27 December 2007

Charles Williams discussion continued

A while ago, Orphan Ann & I were having a discussion about War in Heaven. Here's a continuation.

Orphan Ann wrote:

Concerning my dissatisfaction with War in Heaven, you said that “the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you”. This obviously isn’t a simple duality – and you, equally obviously, didn’t mean it as one – but it’s interesting that you cast our primary responses in an emotional form. We do use evidence and logic to attempt to persuade people of the rationality of our responses, but these are ultimately shaped by our feelings. Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right. We may be on an intellectual road to nowhere, but at least there’s plenty to see along the way; and though I don’t doubt that our opinions may change along the way, I’d like to cast our discussion in more co-operative terms. Despite the fact that dialectic is a fundamentally co-operative form, I don’t intend to persuade you of anything so much as explore your views and explain my own.
Let’s get started. You took issue with my description of the novel as “too intellectual”. For reference’ sake, this is what I said:
“I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.”
(That second sentence, by the way, means what it says. I wouldn’t ever expect WiH to be popular, but that doesn’t map to my views. Goodness knows, if all writers tried to pander to my tastes, nobody could ever afford to publish anything.)
I’m going to talk about that quotation a fair bit, I’m afraid; and I expressed myself very poorly with it. I didn’t mean that WiH is full of ideas and metaphorical big words in the same way that Moby Dick is. I’m afraid that’s the only one of the books you mention that I’ve read (nor did I finish it; I should try it again.) And the quotations from Persimmons’ book revealing the Graal to be in Fardles are just an efficient form of info-dumping, which I’m not sure I could better. (“Info-dumping” is the art of explaining to the reader what they need to know to understand the story, whether it’s saying that the Bennets have five daughters, or Gandalf’s talk to Frodo about the history of the Rings. I can waffle more about this if you’re interested.) No, my description of the book as “too intellectual” is to do with something subtler: CW’s attitude to characterisation.
We agree that, in your words, “CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional”. But we differ radically in our interpretation of this mutual assessment – if I may make so bold, it seems that you’re approaching it from a writer’s point of view, and I’m approaching it from a reader’s. Now, I knew that CW had a broadly “mystical” worldview – he’s written a book about the Holy Grail, after all – but no more than that. Saying he’s “some kind of Neo-Platonist” explains a lot to begin with, including why I described Persimmons as being unspiritual, and makes the strictly allegorical, rather than just philosophical, framework of the novel stand out more clearly. The characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent.
Here’s my problem with this kind of characterisation. I’m currently inclined to regard a novel as being, on one level at least, an argument the writer is presenting to the reader, whether as simple as propaganda or as complex as King Lear. (One might define a novel’s artistic seriousness as its level of self-consciousness of its argumentative nature, but it might not be a very good definition.) And on another level, the same novel is its own proving ground: if the novel doesn’t seem to describe the reader’s world accurately, then its thesis is wrong. If one allows a novel to make unsupported assertions, one forfeits the right to pass judgements on it, because it exists in a vacuum; it can’t be compared to anything else, and any novel can be said to succeed on its own terms. This isn’t a door to infinite aesthetic merit, but I hope it closes the door to infinite error. Of course, there’s plenty of room to wiggle there, and some of the most interesting are: that a reader’s assessment of a novel’s realism in this sense is subjective, and even the same reader’s response changes on a re-reading; that a novel can (I think) possess its own psychological realism independent of the characters’; and that a novel without “material realism”, such as WiH with its Holy Grail and black magic traps, can still be realistic. I suppose literature could be compared to mathematics, in that a (probably infinite) number of sets of axioms can be created and logically combined to form mathematical systems, but only one describes the physical world. All geometrical systems are self-consistent, but if you built a house on Riemannian principles, it would have to belong in R’lyeh. I think that by abandoning realistic characterisation, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant. And he’s left himself undefended against logical complaints such as: If Adrian is a mask of the Form of Innocence, doesn’t that mean that all children are, and that there’s nothing special about Adrian himself? Or, Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms? (I think the former is a good point myself, but there are answers to the latter.) I suppose another way of saying this might be: If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?
