Lilith in a New Light

Lilith in a New Light: Essays on the George Macdonald Fantasy Novel. Ed. Lucas H. Harriman. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008. x + 181 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-3810-5. $35.00.

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Reviewed by William Gray

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.3/4 (#105/106) (2009): 159-66.]

It’s getting on for twenty years since we last had two collections of essays on George MacDonald published within a couple of years of each other: William Raeper’s The Gold Thread (1990) followed in 1992 by Roderick McGillis’s For the Childlike. Almost two decades later, following the centenary of MacDonald’s death in 2005, three collections of essays on MacDonald have appeared within two years: Jean Webb’s “A Noble Unrest”: Contemporary Essays on the Work of George MacDonald (2007); McGillis’s George MacDonald: Literary Heritage and Heirs (2008); and the subject of the present review: Lilith in a New Light: Essays on the George MacDonald Fantasy Novel (2008), edited by Lucas H. Harriman. While some of the prominent voices in those two early 1990s collections are sadly no longer with us, it is remarkable how many of the contributors to Lilith in a New Light [LNL] are familiar voices. There is a strong sense of continuity — and occasionally of repetition — in these collections of essays on MacDonald.

What is different about Harriman’s collection is that, in contrast to the wide range and diversity of the other collections, it concentrates on just one book: Lilith. This allows a much sharper focus on what is sometimes perceived as MacDonald’s problem text, though of course Phantastes too has its problems, especially in relation to its overall coherence (see Gray, Fantasy 35; 194n.30). The approach adopted in LNL was piloted, as it were, in North Wind (No. 21, 2002) where, in a kind of round-robin, a number of MacDonald scholars responded to John Pennington’s essay “‘Of ‘Frustrate Desire’: Feminist Self-postponement in George MacDonald’s Lilith” (more on this later). In Harriman’s collection the ball is set rolling by Robert A. Collins’s paper “Liminality in Lilith,” which introduces the concept of ‘liminality’ in order to solve what is to Collins the apparently insoluble — or at least hitherto unsolved — problem in the penultimate chapter of Lilith when Vane tells how his ascent towards the throne of the Ancient of Days is interrupted when

[a] hand, warm and strong, laid hold of mine, and drew me to a little door with a golden lock. The door opened; the hand let mine go, and pushed me gently through. I turned quickly, and saw the board of a large book in the act of closing behind me. I stood alone in my library. (250)

There is for Collins no satisfactory explanation of this ‘anti-climactic’ return to the quotidian at the end of Lilith. The pragmatic solution of positing the need to maintain narrative plausibility by returning to the narrative frame is for Collins ‘incommensurate’ with the mythopoetic status of Lilith. Far from Vane being a mythic hero returning with a message of enlightenment from an alternate world, Collins feels that the story fails as mythpoesis or a Campbellian heroic journey. Notwithstanding the insights offered by the concept of ‘liminality’, for Collins “it fails to solve ultimately the mythopoeic problem: what is the mythic significance of the ‘endless ending’ [of Lilith]?” (13). According to Collins this problematic ending “does not seem to most serious readers to mirror what they already know of MacDonald’s religious beliefs” (13). Rather “it communicates an air of didactic failure,” though Collins concedes that “the failure is perhaps as likely to be that of its readers as of its author” (13).

The other scholars in the collection take up the gauntlet thrown down by Collins, apart from Roger C. Schlobin who says Lilith is a waste of time, asking “Why did I bother?” An obvious reply is: “Why bother including such an ungenerous reading in the collection?” And could it be that Schlobin — who suggests that the writer of “What is behind my think?” (Lilith 16) is presenting “a variation on René Descartes’s ‘Cogito ergo sum?‘” (84) — may be missing a trick? The other contributors read MacDonald’s work with more attention and respect, and seek to show, in response to Collins’s criticisms, either that the ending of Lilith is not a failure, or that if it is, then it is a failure that paradoxically represents success in terms of deconstruction (for the locus classicus on interpretative failure as deconstructive success see J. Miller 189).

In his “Liminality and the Everyday in Lilith,” Tom Shippey not unexpectedly refers mainly, if by no means exclusively, to Tolkien. He prefers the term ‘medial’ to ‘liminal’ as a key to interpreting Lilith, which he says mediates a range of contrasting positions, for example MacDonald’s residual Calvinism and his personal belief in goodness (18). While Shippey finds MacDonald’s over-use of paradox irritating, in the end he accepts that the contested conclusion of Lilith represents MacDonald’s view of “the true state of all human beings: they are led on by glimpses of something they can now grasp only fitfully and uncertainly, surrounded by a ‘solid mass’ of reality which will be revealed in the end as illusion” (20). And if you must talk about ‘liminality,’ then for Shippey it is this world itself that is ‘liminal’. Here Shippey aligns MacDonald strongly with Tolkien and Lewis, though when referring to The Great Divorce he seems to overlook the persuasive case made by Catherine Durie in Raeper’s The Gold Thread (1990) that Lewis actively distorted MacDonald’s views, especially on the question- — so central to Lilith — of Universalism.

