Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reflected Light

"It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists," C. S. Lewis writes in "Meditation in a Toolshed." "The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten" (Lewis 213). He decries the credibility that biologists, sociologists, studiers--those who look at the beam--have in society relative to the subjects studied--those who look along the beam--and argues for an approach that integrates these two approaches: "One must look both along and at everything" (215). Yet I think the real reason why we go to those who look at the beam is that looking along is fundamentally incommunicable. It's easy to wander into the toolshed, notice the beam of light, notice the lab coated researcher next to you scribbling on a pad, and poke them to ask what's up with the light. The researcher's in the same place you are. But the ones inside the beam see only the light, and it seems inconceivable that anything exists outside of it.

To take a trivial example: this course has so thoroughly bathed my mind in the Legendarium that I have to consciously remind myself that not everyone has visions of Arda flitting through their head at all times. At a party halfway through the quarter, I was very intently telling a girl who'd just introduced herself as "Eleanor" that she reminded me of elanor, light of the sun, the flower that grows upon the slopes of Lothlorien. It was meant as a compliment, but she just looked confused and mildly horrified. I stuttered out an apology, then withdrew to a corner to think about What I Had Done (or, alternatively, Why I Am No Fun At Parties). How could I explain Aragorn at the foot of Cerin Amroth, "standing still and silent as a tree; but in his hand was a small golden bloom of elanor, and a light was in his eyes" (LotR II.6)? that elanor is, to me, one of the most evocative symbols of beauty and its inevitable passing from the earth? my love for Tolkien? I would have to step out of the beam, try to talk objectively about style or subcreation, to make Eleanor understand--or hand her a copy of The Lord of the Rings and hope that she, well, sees the light. (I really am no fun at parties.) Those looking along the beam find it nearly impossible to make themselves coherent to those looking at. The faithful will say that the substance of their faith is indescribable, ineffable; lovers may gibber all they want (and gibber they do), but the thousand poems they may create could never substitute for the touch of their lover's hand.

Yet we write and read love poems because through them we can, in a way, look at the love from which they sprang. Though even the best poetry cannot communicate the experience, reading it allows us to think about our own experiences in a different way. Indeed, I think the reason why we find art so touching and so important is because it functions as a mirror in which we can see the light reflected. The greatest art* is such because it is infused with the brighter beams: e. e. cummings's poetry and love, The Iliad and mortality, Tolkien's Arda and faith. By themselves, these works cannot bring us into the light, but once we step into the beam ourselves through experience, we read and reread these personal scriptures to gain a better understanding and appreciation of what we stand in.

[*] Incidentally, I do include great scientific works in this category. For me, the theory of evolution, the dual nature of light and matter, the ways tiny neural interactions can lead to emotions as complex and transcendent as love, and many other similar discoveries are windows to the wonder of our universe. Some of the most spiritual experiences I've had come from contemplation of these theories, and it frustrates me to see some artists dismiss science out of hand as being cold and unfeeling.

Furthermore, as this class as demonstrated, contemplation of this light is not a solitary experience. This is the purpose of Cult: to bring together people with the same points of departure in order to gain understanding (or simply fun) through social communion. Religion, in its regular (usually weekly, it seems) gathering of believers at a place of worship, is the most obvious example of this. Storytelling may be an interesting example of Cult. Many of us came to Tolkien because our parents read it aloud to us as children, a regular bedtime ritual; it's notable that Agatha reads aloud to the children every Sunday. Through this ritual of storytelling that the art to appreciate experience are passed down, generation to generation. And we then can make our own art, our own mirrors, to become subcreators in our right. In showing these creations to others, the promise of the mirror is fulfilled, and together we can look along the beam with greater understanding.

Thanks for a great course, everyone, and I'll see you all at the Happening!

M. Liu

1 comment:

  1. "Looking along the beam is fundamentally incommunicable": indeed, yes! You have captured here the essence of the problem that all lovers, poets, people of faith, and, yes, even scientists have when they are asked by someone outside of their beam to explain what they see. How can the scientist explain why looking at the wonders of creation (whether he or she thinks of them as "creatures") is so absorbing without defaulting into the usual extra-beam "benefits" that science is suppose to bring? How can people of faith explain the joy they experience seeing with the eyes of faith to those outside without falling into the language of social utility and personal growth? These things may be true, but they are not the reason for the beam or standing inside of it. But what pleasure it is to share one's experience of looking along the beam with others who are standing in the same light! Thank you all for a great course--and see you at the Happening!