This is why I was so upset about the treatment of Mornington’s death and the mystery subplot. They only work if we agree to treat the characters as unreal; the unimportance of the murder is tricky, on one hand, but it’s also rather callous. And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people? That’s my ultimate objection to WiH’s characterisation, I suppose: it makes the novel solipsistic. (Tangentially related to this is an idea I had about novels described as preachy, or however you prefer to put it. They’re making arguments and assertions and the fictional apparatus is only really in there to sugar the pill, but it doesn’t work and just adds to the wordcount. I’m not saying that this is true about WiH; just thought you’d find it interesting.)
I wanted to talk about CW’s treatment of non-Christianity, but I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t remember the novel well enough, so I’m afraid this is going to be rather truncated. My issues here partly stem from the kind of realism I was talking about in the last paragraph, but I should admit here that the fact that I’m not a Christian is affecting my response. It’s true that Persimmons is a spiritual man (I’m not so sure about Sir Giles, but that might just be my faulty memory.) But he’s not spiritual in the right way. And Barbara may be “a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character”, but look at what happens to the poor woman! Nor would I describe her as especially spiritual (is she in the “Castra Parvulorum” scene at the end?) You said that “Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter”; I didn’t see this, but I’m sure you know him better than I do.
I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge the weaknesses of my arguments, which boils down to the fact that it isn’t really grounded in anything, and more than I’m accusing WiH of being. In a sense, it’s a circular argument, because I’m hoping to persuade you that my axioms are realistic, but I can’t demonstrate that they are. All I can do is hope you find me sincere, which is how I framed our discussion earlier; I must have been aware how unsteady the ground was beneath my arguments. It looks to me as if your best hope of disproving my points would be to focus on the uneasiness of my marriage of emotion and reason – if I can persuade you of some things, I can prove others – but that’s no proof. (And part of the point of my geometrical metaphor was that what seems to be right may not be.) I’ve also talked a lot about the necessity of realism in a novel, but a novel is by definition not real, and that has to be acknowledged, too. In a sense, the obviously false stage-set characterisation does put the characters in their correct relationship to the world – but it’s our world, not theirs. But I am deeply torn on these issues, and I seem always to want to have my cake and eat it.
Now for some minor points. About the Archdeacon and his replacement: I was referring to the scenes where the replacement spouts obviously drivel and the Archdeacon reflects on how foolish it is, at a couple of points earlier on. It just struck me as being straw-man stuff. And while you thought his identification with Sir Galahad was “weird and bizarre, not presumptuous”, I had the opposite opinion: it made perfect sense to me, was trivial, even, but also arrogant. So I wasn’t upset by his death, as I’d been expecting it and read it as his assumption, just as you did. (Incidentally, in the versions of Arthurian legend that I’m familiar with, Sir Galahad is the bastard of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek, so he didn’t exactly have a household at all. Or if he did, it was his grandfather’s.)
I think I’ve worked out why the Graal was said to be in Ephesus, by the way. There are so many versions of its history that there’s no point in looking for a ‘real’ answer, and even if I’d found one, I wouldn’t know if CW knew about it. So I turned to the Letter to the Ephesians, and there I found chapter 6 verses 10-17. I’ll quote it here in the Authorised Version to stop everyone running to their bookshelves:
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Verse 12 looks especially relevant to me in this respect – I’d been wondering why WiH was called that, for though I’m familiar with the quotation it didn’t seem that relevant, a little bombastic, rather. It’s hardly a war, is it? And it’s in the Home Counties, not Heaven. Oh, and there’s a reference to Prester John at the end of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, though it doesn’t mention him guarding the Grail.

