Sunday, June 13, 2004

A twice-told tale-6

L'Engle (1918-)

L'Engle is best known as a popular children's author. To her credit, she has a healthy respect for the intelligence of children.

Her writings don't conform to any particular genre because they represent a syncretistic mishmash of ecumenical theology, eclectic philosophy, and quack science. Since there is always an audience for starry-eyed nonsense, L'Engle will never lack for a following, but like a trip to the carnival, the popcorn and cotton-candy only go so far.

Lewis (1898-1963)

Both Lewis and Tolkien enjoy a cult-following, drawn from much the same fan base, although Tolkien has overtaken Lewis. In one respect, Tolkien is the superior of Lewis inasmuch as the former worked out a consistent, self-enclosed fantasy world whereas Lewis is highly eclectic. In other respects, Lewis is the superior. He shares, with Tolkien, a great visual imagination, but Lewis brings a numinous intensity to some of his descriptions—aided by an elegant, yet unpretentious prose style. Moreover, Lewis was a man of ideas as well as a man of imagination. Furthermore, he writes as a Christian. And when he found images with which to clothes his ideas, the result was impressive.

The Screwtape Letters present spiritual warfare, not on a cosmic canvas, a la Milton, but as a string of petty grievances and innocuous inducements that unconsciously disaffect the convert from his newfound faith. Much of this is an exercise in thinking aloud—in saying what we may privately feel or mumble under our breath in passing.

In one respect, this marks a signal advance over the comic-strip version of spiritual warfare we encounter in so many highbrow and lowbrow and cinematic renditions. For their cartoonish character subverts serious belief in a personal devil and tempter of souls. And Lewis’s mock dialogue is much closer to the interior monologue of the Christian conscience than more flamboyant recreations.

At the same time, the urbanity and dry witticism of Lewis’s own treatment tends to undermine the cause as well by playing into the Victorian image of the devil as a dashing cad, sporting a bowler and Van Dyke.

Lewis denied that his fantasy novels were allegorical, but this turns on a rather narrow and technical definition, and, pedantic precision aside, there is no reason for denying that his fantasy novels are allegorical—and mostly Christian.

The Chronicles of Narnia present an allegory of Christian protology and hamartiology (The Magician’s Nephew), soteriology (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), eschatology (The Last Battle), and natural theology (The Horse and His Boy). The Great Divorce allegorizes Purgatory, while Perelandra allegorizes the temptation of Eve as well as Christ.

Fans sometimes wonder why Lewis’s final fantasy novel (Till We Have Faces) was about Greek mythology rather than Christian theology, but after the Space Trilogy, Chronicles of Narnia, Screwtape Letters and Great Divorce, Lewis had pretty well shot his bolt in terms of raw materials for further Christian allegory—at least on the themes of central interest and importance to himself. In some measure, it is fair to say that Till We Have Faces is an allegory of Lewis’s short and shattering years with Joy Davidman. Owing to his emotionally-starved childhood, there is a social detachment in most of his writing. But his encounter with Joy tore away the veil—which comes through in the searing account of A Grief Observed. In some way, Lewis died a broken man, but with a broken and contrite spirit (Ps 51).

So what are we to make of this achievement? It must be judged on several levels.

1. As his best, Lewis has a visionary and even beatific style that exemplifies his doctrine of sehnsucht. This is on display in Perelandra and the final chapters of the Voyage. But the flipside of this coin is that the style flattens when he leaves the silver sea and floating islands behind. In That Hideous Strength, there are moments, such as the entry to Brangdon Wood and the Descent of the Gods, when the old magic returns, but Lewis, unlike Eliot, lacks a knack for finding the sacred in the mundane.

2. There was, with Lewis, the ubiquitous risk of naked ideas streaking through the story. His first, semi-autobiographical, entry into the fantasy genre (Pilgrim’s Regress) suffers from this disproportion, as does the final installment of the Space Trilogy (That Hideous Strength).

Although a literary failure, the Pilgrim’s Regress is useful as an exposition of his Platonic spirituality. It resurfaces in The Last Battle. But Platonism is the subterranean stream that runs under his mythopoetic art and outlook generally.

