Balancing and patterning
Over the past year, I’ve been pondering C. S. Lewis, rereading some (not all) of his Chronicles of Narnia, learning more about his influences. I read:
parts of The Fellowship by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski (with its imposing subtitle, The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams) and finally
Planet Narnia by Michael Ward.
In that last book, I encountered a new-to-me line of thinking from Lewis that both mirrored and deepened a feeling that has haunted my own reading and writing as far back as I can remember.
It has to do with vibes.
C. S. Lewis could never quite explain it; here’s Ward describing his attempts:
[Lewis] uses a variety of words in his efforts to catch his meaning. They include: “the ipseitas, the peculiar unity of effect produced by a special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts”; “a state or quality”; “flavour or atmosphere”; “smell or taste”; “mood”; “quiddity.” [ … ]
The phrase “balancing and patterning” made me gasp, at least inwardly. It sounds exactly right; I believe it is what I have felt myself doing when I have been happiest and most excited about my writing.
A few lines later:
Again and again, in defending works of romance [in the chivalric sense], Lewis argues that it is the quality or tone of the whole story that is its main attraction. The invented world of romance is conceived with this kind of qualitative richness because romancers feel the real world itself to be “cryptic, significant, full of voices and the mystery of life.” Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go “back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for … what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere —
to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness. It is notoriously difficult to put these tastes into words.”
“Donegality” becomes a key term in Planet Narnia, which, for all its academic sobriety, is honestly a sort of gonzo puzzle adventure —
Here’s more from Ward on C. S. Lewis and his vibes:
That this atmospheric quality is virtually inexpressible leads Lewis to speak of it at times as a spiritual thing. For instance, it is “the vast, empty vision” of Hamlet that is, in his view, Shakespeare’s chief accomplishment —
the sense that “a certain spiritual region” has somehow been captured by the use of images such as night, ghosts, a sea cliff, a graveyard, and a pale man in black clothes. Within the mesh of these images the mysterious epiphenomenal flavour of Hamlet is caught and communicated to the attentive reader or theatregoer. Likewise, in David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, the planet Tormance is so described that it amounts to an encapsulation of “a region of the spirit.” The net of the story — the events, the characters, the background descriptions — has temporarily ensnared, as if it were an elusive bird, a sheer state of being; and for the duration of the read, this bird’s plumage may be “enjoyed.”
I like Ward’s use of the words “mesh” and “net” there; I might add “web” and “network”, even “game”—the sense of pieces arranged on a patterned board.
Here, perhaps, is language for my own most powerful responses.
An example: William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy in the 2000s was profoundly important to me —
Perhaps it WAS the “spiritual region” they mapped out, the “special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts” they achieved. Perhaps they DID catch something in their “net”: a “sheer state of being” that had to do with sublimely cool jackets and was clearly (it was the 2000s) some kind of zeitgeist.
William Gibson probably thinks this is stupid, but I don’t care.
It’s important to say these “regions” are not genres —
Reading about Lewis, learning that he floundered in this particular bucket, has made me feel more confident about my own compulsions. Tolkien called the invention of languages his “secret vice”. It’s clear that Lewis’s was the contemplation of symbols and symmetries. It is mine, too —
The good stuff can’t be named, only sensed; we are like deer desperately licking our snouts, straining after faint molecules. Even so, it’s helpful to have some language to throw around. Balancing and patterning. Meshes and nets. Donegality!
I wish I could go back in time and offer C. S. Lewis the language of “vibes” in return.