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

Through his temporal-spatial dislocation into a new world, and through Mr. Raven’s questioning, Mr. Vane has become aware of the problem of self, the problem posed by his individual existence. The awareness that he does not know, is not at home in, the world has helped mediate to him the awareness that he does not know, is not at home in, himself. This lack of at-homeness manifests itself as a lack of freedom. There is no free coming and going–remember that Mr. Raven has said that home is the only place where you can both go in and out:

“You have, I fear, got into this region too soon, but none the less you must get to be at home in it; for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.” (Chapter III, “The Raven”)

The first time that Mr. Vane gets into the region of the seven dimensions, it is by pursuing Mr. Raven through his house, into his garrett, and ultimately through a mirror. The second time, which follows the next morning, is much more against his will. In fact, he is determined not to go back, a determination that Mr. Raven says “does not matter”:

“Now we should be going!” said the raven, and stepped to the front of the porch.

“Going where?” I asked.

“Going where we have to go,” he answered. “You did not surely think you had got home? I told you there was no going out and in at pleasure until you were at home!”

“I do not want to go,” I said.

“That does not make any difference—at least not much,” he answered. “This is the way!”

“I am quite content where I am.”

“You think so, but you are not. Come along.” (Chapter IV, “Somewhere or Nowhere”)

Mr. Vane’s education is both free and compulsory. There is no getting out of it. Remember the categorical imperative: “Everybody who is not at home, has to go home.” In this way, what Mr. Vane thinks is his free choice (not to do any more journeying in strange countries) is overruled.

He obeys Mr. Raven so far as to step out with him onto the patio. To his dismay, he soon finds that he is back in the region of the seven dimensions, without even having gone near the mirror portal:

I looked behind me, and gave a cry of dismay: I had but that moment declared I would not leave the house, and already I was a stranger in the strange land!

“What right have you to treat me so, Mr. Raven?” I said with deep offence. “Am I, or am I not, a free agent?”

“A man is as free as he chooses to make himself, never an atom freer,” answered the raven.

“You have no right to make me do things against my will!”

“When you have a will, you will find that no one can.”

“You wrong me in the very essence of my individuality!” I persisted.

“If you were an individual I could not, therefore now I do not. You are but beginning to become an individual.”

It is easy for us to side with Mr. Vane here. Wouldn’t this principle justify any kind of treatment of anyone who we do not judge to be a free individual? It is a problem that we should not lightly dismiss. We should, however, remember that we don’t need an example like this in order to learn how to disregard other people’s individuality; we are already experts at it. In everyday life, we routinely witness–and commit–what Donna Hicks calls dignity violations. We fail to honor the freedom of others, their self-determination as individuals.

Is Mr. Raven justified in disregarding Mr. Vane’s choice? Here is where we have to be careful. It is important to recognize that he is not treating Mr. Vane as a means toward his own ends here. Mr. Vane is the end. His development as a free individual–which can only take place through his recognition that he is not yet a free individual–is the good that Mr. Raven has in mind. On the one hand, then, it is not clear that we can accuse Mr. Raven of objectifying Mr. Vane here, of treating him as It rather than as Thou. On the other hand, it is all too clear that action “for another’s good”, especially when that involves disregarding their stated wishes, is deeply problematic. Anyone who has ever been wounded by another person’s intervention in their life “for their own good”, especially when that person claims to “know them better than they know themselves”, will scarcely be comforted by being told that this violation of their dignity was their own fault for not yet being truly an individual.

Couldn’t Mr. Raven have waited for Mr. Vane to become curious enough to seek the strange country again for himself? Or would it not have been better to do so, for the sake of honoring Mr. Vane’s freedom, even with the risk that he would never come back? He does wait for Vane’s initiative on other occasions, such as Vane’s next visit to the region of the seven dimensions. It seems that MacDonald has set us up here to confront these “hard sayings” of Mr. Raven. And the problem of free will in the story is not going to go away, either. We will eventually meet it in regard to Lilith, the demonic “free agent” in the story, her slavery within herself, and her reclamation.

