Those of us who love literature are puzzled by those who are indifferent to its goodness, truth and beauty. We are perplexed by those who won’t read fiction because they want the facts and nothing but the facts. We are bemused by those who won’t read poetry, preferring prose, because they want to remain grounded and do not want to have their heads in the clouds with the poets.
We are tempted to approach our puzzlement with the art of paradox, which might be defined as the use of an apparent contradiction to point to a deeper truth. The master of such paradox is G. K. Chesterton and we will use one of his most provocative paradoxes to provoke the literal-minded into a literary understanding of reality. “Not facts first,” Chesterton insisted, “truth first.”
At first sight, Chesterton appears to be enunciating nonsense. Surely facts are true. That’s why they are facts. But facts are, in fact, only facts. In the sense in which Chesterton is using the word, a “fact” is something physical. It is something that can be quantified and measured. But some of the truest things can’t be quantified in this way. Qualities such as goodness, truth and beauty cannot be quantified physically. They are metaphysical. They transcend physics. They transcend the mere facts.
If we insist on the facts and nothing but the facts, we are denying ourselves access to the truth. And this is why J. R. R. Tolkien could claim that fairy stories can show us the truth. He claimed in fact, or in truth, that they could hold up a mirror to man, that they could show us ourselves. This is more than a merely factual mirror can do.
Let’s begin with the factual mirror; the non-fictional mirror; the prosaic mirror; the non-metaphorical mirror. This is the ordinary physical mirror that we all have hanging in our ordinary physical homes. This factual mirror can only show us the facts. It can only show us the physical surface of things. It cannot show us anything deeper, anything truer. It cannot show us what we are feeling, or what we are desiring, or what we are dreading, or the people whom we know and love or hate. All these things, which are the very “stuff” of truth, are beyond the reach of the factual mirror.
Now let’s look at the mirror on the wall in fairyland. This is not a factual mirror but a fictional mirror; it is not a prosaic mirror but a poetic mirror; it doesn’t show us the mere physical facts but the deep spiritual truths. It is a magical mirror or a mystical mirror because it does show us what we are feeling and desiring and dreading. More important, it doesn’t show us our factual self, made of nothing but quantifiable molecules of flesh and blood. It shows us what we are in a much deeper sense by showing us who we are.
It shows us the fullness of ourselves in the fullness of our shared humanity and in the uniqueness of our human personhood. It shows us the three faces of humanity. It shows us anthropos, he who looks up in wonder; it shows us homo viator, the wayfarer on the pilgrimage of life and the quest for heaven; and it shows us homo superbus, the man of pride who refuses the pilgrimage of life and forsakes the quest for heaven. It shows us not merely who we are but who we should be and who we shouldn’t be. It shows us the path to heaven and the road to hell.
Perhaps we should end these musings on the truth to be found in fiction by asking the magical and mystical mirror a question that it has been asked before.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”
“The answer,” the mystical mirror of truth replies, “is the one with the heart of a little child. It is this little humble one who has the keys to fairyland. He who refuses the keys to fairyland will also refuse the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
This article appeared first on The Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted here with permission.
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