Writing Good Character

fey_brand_cover_300pixelsI’ve had a small measure of success writing fiction for young adults. What I mean by success is some people have actually read my stuff and have seemed to like it.

Art is long and life is short. I don’t recall where I heard that. It’s too good not to have been coined by someone I should know. Regardless, it is true for me.

I’m working on a series. That’s dangerous because publishing a book is a promise of more to come. The first book in my series came out in 2009. I thought I could get the second book published in 2010. I was wrong. I’m finally finishing it up this year.

Life intervened, that and another book, this time nonfiction (that will hopefully be out soon, when it is, you’ll be one of the first to know). But I’m working hard on wrapping up book two, and as I do I can’t help but think about what I’m doing. I enjoy it enough that I think I would do it even if I didn’t have anyone to share my stories with. There’s something God-like about writing fiction. It’s intrinsically satisfying, at least for me.

Writing Character

I suppose you could say writing fiction comes down to weaving three things together: setting, plot, and character. I enjoy spinning each of those threads, but the most important is probably character.

Stories that are mostly about a mood, or a plot can succeed. But those stories can only be enjoyed while the book is open. But memorable characters can travel with you and keep you company as you tell the story of your life. They can even giving you advice. You can always ask: WWGD? “What would Gandalf do?” (He may even answer.)

The word character comes down to us from the Greek through French. Originally it referred to a stamping tool, something that made an impression and identified either the object, its origin, or its maker. That’s rich. Making an impression is certainly what I’m trying to do when I write character, both on the page within a story, and also upon the reader.

In order for a character to impress you need things to identify him by. And while a character may change over the course of a story, some things need to remain consistent. Here’s a little glimpse at how I go about it.

Protagonists verses Supporting Characters

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Grandaddy Longlegs from, The Fey Brand

It is harder to write protagonists than it is writing secondary characters. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, you are generally telling the story from the perspective of the protagonist. This means you need to know him better, what’s more, you need to sympathize with him. (If you can’t do that, how will the reader?)

This doesn’t mean he always does the right thing, or even the wrong thing for the right reason. But you still need to care about him. If you don’t, you’ll feel a need to either abandon him or punish him. Now punishing him can be ok, just so long as he comes out of the experience a little better for it.

This brings up something else about protagonists, they need to grow. If there isn’t some inward movement to go along with the outward movement of the plot, you may actually feel like you have out-grown your hero. That has a way of undermining sympathy for him.

There may be blockage to growth in the story, but there must be good reasons for the blockage, reasons we can sympathize with. If he’s just obstinate or stupid, you’ll end up wanting to punish him more, and so will the reader.

Supporting characters are easier to write, and a little more fun too. Because they’re supporting the protagonists, you can make them larger than life. Dickens, excelled in providing insight into the natures of secondary characters through their names. I’ve tried the same thing. My protagonists are named Trevor and Maggie–names conveying a certain feeling, yet they’re somewhat generic–but the names of my secondary characters are like caricatures. Here’s a sampling of some of the more outlandish from the second book in my series: Mother Root, Professor Winkle Bustlebottom, Widow Krinklemiester, Colonel Uberbind, Sabnock, and Mr. Gourmand.

Secondary characters can also make their impressions upon the reader by their eccentricities: their gestures, their ways of speaking, their clothing. A lot can be communicated about what they want or what they fear with a light touch, an adjective here, a verb there. These things have a way of sticking to the character throughout the story. No need to keep repeating them after that. It becomes tedious if you do. A little reminder here and there may be necessary, but more than that will over-season the dish.

The Character of Our Lives

I don’t think it is possible to write or to read fiction without being judgmental.

When we judge the merits of a plot, or a setting, or a mood, we’re judging the author. But when it comes to character, while the artist can still feel the heat, you can’t help but judge the characters themselves. You either like a character or you don’t, you either admire and want to emulate him, or you condemn him, even by indifference.

Telling the truth through fiction is a very subtle thing. At one level the story is a fabrication, and by necessity, a falsehood. Somewhere I read a remark by an old fundamentalist on fiction–“A novel is nothing but a well told lie.” He had a point. But paradoxically  fiction can also tell the truth. I think Jesus’s parables tell the truth. But I also think he made them up.

But I don’t think a story has to be a parable to tell the truth. Truth is everywhere you look, even in our characters. What I mean is the characters you and I make upon our lives. We make impressions with our gestures and our deeds. We tell our stories and often those stories make impressions on the people around us.

Here’s my parting thought. Please recall, a protagonist should develop as the plot of his story develops. In a good story the protagonist changes, hopefully for the better.

But here’s the trick: we must play many characters in our lives: we’re writers, protagonists, and critics.

But we’re not alone in any of these things. And when it comes to the critics, we’re not the last to judge.

H. P. Lovecraft, Evangelist of the Sublime

lovecraft2Most people know that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are not the watered-down stuff Walt Disney gave us. They’re much darker, far grimmer.

Two questions arise in my mind at the thought: first, what purpose did the real stories serve? (they were passed down for generations, and I’ve heard tell their roots go down so deep they’re positively prehistoric), and second, why were they bowdlerized? We can’t blame it all on poor Walt.

The Bowdlerizing Impulse of the 19th Century

The reformist impulse of the 19th century did a lot of damage. It’s a huge subject, but I’m focused at the moment on the way the stewards of literature made the tastes of little girls a needle’s eye for everything to pass through.

The household, a political and economic institution once upon a time, was being stripped of its functions by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the Welfare State. But advocates for it were reinterpreting it and turning it into the safe haven we know today, a place of sentiment and softness, a cult of hearth and home. And stories of children being cut up and thrown into pots just wouldn’t do.

(Not only did folk tales suffer from the knife, so did the Bible. There’s no telling how many boys were lost to the church because of Sunday School flannel-graphs. Mark Twain was. More about that in a minute.)

But when things that serve a forgotten purpose are lost, they have a way of returning in new forms.

