Thursday, June 30, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 22

Yet again, another amazing chapter. They seem to never stop. This time the protagonist, now on his sad pilgrimage, meets himself in a forest. Certainly MacDonald has a point here, and it is not immediately clear to me exactly what it is. Prior to meeting the knight, he feels a burst of pride in his accomplishments, and then he meets a figure of himself, except stronger and fiercer who overcomes his courage. So I sense a couple things here. The obvious: this represents a personal struggle in his own mind and heart.

But what exactly he is struggling against is not entirely clear. At first, I thought it was pride, because that was the emotion he felt right before meeting his shadow traveling in a new form. And yet, the human reaction to pride is not fear and depression like the protagonist subsequently faces. The way pride attacks people is silently and with subtlety. The fact that he feels depressed over this is almost a sign that he is not actually facing pride.

I'm going to quote MacDonald again because this passage just struck me so powerfully when I was reading it now.

I think I must have fallen asleep, and have slept for hours; for I suddenly became aware of existence, in observing that the moon was shining through the hole in the roof. As she rose higher and higher, her light crept down the wall over me, till at last it shone right upon my head. Instantaneously the walls of the tower seemed to vanish away like a mist. I sat beneath a beech, on the edge of a forest, and the open country lay, in the moonlight, for miles and miles around me, spotted with glimmering houses and spires and towers. I thought with myself, "Oh, joy! it was only a dream; the horrible narrow waste is gone, and I wake beneath a beech-tree, perhaps one that loves me, and I can go where I will.

... But as soon as the first faint light of the dawn appeared, instead of shining upon me from the eye of the morning, it stole like a fainting ghost through the little square hole above my head; and the walls came out as the light grew, and the glorious night was swallowed up of the hateful day.
So among other reasons why I love this is the reference to the beech tree. And then there's the way that he talks about the grim depression of the tower of imprisonment, how it is a horrible narrow waste. It is both small, constrained, and empty, barren and void of life or meaning. It strongly reminds me of how I felt about my "desert experience" back in 2007-2008. And yet, at night is when he is given a vision of freedom and his heart soars. The beech tree was his protector against the darkness of a prior assault, the Ash Tree, much like I had ministering angels protect me, and he feels most alive at night, when the angel of the moon rides through the sky, much like the nighttime was my window to experience God and soar in spirit. To this day, those experiences at night with God stand as some of the strongest and most powerful experiences I've ever had, and yet they truly were these brief 15-30 minute windows of life in an otherwise dry and barren experience. Yet they sustained me through the grace of God.

So that's why I love this chapter. And here is another glorious passage that is so rich I feel I must quote it out of reverence, even though I am assuming that my readers have already read the chapter.

About noon, I started as if something foreign to all my senses and all my experience, had suddenly invaded me; yet it was only the voice of a woman singing. My whole frame quivered with joy, surprise, and the sensation of the unforeseen. Like a living soul, like an incarnation of Nature, the song entered my prison-house. Each tone folded its wings, and laid itself, like a caressing bird, upon my heart. It bathed me like a sea; inwrapt me like an odorous vapour; entered my soul like a long draught of clear spring-water; shone upon me like essential sunlight; soothed me like a mother's voice and hand. Yet, as the clearest forest-well tastes sometimes of the bitterness of decayed leaves, so to my weary, prisoned heart, its cheerfulness had a sting of cold, and its tenderness unmanned me with the faintness of long-departed joys. I wept half-bitterly, half-luxuriously; but not long. I dashed away the tears, ashamed of a weakness which I thought I had abandoned. Ere I knew, I had walked to the door, and seated myself with my ears against it, in order to catch every syllable of the revelation from the unseen outer world.

I am simply quoting this because of the glorious richness and quality of the description. Like the song that he describes, this passage itself conveys life. The song itself speaks of pride again, which is what MacDonald was focusing on before. So this appears to have been his point in the conflict-with-self even though it doesn't entirely seem consistent to me. And then the soliloquy at the end confirms that MacDonald is talking about a battle against pride, that he must give up his claim to knighthood to find humility. He felt the need to give up his claim to knighthood to properly walk in the deeds of righteousness, and from thence to achieve manhood. Or as he puts it, one who desires of himself a hero, will be barely a man, but of him who is satisfied to simply do good works, he shall be assured of manhood.

But he rightly points out that in the death of pride it is possible to raise a new, subtler pride that glories in the death of pride, and thus pride is reborn. In truth and in spirit must your pride die, with rejoicing for sure, but not with satisfaction and self-congratulation. As MacDonald says:

Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?

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