On June 26 & 27, G & I attended a conference at St. Stephen’s House, a theological college of the Church of England and a private hall of the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. This conference was part of the Perelandra Colloquium, organized around the second premiere of Perelandra: The Opera by David Marsh & Donald Swann. The opera was first performed in London in 1964 and in New York City in 1969. However, a legal entanglement upon CSL’s death left the opera unperformable until now. The Oxford C. S. Lewis society arranged for a performance and concurrent conference focused solely on Perelandra.
The conference was splendid. The speakers were excellent, the papers intellectually stimulating, and the setting as much of a fairy tale as I remembered. Oxford is, indeed, my heart’s home. The weather could not have been better: warm, clear, beautiful. I am still in love with every block of sandstone, every gargoyle, every cobblestone, every tendril of ivy, and every vocal accent. If ever I can live there, it will be my earthly Atlantis.
Here are summary reports on the plenary sessions and the papers presented. At the end, I will comment briefly on the other events (a tour of Oxford, a round-table discussion with the opera producers) and on the opera itself.
Opening Keynote Address: Rev. Dr. Michael Ward, “Voyage to Venus: how Lewis found his imaginative way to Venus”.
Dr. Ward’s paper was grounded in just one word and all of its applications: PLENTITUDE. He pointed out that there were many, many themes and approaches to Perelandra in this conference, and that none of them seemed forced or falsely academic. The reason for such variety, he suggested, is the sheer volume of ideas with which the book itself is packed. “Plenitude is the foundation of the book”—and so are all of the other themes for which we argue, each for our favorite. This is, of course, just like the Great Dance with which the book closes. “All is central, because all is loved.”
Furthermore, plenitude is not just a category; it has a peculiar flavor of its own, because it is the hallmark of the planetary deity Venus herself. With this in mind, Dr. Ward took us on a journey through all of the references to and uses of Venus and ‘venereal’ imagery [he prefers this adjective over ‘venusian’ for etymological reasons] in Lewis’s oeuvre.
In his teen years, CSL was enamored of the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhauser, Holt’s Planets suite, and other musical depictions of Venus. In college, he hung the painting ‘The Mirror of Venus’ (perhaps Botticelli’s?) on the wall of his dorm room. In his copy of Chaucer’s works, he indexed all the references to Venus. Of course, Venus is in his poem ‘The Planets’ as well as in other poems throughout Spirits in Bondage, and, according to Ward, in The Magician’s Nephew.
Venus, in Medieval thought and in CSL’s work, has two sides. There is the celestial, planetary, or ‘good’ Venus, which can readily be used as a symbol of God, or, more specifically, of Christ: the Morning Star. There is the earthly, infernal, or ‘bad’ Venus, which is expressed simply as lust, and can be identified with the Devil: Lucifer (‘How you have fallen from Heaven, O Morning Star, Son of the Dawn!’)
In Perelandra, Ransom is identifiable with St. Paul (who was taken up to the 3rd heaven, II Cor. 12:2). Weston is a parallel to Venus Infernal; he is the Un-Man, bringing ‘Death in abundance.’ He brings fear; fear is privation, but perfect love casts out fear: love is plenitude.
Panel session 1: Medieval Astronomy and Alchemy, chaired by Michael Ward
My paper was first: here is a link to my abstract
Rev. Micah Snell, “Alchemy in Perelandra: A Donegalitarian Proposal for the Gold Ransom”.
Rev. Snell began by pointing out that although CSL does not talk much at all about alchemy (one would almost expect a chapter about it in Discarded Image), it was such an essential part of Medieval thought that surely CSL had pondered it. In addition to the fraudulent practice of quack alchemy, there was a legitimate science: the study of the substances of life. It is a work of transformation; it is easily adapted for use as a symbol or even a meta-theme.
Mr. Snell then described the phases of the alchemical process, which progress through different colors and have an ascending trajectory. He proposed that Perelandra may be read according to these colors and phases, and that Ransom is the Philosopher’s Stone—the ultimate goal of the alchemical process. He supported this thesis with references and quotes that deal with colors and other ‘stock alchemical images,’ especially the multiple references, at essential moments, to stones. During Ransom’s scene of great decision, the narrator says: ‘A stone may determine the course of a river; he [Ransom] was that stone.’ Ransom goes through the black, red, and white stages and also ascends as if up through a beaker. Then he must be purified. In the end, the salvation of Venus is integrally tied up with the transmutation of Ransom. Furthermore, in That Hideous Strength, Ransom is not the hero; he is only the precipitating agent (the philosopher’s—or philologist’s—stone) through which the action is achieved.
