29 July 2009

The things these students say!

This is not really a post, not really; just a compilation of some pretty hilarious answers from or exchanges with students over the last year or two. No insult is intended to any students quoted herein (and they shall remain anonymous, to protect the guilty). Enjoy!

“What event in 1660 restored drama in England and allowed female actors on the stage?”: Charles II put in throne.

What meter does Shakespeare use?: The rhythm of Shakespeare’s poem is five beats per a line with ten synonyms.

In her research paper about Jane Austen’s life, one young lady wrote that Jane made a new acquaintance, an Irishman named Tom Lefroy: Tom was a law student in London, wanting to work at an Irish bar.

Me, to a student who just received the lowest possible grade on his research paper: So, what did you think of this paper you wrote?
Him: I thought it was OK.
Me: What did you think was OK about it?

Student: Mrs. Higgins, can you define “Romanticism”?
Me: Wow, you want me to define “Romanticism”? There are more books on how to define “Romanticism” than there are books of Romantic literature! Let’s see…. How about “A literary and artistic movement in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries characterized by emotionalism and individuality.”
Then we looked it up in NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms
Me: [reading] “A literary and artistic movement in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries characterized by…dzzzzzzzzzz, dzzzzzzzzzz [as I skimmed over irrelevant bits] emotionalism and individuality.” See, that’s just what I said!
Student: Yeah, except for the dzzzzzzzzzz, dzzzzzzzzzz!

Me: I’m canceling one of your assignments for next week. You do not have to give an oral report.
Student: Thank God! –wait, did I just take the Lord’s name in vain?
Me: Not if you meant it!
Student: Oh, I meant it.
Me: And isn’t there somebody else you should be thanking?
Everyone: Thank you, Mrs. Higgins!
Anther student: Wait, did we just take your name in vain?

Fill in the blank:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your hearts.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your swords.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your hand.

To you our swords have leaden edges, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden tips, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden hearts, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden blood, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden dull, Mark Antony.

Marley’s ghost: I wear the clothes I forged in life.
Belle: Another Christmas has displaced me; and if it can cheer
and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.
Ebenezer Scrooge: What Christmas has displaced you?
Belle: A golden one.

"What kind of diction does Donald Hall use?"
He starts at the beginning and goes to the end.

"What country is Seamus Heaney from?"

"Define Protagonist": Someone who agrees with a lot of writings
"Define Antagonist": Someone who goes against everyone’s writing

"Name one historical event that was important to Charles Dickens and his writing": His Life.

"What is the moral of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' by Keats?": Don’t date with sloppy person.

“How did Antigone die?” She went into a cave and hung up herself.

One student, in an essay on Beowulf, claims that Beowulf wrestled with knickers. I still haven’t figured that one out!

25 July 2009

Art Teaches Me God

I’m reading an article in the Chronicle of the Oxford C. S. Lewis society, entitled “Mirrors, Shadows and the Muses: C. S. Lewis and the Value of Arts and Letters.” The author, Rod Miller (who gave a paper on “The Synoptic Lewis” at the Perelandra Colloquium), surveys a problem in CSL’s writing. He aptly observes that Lewis cannot seem to figure out the rightful place of the arts and ‘culture’ in the life of a Christian. Lewis says that it is OK to be an artist (composer, dancer, actor, etc.) if that is one’s vocational calling (as long as it is not an idol) and that art can have the side effect of calling one to God, since it often communicates values that are, at least, not in conflict with the truths of Scripture.

Shame on him.

I would have thought more of Lewis. But I agree with Mr. Miller, at least as far as the nonfiction prose goes. In CSL’s poetry and fiction, art naturally takes a higher place. Maybe this is an idea I can pursue in a paper sometime. For now, I just want to talk about the high place art has had in my spiritual life. I’m not propounding a theory, doctrine, or truth (at least not explicitly); however, I imagine that if this has happened to me, it is designed, and has probably happened to others, and therefore a theory/doctrine/truth can be extrapolated from it.

