pictorial imagery—Walter Scott had it in a high degree—he never will become a writer of good fiction, whatever may be said for expository prose.

    Oh, shoot. 😛
    Well, seriously, i know there is a lot to this. And i’m getting there. 🙂

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