Sunday, October 08, 2006

Don't go changing

I recently read Alison Lurie's New York Review of Books article on C.S. Lewis and Narnia. It's worth reading, if you haven't seen it; her Guardian article includes some of the same material but is much shorter.

This, in particular, leapt out at me:
Many readers have been infuriated by Lewis's final condemnation of Susan Pevensie, the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as "no longer a friend of Narnia." In The Last Battle she is cast out of Paradise forever because at twenty-one she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy, and is "too keen on being grown up" and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations." Apart from the fact that these seem very minor sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much and forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. Apologists have claimed that her banishment was necessary to demonstrate that even those who have once been saved can fall from grace. Nevertheless it has seemed deeply unfair to many readers that Edmund, Susan's younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the White Witch, is allowed to repent and stay in Narnia, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.

It's not a new criticism, but I think Lurie's wording is particularly forceful: it is hard to believe that Susan could have ... forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. What this brings home to me - the last phrase in particular - is that, if Aslan is (more or less) Christ, then Susan had been as much a Christian as the other three children; if belief in Aslan equates (roughly) to Christian salvation, then Susan had been saved. But nylons and lipstick and invitations were enough to damn her - quite literally, as the Last Battle ends with Aslan enacting the final division of sheep and goats.

There's an interesting defence of Lewis on this point on a blog written by two Christians:
Lewis is at this point deliberately illustrating a very Christian contrast, between the forgiveness Jesus holds out to even the very worst person who turns away from their sin, and the rejection Jesus promises for those who finally reject him:
I tell you that any sinful thing you do or say can be forgiven. Matthew 12:31 (CEV)

The master will surely come on a day and at a time when the servant least expects him. That servant will then be punished and thrown out with the ones who only pretended to serve their master. Matthew 24:50-51 (CEV)

Jesus himself told a story about the jealousy that this free offer of forgiveness arouses in some people, in Matthew 20:1-16. The idea of unmerited forgiveness does seem “unfair” to us, but it is also unfair to accuse Lewis of carelessness in this instance, where he is in fact being careful to follow what Jesus taught.

It's a fair point, but it doesn't go far enough. The real problem is that, in order to illustrate this contrast, Lewis put a traitor to Aslan in the role of repentant sinner, and made his despiser of God a young woman who liked going to parties. In other words, as Lurie says, Lewis 'allowed' Edmund but not Susan to repent. The same contrast could just as well have been worked in reverse, with the committed opponent of Aslan turned away from salvation and the worldly backslider seeing the error of her ways. Susan even had form in the matter of backsliding and redemption: one of her main functions in Prince Caspian is to doubt Aslan and then regain her belief in him. But by the time of The Last Battle, Susan’s worldly unbelief seems to have hardened, in Lewis’s mind, into something worse: she ends up in very much the same position as the characters in the Last Battle who genuinely opposed Aslan. Admittedly we don't actually see her being cast out into the darkness - but we certainly don't see her in the Narnia-beyond-Narnia which is Lewis's final vision of Heaven. She doesn't even end up marooned in Heaven while not believing in it, the ironic fate of a group of selfish and mistrustful dwarfs - they're good-hearted underneath, presumably.

So what's going on here? Philip Pullman got this mostly right:
Susan ... is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.

(Lewis: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.) Susan hasn’t simply taken sides against Aslan rather than for him; she’s changed, in a way that takes her right out of the Narnian picture. The adult Susan is somebody for whom belief in Aslan - i.e. Christianity - is neither a good thing nor a particularly bad one; she doesn’t think in those terms. And this transition, for Lewis, is far worse than the transition from virtue to sin. Not to care about sin is the truly unforgivable sin - which is to say, it’s the sin which determines the sinner not to seek forgiveness. And, for Lewis, the desire to be very grown-up, and in particular the desire to be a grown woman, is incompatible with caring about sin - so into the outer darkness with Queen Susan.

I think this is just how it was for Lewis - which in turn makes you wonder about how his mind worked. What kind of religion is it that makes indifference to itself the worst possible sin? Or rather, indifference to religion - the ranks of the saved, at the end of The Last Battle, include lifelong worshippers of Tash (the bloodthirsty god of the swarthy Calormenes), but no atheists (with the possible exception of those dwarfs). The bad news is that being good doesn’t get you into Heaven unless you’re also a believer; the good news is that it doesn’t much matter what you’re a believer in. To believe in something is the main thing: something beyond; something other; something not here. To do good is a good thing - which is reasonably uncontroversial; say what you will about Christianity, it’s hard to argue that Love thy neighbour as thyself is bad advice (particularly when coupled with the “Good Samaritan” gloss on the ‘neighbour’ part). But doing good for no other reason than that it’s a good thing isn’t virtue; to be virtuous, good deeds need to be done for the sake of something utterly removed from the people they actually benefit. To be virtuous, in other words, is to do good not because it’s good but because it’s right: to judge your actions by criteria entirely different from the question of whether other people benefit or suffer from them.