The purpose of human existence is to know God. “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” as the catechism has it: but one cannot glorify and enjoy that of which one is ignorant. It could be argued that the entire Christian life is the process of getting to know God. That is the cry of my heart: to have some sense of knowing God: emotionally, experientially, intellectually—all three, for choice. So how does one know God?

Well, I’m someone who lives in a constant battle with doubts and un-knowing. I have had few moments of certainty. Some have come during suffering: I never had a more assumed sense of God’s presence than when I was suffering. But more have come as an aesthetic response. That’s the way I’m wired: I know God, in some incontestable, un-discussable way when I’m thrilled by a work of art.

Not too many months ago, one of my sisters surprised me with a gift in the mail. It may very well be the best gift I’ve ever received. It’s the volume of Charles Williams’ Arthurian Poetry: Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars, along with CW’s essays on Arthurian themes and CSL’s prose commentary on the whole. When I was looking through the book—not even reading the poetry, just browsing the table of contents—I knew this was true beauty, this was true subcreation, this proved God’s existence. I remember even saying to myself, in more distinct words that I usually use in my mind in response to such sensations, “This proves that God exists.” I would be hard pressed to really say why, but I felt it. I am aware of the troublesome subjectivity of that statement. But that was, incontestably, a sudden sense of God’s existence, and, what’s more, of His nature. In an atheistic world (were such a thing possible), no such beauty as CW’s Arthurian poetry could exist. It’s not just the beauty: it’s also the scope, the complexity, the suggestiveness, the concepts, and the incompletion. These are, I believe, features—if not of God’s actual nature—of the way we are able to understand Him in the created order. They are part of General Revelation. To be more specific: I experienced (or received?) General Revelation when reading the list of pieces in that volume of Williams’ verse.

A few weeks ago, during our travels in the British Isles, G & I went to a performance of Romeo & Juliet in the Globe Theatre. It wasn’t the greatest performance I’ve ever seen (the best production of R & J I’ve encountered, by far, was the one performed by the BreadLoaf acting company in the summer of, oh, it must have been 2005). The actors at the Globe are not great. I guess the appeal is the location: the price is low, so every tourist can come and catch a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare’s “own” theatre. I mean, that’s why I went! So, anyway, the actors were not spectacular, but the text was uncut (I’ve never seen a full production of the text before, so that was great). And there were some sublime moments. Really, the thrill came from standing in the yard, first while the sun burned our heads and shoulders, then while the crowd rustled and cowered under quite a heavy rain shower, my elbows on the stage, my face at the heels of the players. That was priceless, and unforgettable. There was one moment that is ‘in my memory locked.’ Romeo came and stood right in front of me. I had to move my elbows off the stage, he stood so close. The rain was falling lightly. Romeo was clad all in black. I believe it was the ‘strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think’ speech. He stood quietly, arms down at his sides, slowly pondering those timeless words out loud. ‘I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—/ Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!— / And breathed such life with kisses in my lips / That I reviv’d and was an emperor.’ I stood directly below him, looking up the length of his slender body: trim slippered shoes, black tights and fitted knee-length britches, close doublet, black smooth skin on his taut neck and thin young face, cropped black hair; the rain slanted down in perfect lines all around him, parallel to his body, framing him. From my perspective, the rain seemed either suspended—streaks or tiny cords stretched taut, etched on the image—or rising up in gray rays all about that pensive lover. It was an experience of faultless minimalism: everything was pure, and perpendicular, and gray-and-black. All was quiet and thoughtful, before the blow of grief. In my mind, I did not hear his dream speech; instead, I heard Hamlet’s ‘…this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable. in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me….’ All the nobility and tragedy of man’s glorious condition stood quietly before me, slanting up into the monochrome overcast sky. And I felt the exquisite craftsmanship and vast indifference of Omnipotence in such a creation. I knew God for the duration of that speech: the divine discovered in an actor’s shabby costume and mediocre work, buoyed up by profound words, tempered by the stark colouring of that scene, limned by geometric Nature. It was a remarkable moment.

So, those are just two examples of times that Art has taught me something about God.