You drew a distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers” in your last letter. That looks intriguing; could you expand on it a little?

And I replied:
...I’m going to jump right in onto a quote from your letter: “Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms?” Well, you see, I do. I do believe in the Platonic Forms. And maybe right there that’s why I love Williams: because he gives earth, bones, flesh, wings, feathers, feet, hands, and faces to those abstract Forms. So instead of seeing his characters as watered-down two-dimensional versions of “real” people (i.e., people we meet every day in all their complexities or rich characters we meet in traditional novels), I see them as vital textual representations to the imagination and to the senses of extra-sensory spiritual Realities. But I’m not really answering your question. You didn’t ask “Does anyone believe in Platonic Forms?” you asked “Why would anyone believe in them?” Well, that’s a hard one to answer. Why does anyone believe in anything? I’m reading a good essay by C. S. Lewis right now entitled “On Obstinacy in Belief.” It is designed to answer the charge that Christians keep on believing things in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This isn’t the place to go into that essay in detail, but even my incomplete reading of it helps me to formulate my answer to “Why would anyone believe anything?” They believe it because of a combination of factors, such as personal experience, early education, logic, evidence, and/or authority. So from a psychological point of view, I probably believe in the Platonic Forms because they were presented to me at a young age through C. S. Lewis’s fiction and later through a college philosophy class, and presented in ways that were fascinating and compelling. Then there’s just a hint of “Biblical evidence” in Hebrews. Hebrews 8:1-6 says:
1Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; 2A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. 3For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. 4For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: 5Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. 6But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.

Hebrews 10:1 reads:
1For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

All these seem to be saying that the earthly tabernacle is just a copy of the real one in heaven. And that thrills me!

I’ve written a bit more about my neo-Platonic beliefs here and here; Eurydice wrote about Lewis & Plato very eloquently here. Of course, I’m a Christian, which implies that I’m not a thorough-going Greek-golden-age Platonist—-if it’s even possible to be such a thing here and now! I believe that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God, and will only exist in some external sense in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But the practical consequences of this are the endless striving of human beings after perfection, the flashes of “Joy” or “Sehnsucht” that some when we catch a glimpse of a more perfect copy through a beautiful landscape or a work of art, and my feeling when I write a poem that I am trying to copy the real poem as it exists in a more perfect sphere. So even though you are right that CW's “characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent,” in CW’s worldview, that makes them more real. Does that make sense?

Now, you next asked (very intelligently, I might add! This was an excellent challenge for my mind): “If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?” I think that the answer must be that it wasn’t the “real world” itself that led CW to his spiritual beliefs—if by the “real world” you mean this terrestrial/phenomenal/material/sublunary world that we can taste, touch, and live in at the moment. No, I don’t think he found his beliefs there. He would probably say, if asked, that he received his beliefs via revelation from the Other World—from God, from the world of the Angelic Beings and the Pure Forms. He could have received this revelation in the traditional way, as mediated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church and of other Christians, or he could have received it in a more direct, mystical way, through personal meditation or revelation. I don’t know which; perhaps after Grevel Lindop’s new biography comes out, we can find out! But anyway, he didn’t learn about Substitution and Exchange through the natural order of things, but through a Supernatural Order.

Now, this is not how Williams would have said it himself. He probably would not have understood the question if you asked him, “Did this earthly world teach you your spiritual beliefs, or did you learn them from some other realm?” You see, his faith was always an assumed or presupposed foundation beneath all his writing, teaching, and thinking. He simply lived and thought as if religion were absolutely necessary and everyday, yet with the supernatural always contingent and proximate. Religion was constantly, consistently relevant. Martin Browne said Williams “set the room aflame. I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted.” He, whether intentionally or subconsciously, didn’t really see the difference between this life and the next, just as he overlooked the division between one person and another, or between people and Christ. He just thought that they flowed into one another and shared an identity, and so could share experiences in a way that seems miraculous or magical or bizarre to a materialist or even to a somewhat skeptical Christian like myself.

So what does this do to his characters? Well, let me make a digression. I talked to Rosie about this topic the other night, and she quoted Dorothy Sayers to me. Sayers said something along the lines of “An author has an obligation to his/her characters, once they’ve been created, to let them live their full lives, to let them develop and express themselves just as parents need to let their children develop” or something like that. Basically, once I’ve created a character, I need to let him live and not force him to represent something else or to function in some kind of symbolic fashion. But I submit for your inspection the proposition that this is oneway of writing fiction; that it’s not the only way, nor the most moral way. I don’t think that authors have moral obligations to their characters. Perhaps they have artistic obligations. But even then, I think that there are innumerable “correct” or “good” ways to write characters. And Williams chose to write them in the way that he read the world: as point of correspondence between the natural and the supernatural, between God and man, between the Eternal Virtues and their human copies. What do you think of that?