The Sublime

I remember a Time Life book we had when I was a kid. There was this amazing fold-out illustration of, Rudolph Zallinger’s, The Age of Reptiles.

I was drawn to it, almost against my will, and once open I would meditate upon the awesome awesomeness of Tyrannosaurus Rex–the king of dinosaurs: that capacious mouth lined with teeth, those thunderous thighs, those tiny arms, so strangely endearing and useless.

What’s this all this about? Why do little boys (mostly) love this stuff? Edmund Burke knew. He had a name for it. He said we long for the sublime.

Here he is on the sublime from his, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

(It is)…whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger… Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.

The gist of it is this…for some inexplicable reason we’re drawn to large, powerful, indifferent, and terrible things that could crush us. We derive pleasure from the experience. Think of sitting out on a porch during a thunder storm at night: Flash! “One Mississippi, two….” Boom! “Whew, that was close!” you say with a grin. Sublime.

Christianity and the Sublime 

C.S. Lewis (Image of C.S. Lewis is public domain: http://bit.ly/1h5fdd9)
C.S. Lewis (Image of C.S. Lewis is public domain: http://bit.ly/1h5fdd9)

The Bible is sublime. (You’d never know it though from children’s Bibles.) From the very start, with the Spirit of God brooding over a bottomless sea, to Noah’s flood, to that truly weird moment when God cuts a covenant with Abraham, to the Lord passing by Moses as he takes refuge in the cleft of the rock, (and I’m not even out of the Pentateuch) to the whirlwind in Job, to the Lord wadding into the sea and riding upon the storm in the Psalms, to the trampling out the vintage of his wrath, to the great fish emerging from the depths to swallow the prophet, stirring stuff.

But we’ve bowdlerized the Bible. It’s not the first time though, C. S. Lewis complained that something was lost in the synchronicity of the Medieval cosmos. Christianity tends to go too far with the impulse to tidy things up. And even when we get a glimpse of the God who dwells in thick darkness, we turn it into something so saccharine that it turns the stomach, at least mine.

Those Christians who have a taste for the sublime have a theological name for it, it’s the strong drink in the mature Christian’s cupboard that some call the Numinous. (I prefer mysterium tremendum.) Soren Kierkegaard, John Milton, and J. R. R. Tolkien all shared a taste for it.

H. P. Lovecraft and the Sublime for Atheists

But when modern cosmology opened the heavens to us so that we could see it and ourselves anew, literary enthusiasts for the sublime found something new to work with.

H. P. Lovecraft may be the father of them. (If not Lovecraft, I’m not sure who else it could be, H. G. Wells maybe?)

Regardless of whether or not Lovecraft is truly the father, he has many children. Some of the most popular authors of speculative literature today consider him the master. Here’s a short list: Neil GaimanChina Meiville, and Stephen King. Not a bad list of devotees for a man who lived in obscurity and died penniless and half-starved.

http://www.amazon.com/Call-Cthulhu-H-P-Lovecraft/dp/1495255344/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457106403&sr=1-2&keywords=lovecraft+call+of+cthulhu
http://www.amazon.com/Call-Cthulhu-H-P-Lovecraft/dp/1495255344/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457106403&sr=1-2&keywords=lovecraft+call+of+cthulhu

I’ve written about Lovecraft and his uncanny mirror-like relationship to C. S. Lewis elsewhere. (Even the Lovecraft crowd seems to agree with me.) Both are now literary cult figures, and along with Tolkien, they are the taproots for most of the fantastic fiction on the market today. Obviously, there’s a huge difference in outlook between Lewis and Tolkien on the one hand and Lovecraft on the other. Lovecraft was an atheist.

But this shouldn’t belie the thing they all share in common. They all make us feel small.

Cosmicism

For Tolkien, there was Norse mythology, for Lewis, the Planets of the Medieval cosmos, but for Lovecraft the awful immensity and mystery of the cosmos as revealed by science was his inspiration. He called it Cosmicism.

He introduces his readers to it in the opening paragraph of one of his greatest stories, The Call of Cthulhu,

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together  of disassociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. 

Many Lovecraft stories do end with a descent into madness. And Lovecraft excelled in giving us what Tolkien gave, an internally consistent (as far as that can go) secondary world, filled with denizens as immense and indifferent to humanity as the cosmos seems to be. The reason Lovecraft is one of the all time greats is not because he excelled as a stylist; he’s great because he succeeded in making his readers feel the power of the sublime.

Two thoughts to part with

First, I think we will always have fairy tales, myths, and weird fiction (Lovecraft’s favored label) because these are the most accessible literary forms for giving expression to the sublime. Bowdlerize them all you want, the sublime will just find new forms and return with power.

But second, and here’s where Lovecraft would demure, me thinks, the longing for the sublime is a hunger for God, that mystery that sets us to trembling. Not that mawkish idol that passes for God in a praise chorus, I’m talking about the God of Abraham, Job, and Jonah. The Lord of Hosts is his name. He is a strong drink, and he is only for adults.

How to Tell a Story

fey_brand_cover_300pixelsI write stories for kids, but really, I write them for myself.

There, I’m being honest. Here’s some more honesty. I write the stories largely by feel, and later I think about what I’m doing.

I suppose that could mean that the way I tell stories is largely ingrained, maybe through habit, or perhaps through reading other people’s stories and unconsciously following the tropes and techniques that have appealed to me. But I believe there is more to it than habituation and taste; I think there are larger, deeper things informing what I’m doing.

Here’s something else that informs what I do. I’m a Christian minister. Christianity is not something layered on to a more basic reality, for me it is reality itself.

I think most preachers who try their hand at telling stories would agree with that last paragraph. I’m not so sure about what I said before that though.

In this little essay I’m going to address writing fiction as a preacher who believes that Christianity is true, not just for me, but as true as you can get, as an account of reality itself.

As you can see, I am a Realist. So from the start that limits the options available to me when it comes to my aesthetic. But when it comes to my techniques, there’s something to say about how they express that aesthetic. Here goes.

