like Tolkien’s elves who combine joy with a tinge of sadness and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity

From the “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank (drawing heavily on Stephen Clark):

It is common to the entire Biblical and Classical legacy to recognise that, as Stephen R.L. Clark put it, ‘our thoughts are not entirely made by us’. …It is above all Stephen R. L. Clark who has grasped how the question of religious belief in supernatural entities—in gods, angels, daemons and fairies—is intrinsically bound up with the question of the ontological status of our thoughts and imaginings. He begins the highly nuanced and philosophically crucial reflections of his essay ‘How to Believe in Fairies’ with Yeats’ (and Chesterton’s) assumption that one should take seriously perennial folk-beliefs until one has serious reasons to doubt them. And today, he suggests, scepticism concerning the existence of fairies and the like is now on all-fours with scepticism concerning the existence of a mental reality: ‘if desires and beliefs are not real causes, and neither are fairies, why should we not investigate fairies as convenient fictions? If, on the other hand, they are real causes, maybe what we call “fairies” are so too’. He also cites W.Y. Evans Wentz’s summation of Celtic fairy lore: ‘the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls’. Clark then goes on to argue that if desires, feelings and beliefs are indeed real, then the phenomenological evidence is that they often tend ‘to arrive’ in our minds with surprisingly intrusive unpredictability and irregularity, as if we were indeed being ‘possessed’. In addition, he points out that moods are readily found to be contagious—such that, one can add, we daily discover that the ‘second world’ of our imagination is not a solipsistic one, but rather one to some degree shareable (as Wittgenstein suggested) through proferred words and gestures which engender communities of feeling. If then, the mental as the imaginary is real at all, then it makes far more logical and evidential sense to treat is as a real ontological sphere rather than a reality somehow ‘inside’ our isolated subjectivities, or ‘epiphenomenally’ produced by bodies as a coating of spectral icing sugar whose metaphysical status is simply begged.

…He then goes on to adumbrate a subtle and ethically acute analysis of the relationship between human emotions and reports and theories concerning fairies. Very often they appear as pagan gods put in their proper, subordinate place: thus they are creatures of unambivalent and abiding loves and hates, not entirely malicious, but completely given over to caprice and impulse, without any regard for ends, since their destiny is to live forever within time and they do not trouble themselves concerning eternal destiny. As Clark suggests, the temptation of ‘new age thinking’ as inaugurated by Yeats (and which Clark, as a Christian, discusses with a unique patience and degree of sympathy) as he himself half-knew, is for human beings wholly to give themselves over to these real influences, in reaction against a technocratic world in league with a falsely disenchanted (and so denatured) modern Christianity. We would then start to inhabit an amoral world of vivid, random emotions, beauty divorced from the good, and heroic, sacrificial violence, accompanied by startling symbols – since, as we saw Hume taught, feeling and image are always twinned. Clark appropriately cites William Blake’s warning against returned Druidry in Britain: ‘gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which when erected into gods become destructive of humanity. …For when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the saviour, the vine of eternity, they are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers’. Certainly, human beings need to be open to all ‘influences’, on pain of being the prisoners of a few ‘material’ ones; but this openness is dangerous unless we are supremely receptive to the unifying influence of God and of the Divine Humanity which (as Blake finally realised, with a developed orthodoxy that anticipates sophiology and is not at all gnostic) guards against the influence of a distorted and itself ‘druidically’ idolatrous monotheistic influence which would sacrifice the Creation to the Creator.

In this context Clark notes that, traditionally speaking, the fairy-realm has been associated not just with a carefree innocence and endless festival, but also with disillusionment, aridity and sterility. This concurs with the fact, that as the Irish scholar John Carey has noted, Celtic Christianity tended to locate the sidhe alternatively as unfallen human beings or as chastised pagan gods or yet again as half-fallen angels. In keeping, perhaps, with the first reading, Clark suggests in the conclusion of his essay that there can be ‘third fairies’, perhaps rather like Tolkien’s elves, who combine joy with a tinge of sadness, and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity which is the active contemplation of infinite love.

…[Clark’s] own insight that fairies are now on one fairy-footing with all other fantasies, including human thoughts as such, would rather suggest that …one not only ‘can’ but must believe in fairies (and so forth) in order to go on believing in the reality of the very thoughts that we think. For if thoughts are ireducibly real as thoughts, transcending all matter, then they must come from outside us and finally from above us. And if imaginings are real as imaginings, irreducible to physical motions, sensations or intentional abstractions, then they must belong in, and derive from a real dream-world like the one twice visited by Alice: the mundus imaginalis of the near-Orient.

Full text of this lecture available here.

“Fairy Tale Kings” by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1909)

attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

Simone Weil on her birthday. First, from Gravity and Grace (1947):

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

…We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

…Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

From an April 13, 1942 letter to poet Joë Bousquet:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

On the Christian faith.

