Mis-hap or Stumblings: Readings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

As far as debts go, my reading owes ever so much to the e’er so well known C.S. Lewis (if over-quoted in favor of items he never would ‘ve backed – such is the lot of the popular, doomed to being misunderstood) but few debts are so dear as that which led through Lewis to the goodly Irishman MacDonald.  I think I never truly breathed faerie nor so happily mis-happed before feeling its metaphysical pull.

Lilith and Phantastes are ever welcome traveling companions (although a companion, etymologically, is one who shares bread with the fellow traveler) as are MacDonald’s rather bumbling protagonists. But these uncanny mis-haps, these unreflective seeings, lend to the strength of the dream-quality of both books.  No other works to date present themselves so immediately to my senses, nor demand such reflective responses.

Some samplings for those considering or already reading Lilith:

Often the main character in a MacDonald work will have some education, often some relation to Oxford.  In Lilith, these studies are mere backdrop to an otherwise unremarkable life.  The character quickly forgets his own name when first he stumbles through the mirror and is none the worse for it.

Books!  Often a vast library sets the home base for whatever may occur.  In three paragraphs the ‘fine library of his ancestors’ is introduced and its age hints at future wonders for the reader (as well as the only significant occupation for its proximal owner).  We come to find that this particular collection has served and continues to serve for the haunt of one Mr. Raven.

One day our narrator is able to follow this shadow through previously unknown passages to find the mirror, which we soon find is a ‘door out’ where previously he had only experienced ‘doors in’ (p. 12).  Upon mis-stepping so as to gain a better view, our character finds himself in the open air – “behind me: all was vague and uncertain, as when one cannot distinguish between fog and field, between cloud and mountainside. (p. 11)”

Mr. Raven provides further enlightenment (which is more confounding for our bewildered narrator) in telling, “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in! (p. 12)”  A door is supposed to keep the unwanted out and allow the desired in, but here we are considering doors whose ‘whereness’ is considerably less clear.  The machinations may be inconsistent, or rather, we may not understand them.  Understanding our surroundings is turned on its head when we are told, “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home. (p. 13)”

Something in me loves that line.  Misunderstanding is a frightening thing when one is not at home.  The possibility of ‘doors in’ and ‘doors out’ is unwelcome until we are able to ‘well come’ – to embrace that which is of a nature frightening.  It is not that ‘whereness’ is flimsy, it is that we are and our understandings are.  I write this in an unfamiliar place I (and my wife) are trying to make home.  It ‘s quite funny how the mind struggles to settle where it will endure anything when it ‘s home.  Perhaps this is the sense in which “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”

Home is the only place you can go out and in.  Hm…

One more ‘aroma of an idea’ before moving on…  Mr. Raven presents the unanswerable: “Who are you, pray?”  At this moment, the narrator finds that no answer he can give will suffice.  Should he give his name he is only explaining a relation whose source cannot be demonstrated.  Worse, he does not know himself at all so that he can provide no ‘what’ or ‘who’ to his questioner.

The questioner’s lesson (yet to be learned in full) is that “no one can say he is himself until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is. (p. 14)”  Reflection should easily dismiss any solid notion of either assertion.  The cogito ergo sum gives us no notion of what ‘to be’ or ‘I’ truly mean.  Ironically, this is not skepticism, but merely an acknowledging that the words we use (and the understandings we hold) fail to hold that which we expect from them.  Their solidity is purely derivative.  The solidity that is does not falter because our words fail, but the comfort of our words may well be lost.

It now dawns on our protagonist that perhaps he is dead.  In a sense this seems the likely deduction, but I would think it represents moreso the terror of death or separation.  He falls through into the garret chamber in which the mirror was housed and retreats from the unfamiliar upper rooms of the house in a full horror.  But it is most surely the fear of death, or the realization of how dead he already is, that grips him and now robs him of the familiarity previously he assumed with himself.

It is this state which the main character wakes from in the morning, on which note I shall put myself to bed.

Miscommunicating Magnified: Expressing Affliction in ‘The Plague’

“If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him.  And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing.  For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced.  Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”

~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 69 [emphases mine])

 

Several aspects of this quote reflect themes prominently found in Camus’ The Plague.  The isolating aspect of pestilence is particularly insufferable and this, time and again, goes well beyond the expected ‘conventional emotions’.  In connection, the lack of adequate sympathy is exacerbated for while each suffers from the same fears and many of the same restrictions imposed by plague – their experiences drive them farther apart.  It is, in fact, this being driven apart that unites these members of the plague-stricken town.  One would expect, then, that sympathy (feeling with the other) is natural in such circumstances.

But it seems that, if we are to agree with Camus’ narrative, sympathy in suffering is extremely difficult to communicate – most especially so by means of words.  In the case of such isolation, these words take on a precision sharpened by one’s isolation.  The depth of this isolation is felt more sharply when one finds that the meaning associated with these terms – the deep feeling behind them – is understood in the most general manner.  The communicant is stunned to find that where the medium of language should allow for communication, the generalizing nature of language drives them farther from communication – from truly sharing the other’s feeling.

 

To step into the personal/practical, I often wonder how to communicate with the grieving.  It seems ‘being there’ in principal means community members see to clear needs and each provides space should the grief-stricken approach.  But in such moments, I find myself unable to bridge the gap – to truly understand being generalities what the other is experiencing.  In a similar position I would perhaps describe such pains as being separated from some important aspect of myself…but such rational expression (again the idea of ‘ratio’ or measure) never manages to scale what is being experienced.  Perhaps we never know our feelings until after we are finished experiencing them in full vigor.  It ‘s rather like what C.S. Lewis had to say about toothache; while experiencing toothache one cannot think of anything but the pain — the concrete.

This is what I ‘ve most valued in The Plague; considering the place abstraction has in our concrete experiences of affliction.  We communicate abstractions but we are concerned with the concrete.  Is the isolation then abstract or concrete?  It is experienced concretely, but acutely driven home by abstraction – by the fact that all rationalizations fail.  The mind is unable to give full and lasting reprieve from what is being experienced.  In a case where the suffering is isolation (from one’s loved ones, one’s expectations, and therefore a certain view of one’s relation to reality – the expectation of the future) – abstraction offers little reprieve in communication.

 

It acutely describes the failure of words – words only serve as a medium when they are understandable.  This is only possible when we have managed to funnel meaning through them so that the concrete can be expressed.  In order to do so, abstraction must occur and such a medium paints a raging sea with one chalk on a flat slate.

Miscalculation: When Words are “Not to Scale”

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash own on our heads from a blue sky.  There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

“In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence.  When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.”  But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting.  Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”

~ Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 34 [emphasis mine])

 

I ‘ve really appreciated the manner in which Camus colored the incomprehensibility of plague.  Up to this moment Rieux and most of his fellow doctors have refused to seriously consider the possibility that they are observing plague for plague is ultimately a worthless abstraction completely unhelpful for the mind.  Throughout, Camus repeatedly shades the various manners by which members of the town attempt to grasp the horror besieging them.  This commentary fuels my own abstractions.

Though evil, especially in the forms of war or pestilence, escapes the mind’s capacity to weigh – still we consistently attempt to gain some sense, and consistently we find that evil in the form of war or pestilence goes beyond scale.  It ‘s “too stupid” but while this protest is agreed to by all, stupidity still gets its way.  Our protests seem to hold no sway in determining such horrors’ scope.  It is this sense that leads me to appreciate the abstraction – for the limits of abstraction are prominently displayed.  It is at once ir’ration’al and yet true-to-life — to scale in its critique of the use of scales.