3. There are also times when Lewis cultivates an expectation on which he cannot deliver. In the climactic chapters of Perelandra, the elida treat the reader to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. The only problem is that Lewis is no angel, and must therefore feign a pompous, eonian profundity. Less would be more. But whatever its flaws, Perelandra is a work of creative imagination that sticks in the reader’s mind.

4. Like Bunyan, only worse, Lewis doesn’t trust the reader to draw the right conclusions. It may again be owing to his Platonism, with its primacy of the idea, that Lewis feels the need to turn the narrator into an editorial voice. Or maybe it’s carryover of his classroom lectures. Or maybe it’s just a lack of skill. But whatever the reason, this is an artistic flaw.

A skillful narrator does not so much speak to the reader as speak through the character, and plot, and setting. Even this has to be handled with some delicacy, lest the character become a walking, talking treatise or dummy for the narrative ventriloquist. Such speeches must be "in character" with the character. In addition, the reader should not only hear what the character says, but see what he sees. In Dante, the main character describes the journey, like a tour guide. And, in Dante, the scenes are symbolic. These are all oblique ways of making a point without stepping outside the story, which destroys the illusion.

5. Lewis was in part an allegorist because this was a way of presenting the faith to those for whom the traditional coinage was worn smooth. Whatever the theological propriety of this exercise, its principle utility is to a culture in a transitional phase. But we are now at a terminal stage where the challenge is not so much with those for whom the Christian story is overly-familiar, but unfamiliar. What is mainly needed, therefore, is not an allegory of the faith, but straightforward evangelism and apologetics.

6. Although Lewis apparently believed in the basic biographical facts of Christ, including the miraculous stuff, yet his Platonic outlook is such that what seems to matter most are not the historical particulars, but the universal truths, and as long as a given story exemplifies these general and perennial themes, one story is pretty much as good as another— be it literal or allegorical, factual or fictitious.

7. This can be seen in his rejection of justification by faith for an essentially Greek Orthodox soteriology. Since theosis is a Neoplatonic construct, it dovetails with his philosophical bias. This can also be seen in his embrace of Purgatory.

And this goes back to an old divide. Is the plight of man primarily moral or noetic? Is it owing to guilt or ignorance? Lewis sides with eastern philosophy and theology. In that case, salvation is a matter of revelation rather than redemption, of enlightenment and right ideas rather than a historic fall and redemptive deed. What matters is not a wrong righted, but a falsehood corrected; not the unique, unrepeatable, and vicarious event, but the universal, accessible and instantiable idea.

8. Still another aspect of Lewis’s platonism is his evident distaste for the sensual side of life. Sex doesn’t exist in a Lewis novel. Every birth is a virgin birth. This prim attitude is especially irritating when he puts the reader on a tropical island with a Botticellian beauty and then proceeds to admonish the reader against entertaining any untoward feelings. Of course, Perelandra was written before he met Joy Davidman, and one wonders if married life knocked some of the starch out of his collar.

This marks a major step back from Dante and Racine. Dante, as an Italian male, and one, moreover, tutored in the troubadour tradition, handles women with exquisite tact, as does Racine—a Frenchman and heir of the chivalric ideal. This is something distinctive to the Christian vision of the sexes. You don’t get it in Gilgamesh or the Ramayana or Arabian literature or the Classics or Lady Murasaki.

9. In yet another Platonic turn, Lewis’ own sympathies seem closer to annihilationism than universalism, by pressing the privative theory of evil. However, the privative character of evil is ethical rather than metaphysical. Evil is the negation, not of being, but of well-being. And whatever the entailments of such a theory, our doctrine of the afterlife must take is cue from revelation rather than speculative metaphysics.

