by Sam Buntz
There is nothing more difficult for the imagination than to guide a story through utter darkness to a happy conclusion—a believably happy conclusion. We tend to think that King Lear is pretty great—but even it, unimpeachable masterpiece that it no doubt is, only leads us through extreme darkness to an end-point that is yet extremely dark. When it came to finding peace and rest and last, the Bard had no trouble in guiding his comedies to terminate in pleasant dreams—but to start where Lear ends, and to somehow weave the chain of events round to light, without boring the audience with metaphysics or shocking its fundamental credulity… this was beyond even the Bard’s capabilities (as was depicting sainthood). It may be that Life itself is the only story that dares the worst before reaching the best… For instance, it’s not too hard to author a story in which the hero surmounts a history of petty thievery or the death of his own family to achieve something noble and good. But it is difficult to create a “hero” who can really rise through genuine, extreme, personal darkness — through murdering his own family or ordering a massacre — to somehow attain redemption. That taxes the imagination.
To some extent, you could argue that Dante achieved this great goal—since, as a character, he goes from initial despair in a “dark wood” to a final Vision of God. But, of course, all the real bad boys are left squirming in hell. To depict their redemption would’ve been more to the point—an ultimate tribute to and of the imagination. After all, Dante the Pilgrim was only ever a little off course… To make things clearer: it would be difficult for a human being to write a series of novels, plays, or movies successfully detailing the spiritual evolution of the soul of Hitler or of Ted Bundy, in the afterlife or in numerous future incarnations, in the hells and in our world, culminating in ultimate redemption and rebirth. Is there an imagination capable of authoring that story? I believe there is—to speak of Divine Imagination. But I leave the question with you.
Part of the difficulty in attaining this quest, or even getting it off the ground, lies in evoking a transcendent world—a “most excellent world”—using material dredged from a world that, to all appearances, is actually quite anti-transcendent, quite mundane, even pretty terrible. It is a kind of imaginative alchemy—the conversion of dross to gold—that only the most genuine creators can attempt. Dante gave it one of the all-time great shots, ladling on the special effects and the psychedelic, angelic choreography in his Paradiso, and you could praise Blake, Wordsworth, Rilke and others for their equally convincing intimations of immortality. This at least—putting aside the spiritual evolution of former tyrants and serial killers—is possible. It is within the imagination’s reach. (The Palme d’Or-winning Tree of Life managed to do this very effectively, to select a more recent example). If “faith” is allowed to still have a meaning, I think it means resting in the knowledge that the bridge of Divine Imagination will eventually span the chasm between the scattered shadows of the mundane world and the true daylight of the whole, the complete, the “most excellent” world.