Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dust motes from heaven

Since I’ve been questioned on what I think of the original novel, I’ll make a few more observations about VDT.

1. I’ll expand on one technical criticism I have of VDT. Since I’m a fiction writer myself, albeit an amateur, I do take a personal interest in literary craftsmanship. Now, as I pointed out, Lewis depicts the Narnian world as a flat world, but I find it hard to “see” how the various pieces fit together. There are two problems with this:

i) The basic appeal of fiction is to explore the possible. You’re not bound by the actual. You can make the rules for your fictitious world. Indeed, you have to. In many cases you may choose to borrow the rules from the real world. But that’s your prerogative. You can also do it from scratch. Or borrow from the conventions of some literary genre.

But a fictitious world should be self-consistent. It may be unrealistic by the standards of our world, but it ought to play by its own rules, whatever the rules it has set for itself (or, more properly, the author). After all, it’s his world.

It may be an illusion, but it better be a consistent illusion to maintain the illusion. Ironically, reality can afford the appearance of inconsistency, forgiven reality, we discount the seeming inconsistency as an illusion. By contrast, given an illusory scenario, an inconsistent illusion is really inconsistent.

This is especially true in the fantasy genre, where the author has pretty much carte blanche to set the parameters. As such, an author should never find his fictitious world backing him into a corner. That reflects lack of patience and planning.

Part of the fun in writing about a fantasy world is the chance to engineer your own world. Let your imagination take flight.

Writers like Dante, Tolkien, and even Frank Herbert are more attentive than Lewis to the nitty-gritty details of their fictitious worlds.

ii) This problem is intensified by the fact that Lewis is such a visually oriented writer, and that’s a large part of what makes VDT so appealing. Imagine yourself on the ship at sea. What do you see? Imagine yourself on the islands. What do you see?

The point is to be caught up in his vision. See what he sees in his mind’s eye. Imagine what he imagined. So it’s a mistake to let the imagery break down.

2. Some folks who liked the film version of VDT justified the editorial omissions, consolidations, and reshuffling on the grounds that the structure of VDT is rather loose or episodic. But I think that criticism is fundamentally misguided:

i) The journey itself supplies the unifying principle. That’s one of the advantages of the quest genre. The journey is the structuring device. It imposes outward unity on events by giving them a degree of dynamic, spatial contiguity and continuity.

ii) In addition, you want variety. That’s what makes an adventure adventurous. So you want each island to be distinctive.

iii) VDT isn’t equally interesting from start to finish, but that, too, is a virtue in the quest genre. Lewis deliberately arranged the events in a lesser to greater sequence. The journey keeps getting better. Not merely onward, but onward and upward. That’s what makes the final two chapters such a payoff.

There’s a reason the Island of the Star comes after the Dark Island, but before the penultimate chapters. Rearranging the sequence destroys the progressivity of the narrative arc.

3. I think the final chapters of VDT are, in part, Lewis’s challenge to Dante’s Paradiso (especially the Primum Mobile and the Empyrean). This is Lewis’s beatific vision.

Although Dante is a greater writer than Lewis, I think Lewis is more successful at this point–“successful” in the sense that his vision is more attractive. That’s because Dante’s vision is so abstractly figurative. A literary and theological construct that doesn’t feel like a real place. It deliberately eschews physicality. And it lacks visual cohesion.

4. At the same time, this raises the question of how Christian fiction should attempt to depict heaven. There are various options:

i) A depiction drawn from artistic, literary, and theological traditions in Christian art and history.

ii) A generic heaven.

That’s what Lewis does. A verdant mountain range with rivers and waterfalls. Like a glorified national park.

The advantage of this approach is that heaven is supposed to be universally appealing to all believers. Likewise, fiction is a public art form. So it’s logical to select some stereotypically paradisean scenes.

iii) A designer heaven

However, one can take the opposite approach. A generic heaven might be a nice place to visit, but would you want to live there? Does it feel like coming home?

An alternative is a variegated heaven that’s adapted to what each saint finds individually fulfilling or meaningful. Person-variable.

iv) A gestalt heaven

Sometimes what we find mundane or heavenly is perceptual. It involves, not so much a change in our surroundings, but a change in us; a change in how we view our surroundings. To take one example:
One mid-afternoon when I was twenty-four years old, I walked by my apartment window, which framed a garden in the cemetery next door. I notice that the scene, which I had looked at often enough to pay no more attention, was somehow magically transfigured. Everything was self-shining as my eyes saw not the surface of things but through them. The trees and tulips were colored jewels, the air a clear crystal, the boulders (in the words of Ezekiel) stones of fire. The whole multicolored bliss was a sea of glass, each object a strained-glass window. A preternatural brilliance, a slowly breathing radiance, intense yet painless, the essence of beauty, suffused everything; and a thought arose in my mind: the expulsion from Eden was only a dimming of vision; we are even yet in paradise.
D. Allison, The Luminous Dusk, 49. 

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