Linebarger (1913-66)

Paul Linebarger (pseudonym: Cordwainer Smith) was the grandson of an Anglican clergyman, although he spent his formative years in Europe and Asia. Later in life he returned to the Anglican fold. Because of Linebarger’s polyglot, cosmopolitan upbringing and career in counter-intelligence, he brings to his literary work a social sophistication and intricacy quite unlike the standard SF fare. Linebarger is fairly adept as both a portrait painter and landscape painter, for his characters are full of human interest while his settings are often lyrical and unforgettable. Added to that is his wit, fertile imagination, feel for beauty, and stylish prose, and you have what is, in principle, an exceptionally complete novelist. But even if he’d lived longer, one wonders if he had the ruthless discipline and architectonic mastery to forge such an encyclopedic array of materials into a coherent storyline.

Although Linebarger never got around to stringing his story beads onto a chronological chain, the basic sequence seems to be as follows: the first space age ended in a world war, returning civilization to the dark ages. This was succeeded by the Instrumentality of Mankind, which ripened into a utopian technocracy, and included a genetic reengineering program that raised animals to the status of quasi-human drones. But the ensuing Pleasure Revolution proved to be a cultural cul-de-sac, and so the Instrumentality was succeeded by the Rediscovery of Man, which tried to inject an element of risk into human existence. And that, in turn, was followed by the Holy Insurgency, which is an underground movement, partly inspired by the underpeople (humanized animals), and represents a revival of the old time religion (Christianity). (James Jordan identifies a number of Christian motifs in Linebarger's opus. Cf. "Christianity in the Science Fiction of 'Cordwainer Smith,'" Contra Mundum 2 [Winter, 1992].)

This schema exploits both the utopian and dystopian threads of the SF tradition. And as an exercise of the Christian imagination, it holds great promise, for it presents a social critique of secular technocracy. But because he died in his early fifties, the promise was not fully kept.

Because Linebarger returned to the Church late in life, he had to make up for lost time, which resulted in rather hasty and heavy-handed rush-job as he tries to retrofit his metanarrative to describe a Christian arc. The effort to play catch-up mars his mature work. So what we’re left with are the ruins of the once-great cathedral. And yet the noble arches and fragments of stained-glass lend to his work a fan-vaulted grandeur and flash of unearthly splendor that raise it above many more finished designs.

At the same time, this raises again the question of how fact and fiction should be related in creative writing, especially from a Christian pen. There may be some value in pushing the limits of our creative imagination, unfettered by the gravity of real time and space. There is something heady and godlike about exploring these impossible possible worlds. If we have the faculty, why not give it full reign? And the mind of God is infinitely more expansive than the imagination of man, so that the outer reach of human imagination does brush up against the inmost border of the boundless mind of God.

But although this may be a natural good, it is a lesser good, for at the end of the day it is, after all, only a fleeting figment of the imagination. It may, at most, give us some dim glimmering of the world to come, but that is only guesswork. Even sheer fantasy must take the known world as its launching pad. It does not teach us how to live and love in the world God has made. It does not teach us how to discern the sacred in the mundane or be better Christians. And there's a sense in which the less representational the art form, what is left over is not a broadening of insight, but a narrowing—for the process of abstraction entails a negation of the particular, and every retreat from the world around us is a privation rather than augmentation of experience.

Macdonald (1924-1905)

George Macdonald was a Scots-Presbyterian pastor, later defrocked when he turned against the doctrines of grace. Owing, in part, to national character, Scottish Calvinism is often less than winsome, and it is understandable, it not excusable, if some people equate the austerities and angularities of Celtic character, climate, history and topography with Calvinism itself. Yet the writings of Rutherford, for one, show that, even in a kilt, Reformed theology can catch fire.

Macdonald was a novelist and short-story teller. He might have been consigned to the ranks of the justly forgotten had he not been rediscovered by Auden, Chesterton, and the Inklings (Lewis, Williams, Tolkien). He has greatly benefited from the reflected and backward casting glory of their own success. It is striking that his leading disciples have all been affiliated with the Anglican or Catholic communions. The connection is less than clear, except for the latitudinarian faith of their respective communions.

Macdonald was a powerful mythmaker, but a poor phrasemaker. What sticks in the mind is the mythopoetic plot rather than the purple passages or catchy one-liners.