Didacticism

I think this is where most preachers start; we want our stories to instruct, to have a moral. That’s something I think all stories do, whether an author owns up to it or not. Kafka in Metamorphosis made a point, a depressing and soul-crushing point from my point of view. But the point was intended to inform his readers about life, its meaning, and how to live. But it wasn’t art for art’s sake (which is a moral point too, by the way).

But when the point is the only thing you make, you’ve got a story with a moral.

Those are universal, we see them outside the Christian faith. Aesop was a pagan, but his fable The Ant and the Grasshopper makes a point that I agree with. When times are good, set something aside for when they’re not so good.

Stories of that kind can be artfully told and entertaining, but they also tend to be short.

Closely related to this sort of story is something known as allegory. Aesop’s fables are allegories, but what I’m thinking of here is something longer and more ambitious. Typically, when a preacher moves on from sermon illustrations to what is known as fiction, he writes allegory.

Allegories can be artfully crafted as well, The Pilgrim’s Progress was. And even though I think Bunyan’s account of the Christian life is incomplete (its feeble ecclesiology was corrected by C. S. Lewis in his Pilgrim’s Regress with the inclusion of Mother Kirk) nonetheless, Bunyan’s work is deservedly considered a classic. StillI find allegories wooden and lifeless. I have a hard time getting through them. And when I detect that I’m being led by the nose with an allegory I usually stop reading.

I think the reason these stories feel lifeless is their characters only exist to make a point. They don’t exist in themselves in a real sense, they lack reasons for being that are their own.

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Zephyr, a successful character of mine, if I may say so.

Preachers write this sort of stuff for a couple of reasons. For one thing writing interesting characters isn’t easy. That’s the technical side of it, but at a more basic level, the character must live in the heart of the author. And this calls for sympathy as well as an understanding of people and why they do what they do. If you can’t identify with a wide-range of people (even people you may not agree with or even like) you won’t be very good at writing character.

Writing character is one of the things I’ve been told I do pretty well. One of the protagonists in my middle-grade fantasy series is a girl that could be described as proto-feminist. Now I’m not a feminist, but I think I can sympathize with women who are. One of the more satisfying things I discovered when perusing the profiles of my fans on Goodreads is the number of teenage feminists who like my writing. I’ve even came across a blog for lesbians where I am quoted (favorably)!

This may make you uncomfortable. Preachers usually strive to be clear. Clearly some folks are missing the point with my protagonist. Or are they? (More about that next time.)

But if you’re going to write believable character something must be sacrificed. Usually allegorists sacrifice their characters. But if you want to write good character you must sacrifice your need to be clearly understood. (If you can’t do that, you really should stick to preaching.)

Going a little deeper, I think preachers often prefer a one to one correspondence in their stories–this character represents that (a virtue) and that character represents this (a vice), and so forth. They speak with an authorial voice that is very strong, too strong really for fiction. Soon it feels like preaching.

There is a metaphysic at work here–a bland and one dimensional one. But if you hope to tell a story that can make a point, yet do so with interesting characters–living characters–you’ll need a metaphysic that allows you do that. There is one, I’m happy to say. But most Protestants preachers don’t subscribe to it.

 

Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle: What Becomes of Our Work?

J. R. R. Tolkien Public Domain, via The Times of Israel

Leaf by Niggle is a personal favorite. It’s right up there with Smith of Wootton Major for me. 

They’re two of Tolkien’s lesser works, but only if length is the measure. I think they’re distillations, densely flavored samples of the master’s mind. Smith embodies everything On Fairy Stories explicates in prose, the strangeness and melancholy of faire. But Leaf gives us something more personal, and a reason to hope.

Everyone who’s read the story knows it’s about Tolkien. The protagonist Niggle is a niggler, something Tolkien called himself. Niggle is a painter whose ambition exceeds his skill. He allows his visions to run away with him, and he can’t seem to finish anything, or capture is visions to his satisfaction. He knows it will all come to an end eventually when he must go on a journey. We’re never told directly just where this journey will take him, but as we read we intuit that the journey is Niggle’s impending death.

Something that frustrates Niggle is the needs of his neighbor Parish. Parish is a clever name, alluding to a community–in Tolkien’s case probably Oxford as well as his actual church parish. He is always calling him away from his work. Not only that, Parish is a philistine, a man with a mind given entirely to practical matters, impatient with the painting (which he sees as a waste of time).

Niggle is torn, he knows that Parish makes legitimate demands on his time, but wouldn’t it be nice if the practically minded Parish would make a little room for painting? Well, to make a short story even shorter, he doesn’t, and then Niggle dies. And his paintings are forgotten.

But that’s only part of the story.

In our mundane-mundo Niggle is moved by a tree, a marvelous Tree. It’s what he wants to paint. He wants to get every detail right, each leaf, each glistening drop of dew. But when he dies his canvas is used to repair Parish’s roof, and even though a single fragment of it survives, a Leaf by Niggle, even that is lost eventually. And so the story ends, but only in this world.

In the world to come Niggle sees his tree again, more wondrous than he ever knew.Although it is never framed quite this way in the story, what arises in my mind whenever I read Leaf by Niggle is this: which is it, did the Tree appear in the world to come because Niggle saw it here, or did Niggle see it here because the Tree is already in the world to come before Niggle sees it?

I suppose I could be happy with the ending either way, but I have a feeling that this is more a matter of both/and rather than either/or. (There’s more to the story than this, it’s a densely flavored story, as I said.) But let me just distill a question for our consideration: “Do we have reason to hope that our works will be waiting for us after death, not only our good works, but our good work?”

Parish only thinks about good works. Parish is a philistine, after all, and all that matters to him is right and wrong. Something like beauty isn’t quite so important to him. For Parish pretty things are nice, but they don’t really matter. But for Niggle, and artists like him, beauty is the point. Even good works are meaningful because they’re beautiful (something upon which Von Balthasar and Jonathan Edwards agree).