22 July 2009

July poem of the month (?)

I know, it is long past the 1st of July. But I haven't posted poems-of-the-month for many months past. Perhaps this will kick-start me back into it.

This is the first section of what is meant to be a four- or five-part poem. Enjoy.

Croagh Patrick


The first sight, itself, was frightening.
Four play-doh peaks, bulky blunts, huddled en masse
in a pudgy ridge: mountains wearing mist. This was naught, not much
at least: the final peak was but a base
for an unearthly cone. A terror of shape,
a horror of size, its height in the skies,
its head in the clouds, its fearsome sides
something to conquer and adore. A correspondence
of every step of my foot with every foot of its steppes.
The ghost and machine of me compelled
to see, to scale, to grovel, and to defy
with equal joy in submitting and surmounting: no distinction,
no divide. Why analyze
which trembling is fear and which is love?
Whatever the body does, does something to the soul.

This was a steep climb, a stiff climb,
carried up by persistent elation. I understand
the hiker’s drive and dictum: sheer delight
(on sheerer heights) of possession,
a scaling obsession. Just the same, the painter, the poet,
the photograph: obsession to possess, longing to ingest
absorb encompass integrate and synthesize
beauty: to make that beauty part me,
to re-make beauty in its turn.
Whatever the body does, does something to the soul.
That is why they climb.

19 July 2009

report on the Perelandra Colloquium (#3)

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Panel session 3, chaired by Richard Jeffery

Prof. Charles Huttar, “Perelandra and The Problem of Pain: Variations on a Theme from Genesis”
This very scholarly paper compared these two rarely compared books, based on the premise that CSL spent about five years pondering the concept of an unfallen world, and that (therefore) The Problem of Pain was practice for Perelandra.
In 1930, CSL was giving his lectures on Paradise Lost, and thus was thinking about the Problem of Evil. Milton’s answer is: Free Will & The Fall. This is, of course, in stark contrast to modern progressive evolution—not Darwin’s biological theory, but the popular anthropology of Fraser’s The Golden Bough. He was also reading Andrew Lang (who disagreed with Fraser), Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, which challenged the evolutionary monomania.
In 1939, CSL wrote The Problem of Pain at a time when readers no longer believed the Biblical narrative. His response was to write a his own account of how religion developed. Here is his progression:
1. from the earliest times, people have had an idea of the Numinous (the Spiritual Other).
2. they also have a concept of the Tao (moral law), and of falling short of it.
3. there must be some single God: Monotheism is the cause of 1 & 2.
4. Then Christ came and lived His earthly life.
CSL talked about the abuse of free will, and reaffirmed his belief in a Fall (not a gradual rise): a real spiritual Fall (not a social fall).
Then, on p. 65 of The Problem of Pain, he presents a new ‘myth’ of the development of Man and of Religion. It contains beautiful descriptions of unfallen humanity, and is rife with Augustinian ideas. He suggests that there could have been more people than just Adam & Eve, and that the sinful act might or might not have been the eating of a fruit. He uses quasi-scientific diction (“A new species, not made by God, had sinned itself into existence), no names, no fruit [necessarily], but still a narrative.
Now we get to Perelandra: a full-length myth of a possible, alternative, development of man & religion. It is a Platonic myth, a Socratic myth. In this book, CSL accepts the long time scale and animal ancestry of macroevolution. However, and more importantly, Tor & Tinidril show what unfallen man had and what he lost at the Fall: Maleldil’s constant presence. They are they Ur-Human, and they teach us that revelation begins by knowing God. They will patiently wait 10,000 years for the redemption of their bodies, then their bodies shall be changed—as shall ours at the resurrection. Read I Corinthians 15 in this connection.