Macdonald enjoys a saintly reputation. There are several reasons for this. He wrote for children, from which it is rather too readily inferred that anyone who writes for children must love children and be as pure in heart as a little child—assuming that children are pure in heart, an assumption for which abundant evidence to the contrary is not entirely wanting. He hated Calvinism, which, for many, is reason enough to think him the right sort of person—unless, that is, you happen to be a Calvinist. In addition, he was a universalist, and there are many who always have a soft-spot for the softhearted—not to say the soft-headed. Finally, he was canonized as a modern-day Beatrice, although I daresay less photogenic, by Lewis in the Great Divorce.

But if you study some of his demon-haunted plotlines, like Lilith, it should be apparent that this is the work of a morally diseased mind. To some extent, that is of a piece with the chic occultism of the Victorian era—in France and England and Germany. But it seems to have a deeper hold on Macdonald. Day-trippers to the Netherworld flirt with the idea of the dark side, rather than the dark side itself—for the romance of evil is romantic only as long as it is remains unconsummated.

Macdonald was a chum of Ruskin. Both men forsook their Evangelical upbringing, and it is striking that both of them lost their mind and both of them withdrew into dumb dementia in their final years. Apostasy has no admittance fee, but you pay on the way out.

Mann (1875-1955)

After Marlowe and Goethe, Mann’s Doctor Faustus marks the next major treatment of the Faust motif. It is striking that Mann was drawn to the same theme as his co-catamite, Christopher Marlowe. His Faustian figure is largely a fusion of Wolf, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Nietzsche, updated by Schoenberg. Suffering from a mental block, Adrian Leverkühn strikes a Faustian bargain to enhance his creative energies. Like his Joseph cycle, Doctor Faustus is political parable of wartime Germany. Hitler and the Third Reich were the diabolical incarnation of the Übermensch oracle. Goethe’s masterpiece appears hopelessly jejune in the Nazi-tinted shadow of Thomas Mann’s sequel.

The Devil in Doctor Faustus picks up from the role of Shemmael in Joseph the Provider, where the devil is part court jester, part agent provocateur. In Doctor Faustus, Mann leaves the objective status of the Devil indeterminate—is he a figment of Adrian’s siphilic dementia, or a real being?

On the one hand, Mann was hardly an orthodox believer, so he was disinclined to credit a personal devil. But he finds him a useful symbol, and maybe more so. The Führer was surely a fine candidate for a demoniac.

Besides the apparitions or hallucinations—as the case may be—Prof. Schleppfuss is, as the name implies, a devil is disguise, while Kumpf is a clownish spoof on Luther. A homosexual relationship between Rüdinger and Adrian is hinted at, which is based on Mann’s own affair with Paul Ehrenberg.

O’Connor (1925-64)

Flannery O’Connor has quite a following in some circles. She is respected and admired for the way in which her moral theology informs her storytelling. I’m afraid I can’t join in this adulation. She writes in a campy, Southern Gothic manner, with grotesque figures and melodramatic scenes. I know she wishes to portray the ugly stain of sin, but a more adept author would slowly unveil the face of evil, allowing the reader to discover it on his own, rather than dressing it up in horns and hooves and hanging a sign around its neck.

Why is she such an overrated writer? Is it because she’s a woman? But there are better women writers—Cather, Woolf, Welty. Is it because she’s a Catholic? But there are better Catholic writers—Dante, Greene, Bernanos.

I think it must be because of her prophetic voice as a Southern writer with a social conscience. Readers like her because they’re supposed to—because it is a virtue to like a virtue. Isn’t there something wrong with you if you don’t? But although her social consciousness may make her a good person, it doesn’t make her a good writer. It isn’t good art, and it isn’t even very good propaganda, for what propaganda needs, besides a worthy cause, isn’t a pair of lungs, but a silver tongue.

Percy (1916-1990)

Another Southern Catholic writer, more artful than O'Connor, is Walker Percy. Like O'Connor, he is both moralist and novelist, but more of a novelist--a novelist of ideas.

