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This is a book about the dimensions of the literary image. It is certain that, as in the case of every form of professionalism, literature has its own autonomy. It is not psychology or metaphysics or theology or anything else save itself. But it can possess all these things as intrinsic dimensions of its own images and not as artificial appendages or alien invaders. The first and basic image of the literary imagination is the definite or the finite, and not the infinite, the endless, the dream. Beginning with the first battle between the gnostic and Hebraic imaginations there has been a long war between the two forms of the imagination, between the men of the finite and the men of the infinite. This book takes up the case for the men of the finite and for the power of the definite.
This image of the definite must never be abandoned, but must be continually explored. An extended case in point is taken from Dostoevski and a supplement of parallel materials from other writers has been added. Every subsequent chapter (on time, tragedy, comedy, freedom, the univocal, analogy, the theological imagination, the Christian imagination) will simply be a further and further exploration into the dimensions, the inner dimensions, of this basic literary image of the finite.
Human life, as our own intuitions and our greatest writers have always told us, is simple and limited. It is a process in which one simple moment follows another, in which we take one limited step after another, draw one small breath after another. We can do but one thing at a time. Even our loves are limited; they leave us or die. We are born in helplessness and end in it. The human race is not a great complex entity called man, but many individual men, each leading his own separate, concrete life, each life having its own limited, separate identity.
The human imagination responds in various ways to the vision that is borne in upon it of universal limitation, or particularity. It may, like the great writers of tragedy, see the everlasting particularity of human life as an abyss; the highest dramatic moments of Oedipus and Lear are expressions of this tragic vision, when each of these characters finds himself confronting the abyss of limitation. But the imagination may, on the other hand, as in the case of writers of comedy, see human particularity in the rough and unvarnished guise of a homely, everyday reality;, out of this comic vision is created a fat and unpretentious character like Falstaff. No matter what form the vision takes, however, or what its final goal-whether that be beauty, or insight, or peace, or tranquility, or God-the heart, substance, and center of the human imagination, as of human life, must lie in the particular and limited image or thing.
In this world there are generalities about things, but there are no generalities. If people and things were themselves generalities, they would be far more tractable than they are.
This first situation of the imagination, the confrontation of particularity, is so fundamental, so sure and so obvious that I hesitate to dress it in any of its several possible metaphysical costumes. For that may make it seem a kind of recondite truth, somewhat beyond the reach of the ordinary mind, which it most certainly is not. To use familiar examples, however, the finite is given metaphysical form in the concept of haecceitas, the pure and absolute thisness-and-not-thatness which the great Scotus saw in all things; in the "inscape" which Hopkins, following in Scotus' footsteps, saw in everything; in the single far-thing of the Gospel, which was the key to salvation; and in the little, sensible things which were the source of insight for St. Thomas. It also appears, less familiarly, in Newman, whose extraordinarily concrete metaphysics seemed so revolutionary to many theologians and philosophers, but who said he was confident that he could make all his thought consonant with that of St. Thomas. Here is what Newman said about the definite and the limited:
I am what I am, or I am nothing. I cannot think, reflect, or judge about my being, without starting from the very point, which I aim at concluding. My ideas are all assumptions, and I am ever moving in a circle. I cannot avoid being sufficient for myself, for I cannot make myself anything else, and to change me is to destroy me. If I do not use myself, I have no other self to use. My only business is to ascertain what I am, in order to put it to use. It is enough for the proof of the value and authority of any function which I possess, to be able to pronounce that it is natural. What I have to ascertain is the laws under which I live. My first elementary lesson of duty is that of resignation to the laws of nature, whatever they are; my first disobedience is to be impatient at what I am, and to indulge an ambitious aspiration after what I cannot be, to cherish a distrust of my powers, and to desire to change laws which are identical with myself.
I shall not be using the language of metaphysics in this discussion of the finite. I must, however, note here a certain difficulty that arises in choosing a precise, non-technical, and non-philosophical vocabulary in which to deal with these finite, concrete things and images that are at the center of every act of the imagination. (I am, of course, not using "image" here in its specialized literary sense, but rather, as applying to all the situations, large and small, that have bearing on the creative act.) If I were to characterize our definite images of the world and of man as the "first materials" of the imagination, the very externality of the term would seem to be an admission that there are materials of the imagination that have an existence prior to being touched by the spirit and attitude of man-that are, as it were, free and unstained by thought or theology. The use of the term "first materials" would thus commit me to an aesthetic I consider highly dubious, one that assumes we can act in a "free" area of the imagination, in which all ideas about the finite, as well as all theology, are relegated to the category of secondary and even extrinsic imaginative acts. If I acceded to this, I should be well on the way to viewing poetry as "pure poetry" and to an understanding of theology as purely "celestial."
If I try to use a less innocuous term than "materials," and call our first images the "first facts" of the imagination, I am again in trouble, for I am making an autonomizing declaration that a fact is a fact is a fact, just as a rose is a rose is a rose, without having determined the dimensions of such facts, or how many levels of being or of human sensibility are possibly involved in them. The difficulty becomes if anything a little more acute if I use instead the phrase, "first problem of the imagination," to describe the finite. For the word "problem" is anything but innocuous: it is connotative, and, as it is often used, would seem to be saying here that the imagination is a high and glorious faculty, born with an intent desire to produce insight and to bring us to some kind of absolute, but that between us and these goals lie the rough, limiting contours of the finite, as a kind of obstacle. When we speak of problems, we speak of things that are irritatingly in the way. And this is the way a certain kind of artist looks theologically at the whole finite world. Thus we see prefigured, in this difficulty of vocabulary, some of the questionable attitudes toward the finite with which this chapter, among other things, will concern itself.