Michael Mendelson’s “Lilith, Textuality and the Rhetoric of Romance” uses Collins’s paper as an excuse to revisit his 1985 paper “George MacDonald’s Lilith: The Conventions of Ascent,” and, as in his essay in McGillis’s For the Childlike, he offers an erudite contextualization of MacDonald’s work within the horizon of theories of genre and rhetoric. Tacitly alluding to Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism (which he had explicitly cited in his 1992 paper), he calls Lilith MacDonald’s Wordsworthian “high argument” — “an invented myth based on Christian allegory” (23). Mendelson adduces a wealth of illuminating intertextual material in order to suggest that, far from Vane’s premature expulsion from the stairway to heaven being the problem it is for Collins, actually “Vane clearly understands what has happened and why” (34). Vane has been “‘further in and higher up’ [sic] than he ever imagined, and he has come home with a purposeful vision of life’s journey. This is not resurrection; which is reserved for the dead. But he has been to Pisgah, and his ongoing life will be informed by that vision” (35). No problems here then! It’s a pity that Mendelson’s wide-ranging and scholarly essay is marred by small inaccuracies, for example, when he refers to “the fairy [sic] Serpentina” in The Golden Pot by the writer he persists in referring to as “Hoffman” [sic].

According to Verlyn Flieger in her essay “Myth, Mysticism and Magic: Reading at the Close of Lilith,” what Collins sees as a problem is actually the very point MacDonald the (Celtic) mystic is making. The ending of Lilith is not a problem to be solved, but “rather a provocation [...] which may be in place deliberately to encourage, or even to force a more intuitive, less rational response” (40). Mysteries explained become “mere solved puzzles” (40). Flieger sums up: “The essence of myth is to be inexplicable in rational terms. The less it yields itself to analysis, the more mythopoeic it is, and the more effective and compelling it becomes” (45). Whatever problems there may be with this kind of generalization, and with Flieger’s tendency to make potentially essentializing claims about “the very nature of Celtic myths and the Celts who made them” (42), her example of what Greville MacDonald called “bi-local existence” (298) from the Irish poem The Voyage of Bran (familiar to both Tolkien and Lewis) does fit convincingly and illuminatingly with Lilith.

If MacDonald is for Flieger a ‘Celtic mystic’, for Elizabeth Robinson he is a mystic tout court. Far from agonizing over the problems Collins finds in the allegedly contradictory ending of Lilith, Robinson in her “Lilith as the Mystic’s Magnum Opus” doesn’t even mention them, asserting instead that “[i]n Lilith, MacDonald creates a unified reality in which he presents the culmination of the mystic journey as Vane accepts death in order to live, the death of the self that results in mystic union with God” (128). She explains Lilith in terms of the writings of the “mystic’s mystic,” St John of the Cross (whether MacDonald knew of the latter is not clear): Phantastes represents “the Night of the Senses” and Lilith “the Night of the Spirit.” If Robinson’s approach is illuminating, there is little sense of the uncertainty and inconclusiveness that other scholars (and especially Collins) have perceived in Lilith‘s “endless ending.” Collins’s “sense of disturbance at Lilith‘s conclusion” (47) is addressed by Colin Manlove in “The Logic of Fantasy and the Crisis of Closure.” Ironically Manlove’s criticism of Collins’s approach might equally well apply to Robinson’s, which is in some sense the opposite of Collins’s: “The problem [...] is that he [she] is continually looking to some external pattern into which to fit Lilith” (47). According to Manlove, the text of Lilith itself suggests different ways of reading its “endless ending.” One of the problems with Collins’s approach is that it assumes that Vane has made spiritual progress, and therefore his failure to be with God at the end of Lilith is undeserved. Manlove, however, questions such a reading of this particular pilgrim’s progress, and discusses the ways Vane has fallen short (which explains his falling back to earth at the end of Lilith). This double movement of ascent and falling away is, according to Manlove, characteristic of much of MacDonald’s writing, and indeed of his life. He illustrates this with a reference to MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul which is, he says, “a continual oscillation between a longed-for heaven and the all-too earthly present, between hope and doubt, rapture and emptiness” (55). This “mingling of [...] yearned-for joy and lived doubt” runs through all that MacDonald wrote, “in Lilith perhaps even more than in his other fantasies” (57). The present writer may perhaps be permitted to register his surprise that St Augustine’s Confessions figures so little in this collection (it appears only in Harriman’s discussion of Ricoeur’s discussion of Confessions in Time and Narrative [87-8]).