It is safe to say that the position of acting “for another’s good”, especially contrary to their wishes, is not one that we should assume lightly. Perhaps the surest indicator that we should not occupy that position is the least inclination to take it. We could almost (but not quite) as well say of compulsion as of vengeance that it belongs to God, not to us. Whether compulsion is justified on God’s part is a much deeper issue, although not one we can avoid.

MacDonald is very sensitive to the need to honor other people’s individuality. In his understanding, it is love alone that gives us any right to influence another person, with the greater influence demanding the greater love. He is also sensitive to our unlimited capacity for self-deception. We can very easily persuade ourselves that we are acting out of love for another person, when in fact we are activated by hidden selfish motives. Mr. Vane will have to learn this lesson the hard way in relation to the Little Ones, whom he believes that he loves disinterestedly, but whom he betrays to their enemies.

We should tremble to assume the role of teacher or guide. It is, however, sometimes given to us “from above”. In such cases, we are bound to exercise it faithfully, that is, with no admixture of false motive, something that is only possible to the person who is and remains “dead” in an important sense that we will have to consider more deeply. It is necessary, in the story, to consider Mr. Raven as Vane’s divinely given guide. In virtue of what he is, his existential relation to Mr. Vane (as his first ancestor, Adam, and as his librarian, for he states that he was never removed from his post), in virtue, especially, of his having died, he has rights with Mr. Vane that another person would not have. There is a real risk in treating someone as he treats Mr. Vane–he has been entrusted with the place of running that risk, of being the representative of the Universe in its claim on Mr. Vane, in its demand of him. What that claim, what that demand is, we still need to understand more clearly. We still need to reckon with a God who knows best, and acts against our (apparent) will–no easy task in this age that both idolizes and is completely ignorant of freedom!

Our first step is to attend closely to the dialog between Mr. Raven and Mr. Vane. The claim of the universe on Mr. Vane seems to be that he ought by nature to be a free individual, and he is not yet one. To make any progress, he has to come to see this. His will is not yet characteristically his, filled with a definite content, and defining a settled and authentic selfhood.

It is strange: from a certain kind of evangelical perspective, we would assume that the story is about dying to self, and thus we would assume that Mr. Vane is full of himself, and needs to be emptied out. The problem as framed by the story itself, however, is that Vane does not have a self, is not yet a self in the way that he needs to be–he is empty, vanus. (It is, of course, possible to be full of emptiness. Language is not entirely our friend here. Meaning is higher-dimensional than language, resulting in multiple ambiguities and apparent paradoxes. Whatever words we use will be significantly overdetermined, overtaxed. This makes possible the fantastic wordplay of the story, thus being both an artistic strength and an artistic fault.)

In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard explores what it means for the self to not be a self, for the self to not be itself, which is the condition that he names despair. This broad definition leads him to conclude that despair is not a rare condition. It is not limited to those who self-identify as being in despair; on the contrary, the vast majority of people everywhere live, to some degree, in some form of despair. This recalls Thoreau’s famous words, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (In point of fact, the opinions are closely contemporary: Walden was written in 1854, The Sickness unto Death in 1849.) According to Kierkegaard, despair that you are unaware of is in some ways more dangerous than despair that you are aware of. He says that despair is a sickness that likes to hide down deep “in the heart of happiness”.

Mr. Vane has, up to the point where the story begins, not been living in conscious misery. He has had a privileged life, if a lonely one. With an almost remarkable lack of self-insight, he has not been aware of how profound that loneliness is, and what a horror it is. That he will realize in the course of the story. That he lost both of his parents in childhood is more than enough trauma to define him in an unhealthy way. The loss is far enough in the past that it is not constantly at the forefront of his thoughts, but his longing for his parents will surface at multiple points in the story. That being said, Mr. Vane would not have characterized himself as one in despair. His despair, his condition of not being himself, is something that has to be brought to his attention, forced on his attention, and this is Mr. Raven’s first order of business. 

