Preliminary Notes on the Riddle of Self in Lilith, Part II

The first problem facing Mr. Vane in the story is how he is to make himself at home in an utterly unfamiliar world. His temporal-spatial dislocation is far more obvious to him than his existential dislocation, and demands to be dealt with first. But his demand for information is met with a philosophical reply, as we have seen elsewhere. No roadmap is provided to him. It is his own personal responsibility to make himself at home:

“Oblige me by telling me where I am.”

“That is impossible. You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.”

“How am I to begin that where everything is so strange?”

“By doing something.”


“Anything; and the sooner you begin the better! for until you are at home, you will find it as difficult to get out as it is to get in.” (Chapter III, “The Raven”)

What has always been common sense, and is now accepted pedagogical theory, is that we learn by doing. MacDonald applies this principle consistently as an epistemological principle that guides and motivated his entire theology. He does not focus on the practical Christian life because he is uninterested in the deep structure of reality; he focuses on practice because he believes that it is the only pathway to genuine knowledge. In order to make ourselves at home in any sphere of reality, in any world, it is necessary to put ourselves in relation to the things in it by acting. How do these objects respond to us, and what can we therefore learn about their relation to us, and our relation to them? This is the process of exploration carried out by a child learning its environment. Mr. Vane suddenly finds himself in a foreign world, and has to start over.

There are two further observations to make here. First, Mr. Raven displays no apparent preference for what type of action Mr. Vane starts with. In response to Vane’s demand to know what he should do, he answers, “Anything.” This openness can be very startling, especially for those of us who relentlessly try to spiritualize our lives, who obsess over getting God’s guidance for our actions. Guidance is precisely not what is given to Mr. Vane here. Does Mr. Raven really mean that he doesn’t care what Vane does (and by extension, that the powers-that-be don’t care)? Is it true that it doesn’t matter where we start in making ourselves at home in the world, provided that we do something (anything)? On the one hand, we could interpret Mr. Raven’s response as cold, or even as hostile. Certainly, Mr. Vane shows himself exasperated at several points with what he feels is Mr. Raven’s determination to be unhelpful. On the other hand, we eventually get the feeling that behind Mr. Raven’s relentless turning of Vane’s questions back on himself is his knowledge that he is not yet asking the right questions, and an uncompromising commitment to drive him to begin asking the right questions. What may feel at first like a somewhat uncaring stance is in fact a deep expression of care; Mr. Raven knows that Vane cannot make progress until he begins asking the right questions, and that only he can ask them. Like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, he can only be a witness, not a teacher–his care is manifested in his vote of confidence that Vane, who ultimately must learn for himself, is able to learn for himself.

Does it really matter what Vane begins by doing? How much of our action is morally neutral? Raven obviously does not expect Vane to begin by pillaging the planet, like Weston in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. As Vane’s “guardian angel”, in a sense, he already has a knowledge of his character. I believe that he knows and fully expects that Vane will make mistakes and will learn from them. He does not regard mistakes in themselves as the final disaster, as evidenced by his response later on in the story when he does give Vane a piece of advice (which ultimately goes unheeded).

“In this world never trust a person who has once deceived you. Above all, never do anything such a one may ask you to do.”

“I will try to remember,” I answered; “—but I may forget!”

“Then some evil that is good for you will follow.”

“And if I remember?”

“Some evil that is not good for you, will not follow.” (Chapter XVII, “A Grotesque Tragedy”)

This may seem fatalistic, but, if so, it is optimistically fatalistic! There is no sense of a capricious universe that punishes ignorance with everlasting ruin. Rather, as consistently throughout MacDonald’s writings, there is a conviction that the universe exists for our education, and that all events are governed for that same purpose. This is one of the keys to the unique atmosphere of safety that pervades MacDonald’s fantasy works, and makes them so profoundly moving and comforting. This is perhaps the “least safe” of his fantasy works in that the dangers Vane faces are gruesome, persistent, disturbing, and real. But, as we have already seen, Adam and Eve (Mr. Raven and his wife) give the story, not indeed an omniscient perspective, but a big-picture, far-seeing perspective of unshakable confidence in the government of the universe.