Mrs. Eliane Tixier, “Ransom: The Figure of Christ in Perelandra”.
Mrs. Tixier based her paper on the idea of the One Cosmic Plot: the Ultimate Story of which all other stories are merely episodes. Sadly, her paper was pretty much just a plot summary with an emphasis on the obvious: Ransom’s Christological role. She had a couple of good points, however. She compared Weston to Screwtape. She mentioned the Athanasian creed in connection with Tinidril’s assertion that after the incarnation, God will save through men. She made an interesting claim that the book is like a play in three acts: Act I is an Old Testament evocation of temptation, Act II is a New Testament acceptance of sacrifice, and—I missed what Act III is! I imagine Act III is a future vision of paradise (the Great Dance and all that).
There are several ways that Ransom resembles Christ (However, Ransom is not Christ: he is a man, a humble man). First, he has a wounded heel (Gen 3:!6). Second, he has many other wounds, and his & Weston’s are of different kinds. His are the marks of flagellation; Weston’s are broken bones. Fourth, he suffers from a terrible thirst. Fifth, his fall into water, while it resembles the Jungian subconscious, also could be considered a Descent into Hell. Sixth, he has a ‘resurrection’ or new birth out of the top of the mountain. This is a close parallel to the soul that Christ revives. He goes through a phase of childhood and renewal, a second infancy. Seventh, he experiences a return to Eden on a mountain: this is either Easter Morning or the Transfiguration. Cf. Ps. 104.
Perelandra is, generically, best considered Theology-Fiction (I would call this Theological Fiction). It is a new way of presenting the spiritual: stripped of traditional associations, no stained glass. It employs spiritual adventures and CSL’s distinctive concept of Transposition.

Panel session 4, chaired by Prof. Chris Mitchell (director of the Wade Center)

Prof. Rod Miller, “Perelandra: The Synoptic Lewis”.
Prof. Miller was asking the question, “How can we fight evil?” He talked about lawful hatred, and discussed how Christians should respond to evil and violence. Ransom fights a spiritual battle in both the intellectual and physical realms. He reminded us that our actions matter: this is the point and result (?) of the Incarnation. We are to engage in a conflict as Ransom did. Every Christian is called upon to enact Christ. We can do this in our academic work, as well as in other realms.

Dr. Peter Miller, “Perelandra: An Imaginative Step to Gain New Horizons”.
Dr. Miller talked about how fiction/fantasy opens up new perspectives for readers. It gets us to accept a new point of view. Perelandra encourages us to ‘try on,’ for example, Hooker’s theology or the Medieval cosmos. CSL uses story to bring about a change of consciousness, which brings you to a new perspective on your own world. [Willing Suspension of Disbelief]. Nathan the Prophet uses story to convict David. Symbol is within story; readers need to accept the mythopoetic (even in the Bible). We have a hunger for other worlds because they enable us to view our own world with grater clarity. Good novels are comments on life; good mythical stories are additions to it.

Mr. David Harden, “ ‘Art is the Signature of Man’: Chesteron’s Influence on Perelandra”.
Scholars love to trace CSL’s sources. Mr. Harden pointed to a particular source for Perelandra in the writings of Chesterton. Chesterton wrote that “Rome defeated Carthage.” This was a metonym for two facets of the pagan imagination. The pagan imagination can be helpful and healthy (= Rome) or it can be evil (= Carthage). The sacramental imagination is the key. It was an excellent paper; unfortunately, my notes on this talk are not very good, and that’s about all I go.

closing keynote address: Walter Hooper on “Of Other Worlds: the science fiction of C. S. Lewis.
I didn’t take any notes on this talk; sorry. It was reflections on some of Hooper’s conversations with CSL, primarily chats about the ‘space’ trilogy.