One of the ideas recurring in these essays on Lilith is the raven’s enigmatic reply to Vane’s question about his whereabouts: “In the region of the seven dimensions” (21). This mysterious idea has regularly been explained by reference to Boehme, but Rolland Hein, who as the editor of the Variorum edition of Lilith probably knows the novel better than most, argues in “A Fresh look at Lilith‘s Perplexing Dimensions” that Dante is a better guide here than Boehme. Although the universalist MacDonald took issue with Dante’s understanding of hell and punishment, Hein claims that he is very close to Dante’s understanding of the allegorical, and particularly the anagogical, meaning of his own work (notwithstanding MacDonald’s criticism of allegory in “The Fantastic Imagination”). Drawing attention to several crucial points in Lilith where MacDonald makes explicit reference to The Divine Comedy, Hein makes a persuasive case for using Dante as a guide to Lilith. Not only the apparently problematic ending, but Lilith as a whole is illuminated by being read in light of Dante’s masterpiece. In Hein’s magisterial summing-up:

Both visions, that of The Divine Comedy and Lilith, seem suspended in time. They offer their authors’ respective paradigms for an individual’s achieving the necessary orientation to reality, that orientation which fulfils the basic quest of life. The good of the quest is not a message to be intellectually communicated, but a vision to be experienced. (81)

If Hein speaks with the wisdom of a lifetime of scholarship devoted largely to MacDonald, then the contribution of the book’s editor, Lucas H. Harriman, presumably near the beginning of his academic life, offers an impressively poised and insightful pause for reflection before the reader is swept into the turbulence of the deconstructive readings of Pennington and McGillis. Significantly, I think, before we encounter the likes of Barthes, Bataille and Lacan, the critical/theoretical guru cited by Harriman in his mediating essay “The Revelatory Potential of Lilith‘s Immanent Eternity,” is that great interpreter of the hermeneutical tradition, Paul Ricoeur. Drawing on Ricoeur’s work on Augustine in Time and Narrative, Harriman argues the importance of the “filled present,” with a stress on immanence which renders discussion of Vane’s return to the quotidian world redundant: where else should he be, if not in a world transformed, if not yet finally transfigured, by the imaginative power of fantasy?

John Pennington’s “Frustrated Interpretation in Lilith” is in some respects a restatement of his essay, “Of ‘Frustrate Desire’: Feminist Self-postponement in George MacDonald’s Lilith,” which caused some controversy in the pages of North Wind. Using the well-known distinction of Roland Barthes between ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts, Pennington insists that Lilith is an example of the latter: “As a writerly text [...] Lilith must circumvent traditional closure and remain open for the reader to ‘write’ his or her interpretation of the endless ending” (95). Responding to Collins’s accusation that the ending of Lilith is a failure, Pennington picks up on the claim of D.A. Miller that “failure of closure [becomes] a text’s most powerful and seductive effect [...] Supposing we take that coming-to-fail not as a negative phenomenon, but as positive strategy, not disruptive but constitutive of a text’s social implications and usefulness” (95, citing Miller 164-5). Of particular interest to readers of Mythlore is Pennington’s resistance to what he calls the confinement of Lilith within the closure of a particular kind of (‘readerly’) mythopoeic fantasy, a confinement he blames on C.S. Lewis (96). But Lilith as “writerly fantasy of desire” actually “flaunts its lack of closure,” according to Pennington (96), who seems to delight in what he calls, in Bersani’s phrase, its “ontological slipperiness” (97). Pennington invokes the kind of Lacanian approach whose motto might be ‘further over, further out’, in contrast to Lewis’s “further up, further in” (see Gray, Fantasy 107). As Pennington puts it: “Vane’s waiting symbolizes that eternal life [...] that would be a plot of the infinite” (99); but this kind of deconstructive ‘infinite’ sounds very like what Hegel called the “bad infinite,” and might be seen as a poor substitute for the “good infinite” which embraces the flux of time rather than dissolving into it.

