That watercolor picture in Peter Rabbit of Old Mrs. Rabbit coming along a sandy path in the woods with her red kerchief and market basket may have stuck in the memory of readers. Certainly it has in mine. The Beatrix Potter books drew my young imagination into a world that seemed to cast a warm and sunlit radiance back into the common, light-of-day world that I inhabited — the world, that is, of breakfast, the playroom, my yellow tricycle, my playmates, and my parents and family. Tom Kitten, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Mrs. Tittlemouse, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and the rest of them: My reveries were shot through with the soft light that illumined the fields, woods, farmyards, and grassy hills of the Potter books.
Of course, it was all merely an imaginary world. One had to set it aside presently and come to terms with the plain business of life. But two words there might bear scrutiny: “merely” and “imaginary.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Merely, for a start: This word carries with it the suggestion that a thing is of little or no significance, and must sooner or later be supervened by the call of sober responsibilities. You can’t have a schoolboy forever retreating into the domain of Winnie-the-Pooh, say, when he should be doing his Latin or his household chores. And imaginary: Ordinarily, this word suggests a domain that stands over against the real world to which we mortals must address ourselves. A man may make mountains out of mere molehills in his daily exchanges, or seek escape from his responsibilities in the mirage of his imagination — we say that such a man is in great trouble. The mere and the imaginary must bow to the call of the real when the two conflict.
But then, Mrs. Rabbit and Pooh turn up in a world that has other inhabitants: Zeus, Hyacinth, Arthur, Lear, Jean Valjean, David Copperfield, and the rest. Surely this is all the mere world of the imaginary?
Well, yes, mostly. But when that impressive cast appears on stage, we begin to wonder whether “mere” quite does justice to the thing. And even the word “imaginary” starts to take on a weight that we hadn’t counted on when we were talking about rabbits.
What is this weight that seems to attach itself to that merely imaginary world? Distinctions could be drawn between lightweight and heavyweight, to be sure: One would stop on the hither side of juxtaposing Mrs. Rabbit, much as we like her, with King Lear. On the other hand, this insubstantial world of the imagination has for millennia imbrued our “real” world of affairs. The pharaohs, the caesars, J. S. Bach, Bismarck, John D. Rockefeller, Winston Churchill, you and I — here is the real world. But from the beginning, men have told tales. Whatever saber-toothed tigers prowled about, whatever Huns were at the gates, bubonic plagues raged, or famine brooded, the odd thing is that story seems somehow to be in the cards. Not only will we not cease telling tales in such calamitous times; the tales seem to have suffused the world and have driven us by their strange power to mull over the sheer depth, immensity, luminescence, and gravity of our situation as mortals. Hoeing turnips, driving back the Huns, inventing the internal combustion engine and computers, and raising our families — the details of these enterprises exist front and center, so to speak. But what is the backdrop against which all of these affairs proceed?
Surely it is that world evoked and embodied in the great figures of the imagination? Courage, hardiness, nobility, suffering, intrepidity, grace, sweetness, self-donation, heroism — these qualities are at work in the real world of our mortality and are incarnate and vivified and heralded in the stories and figures that the human imagination has created. Somehow, story is always in the cards, and the call for us mortals not merely to live through all that life asks of us, but to pause and set forth our experience — in story and painting and statuary and dance and song — that call will not leave us alone somehow.
That last list is what constitutes the world of art — of the works of imagination, that is. To tally, explain, and analyze human experience is one thing, and that is the work of the sciences and various intellectual disciplines. But from Cro-Magnon man on down through the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even under the lethal hand of the Enlightenment and Modernism, we seem to have been obliged not merely to live but to create.
From the Christian point of view, two or three points would seem to arise in this connection.
For one thing, we are all aware of living in a tale that is just that — a tale. It opens, “In the beginning,” and a story unfolds. It is hemmed in by no boundaries whatever. Angels and archangels, Adam, Enoch and Moses and the Virgin, not to mention the Incarnate God, inhabit the story — and this story is the true one, played out on the real stage of our history. Light years shrink to mere milliseconds as the size of the whole scene opens out. Joy pierces things, and wickedness, and terrible sorrows. The plot thickens on the first page with the arrival of evil. And we men, as opposed to the elephants and the titmice and the gnats, find ourselves burdened with awareness. We wonder, what is going on? What does it all mean? (Your gnat doesn’t ask.) And how shall we find a way to bespeak the immensity and bliss and tragedy at work in the story?
“Once upon a time,” we try, by way of giving resonance to our effort to grasp the whole. And in trying that phrase, we find that we have, in fact, stumbled into a dimension that does not always present itself in the clutter of immediacy that marks our common pursuits and responsibilities. Our efforts in this connection spring from imagination, to be sure. But imagination, after all, is image-ination: It is the image-making faculty in us that reflects the image of God, which, we are told, crowns us mortals and distinguishes us from the beasts. We alone are made in the image of the Maker. It is not said of the angels.
And in making images — of Arthur and Jean Valjean and Mrs. Rabbit — we answer the call that comes from the abyss wherein lies the mystery of Man and God. And, we are told, Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” The Incarnation: the making solid and visible and proximate that which lies, otherwise, entirely beyond any powers that we ourselves have to grasp.
And the sacraments: These all have their existence in the solid world of flesh and blood. They stand at the pinnacle of all dogma, doctrine, theology, and discourse. (It is worth noting here that Protestantism has, in effect, evacuated the sacraments as they have been understood by the Church from its apostolic birth.) The sacraments all do their work via the physical world. Water, bread, wine, oil, yes — but even confession. You can’t text your confession, or e-mail it in. There has to be a human eardrum right there, and your larynx. And holy orders? There must be your head and the hands of a bishop. There are no disembodied sacraments.
So. The Story — our story, and all of the stories that we mortals have told ourselves. What does it all hint at? Indeed — what?