18 July 2009

report on the Perelandra Colloquium (#2)

Tour of Oxford
The leader of the tour (whose name I failed to record!) was extremely knowledgeable—and also agile! She took us on the high-speed walking tour of the Inklings’ Oxford. Everywhere we went, she asked trivia questions about the Inklings, and we all competed (in a semi-friendly manner!) to answer fastest.
The tour began, of course, at the ‘Bird & Baby’ pub. While we stood there, packed tightly together and jostled by passing pedestrians, she pointed to “important” spots in the distance (such as the hospital where CW died & CSL spent his last illness—I’m a bit of a skeptic about the whole ‘now-this-is-the-toilet-that-J.R.R.Tolkien-used-when-he-lectured-here-about-medieval-sound-changes’ kind of tour! I mean, does it really matter? And yet, I enjoy it all the same, and mock myself for enjoying it). She showed us the Pusey House, where the Oxford CSL society meets on Tuesday evenings during term time (good to remember). She pointed out the Ashmolean Museum and the Randolph Hotel on opposite sides of the street: two excellent examples of, respectively, NeoClassical and NeoGothic Architecture. (The Ashmolean is closed for repairs until Nov., so I could not go in and do my little research about the invention of the second hand I had wanted to do in relation to Renaissance poetry.) She told us something I had not known; Neville Coghill founded the Burton/Taylor Theatre (with funds from those two illustrious celebrities) and the Shakespeare in the Park series, which is still popular and pleasant today. Very nice.
As we walked along the beloved and cram-packed Cornmarket Street, she pointed out to us a building about which I was told nothing during my Shakespeare term at Lincoln: there’s a store called the Republic, and it’s in the lower story of a building maintained since the 16th century. Apparently Shakespeare stayed in the upper rooms in 1603 when he came to Oxford to perform Hamlet! Very cool. I wonder if that’s verified?
We stopped at The Mitre, where CSL took CW out to dinner to celebrate CW’s first lecture at Oxford, and where CSL met T.S. Eliot for the first time (not a congenial meeting, by all accounts). Later, G & I had dinner there with two colleagues.
We passed St. Mary’s church (the one from the top of which I took photos of the 360° view of Oxford), where CSL gave his “Weight of Glory” sermon, and where CW’s Seed of Adam play was first performed. We passed “Univ”—University College, where CSL was an undergraduate (stairway 12, room 5, in case you ever get to visit!).
The tour officially ended at the Eastgate Hotel (which contains part of the old city wall), where CSL & Joy first met, for lunch, one fateful day. Down the street a little ways is one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s homes (he moved a lot).
However, several of us asked her where CW’s grave was, so she took us there. It’s really perfect. The church adjoining the graveyard is a simply beautiful work of glory in stone: old, simple, full of character. The churchyard is wild and wonderful: entered via a little gate next to an overgrown topiary (Nikolay thought it was in the shape of a hen; “A hen!” I asked, “A hen??!? I thought it was a phoenix!), meandered through on little soft paths; full of wildflowers and weeds, calm and contemplation.
I was very moved by the sight of his grave—more so than by CSL’s, or by Yeats’, or any other (except Christ’s, His two graves, actually [Holy Sepulchre & Garden Tomb], but that’s in a whole other category). I think my emotion was evoked by combination of factors. First, out of all the authors whom I love, I think I would have liked best to meet Charles Williams. He is a mystery, a magic. He is invariable described as a saint or an angel. He was interesting, fun, talkative, creative, and ridiculously humble and loving, by all accounts. He had inimitable charisma. Everyone loved and/or idolized him—especially younger women (maybe it’s good I can’t meet him!).
Second, his death was a shocking tragedy, and I felt its force when I read CSL’s letters. Do you know the story? Williams worked for Oxford University Press in London when he & CSL got to know one another through letters. In 1939, the Press evacuated to Oxford (to escape the bombing). CSL & CW immediately developed such a close, intense friendship that, reportedly, Tolkien was jealous. CW became the person whom CSL loved and admired the most, I would say. Anyway, CW (of course) became an essential member of the Inklings. One Tuesday, CW was in hospital for something, nothing anyone thought was serious, and CSL stopped by on his way to a meeting of the Inklings to say hello and to lend him a book. The hospital informed Jack that Williams had died. He walked on to the meeting in a state of bewildered shock to tell the rest of their friends. Lewis wrote later that Williams transformed the idea of death for him: brought the reality of the afterlife home to him as a solid, inescapable reality by the powerful sense of his living presence. He wrote to Barfield, “what the idea of death has done to him is nothing to what he has done to the idea of death.”
Finally, Williams such a thorough-going supernaturalist, with dabblings in magic, that I just tingled to think what it is like for him in Heaven now. Not that Heaven will be any better for him than for anyone else, but that somehow he belongs there more than most others; that he spent his earthly life living in Heaven already, and that (counter intuitively) he therefore lived more fully on this earth than most of us boring human beings. He was intensely alive—his vitality is palpable in every line of his writing and in every line anyone else has written about him—and thus he was more fully in Heaven than most people.