The anxiety bubbling barely beneath the surface of the story is Tolkien’s fear that he may be wasting his life.

Leaf was written sometime between 1937 and 1942. (It was published in 1947.) But at that point the only thing published from the corpus we know today was The Hobbit. Things were not looking good for his true love, The Silmarillion, and Lord of the Ringslanguished. What would become of all this work?

Leaf is a self-administered consolation. But is that all it is?

We’re told in scripture that our works will follow us (Rev. 14:13), and that the kings of the earth will bring their tribute before the great king on the last day (Rev. 21:24). Are we talking only about ethics–works for which we will be rewarded? Is Mozart to be consigned to the flames?

I wonder.

Protestants like me are pretty quick to consign everything to the flames. It’s all stubble, vainglorious stuff. If it is tinctured with sin in the slightest degree, it’s worthless. But it that the case? Do our intensions lend our works their full meaning? There’s something modern about that, and vaguely gnostic.

Don’t we work with the materials God made and gave to us? And what about those flames, didn’t Paul say some things will pass through them purified? (1 Cor. 3:12)

I know what my Protestant friends are thinking right now, works! Yes, works. But let’s make sure the antithesis is the right one. Faith and works shouldn’t be confused. But grace is at work in our works if we are working by faith. (Perhaps that’s too parsimonious still.) Tolkien saw grace at work in his  work. When Niggle sees his Tree for the first time what does he say?

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, but also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

Yes, he literally was. That’s the sort of literalism we could use more of. It would be an even more beautiful world if we did.

H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis & Alien Worlds

C. R. Wiley

lovecraftlewisRecently some astronomers discovered two earth-sized planets orbiting Kepler-20, a star roughly 1,000 light years away.

Congratulations to them; their detective work was nearly as awe-inspiring as the news. A flurry of articles followed the find, speculating on the nature of these worlds, along with a little speculation on whether or not we will ever get to them for some firsthand research. Almost immediately another flurry followed, speculating on the significance of the find for our world. Predictably, the religious were informed that they must readjust their doctrines to make room for extraterrestrial life, the writers apparently unaware that the religious have always believed in extraterrestrial life.

The whole thing reminded me of a similar phenomenon that occurred some hundred years ago, when earlier astronomers announced similar findings. The worlds they discovered were not so far away, but they were no less alien. Interest was so pervasive that even literary types took up the subject. Two writers to do so were H. P. Lovecraft and C. S. Lewis.

The two men, in many ways, were opposites. Lovecraft was a recluse from an old New England family, deeply insecure, an autodidact keenly aware of the gaps in his education. Lewis was a boisterous and gregarious man, classically educated in English boarding schools, a public intellectual justly celebrated in his own time.

Yet both had experienced childhood loss, Lewis losing his mother at age ten and Lovecraft his father to mental illness at age three and ultimately to death when he was almost eight. As children, both were sensitive boys with rich imaginative lives. Both, amazingly, married Jewish admirers and later lost those wives, Lewis famously losing Joy Davidman to cancer and Lovecraft losing Sonia Greene due to his incapacity to provide for a wife when doing so was both a cultural expectation and a practical necessity. And they were contemporaries, sharing the same cultural moment; Lovecraft was born in 1890 and Lewis in 1898. Finally, of course, both were pioneers of the fantastic, writing fantasy, science fiction, and in the case of Lovecraft, horror.

Lovecraft’s Legacy

While Lewis is known to Christians as an apologist for the Christian faith, he is better known to the world for his Narnia stories. The richness and depth of those stories provide a witness to permanent things amid the ephemera of popular culture.

Now popular culture is a large and variegated thing, and while there are huge regions where Lovecraft is unknown, there are dark, subterranean recesses where he looms gigantic. Those who frequent comic-book conventions, Wiccan chat-rooms, and tattoo parlors either know of him or have felt his influence. Frequent references in Lovecraft’s stories to the fictional Necronomicon, the book of forbidden lore by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, as well as to the equally fictitious Cthulhu Mythos, have inspired an impressive body of fan fiction.

That Lovecraft has acquired a level purchase among people who are “into that sort of thing” is not surprising. But when several best-selling authors, including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, call you an inspiration, you are important. And when Penguin Classics publishes a selection of your short stories, and Brown University maintains a repository of your papers, as is the case with Lovecraft, it is safe to say you have arrived.

The Plausibility of Alien Worlds

In the last half of the nineteenth century, the notion of other worlds—once the province of fairytale, folklore, and myth—acquired new legitimacy, aided, surprisingly, by science. The tools developed by scientists to measure things had gradually grown in range and precision until, by the turn of the twentieth century, they revealed a universe far larger, older, and stranger than our ancestors had suspected.

And floating in this vast and ancient cosmos were other worlds, worlds you could not visit but nevertheless could see through telescopes and speculate about. While the hidebound dismissed all talk of “little green men” as childish, or even as evidence of mental instability, the plausibility of aliens invading our world had grown sufficiently that by the time of Orson Welles’s broadcast of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worldsin 1938, thousands of people would confuse the broadcast with actual news reporting.

Both Lewis and Lovecraft were interested in other worlds, that is, in alien worlds. And using the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, they explored the implications of alien worlds for human beings. But their respective visions are as alien to each other as the worlds they wrote about are alien to our own.

Lovecraft’s Nihilism

When he was a teenager, Lovecraft dabbled in astronomy and was even published on the subject in newspapers such as the Pawtuxet Gleanerand the Providence Tribune. There is something boyish and endearing in his reflections on the subject. Less endearing is the lesson he felt astronomy taught us about man’s place in the cosmos. In a letter to a friend in 1927, he explained how this lesson informed his approach to storytelling:

[A]ll my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds and universes.