Last letter to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, from a refugee camp in Casablanca (26 May 1942), as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:

Wrongly or rightly you think that I have a right to the name of Christian. I assure you that when in speaking of my childhood and youth I use the words vocation, obedience, spirit of poverty, purity, acceptance, love of one’s neighbor, and other expressions of the same kind, I am giving them the exact signification they have for me now. Yet I was brought up by my parents and my brother in a complete agnosticism, and I never made the slightest effort to depart from it; I never had the slightest desire to do so, quite rightly, I think. In spite of that, ever since my birth, so to speak, not one of my faults, not one of my imperfections really had the excuse of ignorance. I shall have to answer for everything on that day when the Lamb shall come in anger.

You can take my word for it too that Greece, Egypt, ancient India, and ancient China, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflections of this beauty in art and science, what I have seen of the inner recesses of human hearts where religious belief is unknown, all these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more. The love of these things that are outside visible Christianity keeps me outside the Church… But it also seems to me that when one speaks to you of unbelievers who are in affliction and accept their affliction as a part of the order of the world, it does not impress you in the same way as if it were a question of Christians and of submission to the will of God. Yet it is the same thing.

Letter to Georges Bernanos (1938), in Seventy Letters, as translated by Richard Rees (1965):

I have sometimes told myself that if only there were a notice on church doors forbidding entry to anyone with an income above a certain figure, and a low one, I would be converted at once.

As quoted in Simone Weil (1954) by Eric Walter Frederick Tomlin:

Love is not consolation, it is light.

“Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine” as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:

Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself which is not made for God. Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong.

…That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.

Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943) as translated by Richard Rees:

There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.

Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.

Another terrestrial manifestation of this reality lies in the absurd and insoluble contradictions which are always the terminus of human thought when it moves exclusively in this world.

Just as the reality of this world is the sole foundation of facts, so that other reality is the sole foundation of good.

That reality is the unique source of all the good that can exist in this world: that is to say, all beauty, all truth, all justice, all legitimacy, all order, and all human behaviour that is mindful of obligations.

Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men.

Although it is beyond the reach of any human faculties, man has the power of turning his attention and love towards it.

Nothing can ever justify the assumption that any man, whoever he may be, has been deprived of this power.

It is a power which is only real in this world in so far as it is exercised. The sole condition for exercising it is consent.

This act of consent may be expressed, or it may not be, even tacitly; it may not be clearly conscious, although it has really taken place in the soul. Very often it is verbally expressed although it has not in fact taken place. But whether expressed or not, the one condition suffices: that it shall in fact have taken place.

To anyone who does actually consent to directing his attention and love beyond the world, towards the reality that exists outside the reach of all human faculties, it is given to succeed in doing so. In that case, sooner or later, there descends upon him a part of the good, which shines through him upon all that surrounds him.

in that clear unpeopled space

Poem by Ranier Maria Rilke. [From Possibility of Being: A Selection of Poems translated by J.B. Leishman, 1957.]

This is the creature there has never been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

Not there, because they loved it, it behaved
as though it were. They always left some space.
And in that clear unpeopled space they saved
it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace

of not being there. They fed it, not with corn,
but only with the possibility
of being. And that was able to confer

such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.
Whitely it stole up to a maid – to be
within the silver mirror and in her.

Another translation by A. S. Kline (free online).

From Sonnets to Orpheus (II.4)

O this is the creature that has never been.
They never knew it and yet none the less
its movements, aspects, slender neck,
up to the still bright gaze, were loved.

True it never was, Yet because they loved, it was
a pure creature. They left it room enough.
And in that space, clear and un-peopled,
it raised its head lightly and scarcely needed

being. They didn’t nourish it with food,
but only with the possibility of being.
And that gave the creature so much power

that a horn grew from its brow. One horn.
In its whiteness it drew near a virgin girl –
and was in the mirror’s silver and in her.

this improvised temple

From The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder:

There had been some changes made in the storage yard. Some of the ornate old porch pillars had been propped up around the lean-to so that they seemed to be supporting its sagging tin roof; the statue of Diana had been moved into position near this improvised temple; and in the place of honor at the back and center of the shed, the bust of Nefertiti was enthroned in the broken birdbath. The little boy was playing quietly with his octopus on the floor of the shed and the two girls were busily pulling the tall dry weeds that choked the yard, and stacking them in a pile near the fence. “Look, Melanie,” the girl named April said. She displayed a prickly bouquet of thistle blossoms. “Neat!” Melanie nodded enthusiastically. “Lotus blossoms?” April considered her uninviting bouquet with new appreciation. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Lotus blossoms.” Melanie had another inspiration. She stood up, dumping her lap full of weeds, and reached for the blossoms—gingerly because of the prickles. Holding them at arm’s length, she announced dramatically, “The Sacred Flower of Egypt.” Then she paced with dignity to the birdbath and with a curtsy presented them to Nefertiti. April had followed, watching approvingly, but now she suddenly objected. “No! Like this,” she said. Taking the thistle flowers, she dropped to her knees and bent low before the birdbath. Then she crawled backward out of the lean-to. “Neat,” Melanie said, and, taking the flowers back, she repeated the ritual, adding another refinement by tapping her forehead to the floor three times. April gave her stamp of approval to this latest innovation by trying it out herself, doing the forehead taps very slowly and dramatically. Then the two girls went back to their weed pulling, leaving the thistles before the altar of Nefertiti.

