Monday, December 14, 2020

Undeceptions VI - Till We Have Faces

Time to wrap this thing up, it has gone on too long. You get the basic idea by now and can find things on your own: much of Lewis's work is about the lies, half-truths, and evasions we tell ourselves and how they interfere with both rational thinking and imaginative thinking. Lewis does not teach that if we lose our self-deceit that rationality and imagination will then follow automatically, but he comes close. Like the lizard killed and transformed into a magnificent stallion in The Great Divorce, we are at least well on our way. 

Several writers have suggested that works of Lewis be paired together for greater understanding, as they were written at similar times and are expressions of the same ideas in different literary forms.  Lewis himself writes of an idea seeking its best form, and an author's challenge in deciding.  For example, The Screwtape Letters and A Preface to Paradise Lost were written close in time, and there are echoes of a specifically Miltonic Satan in Screwtape. The Abolition of Man was written just after Perelandra and just prior to That Hideous Strength, and one can see the abstract ideas of Abolition being given life and explore in the last two novels of the Ransom trilogy.  

Till We Have Faces is paired with The Four Loves, a more academic work explaining the differences among the four words for love in Greek: agape, eros, storge, and philia. Lewis thought TWHF far and away his best novel, and Tolkien and others agreed. It is worth noting that while many Lewis fans are put off by the book at first, many come to agree as well and think it his finest. Some go so far as to call it the best novel of the 20th Century. I always find this disconcerting. While I am impressed by is depth and careful structure, I have never warmed to it. I am getting it out again and having another try.

The critics were not much impressed in 1956, and neither was the general public, as the book did not sell well.  Lewis gave radio talks in 1958 on the rather academic subject of the four Greek words for love which became the book in 1960.  A few friends recognised at the time that he was trying to explain the novel's underpinnings in hopes of winning better understanding for the work. Over time that has become the generally understood explanation, of each work explaining the other in different form. If anyone doubts it at this point, I have annotated the first words of Till We Have Faces:

"I am old now and have not much fear from the anger of gods¹. I have no husband², nor child³, nor hardly a friend⁴”

There is a powerful second theme that interweaves this. Neither the purely mystical nor the purely rational can bring us home.  While they appear to be in constant conflict in this world, a proper understanding of their relationship to each other allows both to flower. In TWHF, the tutor called The Fox is all rationality with disdain for the work of the priests of Ungit. The priests, for their part have a lively sense of the reality of the gods, but misunderstand and distort much. The people of the country, including the king, have a small understanding of both.  Orual, the main character, has more of both. Her story is like Job's. Psyche, her younger sister who is to be a bride sacrifice to the God of the Mountain, understands both much more fully and demonstrates their interaction. She understands each of the loves in its place, not confusing them or wishing that one was another.

Yet all this is a very prominent theme of Lewis's Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, his partial autobiography. Looking that up, yes, there it is, written at the same time, in 1955.  I have never seen anyone pair that book with the others, but there it is, unmistakable when one looks at it for even a few moments.  There is the Argument from Desire and his gratitude to his tutor Professor Kirkpatrick, the rationalist atheist. 

So I looked at what else was being written at that time and multiple connections appear after less than a minute's thought.  In The Horse and His Boy (1954), we have Shasta's feeling that he has been mistreated terribly his whole life only to eventually learn that all the worst events were in fact rescues from deeper evils. There are the related but various forms Aslan takes when dealing with humans - but both of these are the lessons Orual learns. In The Magician's Nephew (1955) we see the power of fertility that is almost pagan in the creation of Narnia, yet also see how that can go terribly wrong in Jadis, and see the competition of loves and how they must be ordered correctly or they turn sour. And The Last Battle (1956) is very much about the appearance of the gods versus their reality, and how we can deceive ourselves if we do not strive first for the simple goodness that we do know, seeking higher wisdoms when we have not mastered the lower.  I'll bet you can find more similarities if you think about it, and I would be happy to hear them.

It is time to return to my original theme, that our misunderstanding of God stem from our misunderstanding of ourselves, and our desire that reality be something other than what it is. Orual accuses the gods for the first 80% of the book that she has been treated shabbily from the first and declares them evil and cruel. The book comes to such finality at the end of Part I that you wonder if the remaining pages in your right had are some sort of index or lengthy set of notes. In Part II she comes to see that the evil appearances of the gods come from her own misunderstandings.

A note on reading the book.  I have never been much fond of myth.  I disliked studying the Greek myths in school and had no fascination for the alternatives from other cultures. I gave a try at the Nordic myths when I went through a phase from 12-16 of reveling in my own Scandinavian identity as a way of embracing my unusual appearance of flaxen hair and extremely pale skin, but I still couldn't work up much interest in Loki and Yggdrasil.  I did have that taste for "northernness" that Lewis described in hearing Wagner and reading Tolkien, but I couldn't bear the Silmarillion.  While I could understand the attraction, and felt I understood the importance of uniting myth and reason in Lewis's own conversion journey, it was not my journey.  So I think, in the shallowness of my expectations, that  I learned there were neither going to be Hobbits nor Jesus* in Till We Have Faces I had a hard time getting over that.  I think Lewis also has less knack for naming than Tolkien, and I have been spoiled in that since The Hobbit. He does well enough chosing the proper English names for his terrrestrial characters, all the Susans and Eustaces and Mark Studdocks and Miss Ironwoods, or his villainous Frost and Wither. But Tinidril and Redival are merely okay, while pfifltriggi and Nikabrik are actively bad names.  It puts me off, and Glome occurs right at the beginning. It is a small fault, and I reveal my shallowness by being so influenced by it. Still, if he had had a guest-namer it might have improved things.

Also, what those who love the book claim as an advantage - that one finds deeper meanings and new things on further readings - is a very CS Lewis sentiment.  It was from him that I learned that great literature shows it self in that it can be reread with enjoyment.  But that doesn't do us much good on first reading.  When the King kills a slave over a small incident and looks around at those staring at him and rants "Faces, faces, faces, why do you gape at me?" we know we have just read something meaningful - it's in the book's title, after all - but we also finds it eludes us.  So too when the temple girls enter wearing masks, or when simple, noble Bardia hides his face from Orual and she says it is the kindest face she has seen that day and she hates him in that moment, we know there's something there we should be grasping, but don't.  I see the value of that sort of reading, but I don't enjoy it.  I like the directness of conversation, not the depth and mystery of poetry.

 *Not by name.  But he's all over the story in disguise.

¹ agape – unconditional, god love.

² eros – romantic love

³ storge – family love

⁴ philia – friendship love


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