In Kierkegaard’s account, despair is only absent when the human spirit is in a perfect state of health, for which he has a beautiful, if difficult definition:

“This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” (The Sickness unto Death, Part I)

Anything short of this involves either the idea of not wanting to be the self that one is, which involves fleeing from the responsibility to be, in the active sense, or the idea of wanting to be oneself ungrounded in the power that established that self, that is, wanting to enjoy oneself as self-created. This latter possibility is also a flight from being. It is in a sense self-assertion, but as it is the attempt to assert a self that is free from all relation, that is, from all obligation, except to itself–which is an impossibility–it is also a refusal to be the self that one is.

Kierkegaard’s nuanced hierarchy of despair provides a more satisfactory explanation for, say, Mr. Vane’s condition than some “flatter” explanations of sin. There is a kind of popular theological notion that all Self (that is, disease of self) is a wanting to be one’s own God. This doesn’t ring true to our daily experience. Most of us are too “spiritless” (that is, not conscious enough of being or even having a spirit) for this to really be a possibility. Defiance is a rather refined development of despair, which Kierkegaard rightly terms “demonic”, rather different than the “lives of quiet desperation” that most people experience.

MacDonald will explore demonic despair with terrifying vividness through the character Lilith. It is somewhat odd that to this point in examining a story named “Lilith”, we have not yet considered Lilith herself at all. The primary purpose of this essay has been to look at the riddle of self in Lilith from Mr. Vane’s point of view. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that Mr. Vane is the first-person narrator and protagonist of the story. The problem of selfhood in the story is developed first in reference to him. Lilith, however, presents the most extreme problem of self that is resolved within the compass of the story. In her character, MacDonald can probe the limits of personality, and decide whether it is imaginable that God can recall a spirit from the utmost singularity, the black hole, of demonic despair. 

Mr. Vane, on the other hand, seems inclined at first to retreat from the vertigo of his unknown self–which is perhaps why Mr. Raven refuses to leave him alone. Kierkegaard believes that despair is a spell which has to be undone consecutively backwards, that one has to go through all the negatives to reach the positives. Mr. Vane will indeed come much closer to demonic despair himself before he “gives himself up to the night” and accepts the means offered to him of rest and healing. Yet there is a merciful stupidity that keeps him from veering to pure defiance; his motives remain concealed, even if dishonestly concealed, from himself. He is able to persuade himself that he is acting out of love to the Little Ones, even while repeatedly failing them, by externalizing his demonic self in Lilith (and dallying with her) while externalizing his ideal self in Lona (and failing to understand her). It is not until Lilith murders Lona, under conditions that are plainly Mr. Vane’s responsibility, that he is finally shocked awake, and repents.

After failing his first test and fleeing from the chamber of death, Mr. Vane finds himself back in his own house. Sorrow, however, pursues him, especially when he finds a manuscript in his library, written by his father, that gives details of his father’s acquaintance with Mr. Raven, and helps persuade Vane that Mr. Raven was someone whom he ought to have trusted. Wanting to make things right, he seeks the mirror, and enters the region of the seven dimensions on his own initiative. He is offended afresh, however, when Mr. Raven rebuffs his attempt at atonement, and refuses to bring him back to his cottage, saying that it is obvious Mr. Vane’s time has not yet come. At first, he refuses Mr. Vane any guidance, but then sends after him a firefly-like creature. Vane, however, with typical self-sabotage, tries to grasp and possess the creature, only to find it turn into a lightless, dead book in his hands. The moon’s rising saves him from becoming hamburger for some of the more hideous inhabitants of the country. He goes through various adventures that have a Dantesque feel as he observes beings that are dead, but not with the right kind of death, and therefore have to go through a purgatorial phase before they can die truly into life. Eventually, he is captured by some very stupid giants and cared for by the innocent Little Ones. He nevertheless eventually abandons the Little Ones, thinking that he can do them more good by finding out more of their history, and it is thus that he falls in with Lilith while she is in desperate circumstances. He very laboriously nurses her back to life and health, unaware that she is feeding on his blood at night. When she has sufficiently recovered her strength, she spurns him, but he pursues her back to the city of which she is the queen and tyrant. By this time he is aware that she is not good, and that she is using him, but he persuades himself that he can outwit her. Nevertheless, she tricks him into bringing her back into his own world, which she intends to use as a portal by which to circumvent the barriers that have kept her from getting at the Little Ones and murdering them. Thankfully, Mr. Raven is there, and temporarily foils her. Mr. Raven and Mr. Vane go back through the mirror, but Lilith escapes and follows them, and disappears to hunt the Little Ones. It is at this point that Mr. Raven tries again to persuade Mr. Vane to come back to his cottage and sleep. Mr. Vane at first reluctantly agrees, but when he is shown the horse that will carry him home, he is seized by the idea of riding after Lilith and trying to save the Little Ones. Mr. Raven tries to convince him that he will bring only ruin to the Little Ones if he goes now, but Mr. Vane refuses to listen, and rides off. 

