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Tuesday, December 6, 2005

'The echo of a tune we have not heard.'

It's beginning to look a lot like Narnia.

Adam Gopnik offers a wonderful secular appreciation of C. S. Lewis's work in the New Yorker. He makes two provocative points: First, Lewis the literary scholar recognized that allegory had opened up the possibility for a new sort of imaginative literature during the late medieval period — "the free creation of the marvelous" — but Lewis the storyteller tended to write allegories rather than letting himself write myths. I must have snoozed through much of my sixteenth-century poetry class, because I missed this point and appreciate learning it now:

Until the time of Tasso and Ariosto, [Lewis] points out ["The Allegory of Love"], writers had two worlds available to them: the actual world of experience and the world of their religion. Only since the Renaissance have writers had a third world, of the marvellous, of free mythological invention, which is serious but in which the author does not really believe or make an article of faith.

"The Faerie Queen" suddenly makes (more) sense! Gopnik quotes Lewis about the novelty of myth:

The probable, the marvelous-taken-as-fact, the marvelous-known-to-fiction—such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to. . . . But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. . . . The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils. . . . Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its "third world" of romantic imagining. . . . The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvelous that knows itself as myth.

As a kid — and a rather seriously religious kid at that — I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia, although I think I only read the full series through twice. The Lord of the Rings, however, along with the supplemental volumes of Tolkien's unfinished works that were published during my adolescence, did come to feel like a Bible from another world. (I quoted the Silmarillion alongside Genesis in a freshman essay at Brigham Young University, awkwardly aware that each text had about the same hold on my imagination.) Tolkien preferred myth to allegory — and pulled it off.

Gopnik's other strong claim is that the Narnia books are most successful when they are least allegorical, that Lewis's imaginative impulse was at odds with his allegorical interest in Christian apologetic. (I'm not sure this explains my response while reading them, though. I may have found the language old-fashioned, whereas Tolkien sounded truly archaic.) He says in particular that Aslan is an inadequate allegorical Christ-figure:

[A] central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëaut;merges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.

All true — but Peter Steinfels, who responds to Gopnik's essay in his New York Times column this week, thinks Gopnik misses the basic religious issue that Lewis found in marvelous writing of all kinds. Steinfels ends his essay with a story about theater critic Kenneth Tynan, who chose a passage by Lewis for his own burial service:

The passage he chose, from a sermon Lewis delivered, warned that beauty was not ultimately in the books or music where it was thought to be found. "It was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing," Lewis said.

"For they are not the thing itself," he went on; "they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

This is where the serious religious question lies. It is not a question about Lewis's eccentricities nor about some evangelicals' weakness for preachiness or hero-worship. It is a question about reality.

In my own experience, the most difficult religious issue involves the fact that every religious authority attempts to claim ownership over this yearning, tries to tame it and bottle it for us, while every religious believer needs help keeping that yearning alive. It's probably impossible to be religious on one's own — impossible to create for ourselves a myth that we believe as true — but in our dependence on stories, institutions, and powerful interpreters of experience, we can mistake the vehicle of our longing for the "thing itself," to which we have no direct access. "For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." Amen to that.

Finally, Alan Jacobs — the C. S. Lewis biographer from Wheaton College — laments in a Boston Globe Ideas essay that Lewis has become a posthumous "pawn in America's culture wars." Jacobs wants to show that the Narnia books are not simply Christian allegory: They reflect the full range of Lewis's scholarly interest and the depth of his personal suffering, no small thing for children's literature. There's a lot of good stuff in Jacobs's essay, but I'll point to two paragraphs about the history of science:

Most impressively, though, he begins [Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century] with an overview of the whole intellectual culture of the period, beginning with a bravura passage about astrology, science, and magic. If we moderns see astrology and magic as similar activities, the scholars of the 16th century knew better, he argued: Astrology teaches us that none of our circumstances are within our control, magic that all of them are. Many astrologers of the time were Calvinists; the magicians by contrast reveled in "dreams of power"—for them, magic was simply a technology.

