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upon a midnight clear

By Diogenes (articles ) | Dec 23, 2005

For obvious reasons, there's a lot of discussion these days about the power of C.S. Lewis's imagination. I think one of his most outstanding talents was the ability to take other people with him and allow them to stand in imaginative shoes not their own. Is there any other writer with such a sure touch for transplanting his appetites into his readers? The following passage (from The Discarded Image, Cambridge 1964, pp. 98f.) is exceptionally fine considered simply as a bit of prose, but it also illustrates this knack of Lewis's at its best. He wants to teach us what a medieval man saw, and felt, when looking up at the sky.

You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old (Ptolemaic) cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is really downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, far less abstract, sort of distance that we call height: height which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous. And the fact that the height of the stars in medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you anticipated. ... To look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking about one in a trackless forest -- trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The 'space' of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the older writers present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic and theirs was classical.

Both views, Lewis is at pains to stress, modern and pre-modern, have their own beauty and power, but they don't address the same parts of our imagination. Try listening to more traditional Christmas carols using this "vertiginous" model as your point of reference, and you'll notice the shift.

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  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - Dec. 23, 2005 8:56 PM ET USA

    Readers who wish to replace their missing education in English literature and Western Civilization can do a lot worse than getting their hands on every one of CS Lewis' non-apologetic expository tracts on various aspects of English letters. "Medieval man shared many ignorances with the savage, and some of his beliefs may suggest savage parallels to an anthropologist. But he had not usually reached those beliefs by the same route as the savage."

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