In his later novels (Love in the Ruins; The Thanatos Syndrome), he proves to be a far-sighted critic of technocracy, behaviorism, social engineering, the therapeutic culture and especially the culture of death--where he sees a parallel between Nazi eugenics and modern-day abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

His books are readable because they're so very interesting to read. He also has, in common with Southern writers generally, an eye for natural beauty, so that his novels are shot through with natural epiphanies.

His characters, though, are less lifelike--papier-mâché creations made to voice to his social criticism. This is the debit for being such an analytical author. To some extent he conceals their artificiality by situating them in a highly artificial environment--a fantastic, futuristic, surreal setting, tinged with Southern Gothic grotesquerie.

One arresting motif in his novels is the continuing existence of the Jews as a sacramental emblem and omen of God's continuing presence in the world.

There is a studied vulgarity in his novels--which may be one reason he has not achieved the saintly status of O'Connor.

Santayana (1863-1952)

The primary theme of the Last Puritan may be identified as spiritual rootlessness, and this moves on two levels. The LP is semi-autobiographical. As a boy, Santayana’s mother took him to America. This was a smart career move. But the premature and permanent separation of young Santayana from father and fatherland was disastrous for his social formation. He never married and never felt at home in any land or tongue.

There is, in Santayana, a stultified spiritual yearning. He was a heady materialist with the heart of a platonist. In this respect, Santayana and C. S. Lewis were much alike except that Lewis, unlike Santayana, had the faith to redeem the token.

Santayana distributes the two sides of his split personality to two characters: Mario, who represents his sensuous side, and Fr. Darnley, who represents his spiritual side. Fr. Darnley is like a man who has fallen in love with a woman he can never have. She spoils him for anything less. He would rather cling to his ineligible fantasy than consummate an eligible banality

The other plane on which this theme plays out is in the character of Mrs. Alden, who stands for the dried flowers of old New England piety. After universalism and unitarianism and transcendentalism had blanched the crimson faith from Calvinism, all that was left was an effortful, dutiful moralism and ersatz Emersonian mysticism

Tolkien (1892-1973)

Tolkien appeals to much the same fan base as C. S. Lewis, and in some circles his popularity has outstripped Lewis—partly because he offers a more unified vision than Lewis.

LOTR was once panned by Edmund Wilson, doyen of American literary critics. I must say that at the aesthetic level, I have little to add to or subtract from Edmund Wilson’s classic and crushing verdict. ("OO, those Awful Orcs!" The Bit Between my Teeth (NY, 1965), 326-32.)

Although it is vastly overrated, LOTR has certain virtues. In a feminist age, the male camaraderie is a salutary counterbalance. (The cinematic adaptation is marred by the gratuitous and ever-incredible intrusion of the kickboxing superheroine.) And the storyline appeals to our boyish sense of adventure. The fact that the enchanted forest begins to wither away after the ring of power is destroyed illustrates the theodicean trade-off between a lesser and a greater good.

The fantasy genre is, in a way, more realistic than the SF genre, for a fantasy writer can create his own world with his own rules, whereas SF must often bend or break the rules to say what he wants to say. At the same time, that places a great burden of creativity on the back of the fantasy writer, for it is no easy task to fabricate a self-contained world. And at this level, Tolkien may succeed as well as anyone since Dante. But how we judge this achievement depends on a couple of considerations.

To begin with, there’s the question of how appealing or interesting we find the result. And this is, of course, a matter of personal taste. Speaking for myself, I’d rather spend a day on Perelandra or Pontoppidan than a month in Middle Earth.

More deeply, the investment necessary to fill out a fantasy world is only justified if there is warrant for the genre. And I fail to see that this is either needful or advantageous. I think Eliot was onto a better avenue with the liturgical turn taken in Ash Wednesday. Why not use the framework of Mosaic history, dominical history, and church history as our framing device?

LOTR is often classified as a specimen of the quest genre, but it’s more in the vein of an anti-quest, for the journey is not about finding something, but getting rid of some-thing— disposing of an unwelcome discovery rather than making a discovery.