So let me see if I’ve addressed the essential elements of your careful and thorough argument. You said that you think “by abandoning realistic characterization, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant.” Hum. Let me take a few points here. First of all, I don’t think that CW is really abandoning realistic characterization—or, to say the same thing the other way around, isn’t every novelist? You did mention that “a novel is by definition not real.” Yes. Even Jane Austen’s emotionally and psychologically complex characters are not “real.” They are made up, obviously, but they are also much, much less complex than any real human beings. Even the most psychologically nuanced short story that purports to narrate the thoughts of one human being during a few minutes cannot capture the complexity of the workings of the human brain; even stream-of-consciousness is artificial, because it does not express the consciousness of the writer, and is itself fabricated and (honestly) much slower than the actual speed of thoughts. It’s kind of a fractalization: each writer choose a level of complexity at which his or her characters will function, and manipulates an appearance of reality consistent with that level. CW’s level, I would suggest, is just different than the majority of novel-writers’. So the psychology and character development in his books are about as realistic as, say, conjuring earth and snowstorms with a pack of cards (The Greater Trumps) or watching a house burn and burn and not burn up (The Place of the Lion) or transporting oneself through time and space by means of a stone with the letters of the name of God inscribed on it (Many Dimensions) or walking in the land of the Dead and bringing that land closer and closer to the realm of the Living (All Hallow’s Eve) or practicing substitution with one’s martyred ancestor (Descent into Hell). This is the reason for the title of War in Heaven: the point is that every spiritual battle (and the prayer over the grail by the Archdeacon, Mornington, and the Duke against the evil designs of Persimmons et al was quite an intense battle!) is simultaneously happening on earth and in Heaven. Just like you pointed out (thank you very much!) with the connection to Ephesians. It’s all gloriously absurd! It’s fantastically unrealistic; it’s super-realistic, it’s Archetypal, it’s Platonic.

But I don’t think this makes it hermetic or irrelevant. In his own life he practiced “Substitution.” “The Doctrine of Substitution & the Way of Exchange” was one of the ways that he thought “co-inherence” (sort of oneness, or unity, between people and between people & God) can be actively practiced. Everyone participates in physical exchange (I am dependant on the farmers who produce my food; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home and for whom peace is purchased, etc); we can choose to see these personal/social/political contacts as blessings and practice co-inherence in the strength of Christ’s resurrections. We can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens. These principles can work among the living in any space and time, and also with the dead and the unborn. The clearest explication of “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” comes in the chapter of that title in Descent into Hell, in which Stanhope carries Pauline’s fear for her, so she is no longer afraid to meet her doppelganger. Also, in chapter V of He Came Down from Heaven, Williams gives a non-fiction account of this principle. Williams claims that the mockery hurled at Christ on the cross, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” was actually the rudimentary expression of a universal principle: nobody can save himself, but we can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. Martyrs and the Eucharist are examples of Christ in us and us in Him. Evil was consumed by good when Christ suffered on the Cross, and now our lives can be united to good in Christ’s earthly life.

I have very tentatively tried to practice some form of substitution. But the real way I have found William’s novels relevant is the beautiful tranquility, serenity. This is my personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. See my previous entry on CW's principle themes. In War in Heaven it’s the Archdeacon, and, to some extent, Barbara. But it’s what I most admire about his characters, and it’s how I want to live my life: in active submission, volitional submission, vital tranquility, purposeful peace.

So then I would strongly disagree with your statement “And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people?” I think he does. In a more intense, deep, profound way than many writers. I think he cares more about Mornington than Dickens cares about Tiny Tim. That’s a huge bold claim! The fact that Mornington’s death goes unmourned is the greatest act of celebration of his life, because his death ushered him into the peace of God’s presence in which he had tried to live at one remove. His death was not a cause for sorrow, and CW could not insult him by having any of the characters mourn his passage into glory. And I mean that seriously, and so did Williams.

