Navigating Enchantment Pt. 1
Welcome to Creative\\Proofing, a space for hopeful, creative people learning to live wisely by asking questions about the good life: what it is, how to design our own, and how to live it well.
Welcome to the latest issue of Creative\\Proofing, which started growing ever longer and knottier, until I realized it should really become at least two posts. This installment reaches across the mists of time to pull forward thoughts from Plato, pre-modernity, and C.S. Lewis. The next installment will play with sacramental theology, and will (I hope) connect these ideas to Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. I’ll then explore how, or even if, this conceptual stew is at all relevant or illuminating for us now. Here we go!
As I’ve recently read (or am still reading) a few books, I’ve felt similar themes or ideas beginning to ping in my awareness, resonating together in such a way that I wondered how these very different authors might come together in conversation (at least around my imaginary table here).
Let’s welcome to the table first Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. I read this when it first came out years ago, but after re-reading Lewis’ The Space Trilogy, wanted to dig back into some of the deeper myths behind it. I also started Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry on a friend’s recommendation, which has given me a lot of theology and history to chew on.
As I read through these two works, I also picked up Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Now I confess, I tried reading Piranesi last year. I got about a quarter of the way into it, found myself utterly bewildered, and returned it to the library. I decided to give it another shot a couple of weeks ago, and this time, blazed my way through it in a couple of days. I genuinely feel I’ve not read anything like it.
So, I have thoughts (loosely formed, wholly exploratory). I hope you’ll join me as I write my way toward discovery and insight.
Plato & the Pre-Moderns
But first...not to throw another book into the mix, yet for setting the stage, I must.
In Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, he shows the long, slow shift from, and the difference between, the pre-modern era and the modern (in which we’re currently living). A key feature of the pre-modern era, its culture, theology, worldview, etc., is that it was deeply enchanted: humans navigated a world inhabited by angels, demons, priests, magicians, rituals, sacraments, sacred places. They recognized that, at any moment, their everyday lives could brush against or intermingle with supra-natural beings and forces. By contrast, the modern era may be characterized by our current dis-embedding from this multi-layered reality, our exodus into a disenchanted world.
The conceptual structure of the pre-modern world reflected this multi-layered reality: the immediate world of everyday life with its hierarchical social order, its regular rituals and festivals, was embedded in the enchanted world of spirits and forces, which was in turn embedded into the highest reality, the divine, in which the gods moved and acted. This embedded structure allows for agents at each level to move within and between realities, affecting inhabitants and being affected in turn. Our pre-modern ancestors participated in this complex, intricate tapestry, expecting that ordinary moments had the potential to be sudden occasions for mystery, discovery, terror, and transformation.
Let’s here add one more layer to reality by bringing forward a key idea from ancient Greece: Plato’s concept of Forms. It’s been a while since I’ve studied or thought about this, but I’ll do my best to describe it. Plato suggested that, for every physical manifestation we observe in the world around us, that manifestation reached back toward, or emanated from, a universal, unchanging, absolute Form. This Form gives tables their tableness, dogs their dogness, humans their humanness, etc. These Forms transcended reality, or perhaps more accurately, reality cohered in the Forms. Every physical, observable manifestation could be traced to its appropriate Form, to Deep Reality, as it were.
Reality, in this model, is both hierarchical (up/down) and proximal (near/far). The multi-layered reality of the pre-modern world assumed the existence of agents moving between layers, as well as the possibility of humans encountering “thin places” and moving “further up and further in” themselves. Of course, as any reader of fairy tales knows, those humans who do cross the boundaries at the thin places come back (if they do come back) fundamentally altered, and at cross purposes to their original world.
The key insight for us to take hold of is that, in the modern era, we no longer conceive of reality as this multi-layered, diversely populated tapestry, and we no longer approach certain objects, practices, or places with the expectation that they act as conduits for other forces.1
So what does C.S. Lewis have to do with this?
As a trained medievalist, Lewis was deeply familiar with, and shaped by, classical and Platonic philosophy, as well as its lineage throughout medieval and renaissance literature. Traces of this familiarity may be found in his writings, a clear exposition of which is in his sermon “Transpositions.” From this essay, the most pertinent points for us at the moment are these:
- It is clear, Lewis says, “that in each case [of the examples of drawing, music, and language] what is happening in the lower medium can be understood only if we know the higher medium.” That is, we better or more fully understand certain phenomena of our level if we have glimpsed or interacted with related phenomena at higher levels.
- While we are used to encountering signs, such as written language representing spoken words, or road signs indicating the presence of deer in the vicinity, we understand that these phenomena have only a token relationship with one another; the meaning of each comes because that meaning has been artificially imposed on the signs themselves. However, as Lewis points out, some phenomena inherently carry meaning, because “in it the thing signified is really in a certain mode present. If I had to name the relation I should call it not symbolical but sacramental.” That is, some phenomena carry meaning because they point beyond this level to directly participate in their Form in Deep Reality.
So Lewis claims here that, not only do many of our physical experiences have resonance on a spiritual (or higher) level, but also, that some of those experience or manifestations are actually portals between this world and Deep Reality. We find that the higher reality floods the lower; the lower phenomena gain significance with their incorporation or participation in Deep Reality. If we feel a sense of awe or wonder (or terror), that response recognizes the weight of reality coming through to our experience. If we don’t feel that sense, then a question to ask may be, “is the thing itself sacramental, or is our perception too dull to perceive it?”
Lewis’ debt to the Platonic Forms and his weaving of this thread together with Christian theology is creatively (and persuasively, I think2) teased out in Ward’s Planet Narnia, where he traces the diverse and multivalent appearances of the classical and literary divine pantheon throughout Lewis’ oeuvre.
One thread of Lewis’ thought that Ward teases out for us is that one “aspect of being human is to place value in particulars,” and it is in knowing the patterns of particulars that enables us to recognize the universals, the Forms. Though Lewis doesn’t explicitly say it, essentially, we practice analogical thinking in doing so. In drawing upon these these gods and goddesses throughout history and literature, Lewis contends for their appearance in our modern eyes as sacramental manifestations, phenomena that point us toward higher and deeper realities.
Whew. I think that’s quite enough for now, yeah?
In the next installment, we’ll explore some of the implications of understanding our modern era as disenchanted and desacralized, and how Piranesi might help us make sense of, or bring together, our past and our present.
Let’s be hopeful, creative, and wise — together.
1 I paint in broad strokes here, and recognize that there exist specificities and exceptions to everything.