The circumstances of Mr. Vane’s second refusal to rest are compelling. There seems to be an emergency; Mr. Vane knows that it is through his own fault that Lilith has regained the power to harm the Little Ones. Yet he is even at the time aware that behind his protest of altruistic motive there is the mere lust for possession–his lifelong weakness has been horses, and he is intoxicated by the power and beauty of the horse upon which he is seated. On it, he feels invincible, but like his adventure with the firefly creature, the horse lasts only minutes before disaster strikes.

Nor does he quite have the excuse of exigency. As much as he fears for the Little Ones, they have a better protector than him. Lilith, who often is able, or compelled, to assume the form of a spotted leopard, has a nemesis: a pure white leopard sent after her by Lady Marah. Mr. Raven exhorts Vane to trust–trust that the Little Ones will be taken care of–and focus on doing his immediate duty, his existential duty.

Oh what a hard lesson this is to learn! How much easier it is to choose “great works” as one’s duty, rather than accepting that one’s duty is the utterly simple, and searingly difficult task of being. We think, or persuade ourselves, that we are called to be benefactors to others, while ignoring the evidence that presses upon us that we are not the kind of being that is capable of doing anyone good. Not wanting to be our deficient selves, we persuade ourselves that we can still “fix” things, that, if given the opportunity, we can turn things around, and live up to our ideal self, the self we want to be.

Notice that this does not have to assume the form of conscious defiance. It can lie behind every form of religious effort, including (perhaps especially including) the effort to be justified “by faith alone”. I can personally testify that for over twenty-five years it has bedeviled my every attempt to come to peace with myself. No doubt, that is why I find Lilith so compelling. Paradoxically, as long as our aim is to justify our existence, we will never succeed in doing it. It does not matter how holy are the means employed, including every possible permutation of “death to self”, every possible grasping of every possible presentation of what the gospel means or is, of what Jesus has accomplished or offers. By entering death to self with an end outside that death in view (the justification of our being), we preclude the possibility of going to sleep “outright and heartily”. We maintain a tether that keeps us from the unreserved leap into infinity. Constantly on the watch not to miss our time of waking, we are unable to fall asleep. We want to be assured that when the occasion comes to “rise with Christ” and “put on the new man” we won’t be left behind. Thus when we are given no alarm clock, we are too afraid to actually fall asleep–we only feign it, with our eyes cast over our shoulder. The air of the chamber of death is too cold, too piercing; we fear annihilation.

Now the reality is both that our selves, existentially, are incapable of being annihilated anyway (so we ought not to fear), and, at the same time, that we really do have to pass through something far closer to annihilation than will ever be comfortable–which is why the cross is such a fitting symbol of our faith. 

If there is any thoroughly overdetermined word in Lilith, it is “death”. The concept of death in the story is so complex, and so richly worked out as to afford enough material for a separate book in its own right. Yet if we are to see how it is the answer to the riddle of self, we cannot but attempt to make some distinctions and definitions, even if we cannot hope to do so adequately.