Ultimately, what we choose to begin by doing will reveal who we are, and this is the point in our education where we have to start. Since our will governs our action, we can only really go wrong by having the wrong motivation, and if we have the wrong motivation, this has to come out so that we can see it. This may be part of Mr. Raven’s apparent indifference as to where Vane begins. It’s also worth remembering that he does not in fact leave Mr. Vane bereft of guidance, but takes him home to his house. This will lead us into a paradox that we will have to deal with: if it really doesn’t matter how Vane begins his exploration of the new world, why does the story sharpen so quickly to a point of moral duty? At the outset, this conversation gives us the impression that he is being “pushed out of the nest” very quickly, told to explore and meet whatever adventures await him. He is entrusted to the education that the world will give him.

The second observation is that this process of “learning by doing” essentially involves obedient contact with the objects of exploration, with the world. There is then a continuum between essentially moral action and what seems to be simply exploration of a new world; they are bound by the central concept of “making oneself at home.” On the moral level, MacDonald insists that we come to a knowledge of the truth (the essential meaning of things as God sees and intends them) by putting into practice the truth that we already know. “Obedience is the opener of eyes”, he says in the sermon “The Way”, and in another sermon, “Obedience is the one key of life.” (“The Word of Jesus on Prayer”) This is not a form of behaviorist training on God’s part– a reinforcement linked to an unrelated performance–but a serious epistemological proposition, a necessary law of interaction with reality. It is not therefore limited to the domain of what we think of as obedience to the moral law. In her book, Awakening the Inner Eye: Intuition in Education, the educational philosopher Nel Noddings argues that intuition involves the Will engaging in obedient contact with the object of investigation:

“What seems to be crucial in all this is that our Will must allow intuition to make such contact; it must, in a sense, be more concerned with subject-to-subject relation than with subject-to-object contact. Traditionally, we have conceived intuition as our capacity to contact and represent objects for a reason. We have neglected its dynamic or motivational connections and its affective connections. We are suggesting that this object-contacting function may well behave as though, willingly, the roles of subject and object were reversed. We may, in a sense, become willingly object to the other in such a way that our subjectivity is shared. We have a sense of we-ness or even of being acted upon by the other. Things are accomplished through us, as it were.”

This obedience is manifested in our exploration of the world by the way we allow our actions with objects to be shaped by the properties they reveal to us as we interact with them. We are, in this process, learning our relationship to the individual facets of our external environment, in that we are learning, non just how to make use of them, but also how they will affect us, and how we should esteem them. We do not get knowledge from the things in our environment unless we agree to act with things (not just upon them) in the way that their natures reveal to us.

This directly bears upon the notion of being at home in the world. Clearly, it is not reducible to encyclopedic knowledge of one’s environment, nor again to “mastery” of one’s environment in the sense of making it instrumental to the projects one would impose upon it, although it certainly involves  both naming and classifying things, and learning their uses.  Perhaps it would be better to talk ecologically (“ecology” being, etymologically, the “account of homes”) in terms of adaptation to our environment–although this is still not perfectly exact. Making ourselves at home, under this metaphor, involves finding our place, our role or set of roles, in the environment. This is our niche–not necessarily overspecialized, nor arbitrary or externally imposed, but flowing from the discovery of the roles that we most naturally fit into. This still allows us to alter our environment–indeed, by our presence this is inevitable–but also allows our environment to alter us. This adaptation is more characteristic of indigenous peoples than it has been of the course of modern civilization in the West, but it is also characteristic of the fairy tale outlook that MacDonald exemplifies.

The definition of self in relation to the environment, the world in which we find ourselves, is a crucial part of the definition of self. Not just for indigenous peoples, but for anyone who has developed “roots”, locality and place anchor the notion of self, and in many ways define it. This does not receive enough emphasis in our largely rootless urban and suburban societies. The very notion of roots is that our internal sphere is tied to the external sphere through a complex system of interpenetrating tendrils. Mr. Vane has been abruptly uprooted, and through Mr. Raven’s line of questioning (“Who are you?”) he is able to connect this lack of roots to his lack of self-knowledge:

“Could it be that I was dead, I thought, and did not know it? Was I in what we used to call the world beyond the grave? and must I wander about seeking my place in it? How was I to find myself at home? The raven said I must do something: what could I do here?—And would that make me somebody? for now, alas, I was nobody!” (Chapter III, “The Raven”)