OK, now a few of the smaller issues you raised. I’m fascinated by your proposition that I’m approaching War in Heaven from a writer’s point of view, and you’re approaching it from a reader’s. This really interests me, and perhaps explains a lot about the variance of our approach, but I haven’t figure out how yet. I’m also not sure how to respond to your analysis of my duality: whether “whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you.” I guess I just don’t see any way out of that polarity—although I recently decided that my old schematic of “Great Literature” and “Good Literature” was sort of baloney. I mean, I can’t really discuss Walter Wangerin, for example, on the same plane as Dante, but does that make Wangerin of lesser value? He’s just different. So I suppose you want to suggest that we should throw out the question of whether or not War in Heaven is a great work? That’s OK. And as far as the emotional nature of our responses; well, yes, there’s certainly a strong emotional component contributing to which works of art we “like” and don’t like, but I would say that there are many other components which contribute at least as much—education, family tastes, early exposure, peer pressure, reason, logic, one’s own development of skill and of aesthetic evaluation—so that the final reason for an aesthetic reaction is nearly impossibly to identify.

You said “Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right.” I’m not sure if you intended that statement sarcastically, because I can’t help but take it that way. I do believe that one of us is “right” and one is “wrong,” or that we each have elements of accuracy and inaccuracy in our evaluations. I do believe that on some level a book “is” or “isn’t” what any given reader may say it is. And that, of course, comes back to my fundamental belief in abstract absolutes. Similarly, if I thought we were “on an intellectual road to nowhere” I’d get off that road as soon as ever I could, not matter how much there was too see along the way! My life is set on getting somewhere, somewhere very particular.

Oh, one last comment. You asked me to expand on my distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers.” Oops! I meant to make a distinction between novels and metaphysical thrillers! That was a big mistake. CW called his seven works of prose fiction “metaphysical thrillers,” and T. S. Eliot called them “Spiritual thrillers.” And this is because, although these books fit the standard denotation of novels (“fictitious prose narratives of book length,” OED), they violate many of its accepted connotations. We expect novels to be realistic, to some degree, unless they’re shelved with fantasy. We expect them to have significant character development. So perhaps the whole problem about characterization could be solved by simply changing the genre-label. We don’t expect the same treatment of people and events in epics or odes as we do in novels; let’s not expect it of metaphysical thrillers, either. That’s my suggestion! What do you think?

I recommend reading The Place of the Lion if we’re going to continue this conversation, especially if we want to pursue the Platonic discussion. I’m basing most of my opinion of CW’s skill and worldview on that book as well as on Descent into Hell. They’re my favorites!

26 December 2007

A Ballad for Christmastime

In the Eye of the Beholder

Sublime with awe, the Artist bent
To brush the final touch.
Each atom sang its own delight,
Bound beauty to its dust.

His masterpiece whirled sphere in sphere
Complex with vital noise.
He breathed in beauty, basked in light,
And taught the dancers joy.

His theatre had a double stage,
A double audience:
He, the first who gazed and laughed;
The other, innocence.

His pleasure had a double source
Until pathetic sin
Smeared black on art and audience
In atheistic pain.

And then the Artist had to shrink
From His eternal size
Down to an ugly miniature
Un-done, unrecognized.

He squashed His vast aseity
In ordinary skin
And wore a common body
Never fair to Him.

His eyes grew dull on monochromes
Fertile, flat and dull.
A topographic monotone,
Imagination lulled.

And then His sacrifice grew sharp
With hues of blood and pain.
His suffering knew ugliness,
His vision red and stained.

He made libation of His art
And His aesthetic eye
As well as of His breath: the fair
En-graved when He died.

Then He descended to a vault
Where opposites are kept,
Where comeliness is chaos, where
His tears went when He wept.

The artwork in that gallery
Was torture to His hurts,
For each piece was a parody
Of His perfected works.