For Lovecraft, man was not a microcosm, a Rosetta Stone to the cosmos, as medieval men believed. Nor was he the pinnacle of creation, as the Bible teaches. For him, astronomy taught that man couldn’t even think of the universe as his home. If anything, man was an anomaly, a microscopic and trivial bubble of consciousness in an infinite sea of indifference. Unsurprisingly, Lovecraft believed that the universe gave us no warrant for faith in God. Here he is in another letter:

I certainly can’t see any sensible position to assume aside from that of complete skepticism tempered by a leaning toward that which existing evidence makes most probable. All I can say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses that can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of rational evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.

Lovecraft the Alien

The heavens have been considered the Lord’s signature. That Lovecraft did not think so may say more about him than about astronomy. Even Lovecraft’s admirers concede that he was not a healthy man. Most of what he wrote is full of loss. That is understandable, considering that his childhood was punctured by it. Not only did he lose his father, but also the well-to-do grandfather who had taken him in, the industrialist Whipple Van Buren Phillips, who died when Lovecraft was fourteen.

The more hardscrabble existence that followed Phillips’s death left Lovecraft feeling that he had come down in the world. This sense, combined with the effects of his mother’s protective and emotionally overwrought child-rearing, undermined his confidence. He later confessed to thoughts of suicide.

All this formed a poor basis for a political outlook. Lovecraft consoled himself with the race-consciousness familiar to anyone acquainted with the Brahmins of old New England, and he made racist and xenophobic pronouncements that are a continuing source of embarrassment to his admirers today. He also waxed nostalgic for the prerogatives of eighteenth-century English gentlemen, apparently believing they would have been his to enjoy if only he had been born in the right century.

Generously, we can say he was out of touch with the bustling, commercial, immigrant-packed eastern seaboard of the 1920s and 1930s. The man who wrote stories about aliens was an alien to the world around him.

The Aesthetic of an Alien

An aesthetic expresses an outlook; you could say that art is an outlook frozen and shared. If it were pointless, there would be no reason to talk about it seriously. Lovecraft was up to something very serious. He wanted to change the way his readers thought about the world and, by implication, themselves.

Lovecraft believed he possessed greater insight into the nature of things than better-adjusted, healthier people. He took dark comfort in breaking the news to the rest of us that we are all as strange and out of place as he felt he was. He wanted to take his readers Outside, or, perhaps better, to bring the Outside inside. Here’s Lovecraft from yet another letter:

To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human characters must have human qualities . . . but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

This is the aesthetic of H. P. Lovecraft—not all of it, but the heart of it. And his appeal to outsiders—the lonely, the geeks, the pierced—is understandable. Still, it seems self-pitying and vindictive. It would be contemptible if it were not so well done.

An Awful Revelation

The problem faced by the protagonist in a Lovecraft story is not the problem of proper adjustment. We are not presented with a maladjusted person in need of a psychological fix—some form of therapy. That presumes a healthful order. Instead, the protagonist seems normal and well-adjusted; then, through a process of slow revelation, an awful reality from Outside breaks in upon him. With him—the stories are almost always presented in a first-person account—we come to see that the universe is inhospitable and unfit for human habitation. There is nothing in it we should want to adjust ourselves to. The stories usually climax with maniacal screaming.

The nature of the alien is presented in various ways in Lovecraft’s tales. The short story “The Whisperer in Darkness” and the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, for example, suggest that an indifferent and alien intelligence with the power to overwhelm humanity exists very close by, and that our continued survival depends very much on its benign neglect. “Dagon,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “The Rats in the Walls” present the idea that, in the prehistoric past, humanity placated monstrous beings from out of time and space with pagan sacrifices. And the fine story “The Colour Out of Space”intimates that even our natural laws do not apply to the truly alien.

The latter story takes place in rural New England. Most of Lovecraft’s tales take place there, and he did such a fine job of painting the region as a home of “deep secrets,” “hidden lore,” and “elder mystery” that even British writers influenced by him have felt a need to locate their stories in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.

A meteor falls to earth near a well at the old Nahum Gardner place. The setting is doubly alien: the vestiges of the rustic, stern, and unadorned world of old Puritan New England, with its people named for obscure Old Testament characters, are as strange as the rock from the sky. But to accentuate the utter otherness of the meteor, the narrator tells us that the scientists who have come out from nearby Miskatonic University find it beyond the scope of human science to comprehend.

Emblematic of this invasion of the alien is its color:

They had uncovered what seemed to be the side of a large coloured globule. . . . The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by way of analogy that they called it a colour at all.

This theme is repeated throughout the course of the story. The narrator again: “It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”

The effects of this “color out of space” are as toxic as they are inexplicable. Initially, the surrounding vegetation is affected by it: “orchard trees blossomed forth in strange colours.” Soon insects and nocturnal creatures are also changed; then livestock sicken and become deformed; and finally, one by one, the members of the Gardner family go insane and die.

The horror of the situation is intensified by the apparent purposeless of it all. Not only does the mysterious thing seem to mock natural law, but there are also hints that it houses a malign intelligence. The simple farmer whose land and family are blighted by it cannot even find solace in attributing it to divine judgment. Not only is he unable to identify any sin meriting such a curse, but the origin of the meteor itself appears to lie beyond the pale of God’s creation, as the farmer makes clear: “The way it’s made an’ the way it works ain’t like no way o’ God’s world. It’s some’at from beyond.”

C. S. Lewis & Aliens

What did C. S. Lewis think of alien worlds? He had read about the same scientific breakthroughs as Lovecraft did. Indeed, he probably understood their implications more deeply. He certainly knew the past far better than Lovecraft; he was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature. And he agreed that the universe was far larger than mankind had assumed. But Lewis had quite different things to say about it all.

Although Lewis lived in a modern world, his Christianity was not the modern sort. Paradoxically, this was why he was prepared to appreciate alien worlds. He had read about many of them in old books.

Even superficial readings of the Narnia stories and the Space Trilogy reveal that Lewis was preoccupied with the subject: Out of the Silent Planetis about a trip to Mars, and Perelandraabout a trip to Venus. Narnia itself is an alien world—even subject to different natural laws. How else could time flow at a different rate there?