Of course, one of the purposes of this initial “lesson” is to reveal to Mr. Vane that he has never yet made himself at home anywhere, not even in the world from which he came. He has of yet no roots there, either. The story picks up when he has just assumed possession of his family’s ancestral property and house; as often in MacDonald’s stories, the house assumes a symbolic function as an extension of himself. But he does not know the house–he has been away at school, and even as a child never fully made it his own:

“He went out of the library into the hall, and across to the foot of the great staircase, then up the stairs to the first floor, where lay the chief rooms. Past these rooms, I following close, he continued his way, through a wide corridor, to the foot of a narrower stair leading to the second floor. Up that he went also, and when I reached the top, strange as it may seem, I found myself in a region almost unknown to me. I never had brother or sister to incite to such romps as make children familiar with nook and cranny; I was a mere child when my guardian took me away; and I had never seen the house again until, about a month before, I returned to take possession.” (Chapter II, “The Mirror”)

The consequences of this lack of knowledge are terrifying. Immediately after his “Who are you?” conversation with Mr. Raven in the land of the seven dimensions, he stumbles back into his own garret:

“Terror seized me, and I fled. Outside the chamber the wide garret spaces had an uncanny look. They seemed to have long been waiting for something; it had come, and they were waiting again! A shudder went through me on the winding stair: the house had grown strange to me! something was about to leap upon me from behind! I darted down the spiral, struck against the wall and fell, rose and ran. On the next floor I lost my way, and had gone through several passages a second time ere I found the head of the stair. At the top of the great stair I had come to myself a little, and in a few moments I sat recovering my breath in the library.

Nothing should ever again make me go up that last terrible stair! The garret at the top of it pervaded the whole house! It sat upon it, threatening to crush me out of it! The brooding brain of the building, it was full of mysterious dwellers, one or other of whom might any moment appear in the library where I sat! I was nowhere safe! I would let, I would sell the dreadful place, in which an aërial portal stood ever open to creatures whose life was other than human! I would purchase a crag in Switzerland, and thereon build a wooden nest of one story with never a garret above it, guarded by some grand old peak that would send down nothing worse than a few tons of whelming rock!

I knew all the time that my thinking was foolish, and was even aware of a certain undertone of contemptuous humour in it; but suddenly it was checked, and I seemed again to hear the croak of the raven.

“If I know nothing of my own garret,” I thought, “what is there to secure me against my own brain? Can I tell what it is even now generating?—what thought it may present me the next moment, the next month, or a year away? What is at the heart of my brain? What is behind my THINK? Am I there at all?—Who, what am I?”

I could no more answer the question now than when the raven put it to me in—at—“Where in?—where at?” I said, and gave myself up as knowing anything of myself or the universe.” (Chapter III, “The Raven”)

The task, then, of making ourselves at home in our immediate surroundings–or in the universe at large–is inextricably linked to our personal responsibility as individuals to construct an authentic existence, to “justify our existence”, as MacDonald says. In Mr. Vane’s next sojourn in the “region of the seven dimensions”, which comes in the very next chapter, he eventually–under protest–comes to grips with the reality that he is going to have to follow Mr. Raven’s counsel to make himself at home in the new world:

“Entreaty was vain. I must accept my fate! But how was life to be lived in a world of which I had all the laws to learn? There would, however, be adventure! that held consolation; and whether I found my way home or not, I should at least have the rare advantage of knowing two worlds!” (Chapter IV, “Somewhere or Nowhere”)

He is not, however, merely an adventure-seeker. Instead, he correctly formulates the problem in terms of mutual responsibility: our claim, by existing, on the world, and the world’s claim on us:

“I had never yet done anything to justify my existence; my former world was nothing the better for my sojourn in it: here, however, I must earn, or in some way find, my bread! But I reasoned that, as I was not to blame in being here, I might expect to be taken care of here as well as there! I had had nothing to do with getting into the world I had just left, and in it I had found myself heir to a large property! If that world, as I now saw, had a claim upon me because I had eaten, and could eat again, upon this world I had a claim because I must eat—when it would in return have a claim on me!”