Indeed, Lewis argued in one of his most striking passages, magic in the 16th century was virtually indistinguishable from science (then in its infancy). Sir Francis Bacon, that great father of the scientific method, was not a magician himself, but thought that the aspirations of magicians were "noble." Magicians and scientists alike looked around them and saw a world that was lamentably out of their control. Thus, "the serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one [magic] was sickly and died, the other [science] was strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse." And that impulse was power.

How does this scholarly insight show up in the Narnia books? Jacobs points to The Magician's Nephew. (Weird tidbit: Jacobs also mentions Michael Ward's answer to the question, Why are there seven books in the Narnia series? Because there were seven celestial bodies in the Middle Ages — and each volume, Ward says, has attributes of one of the celestial spheres.)

A final comment: I hate the "culture war" over Lewis. Unlike the dustup over Mel Gibson, I can't relate to this fight at all because I feel I have a personal stake on both sides. I'm eager to see the film, plan to share the books with my children, and think Lewis is fascinating and intellectually exciting — but have no desire to march in any Evangelical-Catholic alliance to roll back the liberal humanist hegemony. Yawn. What secular critics seem to miss is that writers like Lewis — who look like or get trotted out as apologists for Big Bad Jesus — also open an intellectual door within conservative Christian cultures to the broad expanse of humanistic scholarship. Narnia the Christian allegory also introduced me (zealous Mormon child) to mythology, the Middle Ages, and Lewis himself — who stands not only in the Christian intellectual world but in the humanistic one.

("Prisoner of Narnia," Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 11.21.05; "Religious Questions Emerge Ahead of Movie Based on Children's Tale," Peter Steinfels, New York Times 12.3.05, reg req'd; "The Professor, the Christian, and the Storyteller," Alan Jacobs, Boston Globe 12.4.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 6 December 2005 at 7:42 AM

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will shetterly:

December 6, 2005 03:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

Add "Church of Yearning" to the long list of names that would be better than Unitarian Universalism. Not that I think that's a serious contender. But "yearning" is an important point when talking about ethical religion. ("Liberal" has gotten so ensnared in politics that I'm trying to find an alternative; "ethical" is my first shot, though I realize religious traditionalists will say that unexamined belief is ethical, too.)


December 7, 2005 08:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

You write that writers like Lewis open an intellectual door within conservative Christian cultures. Very true. I was raised within the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren--about as conservative as you can get. In college (Drew U) I enrolled in a seminar on Lewis taught by Jim Pain & Michael Christensen. The door in the wardrobe opened to a world in which I found myself going to seminary, becoming an ordained PC(USA) minister, leaving that behind and seeking a home within the UUA. While I am cautious about how evangelicals will use this movie, I also have a great fondness for what was a very important turning-point in my life. Dare we say conversion experience?


December 11, 2005 05:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

See also Meghan O'Rourke's essay about the way children read the Narnia books:

Judging the Narnia books solely by their Christianity is an impoverished way of reading them. It is a reflection more of our polarized moment—in which a perceived cultural divide has alienated Christians from secular culture and secular readers from anything that smacks of religious leanings—than of the relative aesthetic merits and weaknesses of Lewis' books. Lewis, devout Christian though he might have been, would have been the first to say so—in large part because the litmus-test approach has led us to overlook children's experience of the books. The real genius of Narnia is the way Lewis built, out of a hodgepodge of literary traditions and predecessors, a patchwork world of unconventional characters who understand and instruct children without seeking to domesticate or indoctrinate them. The result is indelible, and anything but strictly allegorical.

She also observes:

Most important, though, is the fact that kids read differently from adults, and Lewis understood this. What was sacred to him about children's literature concerned the freedom it allowed the child's imagination. "To enjoy reading about fairies—much more about giants and dragons—it is not necessary to believe in them," he wrote in another essay on children's books. "Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage." This is surely a curious thing to say if you are a children's writer primarily interested in dogmatically persuasive storytelling.

("The Lion King," Meghan O'Rourke, Slate 12.9.05)


December 18, 2005 11:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

"[A] central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God...."

My take was that Narnia was a picture of the spiritual realm, where Jesus has never been humble. Aslan's animals are angels, the Witch's servants are demons. The kids are humanity.

But I've only gotten snippets of the book (notably, where he dies and comes back), and did not see any cinematic version. So my interpretation may be off.

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