There, He starved for want of light;
And more, for beauty’s death,
And closed His eyes, and shut His ears,
And every artist wept.

And so a silence grew. It spread
To every studio.
For three days inspiration ceased
While He lay in the cold.

At dawn on Sunday, someone read
A story with an end,
And leapt up to his drawing-board,
Seized pencils, and began.

He drew a sunrise, and a tomb
With nobody inside.
He heard a noise and turned around:
The Artist was alive!

The great Creator stood and smiled
With upraised, wounded hand.
The wonder was, He gave the art
To that inspired man.

Which came first? The prophecy,
The painting, or rebirth?
And which will last: these joyful tears,
Or new creative work?

20 December 2007

Golden Compass Review

Review of The Golden Compass

So, I’ve seen the movie! I took several students to see it on Tuesday, and we preceded and followed the movie with some excellent discussion as to the merits and dangers of both the book and the film. Before I discuss the movie, let me recommend one absolutely essential post by Jeffrey Overstreet to you. Please read it! And here’s a really good review by Alan Jacobs, and here’s a link to a site where you can download a podcast from Mars Hill, Audition, on which Alan Jacobs in interviewed regarding Pullman’s book and the new film.

OK, first of all I’d like to talk about The Golden Compass as a film only, without reference to the book. Well, I’m not a filmmaker, nor a professional film critic, but I do love movies. And I’d say that as a movie, The Golden Compass was 100% successful. The score was compelling, the pace good, the visual effects beautiful.

The casting was very good. Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) was sexy and dangerous and slimy; Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) hard and fast and sharp and just perfect, really; Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) perhaps a bit smaller and slighter than I pictured him, but with piercing eyes and an intense presence; Gandalf’s (I mean Ian McKellen’s!) voice good for the bear; Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) perfectly gritty and gravelly; Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) extremely mysterious and sultry; and Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney) disgustingly creepy. A stunning cast. Saruman (Christopher Lee) for one of the leaders of the Magisterium is just right; I hope we get to see more of him in the other two films.

And the acting is superb! Each actor had very convincing gestures and unique voices. Their physicality was in each case excellent. Serafina Pekkala’s deep voice, with a rasping edge, accentuates her inhuman sexuality and supernatural power. Lee Scoresby’s habit of talking sideways with a crooked grin (a bit reminiscent of Harrison Ford as Han Solo) expressed his easy-going caution. Lyra is great. That girl is an extremely talented actress. She has a very mobile face, with a crookedy grin of her own and a lopsided way of speaking well adapted to a Liar. She could play innocent, ignorant, fierce, stubborn, and even sexy. She’ll be amazing as the series goes on. She has a powerful independence and attraction that will fit perfectly with the Rousseauian young romantic in the later books, especially the last.

Finally, and very importantly for this story, the CGI surpassed my expectations. I was afraid we’d have a repeat of the sickening pathetic beaver buffoons from LWW. But these computer-generated animals looked very realistic and quite solid. And—best of all—there was no stupid humor associated with them. They were not Disney cute and fuzzy critters; they were not simply anthropomorphized children; they were not (thankfully!) silly. They were animals; rational animals; daemons. My only disappointment with the children’s daemons was that they didn’t shape-shift very often. When they did, the transformations were smooth and convincing. There was a moment when Pantalaimon turned from a brown ermine into a white one; quite nice. There was a lovely moment when he effortlessly slid as a small mammal off of a roof into a bird-shape, so that the fall glided into a flutter. Beautiful! I would have enjoyed many more changes. But my commendation to the CGI artists, and to the director for rejecting the comedic impulse so often gratified with talking animals.

Now, let’s move to the next phase of discussion: The Golden Compassas a film adaptation of the book.
This is definitely one of the most satisfying book-to-movie adaptations I have seen. There was a lot of plot streamlining, some character merging, and a good deal of simplification that happened in the transition process. However, these simplifications are necessary in order to adapt a novel of 350 pages into a 2 hour movie. I would have been happy had the filmmakers decided to go the Lord-of-the-Rings-three-plus-hour-epic route. The book deserved it. But I’m happy that there were no shocking plot changes (like in Frankenstein--the 1931 version, which I saw recently) or character destructions (like Faramir) or ridiculous additions (like the atrocious riding the ice scene in LWW!) or pervasive alterations of tone and emphasis (like in the beautiful new Pride & Prejudice). I have only two criticisms.