the imagination that can see what is there

From The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton:

We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there. The only way to suggest the point is by an example of something, indeed of almost anything, that has been considered beautiful or wonderful. George Wyndham once told me that he had seen one of the first aeroplanes rise for the first time and it was very wonderful; but not so wonderful as a horse allowing a man to ride on him.

…The first and best way of appreciating it is to come of people with a tradition of treating animals properly; of men in the right relation to horses. A boy who remembers his father who rode a horse, who rode it well and treated it well, will know that the relation can be satisfactory and will be satisfied. He will be all the more indignant at the ill-treatment of horses because he knows how they ought to be treated; but he will see nothing but what is normal in a man riding on a horse. He will not listen to the great modern philosopher who explains to him that the horse ought to be riding on the man. He will not pursue the pessimist fancy of Swift and say that men must be despised as monkeys and horses worshipped as gods. And horse and man together making an image that is to him human and civilised, it will be easy, as it were, to lift horse and man together into something heroic or symbolical; like a vision of St. George in the clouds. The fable of the winged horse will not be wholly unnatural to him: and he will know why Ariosto set many a Christian hero in such an airy saddle, and made him the rider of the sky.

…Nor is it mere verbal fancy to see him thus as a unique monster; for in a sense a monster means what is unique, and he is really unique. But the point is that when we thus see him as the first man saw him, we begin once more to have some imaginative sense of what it meant when the first man rode him. In such a dream he may seem ugly, but he does not seem unimpressive; and certainly that two-legged dwarf who could get on top of him will not seem unimpressive. By a longer and more erratic road we shall come back to the same marvel of the man and the horse; and the marvel will be, if possible, even more marvellous. We shall have again a glimpse of St. George; the more glorious because St. George is not riding on the horse, but rather riding on the dragon.

…Of the two extremes, I think on the whole that the traditional grasp of truth is the better. But I say that the truth is found at one or other of these two extremes, and is lost in the intermediate condition of mere fatigue and forgetfulness of tradition. In other words, I say it is better to see a horse as a monster than to see it only as a slow substitute for a motor-car. If we have got into that state of mind about a horse as something stale, it is far better to be frightened of a horse because it is a good deal too fresh.

…All roads lead to Rome, all ways lead round again to the central and civilised philosophy, including this road through elf-land and topsy-turvydom. But it may be that it is better never to have left the land of a reasonable tradition, where men ride lightly upon horses and are mighty hunters before the Lord. So also in the specially Christian case we have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue.

to desire it

In secular use, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; it other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in way , to do it in advance–briefly, to practice it. [16]

…Another important factor explained by rumination and reminiscence is the power of imagination of the medieval man. Exuberant as this faculty is, it nevertheless possesses a vigor and a preciseness which we find difficult to understand. We are used to seeing, almost without looking at them unless with a distracted eye, printed or moving pictures. We are fond of abstract ideas. Our imagination, having become lazy, seldom allows us to do anything but dream. But in the men of the Middle Ages it was vigorous and active. It permitted them to picture, to “make present,” to see beings with all the details provided by the texts. …The words of the sacred text never failed to produce a strong impression on the mind. [75]

The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture by Jean Leclercq.

fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices

The poet, Plato writes in Phaedra, “clothes all the great deeds accomplished by the men of old with glory, and thus educates those who come after.” The poet’s myth teaches the Ideal Type by example, not by precept, and allows the student through his imagination to participate in the past, partaking of the Ideal. Often the student is asked—paraphrasing Shelly—to go out of his own nature: to imagine himself in the sandals of some mythical or historical figure. How would you have advised the Senate, his teacher might ask him, had you been Regulus returned from Carthage with the ultimatum? (45)

Likewise in classical schools, students are often asked to play the “devil’s advocate”…. This … negates certain parts of the Ideal in such a way that the negation demonstrates the nonessential nature of these parts. …In any case, classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices: the impassioned debate of many great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation, and his thoughts and actions become literally involved with the Ideal Type. The Ideal is refined, and action and thought join inextricably in the life of virtue. (47)

From Norms and Nobility by David Hicks.