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C. S. Lewis: Writer (of journeying and heavenly things)

May 13, 2011

Guest Contributor, Travis Buchanan offers this discussion of Part III: Writer (chapters 16-18). The discussion below assumes familiarity with David Jasper, “The Pilgrim’s Regress and Suprised by Joy,” 223-236; T.A. Shippey, “The Ransom Trilogy,” 237-250; Jerry L Walls, “The Great Divorce,” 251-264 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  2010.

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Conveniently, all six of the works by Lewis surveyed in these three chapters from the Cambridge Companion cohere in that they are concerned at various levels with the motif of a heavenly journey of one kind or another. Taking them in order: in The Pilgrim’s Regress we are exposed to John’s allegorical journey toward Christianity; in Surprised by Joy Lewis recounts for us his own intellectual and spiritual  journey ‘from “popular realism” to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and [finally] from theism to Christianity’ (1943/1976, 5), a figurative and actual heavenly destination; in the Ransom trilogy, Ransom first travels to space which he discovers is not the vast lifeless vacuum of popular science but the true and living heavens, teeming with life, as he voyages first to Malacandra (or Mars) in Out of the Silent Planet and then to Perelandra (or Venus) in Perelandra. The final installment (That Hideous Strength) concludes in a reversal of the first two books with rather a descent of the heavenly deities of our solar system to earth to frustrate the demonically-inspired plans of the N.I.C.E.; and finally, The Great Divorce narrates the dream or visionary journey from purgatory-hell to heaven of a particular man. One cannot read these works and fail to conclude with Jasper that ‘the pursuit of joy’ ‘finally defined for [Lewis] in Christianity’ ‘was, indeed, the central quest of his life’ (227–228). It may be that Jasper is more interested in ‘that Romantic longing which drives the journey’ in pursuit of joy than any ‘theological destination’ in which it might culminate (223), but he is mistaken in his claim that Lewis is too. Jasper errs in implying that Lewis (as well as his great influence and heavenly guide in The Great Divorce, George MacDonald) would affirm the Romantic characteristic that ‘it is not the arrival itself but the journeying and the joyful anticipation which are the true homecoming’ (224). Apparently this affects how Jasper reads Lewis’s accounts, for he says of Regress that ‘the journey and the quest of this book continue to haunt the reader, even if the final goal of Lewis’s Christianity itself finally fails to attract or persuade’ (225). In other words, it is the Romantic quest that matters (as far as Jasper is concerned in this chapter), and not the theological destination at its end.

Fittingly, Lewis might answer Jasper from the book reviewed in the third of these chapters here considered, The Great Divorce. In an exchange between a liberally-minded clerical ghost resistant to ‘a final answer’, and insistent on always being given ‘the free play of Mind’ defined by unending inquiry and the contention (not dissimilar to Jasper’s) that ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive’, one of the ‘Bright People’ who inhabit heaven countered as follows:

If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for. […]You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched. […] Listen! Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now. […] Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage. (1946/1996, 43–44)

Perhaps one factor contributing to the reason that for some Lewis might paint the earthly journey more interestingly than the heavenly destination (or, similarly, why Milton’s Satan might receive more praise than his characterization of unfallen angels or of God the Father or God the Son for that matter) is that the fallen sphere (wherein the whole life of the Christian is one, as Augustine said, of ‘holy longing’) is more accessible and so describable than the heavenly one, though Lewis does well even there, as the Ransom trilogy and The Great Divorce especially testify. The difficultly of describing the Christian’s eternal home is one not unique to Lewis however. Scripture encounters the same problem, and thus its attempts to picture the eternal state are thrown back upon earthly imagery (thrones and jewels and temples and rivers and trees).

