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.

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Mis-phil: Re-specting Skeptics Against Skepticism

This is one of those thoughts which strike me, which few could care to approve or discredit, and which I will of natural course forget. Worse, I can’t even answer the question – but perhaps one day I shall be able to and then I shall look back upon these silly notes, scrawled as they are, and wonder who the person was who misunderstood to such an extent not one author, but two!

So, it is with some hesitation that I posit something I may inevitably disprove or discredit or cease to care about, but learning is by means of connections and answering questions and finally understanding why our questions were poorly formed to begin. The path must begin at the toes of these hills and only far later shall we see what routes we should have pursued instead.

 

In the preface to his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (first published in 1713), Berkeley (1685-1753) attacks the exercise of abstract thought for the purpose of speculation is “practice or the improvement and regulation of our lives and actions” where it causes distrust of our senses (the preface, p. 5 in The Liberal Arts Press’ publication of Three Dialogues, 1954).  Skepticism and paradoxes result from undue speculation – that speculation which asks us to distinguish ‘real nature’ from that which is presented to our senses.  Because we distrust our senses, for they have been known to be mis-taken, we take the thing in itself to be more real (perhaps I ‘m anachronistically importing my understanding of Kant…buyer be wary).  Berekeley wishes to remove such endless pursuits of the mind, not in the least because they distract us from what is important – amending our actions.

If I ‘ve grasped in the pre-reading a taste of that which Berkeley intends, I wonder how al-Ghazali (1058-1111) compares.  Al-Ghazali also wishes, as I understand him, to dispense with undue speculation so that right practice may result.  Of course, both Berkeley and al-Ghazali’s works provide particularly interesting voices within philosophical skepticism, particularly in dealing with causality.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, possibly my favorite philosophical title, and a landmark of 11th century Islamic philosophico-religious thought, spends a significant portion demonstrating the ‘auto-destruction’ or unsustainable reasoning of metaphysics grounded in speculation.  As I understand him, al-Ghazali’s main objective is not that another would agree with his metaphysics, but that one would see the foolishness of making claims based on any other standard than what God affirms.  Speculation in this sense has ensnared many and leads to the undue questioning of authority.

Berkeley is speaking in a different discourse, one which I ‘m less familiar with.  But, his dialogues will necessarily concern metaphysics – that by which one tries to explain the fundamental ‘being’ of the world/reality and he means to use speculation to discredit speculation.  Whether either or neither is an occasionalist (the fascinating system in which causality is essentially denied – which first drew me to both men’s works) is ultimately immaterial.  Both men would, I think, unite behind the cause of “rescuing [the mind] from those endless pursuits” because the true pursuit ought to be right action in accord with virtue (pp. 6-7 in the preface for Three Dialogues).

 

I suppose to ever answer such questions I ‘ll have to read far more of both – the result of which may well be raucous laughter on my part when I retrace my footfalls.  So, in order to speculate about the ineffectiveness of speculation I have posited my own and shall see what may come of it.

A Little Heidegger for a Lazy Sunday

Putting forth questions – questions that are not happenstance thoughts, nor are questions the common “problems” of today which “one” picks up from hearsay and book learning and decks out with a gesture of profundity. Questions grow out of a confrontation with “subject matter.” And subject matter is there only where eyes are.  (Opening to the Foreword for M. Heidegger’s Ontology-The Hermeneutics of Facticity)

This is premature (it is after all a reflection on the foreword) but even this first paragraph of this foreword (which follows a sort of Introduction to his Summer lectures of 1923) brings to mind some thoughts I see as important.  First, I am struck by the fragmentary nature of this opening; in fact I like it – I’ve been a fan of gerunds of late (‘-ing’s) as they emphasize continual natures of actions (e.g. ‘discipling’ versus ‘discipled’) – and what’s more it strikes the right note for what I believe Heidegger will mean by questions.

Since the middle of undergraduate studies questions have been fascinating – in fact questions have in large part become the objects of pursuit (i.e. I would consider it a great accomplishment even to at last find which questions are truly worthy of pursuit for the pursuit of good questions is a worthy aim): I have desired to learn which ‘problems’ haunted great minds so that their answers are not merely “subject matter” but rather are part of the struggles of history.  For a question to be worthy it must grow out of not the bare text – just as a class should not be merely filling the requirements of the syllabus but rather fully engaging with the questions which are inherent to the subject matter.  This is that second item which strikes soundly: do we know what it means to have eyes?  I turn this quest-ion to you.