If Pennington’s essay is implicitly Lacanian (Lacan appears explicitly only once), then Roderick McGillis’s “Liminality as Psychic Stage in Lilith” is explicitly and systematically Lacanian. Lacan’s most famous essay in literary circles is probably his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” that begins with Freud’s “compulsion to repeat” (Wiederholangszwang), which Lacan renders as “the repetition automatism” (in the English translation). Maybe McGillis is suffering from an acute case of this universal affliction because the essay in Harriman’s collection is the double of his essay of the same title in Jean Webb’s 2007 collection, though neither essay acknowledges the existence of the other. And uncannily enough, a substantial chunk of both these essays reappears in McGillis’s essay “Fantasy as Miracle: Tentative Beginning Without Conclusion” in his own 2008 collection. Which is not to say that a good thing is not worth repeating; and McGillis’s essay is very good — if you are predisposed to accept a Lacanian perspective. Those of us who harbor suspicions concerning compulsory Lacanianism will have our moments of doubt. I have argued elsewhere that Kristeva’s approach works better than Lacan’s with MacDonald and C.S. Lewis (Gray, Death and Fantasy 9-24; 73-84), and even that Lacan is fundamentally incompatible with the ultimately mystical Christian Platonism of Lewis and MacDonald. McGillis references the book on Feminine Sexuality edited by Mitchell and Rose where Lacan flirts with Christian mysticism but I personally have never been convinced. Therefore I remain skeptical about equating Lacan’s “Real” with MacDonald’s “home,” as McGillis does (106). Similarly, the persuasiveness of Bonnie Gaarden’s essay “Cosmic and Psychological Redemption in Lilith” will depend very much on whether the reader is predisposed to accept Jungian psychology, although following Edmund Cusick’s essay “George MacDonald and Jung” in Raeper’s 1990 collection, Gaarden does make a strong case for using Jungian categories to explicate MacDonald’s Neo-Platonist Christianity. Gaarden’s essay alludes to Hegel, an awareness of whom is apparent in her earlier essay “‘The Golden Key’: A Double Reading” in Mythlore (Winter-Spring 2006); what is most appealing to the present writer is the way that, in her work on MacDonald , Gaarden makes Jungian ideas resonate with a Romantic ‘broad church’ including Christian (Neo-) Platonism and more heterodox traditions running from Origen through Boehme to Blake.

Moving on from deconstruction and mysticism (which for Derrida at least are not at all the same thing, it might be worth recalling), Kelly Searsmith reads Lilith in a very different way. Unlike Collins et al. she sees no problem at all with its (for her and for Victorian readers) unsurprising ending, which she claims is merely a “generic convention” of Victorian Kunstmärchen. The real function of English literary fairy tales was, she says, “managerial-class identity formation”: “The fantastically exoticized Other was not endorsed over that of the English Self; rather, it provided [...] a rallying point of inspiration [...] that further impelled the protagonist’s development towards the type of future colonial or domestic manager”(144). While it is welcome to be taken from the ontological slipperinesses of deconstruction and mysticism, Searsmith in her laudable attempt to locate Lilith firmly within the material realities of late-Victorian power structures has her work cut out for her. For a start MacDonald was not English (though pace Jeanne Murray Walker [67] it was his English congregation in Arundel that ousted him), and his Highland background would have disinclined him to see himself as coming from ‘North Britain’. He also had some (in their way) radical views on wealth distribution, which hardly makes him the ideal candidate for the role of mediating “managerial-class identity formation.” My guess is that MacDonald is more of a ‘subaltern’ figure; certainly he would have shared with Robert Louis Stevenson the (in some ways distinctively Scottish) concern for the dignity of the profession (minister, teacher, doctor, lawyer, even engineer) as opposed to that of the manager.

With David M. Miller’s “The (As Yet) Endless Ending of Lilith” we are back to ontological slipperiness with a vengeance. Miller’s essay is certainly the most unusual and possibly most interesting in the collection. Resurrecting E.D. Hirsch’s ‘old-fashioned’ but greatly missed distinction between meaning and significance, Miller shows himself all-too-aware of postmodernist deconstructions of this (I guess) binary opposition. However, Miller applauds the ‘retro’ concern of Collins for the ‘meaning’ of Lilith, and proceeds to pursue such a quest, accompanied by his own postmodernist shadow which he names ‘Caliban’ (I wonder whether the name ‘Hyde’ had occurred to him?) It is impossible to do justice here to Miller’s fractured, bravura performance; it has to be read. As a taste of its Delphic/surreal style, I cite Miller’s concluding sentences (which necessitated some internet research by the present writer into American subculture!):

Caliban gets the last words. When Vane/Mara/Hope/MacDonald quote Novalis. “Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one,” Caliban hears, “Life could be a dream, Sweetheart.” Here’s looking at you, Caliban. “Sha-boom, sha-boom.” (174)

Works Consulted

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