Concerning the Space Trilogy, today we have the hard facts that confirm what people already knew when it was originally published: Lewis got the science all wrong. Arthur C. Clarke famously upbraided him for it. But Clarke was like an obnoxious student who corrects a venerable professor on what he assumes is a spelling error, only to be told that the spelling is Old English. Lewis knew what he was doing. He was working in a different vernacular, for a different purpose. He was telling the truth with literary license. Clarke preferred moral flatness with a scientific gloss.

Science pursues the truth about “lowercase” reality. It is intentionally narrow, limiting itself to material and efficient causes. Materialists like Clarke, or Lovecraft, cheat when they imply that science fullyexplains reality. Science cannot even explain why people like Clarke and Lovecraft write the stories they do. Lewis honestly focused on “uppercase” Reality, using fictional worlds to do so.

The “Space” Between the Worlds

Before moving on to the worlds Lewis explored, let’s look at the intervening space between those worlds. For Lewis, it was not empty space. In The Magician’s Nephewhe describes it as a great, silent wood. When Digory goes to this wood, he sees a “green light that came through the leaves” and concludes that there must be a “very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm.” Concerning the wood itself he observes, “It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. . . . This wood was very much alive.”

Something similar is experienced by Ransom in the Space Trilogy. For Lovecraft, space was a dark void that seemed to declare that the objects suspended in it were just as void of meaning as space itself was. In contrast, Lewis tells us that, as Ransom journeyed to Mars, the experience of space produced in him a progressive “lightening and exultation of heart.” He explains why:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. . . . “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. . . . How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was a womb of worlds. . . .

Lewis did not subscribe to Lovecraft’s mechanical, clockwork understanding of the cosmos; he was a Platonist as well as a Christian—two good reasons to reject it. He believed that the material universe participated in a deeper, more meaningful reality, and that it is this deeper reality that confers meaning on our material one. The world we live in is like a clouded glass through which the filtered light of a higher reality shines. If the higher reality remains opaque to us, it is because we are stuck in a cave of ignorance and sin.

Furthermore, since that other reality is the source of all worlds, we can say two things at least. First, all worlds have it in common. And second, while in one sense the worlds are alien to one another, yet in another sense they are neighbors. We live in a neighborhood of worlds governed by a common, overarching reality.

The One & the Many

For Lewis, reality is one, but fruitful. It contains variety and multiplicity beyond human comprehension because there is a Creator above, who creates with a range of expression that dwarfs and overwhelms the imagination of his creatures.

This does not mean that all worlds are equally home to all creatures. When Ransom or the Pevensie children wish to enter other worlds, they are at times unfit to do so. For example, after Prince Rilian, Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum defeat the witch in The Silver Chair,they happen upon a chasm that reveals a marvelous hidden world.

They dismounted from their horses and came to the edge, and looked down into it. A strong heat smote up into their faces, mixed with a smell which was quite unlike any they had ever smelled. It was rich, sharp, exciting, and made you sneeze. The depth of the chasm was so bright that at first it dazzled their eyes and they could see nothing. When they got used to it they thought they could make out a river of fire, and, on the banks of that river, what seemed to be fields and groves of unbearable, hot brilliance—though they were dim compared with the river. There were blues, reds, greens, and whites all jumbled together: a very good stained glass window with the tropical sun staring straight through at midday might have something of the same effect.

This world, we are told, is Bism. They are all invited by Golg, the Earthman, to come down into it. And even though Rilian and Eustace are greatly tempted, the good sense of Jill prevails and they decline. Clearly, Bism is a beautiful and alluring place, but it would be the death of those not made for it.

In Lovecraft, a particular world can onlybe beautiful to its inhabitants; those who belong to another world will necessarily find it ugly. We see the protagonist in The Shadow Over Innsmouth,by the end of the story, change in his opinion of the ocean depths from which the monsters came. But that is because he is being transformed into one of them. And in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” the protagonist’s friend changes his view about the crustaceous extraterrestrials inhabiting the wilderness of Vermont, but that is only because the aliens have removed his brain and put it in a metal box.

Lewis knew that people can be prejudiced against the unfamiliar: he was an Oxford don who spent the better part of his life trying to free the minds of students by means of the liberal arts. But he also knew that there is more to it than a simple dislike of what is strange. Like Lovecraft, he wrote about malign extraterrestrial intelligences that could warp a man’s mind. In a scene from Perelandrathat almost could have been written by Lovecraft, he describes Ransom’s state of mind as he awaits the emergence of a subterranean creature he has heard following him.

What he had called the worlds were but the skins of the worlds: a quarter of a mile beneath the surface, and from thence through thousands of miles of dark and silence and infernal fire, to the very heart of each, Reality lived—the meaningless, the un-made, the omnipotent idiocy to which all spirits were irrelevant and before which all efforts were vain. Whatever was following him would come up that wet dark hole, would presently be excreted by that hideous duct, and then he would die.

After that cheery thought, a Lovecraftian horror emerges:

First came what looked like the branches of trees, and then seven or eight spots of light, irregularly grouped like a constellation. Then a tubular mass which reflected the red glow as if it were polished. His heart gave a great leap as the branches resolved themselves into long wiry feelers and the dotted lights became the many eyes of a shell-helmeted head. . . . Horrible things followed—angular, many joined legs, and presently, when he thought the whole body was in sight, a second body came following it and after that a third. The thing was in three parts, united only by a kind of wasp’s waist structure—three parts that did not seem to truly be aligned and made it look as if it had been trodden on—a huge, many legged, quivering deformity. . . .

But Ransom comes to recognize that an alien influence is shaping his perception, and after a sort of self-administered exorcism he sees the creature very differently:

Ransom . . . turned to face the . . . horror. But where had the horror gone? The creature was there, a curiously shaped creature no doubt, but all the loathing had vanished clean out of his mind, so that neither then nor at any other time could he remember it, nor ever understand again why one should quarrel with an animal for having more legs or eyes than oneself. All that he had felt from childhood about insects and reptiles died in a moment: died utterly, as hideous music does when you switch off the wireless. Apparently it had all, even from the beginning, been a dark enchantment of the enemy’s.