The most straightforward sense of “to die” in the story is to pass from earthly existence into the afterlife. Those who have done this are “the dead”. At one point, Mr. Vane wonders if the region of the seven dimensions that he has blundered into is in fact the afterlife. As readers, we may well wonder that, too. Certainly, there are significant sections of Lilith that feel like Vane is being given an Inferno- or Purgatorio-like tour of redemptive processes operating on those who have passed into the afterlife. The Evil Wood, the fate of the skeletons, the Bad Burrow (notice how this almost exactly translates the Malebolgia of the Inferno!) seem like examples of punishments, or mercies, meted out to souls according to the character of their previous lives. Like Dante, however, Mr. Vane has not yet died on earth. He doesn’t really belong in the region of the seven dimensions, but is there, like Dante, by a special mercy. He has been arrested in the course of his earthly life, through the intervention of friendly powers, and compelled to journey through this world for his own edification, his own salvation. At the end, he is returned to live out his life on earth, leaving us with the question whether it was all a dream, or whether he actually experienced the things in the story. MacDonald seems to leave this open, even suggesting that Vane could be dreaming his continued existence on earth. The quote from Novalis at the end of the story seems to suggest that in our truest dreams we have tasted a higher reality that our existence on earth can and should be translated into.

We cannot emphasize too much that death in the sense of passing from this life to the afterlife in no way affects the eternal aspects of our being. The conscious part of us does not cease–indeed, Kierkegaard postulates that despair arises precisely from our inability to cease, and MacDonald frequently refers back to the terror of being compelled to exist, incapable of unmaking ourselves:

“If I find my position, my consciousness, that of one from home, nay, that of one in some sort of prison; if I find that I can neither rule the world in which I live nor my own thoughts or desires; that I cannot quiet my passions, order my likings, determine my ends, will my growth, forget when I would, or recall what I forget; that I cannot love where I would, or hate where I would; that I am no king over myself; that I cannot supply my own needs, do not even always know which of my seeming needs are to be supplied, and which treated as impostors; if, in a word, my own being is everyway too much for me; if I can neither understand it, be satisfied with it, nor better it—may it not well give me pause—the pause that ends in prayer? When my own scale seems too large for my management; when I reflect that I cannot account for my existence, have had no poorest hand in it, neither, should I not like it, can do anything towards causing it to cease I am shut up in a world of consciousness, an unknown I in an unknown world: surely this world of my unwilled, unchosen, compelled existence, cannot be shut out from him, cannot be unknown to him, cannot be impenetrable, impermeable, unpresent to him from whom I am!” (“The Word of Jesus on Prayer”)

Besides the death that leaves our conscious, eternal selves untouched, there are two opposing processes going by the name of death that do affect our selfhood. The first is the “good death” that Mr. Raven and his wife are trying to bring Mr. Vane to embrace. This is the death of the sleepers in their cemetery (“cemetery” being a Christian coinage meaning “sleeping place”), and it is healing. In Lilith, MacDonald often paradoxically equates this kind of death with life, as in the passage where Vane and Lona finally wake from their sleep and meet Adam and Eve:

“I hope you have had a pleasant darkness!” said the Mother.

“Not very,” I answered, “but the waking from it is heavenly.”

“It is but begun,” she rejoined; “you are hardly yet awake!”

“He is at least clothed-upon with Death, which is the radiant garment of Life,” said Adam.

He embraced Lona his child, put an arm around me, looked a moment or two inquiringly at the princess, and patted the head of the leopardess.

“I think we shall meet you two again before long,” he said, looking first at Lona, then at me.

“Have we to die again?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, with a smile like the Mother’s; “you have died into life, and will die no more; you have only to keep dead. Once dying as we die here, all the dying is over. Now you have only to live, and that you must, with all your blessed might. The more you live, the stronger you become to live.”

“But shall I not grow weary with living so strong?” I said. “What if I cease to live with all my might?”

“It needs but the will, and the strength is there!” said the Mother. “Pure life has no weakness to grow weary withal. THE Life keeps generating ours.—Those who will not die, die many times, die constantly, keep dying deeper, never have done dying; here all is upwardness and love and gladness.” (Chapter XLIV, “The Waking”)

This recalls the dialogue between Mossy and the Old Man of the Sea in The Golden Key:

“You have tasted of death now,” said the Old Man. “Is it good?”

