CS Lewis: An unseen essay on truth and fiction
What we do when we imagine is to suppose a reshuffling of universals taken from the actual world. When we imagine Britomart we take our idea of "a girl", which is part of our general knowledge, and our idea of "medieval knight", which is another part of our general knowledge, and put them together. To get into imagination itself what we mean by either of the two terms is impossible. They are not imaginations: they are summarised knowledge of the real. Always the real world is the bank on which the poet draws his cheques; and though a metaphysical lyric may be a fine and private place, all the meanings embraced within it are but passengers who come there from the public, eternal, objective world of reality and haste thither again.
Aristotle was right. Poetry presents οια αν γενοιτο, things that might be – it recombines elements which belong to the real, and to appreciate poetry involves at every moment a knowledge of those elements and therefore of the real.
What obscures this truth is the fact that we may find fairies as well as towers in our story. If all literature were realistic the doctrine which isolates "art" from human experience as a whole would not be even plausible. The sort of monadism which I am rejecting may be regarded as one of the many attempts to explain the marvellous in literature: parallel to the allegorisations with which our ancestors excused their pleasure in Ovid, and equally shallow. In fact, the wildest passages of Italian or Indian epic conform to Aristotle's definition as easily as one of Thackeray's novels. Let us try the experiment. Disturb the realism of Roland's dark tower a little. As Roland approaches, let the bells within the tower begin to ring. But instead of sounds let them give forth great birds: and yet we understand somehow that the birds are the sounds. This seems a far cry from the real world. Yet even these birds affect us only because of their hypothetical connection with reality.
For example, "bats" would have a different poetical value from birds. Yet the images will scarcely be distinguishable: and neither their bat nature or their bird nature will be explicitly imagined. It is enough to give them the one or the other name and they will affect us accordingly: and this because we know what bats and birds are in the real world, and therefore what these would be in the real world.
And however we vary the fantasy we shall find the same result. Let these bell-born birds be no common birds but the souls of dead men whose blood was used to temper the bells: and let them fly out singing with human voice Justorum animae.
Does anyone suppose that the imaginative value of such fantasies can be divided for a moment from our knowledge of death, and blood, and Christianity? You may say, indeed, that it is not our crystallised knowledge of these things that counts, but the emotions which have gathered about their names. But it is easy to answer that where a reader depends merely on the associations roused by the words, he will be right only by accident: as many a young reader has found to his cost.
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