Because there is a “Wood Between the Worlds” for Lewis, creatures can be said to be beautifully fitted for their respective realms. Beauty does not merely reside in the eye of the beholder (although it certainly should reside there); it is recast. When prejudice and pride are cast away, the lines of alien beauty can come to the surface. Because the Wood Between the Worlds is common to all worlds, inhabitants from each world have the power to recognize the beauty resident in another world. This is not a species of relativism—it is classical Realism in a coat of many colors.

The Sea’s Limits & Ours

In Lovecraft, the sea plays the same disturbing role it plays in the Bible. Although in one respect, it is just one more feature of creation, to the Semitic mind it stands for chaos and death. Thus, in order for our world to come into being, the sea had to be given limits. In Genesis, God separates the land from the waters, but from that point on the waters hang over the world as an ever-present threat. In judgment, the Lord opens the spigot of heaven for Noah’s flood. Later, the armies of Pharaoh are swallowed up by the Red Sea, and later still the fleeing prophet Jonah is cast into the raging waters of the Mediterranean. The Lord Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee, demonstrating his power over death; and we are told in Revelation that in the new creation there is “no more sea.”

Lovecraft was very much attuned to the menace of the sea, even though he was tone-deaf to the Power that keeps it at bay. He lived in Rhode Island, where one is surrounded by it. Among alien worlds, the sea is our nearest neighbor. And its inhabitants are odd-looking things: creeping crustaceans, tentacled denizens, unblinking wide-eyed fish. It even leaves behind odd odors at low tide. It can be very unnerving. From Lovecraft’s early story “Dagon,” and throughout his fiction, the sea is a threat and full of alien purpose.

Lewis famously treats the sea in two books, Perelandraand The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There is plenty of danger in both; drowning is an ever-present threat. And in The Voyage of the Dawn Treadera sea monster as hostile as any Lovecraft could imagine nearly sinks the ship. But we see something at the end of that Narnian tale that places a different frame on things.

As the ship draws near the edge of the world, the waters grow so clear that Lucy can see the bottom of the sea, many fathoms down. As she looks, she sees the shadow of the ship passing over an underwater civilization peopled by beautiful but fierce inhabitants riding upon gigantic sea horses. These people in turn see Lucy and the Dawn Treader, but rather than wave up at her like friendly Polynesians, they shake their spears at her in challenge. Here we see an aspect of the alien that completely escapes Lovecraft.

The underwater kingdom Lucy sees is not for her. It is none of her business. If she had dived into the waters and attempted to enter that realm, she would either have been drowned or been killed by the mer-people she so admires. (Lovecraft would have nodded approvingly to that.) But there is no doubt that the mer-people are Aslan’s creations, and that the realm they inhabit has been given to them. It is not alien to them; it is their home. It is the Dawn Treaderand its crew that are alien. Theyare the threat from the Outside. And from the mer-people’s perspective, we can imagine why the Dawn Treadercould be perceived as a threat: it passes over the sun, and it contains strange air-breathing creatures that are as strange to the mer-people as the mer-people are to Lucy.

For Lewis, the boundaries separating the worlds are not only practically impassable in some cases; they are also morally inviolable in all cases. Even when material conditions permit passage from one world to another, moral limits still govern tourists. The Pevensie children can only enter Narnia by the will of Aslan. And whether the passage to an alien world is made possible by good magic (as in the Narnia stories) or by science (as in the Space Trilogy), intruders are expected to be respectful upon entering it and to learn the rules that govern it and submit to them. Only evil characters like Weston and Devine, or characters who have yet to be redeemed, like Edmund and Eustace, find these limits galling. As with the sea, there are limits in every world.

Where Monsters Really Come From

Lewis believed that God is good—but his goodness is unleashed from human management. As he famously said: Aslan is not a tame lion. Nevertheless, even though Aslan disturbs characters in the Narnia stories, he does not disturb the reader. Lewis is too avuncular for that. He wrote the Narnia stories with children in mind, and his hands are warm and reassuring as he holds the hands of his readers. Even the Space Trilogy reassures us.

That is not what Lovecraft was after. He wanted to disturb us. At his best, we can detect in him a longing for the power that underlies all things. But for Lovecraft, it is an amoral power. Like people as wildly different as Mary Baker Eddy and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lovecraft believed morality to be a human attempt to tame and sublimate this power and to make it socially acceptable and useful.

Lewis did not think morality was a human artifice imposed on a primal life-force. Like the Apostle John, he proclaimed that life and light have the same source and occupy the same space. For Lewis, life is found in morality, and, like life, it is a gift we do not give ourselves.

It is this alien source of morality that modern people find disturbing. Reducing morality to human origins is a human attempt to tame it. For Lewis, that effort is the source of all our ills; the refusal to submit to our given limits is what alienates us from God. And that is where monsters really come from. Whoever they may be now—the White Witch or Weston—the monsters were once people. That is the frightening news Lewis has to share about human nature. It turns out that Lewis can scare people after all.

Lovecraft also believed that there is something monstrous at the bottom of human nature. Nearly all his stories have the feel of a confessional about them. They often narrate a process of discovery, creating within the reader a sense of dawning horror. Not infrequently, there is—at the zenith of the story—some dark revelation concerning the protagonist’s origins. In the case of “The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” the protagonist discovers he is the descendant of a union between his great-great-great-grandfather and a white ape. In “The Rats in the Walls,” a wealthy Massachusetts businessman returns to his ancestral home in England to find he is descended from cannibals. In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the narrator finds, through a process of genealogical inquiry, that he is the descendant of an unholy union between his great-great-grandfather and a sea monster.

These stories end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.

But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.

Aliens at Home

Lovecraft was not known for happy endings. Sadly, his own life ended unhappily: he died of cancer and malnutrition in 1937 in Providence, Rhode Island. At the end, he was still largely unknown and unappreciated by the world. Even though he has received a measure of vindication with his posthumous success, he would have agreed with Lewis that there was no meaning in success if this world is our only home.