ATTITUDES TOWARD THE FINITE
Whatever the self is seeking in its interior life-whether its goal be simply insight of a human kind, or some transcendent emotional ideal such as peace-it cannot help taking certain attitudes, forming certain judgments in an immediate, spontaneous way, toward the images of limitation it experiences. I shall call such attitudes "theological," using the word deliberately in its broadest sense, to indicate that there is more in ourselves and in our images than meets the eye. These attitudes penetrate the images themselves, and the two are always mutually forming, creating, sometimes distorting each other.
My own attitude toward these images of limitation-which I shall state briefly before I take up the contending points of view-is that the images are in themselves the path to whatever the self is seeking: to insight, or beauty, or, for that matter, to God. This path is both narrow and direct; it leads, I believe, straight through our human realities, through our labor, our disappointments, our friends, our game legs, our harvests, our subjection to time. There are no shortcuts to beauty or to insight. We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potencies of being-in-the-flesh. This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough; that would be to try to accomplish everything at one stroke. The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather, it contains many shapes and byways and cleverness and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. We waste our time if we try to go around or above or under the definite; we must literally go through it. And in taking this narrow path directly, we shall be using our remembered experience of things seen and earned in a cumulative way, to create hope in the things that are not yet seen.
But this narrow and direct path through the finite is only one of the possible attitudes toward things, people, and the self that the imagination may adopt. I shall cite here four other attitudes that run markedly counter to this one:
(1) Some imaginations try to achieve a tenuous, mystical contact with the finite, touching it just sufficiently, they tell us, to produce mystical vision, but not solidly enough, they add, for their vision to be impaired by the actuality of things. These imaginations I think of as "exploiters of the real." They believe the real can be "used" in the name of beauty or God, and they will exploit persons or things without being particularly interested in either. There would seem to be much of this attitude toward finite things in Proust ("for often I have wished to see a person again without realising that it was simply because that person recalled to me a hedge or hawthorn in blossom"). The same attitude can be seen in certain Catholics who are more interested in baptismal statistics than in people. The latter too are performing an act of the imagination before the finite, and their act in this case has a theological disease rooted in it-a disease that may affect either theology or the imagination or both, and which we may call "magic."
The "magical" view takes the finite as a bag of tricks, or as a set of notes to be played lightly and delicately, in order to send the soul shooting up, one knows not how, into some kind of infinite or absolute; that accomplished, the devil take the finite. I think of the imagination that displays this attitude (or affliction) as going around or under or above the real, or using it as a sort of resilient, rubbery surface off which to rebound as quickly as possible into various parts of the sky.
Such an imagination tries to get as much as possible of heaven out of as little as possible of earth, and even the little of earth it does touch is not taken seriously in a cognitive way, but is regarded as an obstacle and a necessary evil. The effort of this imagination is always to remain as uncommitted to the finite as possible.
(2) A second and similar imaginative attitude toward the real world is that of those who desire to touch the finite as lightly as possible in order to rebound, not into a quick eternity of beauty, but back into the self. Their aim is to create states of affectivity, areas of paradise, orders of feeling within the self. Proust again provides an example:
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself [italics mine]. The tea has called it up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment.
Intensified or ordered subjectivity is the goal of this attitude; again the means are the exploitation, the manipulation, distortion, or reduction of the real. I shall call this attitude "psychologism." Its disdain or impatience with the world is implicit in its images; there is no confrontation of reality.
Psychologism finds its counterpart in speculative theology and in the nineteenth-century movement within the Catholic Church known as Modernism, in which all dogma was safely removed from application to the real and reduced to a set of symbols for the production of religious affectivity. The poetic manuals of the psychologizing imagination patronizingly declare literature to be non-cognitive, in contrast with science and philosophy, and only serviceable, therefore, to the purposes of the emotional life. One critic, I. A. Richards, speaks of "objectless belief" in describing the liberation from the real that the psychologistic imagination would have its literature enact, "Poetry conclusively shows," he says, "that even the most important of our attitudes can be aroused and maintained without any belief entering it at all."
(3) A third attitude of the imagination is well known, and has been given various names. I shall call it the imagination of the "double vacuum"-the two vacuums of heaven and earth. This imagination penetrates, at least to some degree, into our human flesh and environment; then it recoils, with the weight of some emotion (and judgment) such as disgust, boredom, or anger, and flies, in a second movement that is unrelated to the first and constitutes an act of rebellion and escape, into a tenuous world of infinite bliss. It is as though the imagination were divided into two parts, each making a separate movement. On the one hand it plunges down into human reality with the attitude, and perhaps the wish, that such reality may be hell; on the other hand it plunges back up into heaven and ecstasy, though in this case too (as in that of the "magical") by what means, literary or human, we know not.
Excerpted from Christ & Apollo by WILLIAM F. LYNCH Copyright © 2004 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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|The act called existence|
|V||The univocal and equivocal||153|
|VII||The theological imagination||217|
|VIII||The Christian imagination||249|
|1||On the definite||267|
|3||On analogy : a bibliography||297|