The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: Interview Part 2

The following is part two of an excerpt from my part of an interview conducted by Lancia E. Smith. The interview is about the writing of The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, co-authored with Jerry Root. Text content used with permission of Lancia E. Smith, publisher: Cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful: www.lanciaesmith.com. From the original interview at https://lanciaesmith.com/the-surprising-imagination-of-c-s-lewis/.

LES: So much of what defines Lewis is his lifelong capacity at passing back and forth across the borderlands of imagination for himself.  In the forward written by Steven Beebe, Steven talks about the recurring image of doors and portals with Lewis and what those represent across Lewis’s canon.  In the midst of that, Steve makes this intriguing statement: “Lewis understood our lives are a series of simultaneous comings and goings as we daily cross thresholds and transoms, even when we are not aware we are between rooms.” What anchored Lewis in truth so deeply that it gave him the permission and the freedom to move so fluidly ‘between rooms’ and ‘across thresholds’ of imagination without becoming lost in his faith or his reason? Is that something we can learn to do also or was that something that was simply unique to Lewis and others among the Inklings?

MN: For Lewis, crossing the borderlands into imagination was not a way to lose faith or reason, but to gain it. Everywhere we look in Lewis’s writings, we see this theme repeated: the longing for the hidden country, the stab of joy, the longings of our heart that we search to fulfill. For Lewis, these all pointed to something beyond them, to the far green country described in the closing chapter of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

As I previously mentioned, Lewis fought to reconcile reason and imagination and was able to do so through the person of Christ. For him, the imagination was a source of truth often giving glimpses of realities that couldn’t be seen in any other way.  Literature was his doorway into the imagination. And Lewis was a proponent of a very particular type of reading experience, one that allowed a deep immersion in the text so that truths could simply be experienced at the level of the imagination without the reason kicking in.  In this place, Lewis believed that we could most effectively receive truths into our soul. 

But he was also aware that we lose the effectiveness of these mediated truths when we attempt to analyze them. And we excel at analysis, because we live in a culture that values the reason far beyond the imagination. Lewis also describes this experience in an essay on seeing a beam of light in a toolshed. He realized that there was a distinction between ‘looking at’ versus ‘looking along.’ When we look at something we are using our reason. When we look along, we are entering into the experience so that the experience itself vanishes. We are not objective observers; we are participators.

LES: Your closing conclusion is one of the most compelling pieces I have read in a long time. Talk with me about Lewis’s use of imagination as a vehicle of reconciliation.  How does Lewis use imagination as a method of reconciling the broken but still beautiful world for his readers?

MN: At the end of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis makes an interesting comment.  He writes, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” For Lewis literature and imaginative experience were so closely connected it’s hard to speak of one without the other. Lewis’s first volume of poetry, Spirits in Bondage, was an attempt to reconcile the horrors of war and a broken world with the beauty he saw in the midst of this. This was prior to his conversion experience and he didn’t have an answer to the question. 

If you remember back to The Horse and His Boy, Aravis and Shasta are discussing how Shasta came to be separated from his twin brother at birth.  Through all the series of events that led up to the moment of being reunited with his true family, Shasta realizes that Aslan is the one that is “at the back of all the stories.” Again, at the end of Till We Have Faces, Orual writes these words: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away.” These recognitions are behind every imaginative experience for Lewis, and his best imaginative embodiments point us to the one before whose face all questions die away. We may not recognize that this is happening, but once we experience the longing that an imaginative depiction provokes in us, we have a sense that it is a longing that cannot be fulfilled in this world. I think Lewis excels at this type of depiction. I’ve experienced it again and again when I read through the Chronicles and as well as his other fiction.

LES: One of my favorite quotes from Lewis is, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” (Mere Christianity)  How is a reader best able to cultivate a wholesome imagination and develop its strength as an organ of meaning?

MN: First, by understanding that the function of the imagination is so much more than simply “make believe.” Too many people define it in this limited way and so believe it to be false. How many times have we heard the imagination denigrated? “You just imagined it” is not a cry of affirmation. Understanding the imagination as a whole of nuanced parts is the first step. Then trusting that it can be a reliable source of truth about reality and detaching negative connotations.

Of course, much of Lewis’s imaginative development was the result of extensive reading, so we mustn’t neglect wide reading that will stock our minds with plenty of images. Lewis expressed that his own eyes weren’t enough for him, that he wished to see with others’ eyes.

I believe Lewis teaches us to think out of the box; I’ve always felt fresh air blowing from him. I would simply add that reading his work is itself an education in developing the imagination.

LES: Mark, who would benefit from reading this book? Where can readers learn more about Lewis’s imagination?

MN: Anyone with an interest in Lewis would benefit, but I think it will reach those who are most interested in his imaginative development and how this is manifested in his work. I think it will also benefit those who sense the larger role that imagination can play in our lives.

Again, I would point people to Lewis’s lesser-known books, his literary critical works especially. You will find that he is eminently consistent in developing his ideas across all his work.  If it shows up in one place, you’ll find it in several other places, guaranteed. Take the time to really digest the ideas and literature Lewis was passionate about. It will not only expand your own imaginative development, but it will give you a whole new level of appreciation when you read Lewis, especially his fiction. As Jerry has stated, Lewis will also lead you, through his own passion, to the enjoyment of many other authors.

LES: Gentlemen, what was your favorite chapter to write and why?

MN: The absorbing imagination as reflected through Lewis’s poetry, for many of the reasons listed in my answer to the previous question.  There was a thrill in knowing that though scholars have largely ignored Lewis’s poetry, I found it deeply meaningful anyway, despite its avowed flaws, which I think are likely over-exaggerated. Lewis himself wrote that “The poet’s route to our emotions lies through our imaginations.” I think this is true of Lewis’s poetry.

LES: What did you learn in the writing process and how do you perceive your own imagination differently from having spent so much time working with this material?

MN: One of the most important things we can do in life is to remember, to find ways to continually and deeply inscribe the important things of life on the slate of our consciousness. We so easily forget and fall away. So really, the most profound change my work with this material has had is to continually place it before my attention, to force me to wake up from the status quo and perceive reality differently.

I am amazed at how Lewis is so proficient at the apt word or metaphor; he gets just the right one to make his point and clarify our vision. And he has the rare ability to help us see beyond the words, to enter into the experience with our imagination, not our reason. I sensed this most strongly in Lewis’s poetry, where evocation became longing, where I encountered a sense of veiled mystery, something just beyond reach, as seen through a glass darkly. Having a language that can help us make sense of that experience was a major takeaway, even though Lewis would discourage us from thinking about these things and rather have us simply experience them. I think, at some level, we need to think about these things, if for no other reason than to cultivate awareness and be given the chance to change our approach to imagination.