“It is good,” said Mossy. “It is better than life.”

“No,” said the Old Man, “it is only more life.”

This kind of death is viewed as a process involving the purification of the will, such that, when it is complete, the human will is no longer capable of generating evil. We can see this in Adam’s dialogue with Vane in the preceding chapter:

“Alas! when I but dream how am I to know it? The dream best dreamed is the likest to the waking truth!”

“When you are quite dead, you will dream no false dream. The soul that is true can generate nothing that is not true, neither can the false enter it.”

“But, sir,” I faltered, “how am I to distinguish betwixt the true and the false where both alike seem real?”

“Do you not understand?” he returned, with a smile that might have slain all the sorrows of all his children. “You CANNOT perfectly distinguish between the true and the false while you are not yet quite dead; neither indeed will you when you are quite dead—that is, quite alive, for then the false will never present itself.” (Chapter XLIII, “The Dreams that Came”)

Thus, this kind of death is a complete return to innocence. That it is why it is described as a process of forgetting–forgetting the knowledge of evil for the sake of a true and literal recollection (re-collection) of self. This is how Adam describes Lilith’s sleep (after she finally has yielded to it) to one of the Little Ones:

“Her wake is not ripe yet,” he said: “she is busy forgetting. When she has forgotten enough to remember enough, then she will soon be ripe, and wake.”

“And remember?”

“Yes—but not too much at once though.” (Chapter XLIV, “The Waking”)

This kind of death is not reserved for the old and infirm. Anyone may enter into it, at any stage of life, and it is understood that the sooner, the better. No one is really alive until they have passed through it. This is Mr. Raven’s point when Vane objects, at his first trial, to lying down among the dead:

“But these are all dead, and I am alive!” I objected, shuddering.

“Not much,” rejoined the sexton with a smile, “—not nearly enough! Blessed be the true life that the pauses between its throbs are not death!” (Chapter VII, “The Cemetery”)

This death is the handoff to life, the form that life takes as it consumes the corruptible:

“None of those you see,” he answered, “are in truth quite dead yet, and some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us. Almost every night some rise and go.” (Chapter VII, “The Cemetery”)

I would suggest that this death is the annihilating experience of turning our inward gaze unreservedly from ourselves to God. By unreservedly, I mean that in doing this we must forfeit the reservation of being ready to turn our gaze back to ourselves at any point. We may, of course, turn our gaze back upon ourselves by simple failure to maintain the pure will by which we “will one thing”, but this is no disaster. It does mean that we are not yet entirely dead and have “waked too soon”, but it is not something that God cares to blame, because we can do very little to help it. Indeed, the best thing we can do, as soon as we have recollected ourselves, is to pick up immediately where we left off, by turning our gaze back to God unreservedly. This turning is an annihilating experience in that we pass through a kind of veil, and experience a kind of loss. As we are no longer visible to ourselves, we have forgotten ourselves, and have in that sense lost ourselves. Thus, in Mr. Vane’s account of the sleepers we have the piercing cold, the Lethe-quality of the sleep that is a forgetting, a continuous process of forgetting.

This experience of losing self by forfeiting the ability to regard ourselves is why we would call this “death to self”. Of course, we are not at all losing ourselves. Our selves are there all the time, and are in much better condition than when we are rotting them with our regard. Indeed, our selves are not even quiescent during this process: they are united with the great Self that gave them birth, and are receiving nourishment directly from that Self; they are, at this time, and only at this time, alive, beating into his heart, as it were, and receiving the beats of his own heart.