This again references the idea of the world as our nursery, existing for our education. But it also acknowledges that we, in turn, exist for the world. This double belonging is expressed beautifully by Thomas Traherne in his Centuries of Meditations:

“So that I alone am the end of the World: Angels and men being all mine. And if others are so, they are made to enjoy it for my further advancement. God only being the Giver and I the Receiver. So that Seneca philosophized rightly when he said “Deus me dedit solum toti Mundo, et totem Mundum mihi soli”: God gave me alone to all the World, and all the World to me alone.” (Centuries, I:15)

Since Traherne’s work was lost until the twentieth century, MacDonald would not have been familiar with it, but it is precisely this duty of making oneself at home in the world that Traherne is commending as our essential duty to God.

“The WORLD is not this little Cottage of Heaven and Earth. Though this be fair, it is too small a Gift. When God made the World He made the Heavens, and the Heavens of Heavens, and the Angels, and the Celestial Powers. These also are parts of the World: So are all those infinite and eternal Treasures that are to abide for ever, after the Day of Judgment. Neither are these, some here, and some there, but all everywhere, and at once to be enjoyed. The WORLD is unknown, till the Value and Glory of it is seen: till the Beauty and the Serviceableness of its parts is considered. When you enter into it, it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one’s own Felicity: and to find GOD in exchange for oneself: Which we then do when we see Him in His Gifts, and adore His Glory.” (Centuries, I:18)

While separated by time, MacDonald and Traherne share perfectly the concept of possession, not by conquest, but by admiration, by the recognition of God’s thought in it. This is illustrated at several points in his novels when he speaks of the childlike soul, or the impoverished caretakers of the land, as more truly possessing it than its ostensible owners.

The notion of caretaking is just as important as, if not more important than the notion of esteem. MacDonald describes the world as God made it, the kingdom of God, as a kingdom of service. Mr. Vane recognizes that he is going to be required to do something worthwhile, to provide service in return for the service that the world offers him. His needs are his claim on the universe; his needs satisfied are the universe’s claim on him. Again, Traherne expresses this perfectly:

“Wants are the bands and cements between God and us. Had we not wanted we could never have been obliged. Whereas now we are infinitely obliged, because we want infinitely. From Eternity it was requisite that we should want. We could never else have enjoyed anything: Our own wants are treasures. And if want be a treasure, sure everything is so. Wants are the ligatures between God and us, the sinews that convey Senses from him into us, whereby we live in Him, and feel His enjoyments. For had we not been obliged by having our wants satisfied, we should not have been created to love Him. And had we not been created to love Him, we could never have enjoyed His eternal Blessedness.” (Centuries, I:51)

If this is true personally between us God, it is also true through the mediation of the created universe, and in relation to our fellow creatures. It is a good start, then, that Mr. Vane is able to see, in a measure, how things stand between him and the new world. There is a nascent resolve to do here what he had not yet done in his own world. If he has no knowledge of what he is, he has at least a hope of becoming something.

And here is the great danger, which he almost immediately falls prey to. Paradoxically, the desire to make something of ourselves is not the pathway to authentic existence. To set up his first temptation, we have to grapple first with an apparent problem, minor as it may be in the long run, with the flow of the narrative. We have spent a great deal of time on the imperative laid on him by Mr. Raven to begin to make himself at home in the world by doing something–anything. The problem is that while Mr. Raven thus seems to be “pushing him out of the nest”, he is in fact leading him to his own house, where he will face a momentous decision, a critical test. Immediately following Mr. Vane’s reflection on the mutual claim between himself and the world, we have this interchange:

“There is no hurry,” said the raven, who stood regarding me; “we do not go much by the clock here. Still, the sooner one begins to do what has to be done, the better! I will take you to my wife.”

“Thank you. Let us go!” I answered, and immediately he led the way.

What gives here? If Mr. Raven is so indifferent as to what Mr. Vane does to make himself at home in the world, why does he hurry him toward his fate? Is the supposed freedom he is extending him an illusion? Is this an artistic fault in the story, an oversight, or is it deliberate? I believe that we can begin to understand the paradox by following through with what MacDonald is trying to communicate, by means of the story, about what is actually required in order for us to attain the status of an individual, or to do anything in an authentic and self-definitive sense. More on this next time….

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