Longing for the enchanted world underlies the poetic imagination, but it’s the light of common day that we inhabit, thus we should value realism in the imaginative realm…
One of the themes of frequent discussion at Wyoming Catholic College is Charles Taylor’s idea of disenchantment—the disappearance in modern times of an “enchanted” relation to the world. I think of examples, say, from the Odyssey when Poseidon wrecks Odysseus’ raft and the hero swims for land. Almost dead with exhaustion, he prays to the river whose mouth he approaches, asking it to calm its current and help him get ashore. When he crawls onto the beach exhausted, waterlogged, and encrusted with salt, he pays his homage to the river. He hardly thinks of the experience as “enchanted,” of course; it’s simply the reality he inhabits (which is Mr. Taylor’s point).
William Wordsworth found this kind of enchantment in his recollections of early childhood. He begins his famous “Intimations” ode by evoking it:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Growing older, he finds that reality slowly loses its glory and begins to “fade into the light of common day.” He consoles himself with “years that bring the philosophic mind,” but he yearns for that early world where every common thing was astonishing and every day an Eden.
Enchantment also has its dark side, of course: hauntings, spells, dark forces, terrors. (Anyone who remembers the nightmares of childhood won’t be too nostalgic.) And just for the record, Geoffrey Chaucer’s salty Wife of Bath is already complaining about the disenchantment of the English countryside in the 14th century: she blames the invasion of friars for running off all the fairies and elves.
Still, this longing for the enchanted world underlies the poetic imagination, and it informs the work of writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who imagine an alternative realm protected from “the light of common day.” Inside the landscapes summoned into being by Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, readers dwell in a space where wonderful beings and deeds fill the mind, where metaphysical evil undeniably exists, where heroism and cowardice are real, where grace and light are unmistakable. Their work satisfies a great need, especially for young readers, who bring to the real world some shining remnant of heroic expectation.
But it’s the light of common day that we inhabit, and I want to say a little about the value of realism in the imaginative realm, especially if we are engaged in making a new Catholic culture. We are not going to get back a world of elves and trolls and dwarves; we live deep in a technological age, insulated from metaphysical wonder by our own cleverness. A Catholic depiction of the real world should start where we are and find a new way to the depths and heights that are always present. Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously says that “the purpose of playing” is to hold “a mirror up to nature,” and what we need in this regard is an accurate picture to “show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
What makes the mirror accurate is precisely the tradition that informs it. When the players arrive, Hamlet begins a speech about old Priam’s murder by Pyrrhus and has one of the actors finish it. Why? Because he is holding up his own action (or inaction) to contrast it with the bloody vengeance of Achilles’ son. Is that what he wants to do to Claudius, who murdered his father? Or is the classical Pyrrhus a caution for the Christian prince? In the meantime, Shakespeare, simply by including this scene, dares to put his own art up beside Virgil’s in the Aeneid, and the favorable comparison says something about the “form and pressure” of the Elizabethan age.
Contemporary fiction, in other words, needs to be thoroughly informed by the great tradition of literature. It’s worth recognizing James Joyce—our greatest non-Catholic Thomist—in this regard. Ulysses, in particular, has an almost fantastic realism, thought by thought, image by image, in its portrait of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904. But it would not show the time its own features (vulgarity and all) unless the whole action were implicitly held up for comparison to the Odyssey. Joyce has much to teach young Catholic writers about the deep mimesis that reveals the “act of existence.” He was kin to Hopkins in this regard. The chapter on Bloom cooking his breakfast is one of the funniest and most marvelous evocations of “the light of common day” imaginable.
I’ll have more to say on realism later. What are the great guides? What does a realistic art look like now? Where do we look to find it in fiction or in film?
This essay first appeared in the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (July 2017).
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Twilight in the Wilderness” by Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.