It's this abstract, disciplined calculus of virtue which is threatened by the onset of nylons and lipstick and invitations. For Lewis, growing up - becoming a sexual being, not to put too fine a point on it - was a fall from grace, not because adulthood meant living in sin but because it meant living in the world. The world we know, Lewis believed, is only a poor shadow of a real world we can only know through the imagination. As early as the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis rhapsodises about the vividness, intensity and power of Narnian experience, then cautions his readers that, regretfully, we had never experienced anything like it and never would. (Neither had he, of course.) The land where the three good Pevensies go, at the end of The Last Battle, is described as brighter and more vivid - more real - than even Narnia. Lewis's vision recalls the sad but ghastly words of Christina Rossetti in "In the bleak midwinter":
Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor Earth sustain
Heaven and Earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign

To be a Christian, for Rossetti, is to worship God and commit oneself to Him, in the consciousness that our God is greater than anything we know and anything we can imagine. God has no imaginable connection with the world; the Incarnation is more tragic than glorious, and more pathetic than tragic. In this perspective, to withdraw from immediate sensuous engagement with the world - and to devote oneself to oceanic fantasies of being ever more utterly abased, ever more utterly known, ever more utterly forgiven - was not a retreat from reality but a closer approach to it. Further up and further in!

If that's what Narnia stands for, I'm with Susan. As Pullman says, Lewis’s version of Christianity is not only shot through with racist, sexist and elitist attitudes; at a much more fundamental level, it’s ‘anti-life’.

11 Comments:

Anonymous isakofsky said...

Some of this is illuminated by Lewis's own life. He was a teenage atheist though tribally he was a Northern Ireland Protestant. After conversion to some sort of Christianity he hung out in his local Anglican church not opting for his buddy Tolkien's Catholicism. That said, he would never have been able to square his private life with any of the religious stuff. He 'lived in sin' with a woman many years his older, probably/possibly got off with that woman's daughter; spent many a happy hour down the Eagle and Child pub singing and chanting bawdy ballads. It seems that the only worlds he truly loved inhabiting were Magdalen College, the EAgle and Child, hanging out with his alcoholic brother and the mystic world of late medieval English literature.

11/10/06 22:42  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I'm inclined to wonder to what extent this is a product of Protestantism and justification through faith rather than through works. Doubtless soon I will be saying semi-heretical things like, if San Gennaro's blood doesn't melt, Naples is doomed.

12/10/06 10:57  
Anonymous Syd Webb said...

Interesting post, Phil.

Before I offer my anti-thesis, a few concepts:

There are imaginary people - the Pevensey children - characters in a story and creations of CS Lewis.

There are real people - CS Lewis and his readers.

There is a story, and an allegory behind his story.

Readers, including myself, feel disappointed - possibly betrayed - when the heroic Susan of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian proves, at the last, to be no friend on Narnia. Worse still are the reasons given in the text for her denial of Narnia.

The Last Battle read as a story, has a certain logic for Susan being barred. Having twice been to Narnia, then denying its existence, it seems implausible that see should go to New Narnia.

Where it grates with the reader is two-fold. First the reason for Susan's denial. Is it plausible that she would renounce Narnia as a childhood fantasy simply because of a taste for lipstick, stockings and parties? Why couldn't the author have barred Peter, instead, for an overfondness of cologne, long trousers and going down to the pub?

Secondly, it's the analogy that offends. If New Narnia represents the life hereafter, is it fair to exclude the well-dressed party-girls? Or the Narnia deniers?

My inner Methodist says, "Yes. It is fair." The evil of fornication is that it leads to dancing and Susan seems firmly advancing down the pathway to dancing. And if Aslan is going to do his sheep-from-goats thing then why can't we have a favourite character suffer from an application of the 2 Timothy 2.12b test? ["If we deny him, he will also deny us".] It's central to Christian theology and without it we can't have the Donatist heresy.

I still would rather it were Peter who was the ultimate traitor. He was always such a prig.

12/10/06 16:32  
Blogger janinsanfran said...

I always like The Great Divorce better.

