‘The Fantastic Imagination’ by George MacDonald

After speaking of those laws which must be most strictly adhered to in any world authorially constructed, which MacDonald asserts that contradictions to the constructed laws will cause the world to evaporate and that, as writing cannot help having a meaning, it should not violate moral consistency either by calling good a character who does bad things.  In this manner, we are made to understand

“[I]f it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.”

~The Fantastic Imagination (1893) by George MacDonald accessed here

Laws, even inverted physical or metaphysical laws, provide a space which may offer vitality.  Perhaps we should think of something being ‘true to life’ in order to grasp what MacDonald might mean by “vitality is truth” or perhaps I have n’t grasped his meaning at all.  Regardless, however, for the time I am pleased to consider such a thought (and to be guided to a better one should it present itself).

It reminds me of a time I attempted to defend the notion of truth as a person contra my fellow speaking of truth solely as correspondence.  In his definition, ‘true to life’ meant that it was true to some overarching laws we might never be able to perceive truly (though he would assert, I think, that we know a good deal already – it is the denial of this which betrays weakness of stomach for him) but I can’t let the matter go so easily.

Truth is not a thing to be had in such a manner, but that which some chase while others abandon all hope of ever turning up the trail again.  Perhaps it is not so elusive, but truth is at least that which is acceptable within our discourse (and so it lives as our stumbling words enable it to) and I think it goes beyond that as some persons are wholly incapable of being summed within our discourse well.  Chief of these is, for my faith, Christ who seemed interested in showing the untruthfulness/deceitfulness of the hearts of many (coupled with the offer to then come follow).  But the healing movement was not to agree to his underlying principles, it was to ‘go and sin no more’ – to be a follower in the truest sense, the living one.

My own considerations have, I think, bent away from where a close reading might take us (of Fantastic Imagination, not of MacDonald’s corpus I think) so I return to consider that the experience of that vitality in reading will be different for each reader.  It is not that the reader has failed to meet the author’s intention, but that the author always says more than she intended and that some readers may find items which enrich the discourse in a manner the author could not have dreamed of.

“If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”

‘Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.'”


I love that MacDonald answers question with question for if we will understand our questions we may understand what we are hoping for.  Many read with the hope of reconstructing the author’s intended reading, but no such thing can be reconstructed while maintaining the vitality which captured the author.  It is the author’s job (as the sculptor’s) to remove that which is not truly part of the story so that the story may exhibit that life of which we are speaking.

As Pierre Bayard asserts, we are going to assert our meaning into the text – but hopefully we shall realize we are doing so and in so doing test our ‘seeing as’ to note whether it will hold up to the richness of the story.  Instead of being assured that we bring nothing to the text (whether through force of will or otherwise) we ought to fully dive into this reading and see what can be made of it.  Perhaps it is less than the author envisioned, but it may be more.  Or, more likely, our seeing-as will teach us about the way in which we view the real world – the manner with which we approach vitality.  It is my hope that, through submitting such readings in dialogue, we might learn how best to reconnect with our own world rather than escape from it and be trapped within the fantastic.  Instead, the imagination is a tool to teach us indirectly about true vitality so that we may experience it in its fullness and that is most unlikely if we settle for the catching the author’s meaning where we should practice ‘living in’ so that we might learn how to better see home.


In sum,

“If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an æolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.”


I believe logical conviction to be far less meaningful than the attempts to awaken or stir the soul of the reader.  In such case misunderstanding is not the object of fear – it is to be immovable and incapable of being stirred from slumber.  Which is the more frightening?  Better by far to misunderstand and be misunderstood but strain to catch the music and join in.


Join the discourse and be misunderstood, or be misunderstood

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