Lewis did not believe this world is our only home. He did not even think it is our true home. Much has been said about Lewis and Sehnsucht, the German word for “longing” or “yearning.” Lewis thought that this species of longing was itself a precious possession, more precious than anything to be found in this world, because it directs us to another world, a “far off country” whence all the good things in our world derive their goodness. We feel it in those fleeting moments when we sense beautiful things beyond our grasp. It is, as Lewis famously said in his afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress,

that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

Christianity has always been the home of the homesick. And, in a delightful way, Lewis tells us in The Great Divorcethat when we find our true home in heaven, we will discover that this world was a sort of front porch. The Pevensie kids make this remarkable discovery in the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia. They die in a railway accident, but rather than passing into nothingness, or into a strange, utterly unfamiliar place, they find themselves in Narnia—or at least a place strongly resembling Narnia. But this Narnia is marvelously different. Somehow it seems even better, more real. Jewel the unicorn, who came into this better Narnia by another door, declares, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

Lovecraft was not an alien to this longing. He felt it, too, but without the satisfaction hope gives it. This comes out poignantly in his story, “Celephais.” There he tells the story of Kuranes, a man who, as a child, dreamed of the marvelous city of Celephais, a place described with prose as enchanting as any found in Lewis. But the child is rudely awakened, and for the rest of his life he pines for that place where the “sea meets the sky,” where the line separating earth from heaven is permeable and one may pass from one to the other.

Kuranes’s life in our world becomes dreary. He is not a “modern” man, according to the narrator, but one who prefers his dream world to the world he finds himself in. Finally, after many years, he gets back to Celephais with the help of hashish, and the tale ends with him at peace, dwelling in that blessed place—but we are also informed at the last that “below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides play mockingly with the body of a tramp . . . and cast it upon the rocks by ivy-covered Trevor Towers, where a notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility.”

It is so clear that Kuranes is Lovecraft that it hurts. He is that displaced dreamer—that extinct noble evicted from his ancestral estate. Is this what becomes of Sehnsuchtwhen it is disappointed? Does it become the phantasmagoria of Lovecraft? Must those who either cannot or will not believe in the promise implicit in our longing turn upon the reminders of another world and defile them? The prospect fills me with pity.

For those who do believe, the story ends quite differently. Lewis also died unnoticed. Someone even more famous than he died on the same day. That day was November 22, 1963—the day John F. Kennedy was shot.

But I imagine that Lewis did not mind. He had something better to think about. I share his faith, and I believe he saw the person that inspired Aslan and inspired these words: “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.” •


C. R. Wiley is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Manchester (PCA) in Manchester, Connecticut. He also writes young adult fiction under the nom de plume Mortimus Clay, and his book The Purloined Boywon the “Ippy” (Independent Publishers) Gold Medal for Young Adult Fiction in 2010.

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Touchstone.

Read more: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-01-038-f#ixzz4OTcl6ORQ

C R Wiley interviewed at, Wondering Aloud

This interview goes back aways. It was conducted by Jana Mohr Lone. She is the director and founder of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children. The answers to Jana’s questions would be a little different today, but not enough to prevent this from being reproduced here.

Here’s a link to the original post on her blog. 

purloined-boy-photo-of-book-half-sizePhilosophy and The Purloined Boy

I recently had a conversation with Christopher Wiley, whose num de plume is Mortimus Clay, the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Purloined Boy. The novel was a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category of the National Best Books 2009 Awards from USA Book News. The plot of the book utlizes themes and ideas from Plato and Aristotle to explore issues about metaphysics, epistemology, and social and political philosophy. The author is a Presbyterian minister who for about a decade taught philosophy part-time to undergraduates at Eastern Nazarene College.

What led you from philosophy to writing young adult fantasy?

For me there wasn’t a direct road from philosophy to fantasy. Both have been part of my life since I started reading seriously as a teenager. I didn’t begin to write young adult fantasy so that I could encode philosophy in order to slip it past the unsuspecting reader. Instead – I’m a philosopher who loves fantasy and got an idea for a story stuck in his head and used philosophy to help get it out.

Do you think that fantasy novels are a particularly good way to facilitate young people’s exploration of philosophy?

Fantasy is a great place to explore philosophical themes. You can even have fun with characters – basing them on philosophers or schools of philosophy. The easiest thing to do is to work with symbolism and foreshadowing. But I think the most fruitful use of philosophy in writing fiction is allowing philosophical problems to arise for the characters to address within the context of the plot. I’d say that philosophy, when practiced well, helps us identify the fundamental issues to respond to in any situation we find ourselves in. Since it is helpful in that way in our lives – it certainly can work that way in a narrative.

You mentioned in our mail exchange that the books are “an attempt to live philosophy from the inside.” What do you mean by that?

Each of us has a life to examine and we examine it from the inside. What makes literature an art that can’t be replaced by any other medium is that it allows the artist to speak within the mind of the reader. All other forms address us from the outside. Even music must be audible to be received. Only the written word enters silently, paradoxically from without and from within at the same moment. As such it enables the writer to propose ideas, images, judgments, etc. with the inner voice of the reader. At the same time the reader is taken out of himself or herself and enters the mind of the author – through the narrator or a character.

Now literally there is no such person as the character one reads about in a book. Even accounts based on real events are not literally true. They’re representations. But they can tell us something true. (Here is where I think Plato was inconsistent. His philosophy of art and his method for teaching philosophy stand in contradiction.) When good fiction does its work disbelief is suspended for a time and the reader can envision the world from another’s perspective. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions to someone. One might say propositions do that. But they don’t, really. A proposition is something a thinker holds before himself or herself and considers. One doesn’t enter into it unless he or she has an unusually sympathetic disposition and a powerful imagination. Through fiction I can help readers entertain questions they may not entertain in any other way.