4 Things C.S. Lewis Taught Me About the Imagination

1. Imagination is a source of truth about reality

All my life I've been led to believe that imagination transports one to the land of make believe, and though this land may lend a richness to life, it is in fact false. What I've begun to understand through my relationship with Lewis's work is that imagination can actually be a source of truth about reality. Through the imagination I can receive impressions, see something through someone else's eyes, and perceive in ways that I cannot with reason alone.

The imagination gives us a language for our soul, as my friend Jerry Root says. I sometimes have longings that break through the scrim of my days when I recognize something of great import moving behind the shadowy reality in which I exist, just out of reach. I often can't apprehend these things with my reason, but I apprehend them with my imagination. I am pierced by a strange desire that is longing and joy and sadness, which Lewis identified as joy. I receive these impressions with my imagination.  I can either fabricate some rational explanation (thus silencing the imagination) or I can trust that what I just received was in fact a truthful expression of reality, but of a reality that cannot be grasped with reason. 

Stories or music or art can let me in: a simple willingness to receive what they have to offer allows my imagination to be worked upon, to receive impressions that help me articulate those dim shapes forever moving behind the veil. I don't articulate them by explanation, but simply by allowing them to exist, and allowing the senses, feelings or impressions I receive to be expressions of a greater reality. 

In order to fully utilize this underdeveloped faculty of the imagination, I will require a deeper understanding of it, which, thankfully, Lewis provides in the form of nuance.

2. Imagination requires a nuanced understanding

Lewis certainly possessed a nuanced understanding of the imagination; he identified more than 30 uses.  Perhaps the first and most useful distinction for understanding this nuance is that both positive and negative uses of the imagination exist. Not all imagination is beneficial or acts as a conduit of truth. For example the controlled imagination projects one's self-seeking desires onto others. It is caught up in wish-fulfillment that places the self at the center of life. It can be either knowingly or blindly manipulative

The next most useful distinction is that similarities exist between many uses. For example, Lewis identified the penetrating imagination. It seeks to look at a thing from many angles to receive the fullest impression of its truth. Shakespeare used this imagination to find multiple metaphors that describe a single thing. The absorbing imagination, while similar, takes different points of view and combines them to enlarge one's own reality. Both take multiple viewpoints into account. One attempts to see the fullest expression of truth in any given thing, the other takes all the points of truth and uses them to enlarge the viewpoint of the self.

To get the full benefit of our imaginations requires discipline. It doesn't mean that I have to work hard to cultivate each of Lewis's 30 uses, but I must work hard to unlearn the idea that imagination is only make believe. And I must begin recognizing and trusting it. Most of us already use many of the uses of imagination Lewis identified. These nuances help give us a language for recognition, and then for how we can encourage and strengthen certain uses and discourage others. 

3. Imagination requires surrender

Lewis wrote that the first thing any work of art asks of us is surrender. We must be willing to have the artist work on us, to guide our perceptions and imaginations and then see what results. We have to be willing to simply experience, to bask, to allow it to affect us. People are fond of discussing theater performances, films, books or other art forms. This is beneficial in the respect that we are using our reason to explain the art and what it means. But Lewis thought that the greatest good from any work of art was simply the ability to place ourselves in the story, as it were, and receive all the impressions and feelings it provoked. But a division still exists between the abstract knowledge of an experience and the experience itself.

For Lewis, having one type of knowledge precluded an ability to have the other. Analyzing or talking abstractly about an experience cancels out its imaginative impact.  We can't bask and analyze at the same time. We can't study pain in the moment of experiencing a toothache, says Lewis. He writes, "The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think."

For Lewis, myth (an imaginative endeavor) was a solution to this impasse between the two ways of understanding: these stories illustrated concrete principles that could be grasped with the imagination.  In this sense, they become reality. But the moment we tell ourselves that we've realized what the principle is, we are back in the land of abstraction. While experiencing the myth, we were entering in, not thinking about what the myth represented. In the experience, we taste the abstract principle concretely. And in this place, reality flows into us through the imagination.

Reality is not truth, but that about which truth is, writes Lewis. The truths are experienced on the abstract level. Therefore, when our imaginations are fully engaged and we are entering into some story, we are experiencing reality in a way that we can't when we step outside of the story and begin to abstract about it. This is why Lewis placed so much emphasis on simply entering into a story or work of art. And this is partly why our imaginations function as sources of reality and truth.

To illustrate this rather difficult concept about the two types of knowledge, Lewis provides us with the useful Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The abstraction or knowledge of an experience we are trying to understand is the vanishing of a tasted reality as we try to grasp it with reason. The experience itself is the story of Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the underworld and being forbidden to look at her while doing so. But of course he looks and she vanishes forever. 

4. Imagination requires us to wake up

If we take the imagination seriously, as a source of truth about reality that reason alone cannot attain, then paying attention to our imaginations could be one of the first steps in waking up, in remembering, in seeing the shapes beyond the darkness. Our lives seem obscured by the mundane; and we often believe that the mundane is killing our ability to have imaginative experience, to dream.

In fact, the mundane is the first place to begin waking up. We get clues and hints every day in the things that have been rendered meaningless by long familiarity. The fact that they have lost their meaning by being familiar is a sign of just how deeply asleep we are.

There are times when common trees suddenly affect me with their unbelievable strangeness. I imagine them coming alive. In those moments, trees are not merely trees, but they have become pointers to something beyond. I have wakened a bit and my vision is clearer.

The imagination, if we let it, will always prod us to see things in new ways. Our reason will always rush to silence it and provide us with the same old explanation: the fact that a tree consists of bark, leaves, roots, sap and so forth. We must resist this one-sided apprehension of reality and learn to see the world imaginatively. We are not therefore escaping from reality, but simply accessing reality differently.

This takes slowing down and simply looking at the world. And it takes trust.  G.K. Chesterton believed that if we looked fiercely enough at the facts of our existence, they would turn into adventures. This is our difficult task.

Interested in learning more about C.S. Lewis and the imagination? Click the image below to read more about my new book The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis.