06 November 2007

C. S. Lewis Conference report

Last weekend G, "Eurydice," & I attended a conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which I presented my first professional paper. The conference was entitled C. S. Lewis: The Man & His Work, a 21st Century Legacy. It was a wonderful weekend! It was excellent for each of us to get away from the office/cubicle/computer for a while and enjoy stimulating intellectual fellowship. Below, I will report on the most notable paper-readers (in my opinion).

The papers were presented in parallel sessions, so some of those discussed below I did not personally attend, but I received the report from G or E, or by means of requesting the paper from the speaker later.

Friday’s sessions

Samuel Joekel, from Palm Beach Atlantic University, paper entitled “Bacchanalian Feasts, First Jokes, and Aslan’s Romps: The Spirit of Comedy in The Chronicles of Narnia.
N attended this paper, and I met Sam later and he gave me a copy. It’s excellent, all about how Bacchus was a violent, licentious, dangerous god whom Lewis “baptized” and sanctified in the Narnia Chronicles. There are remnants of the fertility rites in Prince Caspian, but cleaned up for children by means of Aslan’s presence.

Kip Redick, from Christopher Newport University, paper entitled “Wilderness, Arcadia, and Longing: Mythic Landscapes and the Experience of Reality”.
This speaker’s thesis was that landscapes are operative in CSL’s fiction to the point that they become characters in the action, integral to the plot and the Kappa element (although Kip didn’t use that term) of—especially—the Space Trilogy. “Place is a living presence” and “longing [Sehnsucht] is mediated through landscape. He reminded us that the descriptions of Heaven in Scripture are symbolic, and that Nature has symbolic potential to express or communicate the Sublime. In CSL’s fiction, “Landscape is integral to the action and induces numinous affect.” His talk very nearly replicated my unpublished chapters on “Embodied Longing” in the Space Trilogy (better called the Interplanetary, Cosmic, or Ransom Trilogy, as per Michael Ward, because CSL went to great lengths to convince us that Space is just precisely not empty space), but with one very interesting difference. Kip is convinced that what Tinidril is longing for on Perelandra is the Fixed Land—that it is her paradisiacal goal. That sounded wrong to me until I remembered the end of Perelandra, in which Ransom walks through ripple-trees, meets a singing beast, and climbs impossibly high mountains until he comes to a high valley carpeted with crimson flowers, where he meets the gods.
He also talked about Till We Have Faces, in which divinity and the physical mountain coalesce. Psyche was always half in love with the mountain itself, not knowing she would love the One who inhabited the mountain; “the place and the god are interchangeable.” The mountain was a symbol of something more. Psyche’s Sehnsucht was a longing for home; Orual’s was wanderlust, a desire to wander.

Harvey Solganick, from The College at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, paper entitled “The Hard Knock at the Door of Christianity: C. S. Lewis and W. T. Kirkpatrick—An Apologetic against Agnosticism and Atheism”.
G attended this one, and I’ll have to get a summary from him.

David Rosenberg, from University of California, Santa Barbara, paper entitled “The Polarity which Divides: Lewis’ Christian Paganism”.
N attended this one, and kept insisting that I had to meet and talk to this brilliant scholar of German Romanticism. Well, N & I went to a Starbucks when we had a some free time, and there he was! N was just trying to summarize David’s paper, so we invited David over to talk to us. I guess the paper was about the chain of thought from Goethe onwards, which accused Christianity of being a “vampire,” because it is so focused on the afterlife and so insistent on chastity that it (according to Goethe et al) sucks all the sensuality out of this life. But Lewis, of course, performs a re-marriage ceremony between Christianity and Paganism, and thus re-infuses the church with rich, sensual life.

Three papers from the panel headed “Women in C. S. Lewis’s Works: Sources and Issues”
Bruce Johnson, from James Madison University, paper entitled “C. S. Lewis and Women: Hierarchy, Misogyny, and Characterization”.
The main point of this talk was that, yes, Lewis did believe in a hierarchy in which husbands are above wives, men above women, but that he realized this is a prelapsarian ideal (a Platonic hierarchy that depends upon perfection) and cannot always be realized in this fallen, sublunary world. He discussed CSL’s distinction between gender and sex (but surprisingly did not bring in the end of Perelandra). He reminded us that we are all “feminine” in relation to the “masculine” God, since the Church of which we are all members is the Bride of Christ. He quoted CSL’s great statement: “There must be a little of the woman in every man and a little of the man in every woman.”

Katherine Cooper, from North Greenville University, paper entitled “A Feminist Examination of Orual and Psyche in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: Misogynistic or Not?”
An excellent paper! First Ms. Cooper retold Apuleis’s source tale of Psyche & Cupid from The Golden Ass, which is a “decidedly misogynistic” tale in which Psyche’s beauty and virginity are sexual commodities to be sold or even stolen without her consent. In contrast, CSL’s story “uses the archetypes [of the beautiful virgin and the jealous step-sister] in a complex psychological modern tale of a woman’s introspective self-searching.” Till We Have Faces is a mimetic novel, a conscious outworking of CSL’s anima [Jung’s term for the soul or psyche]. Here, CSL created a convincing narrative frame in a female voice, and did not resign his characters to mere female beauty—he never describes Orual’s face and lets the reader imaginatively fill in the blank space created by her veil. In King Trom’s male-dominated society, Trom compares women to a disease, but it is interestingly Orual herself who is the most misogynistic voice in TWHF. She denigrates her feminine side and “tries to slip out of her categorization as the Other.” In the end, she “comes to a satisfactory solemnity about herself.”

Elizabeth Baird Hardy, from Mayland Community College, paper entitled “A High and Lonely Destiny: Sources for Jadis, the White Witch, in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
Jadis is Jung’s “bad mother” archetype: beautiful, vain, cruel, powerful. She shares several characteristics with Spenser’s Duessa: trappings of royalty via usurpation, terrible practicality, physical attraction/sensual desire, words as powerful weapons, ability to seduce and threaten, magic arts that pervert nature, false promises, sexuality and sterility united (turning people into trees/stone), a noble but shameful heritage, a bag of tricks, and a deceitful death-like castle [although for this last point she brought in another Spenser character, which confused me]. Both are non-human daughters of deceitful parents; Jadis of Lilith, Duessa of Deceit & Shame. “Jadis” means “two-faced” and reminds us of “false jade,” “jaded,” and the hiss of a snake.
Jadis also shares several characteristics with Milton’s Satan: both chose destruction and rule over servitude, look down on everyone, refuse authority and refuse responsibility, both perceive themselves as tragic heroes, both are admirable but ultimately unheroic bullies and cowards. Satan goes a progress (or digress) from Hero—general—politician—secret service agent—peeping Tom—toad—snake. Jadis, likewise, follows a downward evolution: queen—mass murderer—common criminal—thief—murderer of children and animals. Both share the same illicit entry into the Garden, both convince themselves that their lousy location is better than the glory they have lost, both have an initial victory and are overcome in the long run. And both underestimate God’s power to use evil for good.
Finally, Ms. Baird Hardy claimed that in each case, the author’s early antagonist was more complex, subtle, and memorable than his later ones.

Next were two papers from the panel headed “Personal Glimpses of C. S. Lewis.” This was a great session, because since there were only two speakers, they had half an hour for questions afterwards. Both speakers stood up front and took questions together, and they were both graceful, tactful, funny, highly intelligent and learned scholars who worked well together.

Don King, from Montreat College, paper entitled “Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman”.
Don talked about how Joy’s letter reveal her search for truth and chronicle her religious, philosophical, and political journey. He mentioned three topics in passing—that they also illustrate the struggles of her marriage to Bill Gresham, show her influence on CSL, and correct the view that she chased Lewis into marriage—but saved detailed discussion of these for another time. Then he read excerpts from both Joy’s letters and her movie/theatre reviews, which are hilariously scathing. Joy had a “clear, definite, unique voice” that is “persistent, hard, and insightful” with a “sharp, biting tone.” He recommended her autobiography, The Longest Way Round.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, from Azusa Pacific University, paper entitled “C. S. Lewis in Disguise: Fictional Portraits of Jack in the Work of the Inklings”. this fascinating paper described four characters in the writings of Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien that are really CSL in disguise. The first three are in Barfield’s work: “Jak” in the short story “Night Operations,” “Hunter” in the novel Worlds Apart, and “Ramsden” in the novel This Ever Diverse Pair. Barfield also appears in disguise in Lewis’s work: as “History” in The Pilgrim’s Regress and as Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis also appears as Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings and as “Philip Franklin” in Tolkien’s story “The Norton Club Papers,” which is basically a fictionalized account of the Inklings’ meetings—the working title of which was reportedly Out of the Talking Planet!!

I’m sorry, my little summary here recounts little of the delightful humour of this sessions, which was lively and packed with delicious anecdotes and glimpses into the lives of these men and women.

Saturday’s sessions

Stephen Yandell, from Xavier University, paper entitled “Medieval Loss: the Pearl-Poet and C. S. Lewis”.
N attended this session, and read to me from her notes later. This scholar claimed that Till We Have Faces follows the traditional pattern of the Medieval dream-sequence fable, which “Pearl” also follows. In this form, a family member (father/Orual) is suffering from the loss of a loved one (daughter/Psyche), goes to the edge of a river and sees the loved one, inaccessible, on the other side, is forbidden to cross, tries to cross anyway, loses the loved one again, and wakes wiser and better prepared to meet his/her God. I think that was the pattern; perhaps Eurydice can correct me if I’m wrong.

Sanford Schwartz, from Pennsylvania State University, paper entitled “Why Wells is from Mars, Bergson from Venus: The Hybrid Worlds of the Space Trilogy”.
This fascinating paper proposed that in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, C. S. Lewis simultaneously parodied and “baptized” two kinds of evolution respectively: first a Wellsian/Darwinian “nature red in tooth and claw” nasty, stronger-devouring-the-weaker kind, and second, a Bergsonian life-force, developmental, powerful, spiritual, positive kind. CSL parodied these types of evolution by having the antagonist Weston believe in and attempt to propagate Wellsian evolution in OotSP, and Bergsonian life-force evolution in P, and in each Weston is defeated. However, Lewis once wrote that there must be a true principle of which Bergson’s ideas were a perversion; Mr. Schwartz proposed that in the Space Trilogy Lewis was imagining what that true principle would look like, and embodied it in the species and landscapes of his Mars and Venus. So on Malacandra, there are three species living in harmony, while the spiritual life of the hrossa depends upon their mutual, and mutually satisfactory, rivalry with the hnakra. This is perhaps the good original of which natural selection and the preying of the stronger on the weaker which Darwin proposed is a poor copy. In the same way, on Perelandra the entire planet is in flux, and Tinidril herself is in a state of rapid development. This seems to be a Christianized version of Bergson’s life-force evolution.

Stephen Boyer, from Eastern University, paper entitled “A Kneeling and a Sceptered Love: Lewis’s Perilous Passion for Inequality”.
This paper also discussed CSL’s love of hierarchy, whether of gender, politics, or religion. Mr. Boyer first described how Lewis loved hierarchy, and used Nature as his prime example. He explained that Christianity affirms and negates Nature, depending on her relation to God. Regarded as second to God, she is glorious; regarded as a god, she is a demon. “Subordination is the pathway to exaltation.” But then he talked about the fact that it just doesn’t work: in daily life we seem to see equality—or do we? No two people are exactly equal in any way. Only in the abstract quality of “humanness” are they the same, which ignores real individual human beings. “Inequality is the concrete reality; equality is the abstract ideal.” But equality in a necessary legal fiction, because fallen people use inequalities as weapons against one another. He described the dangers of a belief in hierarchy, such as marital abuse, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities. Finally, he summarized as follows: “Ordered differentiation is everywhere and we should celebrate it for theological, aesthetic, practical, and moral reasons. This is compelling and moving, yes, but not safe. Love of hierarchy can be death-dealing.”

And then me. My paper was entitled “Heavenly Heraldry: The Development of Lewis’s Sehnsucht in his Correspondence and Cultural Context,” but I didn’t have time to talk about the cultural context, so I cut that out and read a paper just on the correspondence and my favorite discussion of genre & why Till We Have Faces is CSL’s best work of literature. Here’s the introduction to my paper:
At the end of his sojourn on Perelandra, Ransom perceives the “Great Dance” in which all things are interrelated. It is possible to examine the work of C. S. Lewis, a writer of great variety in subject-matter and genre, according to the analogy of the Great Dance. On any given journey through Lewis’s oeuvre, a discerning reader might trace one ribbon or thread as if it were Lewis’s primary or even sole idea. But another examination might privilege a different theme.
I consider “Joy” or Sehnsucht a centerpiece of Lewis’s polymorphous literary consciousness. Over the course of his writing, Lewis tried various signifiers to capture, express, and contain the powerful experience of “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (Surprised by Joy 18). My roughly chronological study records the developing lexis of longing through Lewis’s correspondence. Lewis’s search for just the right word for “Joy” has generic implications I will explore.

There were also three plenary speakers.

Walter Hooper spoke twice, once at lunch and once at dinner on Friday. He’s a good storyteller, and he told lots of really hilarious stories. His two themes were 1) his work as editor and 2) personal memories of CSL. They’re the same stories he weaves into the introductions to CSL’s books, so there was only one I hadn’t heard before—and consequently now I can’t remember it!

Bruce Edwards. He talked about the fact that America has appropriated CSL for themselves so that he is now our apologist and our fantasy writer even more than Britain’s.

James Como. His speech was highly intelligent, to the point of esotericism. I think it was brilliant, but I was so exhausted and nervous (I read right after his session) that I could hardly follow him! I think it was about what a brilliant social philosopher Lewis was, and that we should spend more time studying his essays than “wasting oxygen” on his fantasy. So then I got up in the next parallel session and wasted oxygen for half an hour!


Eurydice said...

Well, now! Thank you for the excellent summaries! Two comments, however, maybe even corrections.
David changed the name of his paper to "Venus and Vampires", which is an infinitely better name than "The Polarity Which Divides". As you pointed out, polarity tends to do that. :)
Secondly, you failed to mention that Prof. Sorina Higgins was one of the most outstanding of all the presenters, whether judged on scholarly content or her remarkable ability to communicate.
Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Bruce in Ohio said...

Very nice summary! Glad the conference was worthwhile for you!

--Bruce Edwards

Iambic Admonit said...

Bruce! Lovely to hear from you! Yes, the conference was extremely worthwhile. I look forward to any others in the future. Say, would it be possible to see a copy of your speech?