But what else could serve other than metaphor and analogy to make the unpicturable intelligible to its mortal audience? The apostle Paul expresses this difficulty in describing what he witnessed when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven’ by baldly stating that there he ‘heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter’ (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). But how exactly would one relate to humans ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9)? Or as Jesus questioned Nicodemus regarding being born again, ‘If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ (John 3:12). Lewis puts his finger on the problem in his second preface to Screwtape Letters in confessing he bore

a sort of grudge against my book for not being a different book which no one could write. Ideally, Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man—and he would have to be a far better man than I—could scale the spiritual heights required, what ‘answerable style’ could he use? For the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven. (1961, xiv)

The journey toward joy is immensely interesting, especially when depicted by as gifted a writer and as deep a thinker as Lewis. But we must not be so captivated by his focus upon Desire, and he would warn us not to be, that we lose sight of Desire’s end, the object for which it exists, which in this case is a Subject—God himself. The point as Lewis would stress is to get ‘further up and further in’ (as in The Last Battle), to scale the distant mountains (as in The Great Divorce). And so the first words spoken to the ‘good and faithful servant’ by his master are not, ‘My what a journey you’ve had—to travel hopefully is better than to arrive you know . . .’ but rather an invitation to come ‘further up and further in’: ‘Enter into the joy of your master’ (Matt. 25:23).

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Travis Buchanan just completed his M.Litt. at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews and is beginning research for his PhD.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2011 12:27 pm

    The motif of sehensucht is there in Lewis, and I think it’s clear that he was motivated early on by this, what he called “a manly way” (in the mythology of the North, where pathos and unfulfilled desire reveal the true of heart). But for Lewis the tragic vision ended up being incomplete — not so much found deficient but incomplete. After all, as Scripture shows, life is tragicomic, not just sad and brave. Having a good laugh at ourselves is the final tonic for a lopsided view of life, for the world ends in a wedding feast, not the gathering gloom of Ragnarok.

    • Travis permalink
      May 13, 2011 3:50 pm

      Thanks for your comment Bruce. Sehnsucht is no doubt a dominate theme in Lewis’s writings, elusive though it is (by its very nature), and certainly central to his intellectual and spiritual journeys that eventually led him to Christianity and Christ. I just want to say that (as Lewis does also I believe) it is not ultimate but penultimate in the heart’s search for its true home. It is the compass that points true north, but the purpose of a compass is to lead you to your destination, and a traveler who mistakes his compass for his destination will never arrive anywhere. Yet, of course, there is a sweetness to the longing, and a satisfaction in the journey toward Joy that exceeds other lesser satisfactions (ones which perhaps pose as (or are mistaken for) destinations themselves).

      You are right to note Lewis’s captivation to Norse mythology, a passion which he shared with Tolkien and which was stimulated in him through that friendship and forged an early bond between the two men as well. Tolkien’s writings are much more given over to the tragic vision of the long defeat than Lewis’s, where the most noble response is manly courage and valor before the inevitability of ruin. Many of the stories most beloved by Tolkien exhibited this theme, such as found in the Kalevala or the Beowulf poem. And several of Tolkien’s stories in response glorified just such a theme (e.g., The Children of Hurin and several stories from the Silmarillion mythological cycle). The Lord of the Rings would have been just such a story were it not for the ending, where Tolkien introduced a ‘eucatastrophe’ that marked it off as a fairy-story and thus not finally a part of the northern mythology of heroic gloom. The almost utter hopelessness of the Ring Bearer’s quest is finally saved by a sudden stroke of good providence, bringing ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce)’ (Tolkien, Letters, 100).

      Regarding the ‘tragicomic’ nature of life which you mention, Frederick Buechner once gave a lecture on ‘The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale’ (1977) which tried to capture and show forth that idea in both Scripture and reality as we know it. I agree also with your point on how important it is to laugh at ourselves, and not take ourselves so seriously. While it is perhaps less poetic (see Lewis’s essay on ‘Is Theology Poetry’), I am certainly glad the Bible reveals a world moving toward a great wedding feast and not the gathering gloom of a Ragnarok, as you say.

  2. May 14, 2011 9:22 am

    I thought it worth sharing here that Alan Jacobs’ chapter concludes with a section on Sehnsucht. I didn’t have room to discuss it in my review, but It does somewhat remedy your concerns about it not being discussed in the volume at all.

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