(I am indebted to my esteemed colleague Herbert West for suggesting this research title.)
At the behest of the inimitable Travis Prinzi, I’m planning a series of posts at The Hog’s Head on George MacDonald. This will inevitably begin to blur the lines of my mind, since I think about MacDonald relentlessly for my doctoral research, and will probably be thinking and writing about him for much of my life. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see the thought lines crumbling still further, and bleeding over onto Paradoxes.
I often write over here about the power of words—to transform, to heal, to affect, to reanimate. So I was struck today when I rediscovered this passage in MacDonald’s ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1893), proving again that the best thoughts aren’t really our own to begin with, and our dearest ideas are often derived from someone else. (Usually Coleridge. And I don’t even want to know where he got them. Probably Spenser. Sigh.)
But that’s not true—not really. What happens, I think, is that we feel—we experience things about life and words and art, about theology and philosophy. We have emotions and experiences that are very deep and very dear to us. And then, humans that we are, we discover that other people—sometimes very like us, sometimes not—have felt the same things. And they give us words and understandings, and direct us in ways of thinking.
So that what we receive from them isn’t the experiences themselves—those are individual and unique, and probably can never be replicated person to person. What we receive are words that fit—loosely or snugly—things we’re already learning to feel.
I’m sure you have your own inherited words. Here, from MacDonald, are some of mine:
"But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a precise meaning!" It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child's dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of a dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but the definite? The cause of a child's tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.