13/10/06 00:52  
Blogger Chris Williams said...

Syd, that sounds more like your inner Presbyterian than your inner Methodist.

I wonder why Lewis took up with Anglicans, rather than one of the gathered churches. Maybe it was the beer. Which is half-decent in the Eagle and Child.

13/10/06 12:13  
Anonymous Syd Webb said...

chris william said:

Syd, that sounds more like your inner Presbyterian than your inner Methodist.

To be accurate, Chris, it's probably my inner Lutheran. Per solom fidem, baby!

And as Mart reminds us, if you have to sin, sin greatly!

Perhaps I should illustrate, for readers of Actually Existing how this 'faith alone' lark works.

Let us imagine a different back-story to The Last Battle. Peter and Edmund - both in long pants and drenched in cologne - go to the pub, on the pull. There they meet up with two nice sorts, let us call them Frances and Agnes.

Edmund starts recounting their glory days in Narnia. Peter, anxious to impress Frances, pooh-poohs what Edmund has to say, "You can't believe that old lets-pretend we played as kids."

But Agnes listens sympathetically to Edmund. "You must have been tremendously brave!" Edmund admits he may have been, a little. But he confesses, "At first I was the worst kind of traitor, until Aslan took my place and died for my sins!"

Each young gentleman leaves the pub that night hand-in-hand with a young lady. Each considers their choice of words justified. But only one of the men is Justified.

* * * *

A further thought occurs. It's a while since I read TLB but as I understand it Susan isn't actually damned at the end of the book. She's still stuck, alive, on Earth rather than being happily dead with everyone in New Narnia.

So she still has a chance. And the Faith Alone principle means this: She could be taking a different young man with her home each night. And as her head is banging against the headboard of her bed as long as she is shouting out, "Yes, oh yes, oh Aslan, oh ASLAN!" then she, like the prostitute Rahab, has been justified by faith. (Heb 11.31)

[And as Actually Existing is a family blog, in case any young people are reading this, let me say, "Kids! Don't try this at home!" It's better to have a visible life-partner, to provide solace for those occasions when the invisible Jesus doesn't seem to be around.]

14/10/06 15:26  
Blogger Rob said...

Syd

Thank you for putting into my head the vision of Susan Pevensie having orgasmic Aslan fantasies.

Have you read Neil Gaiman's "The Problem Of Susan"?

16/10/06 00:10  
Anonymous Syd Webb said...

rob said...

Syd

Thank you for putting into my head the vision of Susan Pevensie having orgasmic Aslan fantasies.

You're welcome.

Have you read Neil Gaiman's "The Problem Of Susan"?

No; I'm a writer, not a reader.

Wait, these need not be exclusive classes.

[Syd ambles off to google]

Harumph! I like my sex scene more than Neil's.

For a more balanced view of the Problem of Susan and the CS Lewis trilema (mad, bad or godly?) there's this.

16/10/06 13:38  
Blogger fjl said...

Would you put a link to my recent blogspot on your blog please. Important news for people who trust the blogosphere.

17/10/06 16:52  
Blogger james higham said...

Firstly - it was a novel. Secondly, the first apologist was right but he barely referred to the most mortal sin - denying the Holy Spirit [getting all theological for a moment]. So someone depraved who repents is fine. Someone who enjoyed the fruits and saw the totality of the picture, then rejected it - you have to first be inside to understand what that means. It means a rejection of what is plainly the truth and that doesn't come until you're in. Then to see salvation and then say, "oh well, it's not that hot' and walk away - it's not etenal damnation but simply separation. Look at it logically - your woman says, 'Ok, I've had enough.' OK, she goes her way but she doesn't get to enjoy the things you once offered her. She might say, So what?' and she's entitled - it's her decision. She just misses out on you, that's all. I can't see how that's unfair.

24/10/06 12:29  
Blogger Phil said...

So someone depraved who repents is fine. Someone who enjoyed the fruits and saw the totality of the picture, then rejected it

You're just restating Lewis's own contrast. My point - or rather Alison Lurie's - was that it's Edmund, as written, who gets the chance to return to the fold: the hateful sinner repents and is saved, the worldly unbeliever does not repent and is damned.

it's not etenal damnation but simply separation

It's true - as Syd pointed out - that Susan is alive at the end of the series, unlike the rest of her family (not to mention the entire population of Narnia). But, apart from that small point, I can't see much difference between separation from God and damnation, within Lewis's framework. That's where the analogy between a relationship with a person and one with God breaks down.

24/10/06 13:25  

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