I have lapsed into mystical language here, in the attempt to describe what will not be described. It is clear that “death to self” must not be thought of as “death of self”. “Death to self” may be apt in that I have voluntarily severed connections through which the self can act upon itself, can manipulate itself, because this can only be done in a state of self-regard. Since the self has ceased to “animate” itself with whatever kind of life (however inferior and unreal it may be) that it can be said to give itself, I can be said, with respect to my will, to be “dead to self”. Yet this does not mean that our self has become unconscious of itself. Then, I suppose, the self could be said to be dead or annihilated in that its existence is its relation to itself. It means merely that the direction of self-consciousness has changed: it is no longer mediated by itself, but through God on whom the whole regard of the being is fixed. Self-knowledge is radiated back into the self by God, through his active knowing of the self.

The figure of simple gazing emphasizes the effortlessness of sleep. Dead to ourselves, and alive to God, who fills our dreams, we are now finally alive within ourselves, and conscious of ourselves within the bliss of the consciousness of God. The other, and more active, figure of this death is complete self-offering, which is the figure of the cross. In his sermon “Self-Denial”, MacDonald says:

“Verily it is not to thwart or tease the poor self Jesus tells us. That was not the purpose for which God gave it to us! He tells us we must leave it altogether—yield it, deny it, refuse it, lose it: thus only shall we save it, thus only have a share in our own being. The self is given to us that we may sacrifice it; it is ours that we like Christ may have somewhat to offer—not that we should torment it, but that we should deny it; not that we should cross it, but that we should abandon it utterly: then it can no more be vexed.”

The preciousness of self then becomes that it is our “somewhat to offer”. We are both the priest and the offering in this drama; we are both Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. It is ourselves that we lay on the altar; it is we who are consumed like a burnt offering. This is simply the active offering of our whole being to God. It is the act of pure and utter trust by which we abandon our whole being to its maker and sustainer. This offering is annihilatingly complete and self-forgetting, yet it must be renewed every hour of the day, every minute of the day. Again it is something that we are likely to “fall out of” frequently at first, but which we can simply renew at recollection with no sense of blame. Its proper figure is of arms raised upward to God, and the experience is that of being inwardly stretched, even pulled asunder, whence there is no better symbol for it than the cross. But if it is an impalement, it is an impalement on him, on the being of the Lord himself. He himself is our cross, as Madeleine L’Engle expresses in the lovely poem “Thomas, After Seeing the Nails”. If it is a being transfixed, it is a being transfixed with divine love. If it is being stretched, it is being stretched into union with that which is much larger than ourselves.

In this sense, it can just as rightly be thought of as a unitive experience as it could be as an experience of death. In fact, as has always been understood, perfect Love is death, in that it is self-forgetting. That is why Novalis can write of death as he does in the Hymns to the Night, anticipating it with the eagerness of a betrothed bride. That is why Mr. Vane can represent his experience of sleep in these terms:

“How convey the delight of that frozen, yet conscious sleep! I had no more to stand up! had only to lie stretched out and still! How cold I was, words cannot tell; yet I grew colder and colder—and welcomed the cold yet more and more. I grew continuously less conscious of myself, continuously more conscious of bliss, unimaginable yet felt. I had neither made it nor prayed for it: it was mine in virtue of existence! and existence was mine in virtue of a Will that dwelt in mine.” (Chapter XLIII, “The Dreams that Came”)

This state, then, while it can be called Death as the purification of the will is taking place, is indeed the “radiant garment of life” that will remain when the possibility of falling out of it has ceased. Where are we in this state? At home, in the place where we can freely go in and out:

“For centuries I dreamed—or was it chiliads? or only one long night?—But why ask? for time had nothing to do with me; I was in the land of thought—farther in, higher up than the seven dimensions, the ten senses: I think I was where I am—in the heart of God.”

This idea of “returning where we are” he has borrowed directly from Dante. This passage confirms the idea that the “home” to which Mr. Raven insists that we all must go is the heart of God. Through the “good death”, in which, as Kierkegaard says, our self is transparently grounded in that which established it, we are finally at home–at home in ourselves, but not through our relating to ourselves, but rather through our relating to the Other that is self’s primary relation, transcending its relation to itself. We continue to relate to ourselves–that is after all, what self is, and what it means to have a self–but through the mediation of the Self that is our self’s source and ground.

What about the other kind of death that affects our selfhood, the bad kind? That is what we have to consider next.

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