Weston, on the other hand, is like the dupe, the con-man, the charlatan who tries to sell false alchemy. The Un-Man is the waste by-product of the alchemical process.
Dr. Nikolay Epplee, “The Centre and the Rim: The Inversion of the System of the Heavens as a Leitmotif in Perelandra and The Discarded Image”.
Dr. Epplee claimed that CSL was not only backward-looking in his work, but that he was an ‘anti-modern’ [he hadn’t heard Dr. Schwartz yet!]. This paper was very difficult to understand, but its basis was [of course] Dante’s sublime inversion of the universe: the earth is in the center, the planets circle the earth, and God’s dwelling is the circumference of all (God contains all things) BUT a theophanic vision reveals that God is the centre of all things and poor earth is out on the rim, in the dark, as far from God as any created thing can be. Dr. Epplee made the beautiful association of Dante’s vision with the end of The Last Battle: Aslan’s country is like the rings of an onion, only as you go deeper and deeper in, each ring is larger than the last.
The most important similar reference in other literature is by Nicholas of Cusa: God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. In order to see the centre, you must cease pretending to be the centre.
There were a few other points of importance, although I couldn’t grasp their relationship. One was that Milton is responsible for bringing the term ‘space’ into English as a word for ‘the Heavens’—I’ll have to look into this. He also quoted from ‘Science-Fiction Cradlesong’ and used this as an example of one of CSL’s rare apophatic or via negativa moments; I argued with him later that CSL was parodying the apophatic in this poem, but we did not come to any understanding.
Panel session 2: Plenary Papers, chaired by Brendan Wolfe (co-editor of the Oxford CSL Chronicle
Prof. Sanford Schwartz, “Paradise Reframed: Modern Times on Perelandra”
This was pretty much just a repeat of his paper from the Wake Forest conference, and was also the introduction to his new book (which I just received in the mail on the day we left for the colloquium, and which I’ll be reviewing for Sehnsucht magazine). Dr. Schwartz 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; Dr. 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 mutal, and mutally 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.
Rev. Prof. Paul Fiddes, “’For the Dance all Things Were Made’: The Great Dance in C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra”
This may have been the best paper of the conference (although I believe that Sanford’s premise will be the most influential). Dr. Fiddes has an engaging manner and a compelling personality: his paper was like himself. He proposed that ‘The Great Dance’ in Perelandra is not just the simple Medieval convention that we have always assumed it to be; rather, it is a much more interesting idea, for several reasons.
1. The Dance has a centre that moves. Each participant is at the centre, because Maleldil is at the centre, and he is everywhere (cf. Nicholas of Cusa, Bonaventure). This is the concept of ‘panentheism’ (OED: the belief of doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it); everything is in God. This doctrine is able to contain the seemingly contradictory teachings of both transcendence and immanence.
2. The Dance merges two traditional images: first, the Cosmic Dance, and second, the Centre. Usually the Dance has an unmoving centre in Platonic stasis (cf. Boethius). Lewis has God, the centre, dancing as well! This reverses NeoPlatonism. God is no longer just the Beloved: He is also the Divine Lover. He is dynamic, not static.
Perhaps this concept is apophatic (OED: Theology [of knowledge of God] obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to Him)—the via negativa, because you cannot picture the Great Dance. Instead, you must participate in it! It is perechoresis.
3. There is no precedent for depicting the Trinity as a Dance—except perhaps in Bergson, and in Charles Williams. In the Cosmic Dance from The Greater Trumps, the Juggler = the Primum Mobile, while the Fool = God. The Fool stands still, motionless, while the Juggler dances around. But then CW reverses this: Sybil sees the Fool dancing! When the Fool rescues Nancy, he comes from all sides at once. He is centre and rim, motionless and moving, here, there, and everywhere. This represents (or at least is reminiscent of) the eternal generation of the Son by the Father: the Son goes out from the Father and returns. THE DANCE IS LOVE.
Just as there is no good game without rules, so our obedience = perfect freedom and our share in the Dance.