Thursday, August 06, 2009

GKC: Transfiguration and Make Believe

As I write, our esteemed bloggmistress is somewhere in midair, on her way to ChesterCon 2009 in what Tolkien called "the Farthest West". (Yes, contrary to most British speculations, recent work in archeology has revealed that the Shire was probably in Washington or British Columbia. Hee hee.) I, like so many other Chestertonians who are not attending the conference, eagerly await her reports.

But today is Thursday, and though I am busy as usual, I shall give you a short pithy and argumentative tidbit to consider.

For, as I have mentioned over on my own blogg, I have completed a draft of my current fantasy, The Three Relics. I mention this dull and personal news because someone is sooner or later going to mention something, in a predictably snide tone, about someone else's fantasy - specifically referring to today's feast of the Transfiguration in contrast to a class called "Transfiguration" taught by Professor McGonagall of Hogwarts. (My fantasy has a College, but they do not teach that sort of thing. They do, however, have a cathedral, and are often found praying there. Or going to Mass.)

Ahem. But let us briefly consider this term "transfiguration".

Having investigated GKC's use of the term, which occurs only a handful of times, I can assure you that the term was not copyrighted to apply to the events on Tabor (or whatever mountain it was) just as "Nativity" can apply to other births than the one in Bethlehem. In discussing writers, for example, GKC applies "transfiguration" to humans without harm to the biblical event. Or there is this remarkable image, which I seem to have missed the other times I've read the essay:
Repetition actually disguises failure. Take a particular man, and tell him to put on a particular kind of hat and coat and trousers, and to stand in particular attitudes in the back garden; and you will have great difficulty in persuading yourself (or him) that he has passed through a triumph and transfiguration. Order four hundred such hats, and eight hundred such trousers, and you will have turned the fancy costume into a uniform. Make all the four hundred men stand in the special attitudes on Salisbury Plain, and there will rise up before you the spirit of a regiment. Let the regiment march past, and, if you have any life in you above the brutes that perish, [see Ps 48/49] you will have an overwhelming sense that something splendid has just happened, or is just going to begin.
[GKC ILN Aug 12 1922 CW32:424-5]
Wow. I must remember to footnote that next time we talk about GKC's "motif" of repetition. But such use also does not disgrace either the concept or the biblical event.

Indeed, GKC seems to have only one use of the term in direct reference to the biblical event of today's feast - and - as you might expect - he is applying it dramatically to the idea of story and fantasy and fairy-tale... But you may find that misleading. Just read what he says:
...the ordinary phrases used about childish fancies often strike me as missing the mark, and being in some subtle way, quite misleading. For instance, there is the very popular phrase, "Make-believe." This seems to imply that the mind makes itself believe something; or else that it first makes something and then forces itself to believe in it, or to believe something about it. I do not think there is even this slight crack of falsity in the crystal clearness and directness of the child's vision of a fairy-palace - or a fairy-policeman. In one sense the child believes much less, and in another much more than that. I do not think the child is deceived; or that he attempts for a moment to deceive himself. I think he instantly asserts his direct and divine right to enjoy beauty; that he steps straight into his own lawful kingdom of imagination, without any quibbles or questions such as arise afterwards out of false moralities and philosophies, touching the nature of falsehood and truth. In other words, I believe that the child has inside his head a pretty correct and complete definition of the whole nature and function of art; with the one addition that he is quite incapable of saying, even to himself, a single word on the subject. Would that many other professors of aesthetics were under a similar limitation. Anyhow, he does not say to himself, "This is a real street, in which mother could go shopping." He does not say to himself, "This is an exact realistic copy of a real street, to be admired for its technical correctness." Neither does he say, "This is an unreal street, and I am drugging and deceiving my powerful mind with something that is a mere illusion." Neither does he say, "This is only a story, and nurse says it is very naughty to tell stories." If he says anything, he only says what was said by those men who saw the white blaze of the Transfiguration, "It is well for us to be here." [Mt 17:4]
[GKC "the Pantomime" in The Common Man 56-7]

Having entered into "Story" as deeply as I have in my own little exercise in writing, I can assure you this is one of the most dramatic bits of GKC, and only someone who chased Sunday through London, or fought beneath the Water Tower of Campden Hill or followed the train of the unreasonable (to splash soup on the wall, or swap sugar and salt) or had a picnic on the roof is able to see it. Or someone who hires a feisty Scottish woman as a professor of Transfiguration. Please, do not try to critique it. Try it for yourself - sit and write your own story. And you also will be compelled to say "It is well for us to be here."

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