Well, the highlight of the entire weekend was meant to be the ‘Opera.’ This was on Friday night, in the beautiful Sheldonian theatre. Sadly, it was a very poor performance. First of all, it wasn’t an opera: it was a concert piece. There were no costumes (the Lady didn’t even wear a green gown; she wore purple), sets, props, or action. The soloists stood at music stands, the chorus sat behind the orchestra. So, all right (how could you stage a story in which all the characters are in the nude, anyway?), but that was rather a big bit of false advertising. If it’s a dramatic concert piece, fine, just call it that. Then the music was not operatic. It was show music—Broadway or film score music. Again, fine, just don’t call it a genre it isn’t. Some of the music was very pretty; there were even a couple of moments that were memorable. It just wasn’t timeless. It was faddish, dated, transitory. Everything CSL’s writing isn’t. Secondly, the musicians (except the soloists) were amateurs, which is OK, they just weren’t fantastic. The French horn player was terrible, but then again, they often have a hard time hitting the right notes. I remember what the Boston Symphony was like before they got James Sommerville!
There was one beautiful moment: the libretto added a song for an eldil, and this was sung by a boy soprano. That was a really good choice. The unearthly timbre, the clear tones, the unique sound of the boy soprano’s voice gave just the right impression for an angelic messenger. And it emphasized the sexlessness of the being: Mars was infinitely masculine, but not a bit male. So the immature voice of the pre-pubescent boy was the perfect was to depict this aurally. The only problem was that the boy they chose was not a very good singer. He had different timbres in different parts of his range, and his pitch was not great! He swooped a little bit and couldn’t sustain a pitch on a longer note. Sigh.
Then the libretto committed that most unpardonable of sins; it was cheesy. I do not understand the almost universal infiltration of cheese into the arts; it is driving me crazy. I think I will have to go on a one-woman campaign against the cheesy. It offends me much more than all of the supposed immorality in the arts; perhaps this is a moral flaw on my part, but I would rather have sexual jokes, if they fit the character, and a little violence, if it illuminates the themes, than any cheesiness whatsoever. We didn’t need the narrator in the Perelandra ‘opera’; he was corny and unnecessary. We didn’t need to start the show with causal, un-funny jokes between ‘Lewis’ and ‘Humphrey.’
Finally, the ‘opera’ had one enormous, inexplicable omission. What is the most musical moment of the entire book? What chapter is, really, the purpose and meaning of the entire text? The Great Dance, of course. And the concert left his out altogether. That was very odd. Of course, since the music was not great, I was glad they didn’t butcher it. It would take some other composer besides Donald Swann to write the flawless, complex counterpoint needed for that section. The Great Dance would be best set as a fugue for many voice, with at least two (really good) boy sopranos on two of the melodies, the soloists on others, the chorus on others, and select orchestral soloists on yet others. It would take a modern Bach, really. When I find one, maybe I’ll ask him!
So I apologize that this is such a negative review; it’s just honest. I have too much musical training to forgive the sins of poor pitch and show tunes; I have too much literary training to forgive the horrors of the Cheesy and the Corny. I would have thought better of the Oxford CS Lewis society; I would have thought better of Lewis, who read and approved the libretto! But then maybe he didn’t see its final version, or maybe it read better on the page than it sounded with the fluffy music to which it was set.
It was great idea, however, making a concert ‘opera’ of Perelandra. I shudder to think what will happen when the movie-makers get their hands on it. What blasphemies will we endure then?

17 July 2009

Report on the Perelandra Colloquium (#1)

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.

Friday’s sessions

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.