But what is a potential point of strength exposes a reflexive weakness. The grander the canvass, the more space you have to fill, and Tolkien is a man with a very big canvass and very small ideas. There is no breadth of insight to match his breath of sight. LOTR is a thousand pages long—and feels it every step of the way. Tolkien’s prose has all the grace of a drunken centipede.

Tolkien has a habit of sparking our initial interest with potentially intriguing characters, but failing to then whet our aroused curiosity. Goldberry, Gandalf, Sauron, Saruman and Treebeard all ought to have a fascinating tale to tell of all they’ve seen in their long and varied lives. Yet Tolkien’s vivid imagination lies as always on the sensible surface of things.

Another problem is the faux-antique setting. Tolkien has situated his novel in the same sort of world as Beowulf. But shouldn’t the reader have outgrown that sword-and-sorcery stuff by now? Beowulf works on its own level because it is a genuine period piece, but why should we have to make the same allowances for Tolkien? Why go back in time to an older world unless you can go back in time to an older worldview? If it were at least an allegory, then there would then be some residual resonance in the old heraldic conventions. But when I read all the rigmarole about royal bloodlines and the like, the irrepressible image forms in my mind of a little girl dressing up in Mommy’s bathrobe and donning a cardboard crown. Isn’t the time past due to tuck away the sparkles and spray paint? Racine and Bernanos were writing for grownups, as grownups, and about grownups.

By this I don’t mean that we ought to throw off the supernatural. But in Scripture there is a bright red line between the divine and the diabolical, historical and mythological.

One of the issues is whether or not LOTR is Christian. Many Christian fans claim that it reflects a Christian worldview. To some extent, I think this is a case of readers rationalizing a guilty pleasure. They love the stuff, and in order to justify their taste, they try to baptize it. Assuming that LOTR is worth all the fuss, it would be more honest to defend it on the grounds that natural revelation and common grace have produced good art that is not expressly Christian.

There are two supporting arguments for its Christian character. One is that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. But, among other issues, this assumes that Tridentine theology sets the standard of orthodox, evangelical theology. But from a Protestant viewpoint, Trent is an anti-Gospel, and badge of idolatry and apostasy rather than orthodoxy and fidelity. I realize that, in an ecumenical age, this may sound hopelessly provincial, narrow-minded, retrograde and melodramatic. But remember that this cuts both ways. The Tridentine anathemas are just as intolerant and absolutist.

But even if we were to waive this issue, a writing must be judged by what we find in the writing itself, and not in writer’s résumé. Certainly a writer puts something of himself into his writing. But he also leaves a lot out. A work of fiction is supposed to present a self-enclosed world, the meaning of which ought to be internal to the story.

Secondly, some of the fans invoke to Simarillion to supply a theistic framework. But this appeal is also illicit. To begin with, this work is extraneous to LOTR. Secondly, there is far more to a Christian worldview than generic monotheism, such as the affirmation of a Creator. How does that distinguish Christianity or Catholicism from Islam or the Aristotelian Prime Mover or the Platonic Demiurge?

But there may be a more general and complex explanation for this interpretation. In the ecumenical atmosphere of post-Vatican II dialogue, when many lay Catholics and Evangelicals swap theology, we seem to have an unholy marriage between Evangelical typology and Catholic hagiography. On the one hand, Evangelicals are used to reading OT history, with its people and places, events and institutions, as prefiguring the advent of Christ. On the other hand, the cult of the saints is prized on the principle of human merit. The difference between Christ and the saints is a matter of degree, rather than kind. Indeed, the saints are so virtuous that they have merit to spare. And this supererogatory merit is deposited in a heavenly bank account (the treasury of merit), with the Pope as the loan-officer.

Now, if you subscribe to the alloy of Evangelical typology and Roman merit, then I suppose that you could, in all clear conscience, see Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn as a type of Christ. This is the same sort of easy-going syncretism which bedeviled OT Israel, and the Baal-worshipers are alive and well in today’s Evangelical church.

In any event, this is all special-pleading, for Tolkien had a pronounced dislike of the allegorical genre. He felt it saddled a good story with burdensome baggage. Hence, is runs counter to his literary aims to turn LOTR into a Christian allegory.

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7)

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