Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Newton, Lewis, Stoppard - Part III

This should wrap it up.  Lewis was strongly in the camp of the mystery writers, spiritual writers, fantasy writers and ancient and medieval writers that there were patterns that are there which we do not - often refuse to - perceive. Ancient writings and fantasy often focus on prophecies or oracles, echoed wonderfully in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" when the blind oracle tells them you will find a fortune though it will not be the one you seek. Sometimes the patterns are only descriptions of how one event will follow from another, as when Digory rings the bell in Charn in The Magician's Nephew, or an indication of what might happen if human actions do not change, as in Galadriel's mirror, but sometimes they are set and a human can do little but enact them, as in Alan Garner's The Owl Service, in which three Welsh teenagers re-enact a tragedy from the Welsh Mabinogion. (They break the curse - probably - at the very end.) 

More gently, in religious writing we are told that we see the back of the tapestry, so while there is clearly a pattern rather than accidents and randomness, the meaning may not be clear to us. With Lewis, this is sometimes because the meaning is obscure, as in the prophecy of the Golden Age of Narnia, which the four (as prophesied) Pevensie children gradually fulfill, or the evil portents of the stars in The Last Battle, but far more often the pattern is dark to us because we choose not to see it. As early as John's visions and journey in The Pilgrim's Regress, where John returns to his starting point but now sees things clearly to his final novel Till We Have Faces, where Orual has to unlearn a great deal of her life, before seeing what was too painful to acknowledge, the main barrier to seeing and understanding is self-deception, not any intentional obscurity on the part of God. I think this is present in all of his fiction, and much of his nonfiction as well, of refusing to look at 1) where an idea must necessarily lead, or 2) what our real motives are behind our actions. It is in Weston's rationalisations for journeying to the planets, in Mark and Jane Studdock's marriage, in which they refuse to give to each other. It is every chapter in Screwtape and Great Divorce, it is Edmund and Eustace and Shasta. The idea of trends set in motion chillingly coming true in our own time is in his "Is Progress Possible" from God In The Dock. Lewis saw in the government stepping in after the war because of hunger and privation a probable necessity, but nonetheless a loss of freedom that might end in an "omnicompetent global technocracy," whether we will or no. I cannot read The Abolition of Man without shaking my head and thinking "Yes, it did turn out that way, and we are in the late stages now."  

Incidentally, while Lewis called himself apolitical and was not in the least partisan in his day, many of his writings do reflect political ideas of personal freedom, of government control, of cultural hegemonies, of plain men being left alone by authorities, of the consequences of bad kings and queens.  I heard in a podcast that there is a new book out describing how thoroughgoing his political thought is in his writing.  I would describe him as more of a libertarian than an anarcho-monarchist like Tolkien.

One last bit. In Lewis, under the influence of Charles Williams's theory of coinherence, the pattern might be difficult to discern because God (or Satan) moves in humans, and while it is clear that sometimes both are acting, this is fluid. They can also act through pagan figures, and the pagan gods in some of Lewis's works can act through humans. It is related to the Christian idea of substitution, of Jesus for us, and sometimes us for others, as in godparents making vows on behalf of a child, or Victim Souls. Merlin makes himself available in some way to a more primitive spiritual force in That Hideous Strength. Watson is ultimately entirely take over by Satan after long struggle in Perelandra. Angels and even Aslan take on different appearances that are part of our own (or Narnian) world.  This is not so much part of our culture and we are not comfortable with this, or at least I find myself having to stop and make adjustments that I may be the one who misperceives the universe here.

Update:  I was going to mention Chesterton, both the Father Brown mysteries and The Man Who Was Thursday, and Borges Ficciones. Though entertaining for me to cast my net wider like that, I don't think it will add much to the overall discussion. If I change my mind at some later date I will write a Part IV


james said...

I liked The Owl Service, but I haven't gotten anybody else to read it yet.

Good point about the pattern sometimes being of God (or the devil) working through people's choices even when they don't know it.

james said...

And wrt Tolkien: I just ran across this about an idea he had about the nature of man in LOTR.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent essay, james. I went down the rabbit hole with Charlton's blog. A fascinating set of ideas, and he is without question a far more knowledgeable man about all the inklings than I am. I did not, in the end, choose to put up a short post describing his blog and linking to it. Though I agreed with much he said, there was much I felt was less valuable, and I little I thought actively damaging.

All good to learn, however.

Brad said...

"...of refusing to look at 1) where an idea must necessarily lead, or 2) what our real motives are behind our actions." Thanks for the insight. When you point it out, it is obvious how prevalent this is in his works. It is also obvious how prevalent it is in my own life.