religion & philosophythat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Daring to create anything

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Somewhere in Sexus, the first installment of The Rosy Crucifixion, Henry Miller writes that “imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything godlike about God, it is that. He dared to imagine everything.”

I don’t suppose Miller is taken very seriously as a thinker. Neither is Colin Wilson. Or Alan Watts. Perhaps that’s because none went to college. Watts did attend the King’s School and, later on, an Episcopal seminary prior to being ordained a priest, and I rather suspect that Miller’s secondary education made him as well schooled as most people with a college diploma these days. Wilson, who dropped out of school at 16, is the one among the three who can be thought of as an autodidact.

For two years in college, I had a pretty thorough training in scholastic philosophy, as well as an equally thorough grounding in existential phenomenology. I certainly accumulated more than enough credits to have gone on to graduate school, and I did, in fact, briefly consider applying for admission to Dusquesne, which was at the time the best place to study continental philosophy in this country.

The principal teacher under whom I studied, Edward Gannon, S .J., was probably the most influential person in my life. From him I learned that philosophy isn’t primarily about terms and propositions and syllogisms, but has to do with engaging life with the fullness of one’s being. Thinking certainly figures, of course, and it is essential to know how to reason properly, but understanding life comes from living it, not just thinking about it.

And that is why I like thinkers like Miller and Wilson and Watts. I’ve read my share of academically acknowledged philosophers, though the ones I prefer tend to be those who are among the less approved — Santayana, Marcel, Ortega y Gasset, Berdyaev, Shestov, and Unumuno.

Anyway, the whole premise of this column is to follow a train of thought inspired by something someone has said to wherever it happens to lead me. Not to where it necessarily leads, mind you — whatever that may mean — but to where it leads me at the time of writing. For one of the things I learned from Father Gannon is that, to be authentic, philosophy must be philosophy for me. Better to imperfectly think my way to a conclusion that satisfies me than to precisely parrot the notions of someone else.

The Miller quote that I began this column with popped into my head a couple of days after an odd notion suddenly occurred to me as I crossed the street to my house on my way home from shopping. Suppose, I wondered, that we are to God as the characters in a novel are to that novel’s author? Everything we know about Mr. Micawber can be directly traced to the imaginations of Charles Dickens, right? Maybe my entire being, down to the least detail, is being made up by God.

Of course, the relation of an author to his characters is not as simple and straightforward as one might think. I remember Peter Straub giving a talk in which he said that, while every writer enters upon a project with a clear plan and specific intentions, if the writer is smart, he will pay attention to the characters he has consigned to the periphery. He might just see one waving his arms and shouting, “Forget about that other guy! I’m the one you want to write about.” According to Straub, if the author knows what’s good for him, he’ll take the hint.

So maybe Micawber and Dickens inhabited Dickens’s imagination together, and Micawber had a certain measure of autonomy.

God, presumably, would be able to exercise greater control, indeed total control. But perhaps he is too good a creator to do that. But then he would have to consent to being led to some extent by his creatures. And might this not make him complicit in our misdeeds?

Oh, I know the conventionally religious would likely find this notion blasphemous. But perhaps it is even more blasphemous to think that God in any way lacks the courage of his creativity. Maybe he really is willing to dare to create anything.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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