toward a theory of reanimation

(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.
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4 thoughts on “toward a theory of reanimation

  1. I love this. And the rest of the essay, too–one of the best pieces on writing there is, in my opinion.

    “…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.)”

    True, brilliant, and hilarious.

  2. I never read this piece before, but as a fan of George Macdonald myself, I thought it was very characteristic. I love the ‘wild dance’ of the ‘cloudy rendezvous’: but isn’t he – and this too is characteristic, and I suppose I kind of like him for it – taking rather a long way round saying something quite simple? Of course words impress, are evocative, are dependent on both the user and the listener; has anyone ever doubted it? To whom is he preaching?

    But I like, as I say, the way the guy gets carried away with his idea and demonstrates its validity!

  3. Every once in a while I get a brilliant idea for a paper and then discover that George MacDonald already wrote it in 1893.

    (Actually, that crystallizes several things I’ve been thinking.)

  4. Thank, Jenna. Although, of course, I should point out that I then contradict myself and insist–perhaps not strongly enough–that the emotions and feelings and ideas are, in fact, ours, and unique to our experience. We just patch together words to help understand them.

    I think, Katherine, that MacDonald is preaching to the those who believe the mentality–still not yet vanished–that writing for children, and fairy tale in particular, should be primarily didactic and instructive. And that symbols within story should have a point-for-point correlation with some didactic moral (‘And this is the GOOD little boy, and this is the BAD little boy. Do you want to marry the princess or get thrown into a vat of flaming tar and rolled down the hill covered in nails into the pit full of snakes and scorpions?’) Keep in mind, too, that when MacDonald wrote in 1893, fantastic literature was far less common, and the numinous use of language we’ve taken for granted for at least 50 years was in the minority; this was during the ascension of the likes of Arnold and his ‘plain sense’ criticism. So in one sense, MacDonald’s sparring partner is a literary viewpoint not so prevalently with us. (I hope.) But–though you’ve likely beat me to the pass here–it’s very much worth reading the essay in full (it’s the last essay on the link, so you’ll need to scroll down for a while).

    Eric–welcome to my life.

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