First, there was a painful lack of detail. I know most details have to go in the cutting down to a screen play, but there were surprisingly few of those little, careful, meticulous visual or dramatic details that often raise a movie up a notch. The camera didn’t often get close; the writer didn’t often slow down to build up a climax in dialogue. That was a disappointment.

Second, the movie quit at a warm-and-fuzzy moment three chapters before the end of the book, chopping off an extremely important episode that alters the trajectory of the trilogy. This is a huge fault, in my opinion! I understand why this was done, I imagine. It kept the first movie all in one world and didn’t introduce the many-universes theme that dominates the second book. It ended on a happy note, rather than catapulting Lyra into the grand tragedy, as Pullman actually does at the end of his first volume. It made the movie feel a bit more coherent; it can almost stand alone if it doesn’t make enough revenue for the filming of the other two volumes (I’m sure it will, though).

All in all, those criticisms aren’t huge. The ending was a shock; the four of us in the theatre who had read the book raised our arms and voices in protest, shouting and groaning as the credits rolled. A nice moment of literary solidarity.

OK, now let’s turn to the larger discussion: The worldview presented in The Golden Compass as film and book, and in the His Dark Materials trilogy as a whole. I’ve already discussed the book, here. I really don’t have much to add to what I said before, what Jeffrey Overstreet says here, and what Alan Jacobs says here.

Here are the main points of potential danger in The Golden Compass. As Alan Jacobs points out, if a writer of fantasy is skillful enough to make you trust in his secondary world, he is also skillful enough to make you trust his moral judgments. In other words, it’s nearly impossible not to suspend belief while immersed in a really good work of subcreation. That’s the nature of the genre, and of the human imagination. Therefore, if you (or especially your children) see this film, keep your antennae of discernment up and alert at all times! The main reason for such caution comes from a convoluted literary history. William Blake said that in Paradise Lost John Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and many critics have read the great epic from that point of view ever since. An epic must have a hero; Satan seems to many readers to be the most convincing candidate. Now Philip Pullman, as he has said explicitly in many interviews and elsewhere, is of the devil’s party and is fully conscious of that fact. He reveals his allegiance in his opinion of the Narnia Chronicles, which he calls “One of the most ugly and poisonous things I have every read”; “They have no shortage of nauseating drivel.”

If you take your kids to see this movie, or if they read the book, ask them these four questions before and after:

1. Who is good and who is bad in Pullman’s moral universe, as postulated in this story? What are their characteristics?
2. What is the Golden Compass and who wields it?
3. What are daemons?
4. What is Dust?

An understanding of each of these four topics reveals Pullman’s ingenious imagination, but also exposes his anti-religious agenda. Let me expound.

1. In Pullman’s moral universe, as explained by Alan Jacobs, basically anyone who rejects authority (and ultimately the Authority, God, Yahweh) is good. “Good” characters include Lyra, Lord Asriel (who may correspond to Milton’s heroic Satan), and many outsiders such as Gyptians, Witches, and Armored Bears. “Bad” characters are lumped together under the Magisterium (The Church). So it’s a simple binary: reject God, and you’re good; believe in God, and you’re bad.
2. The Golden Compass, or Aletheiometer (“truth-measure”) is essentially a tool of divination. It resembles a crystal ball, tarot cards, or an ouija board. Lyra is able to wield it by instinct, for which she goes into a trance and lets the meanings come into her mind. It was formed through some kind of astrological study. Now, of course Christians do not have to toss their hands in the air and run in fear from astrology and divination in a work of fiction. After all, Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is fundamentally astrological in its original Medieval understanding. However, teaching children to admire a character who so closely resembles a contemporary fortune-teller or medium may have its potential dangers.
3. The daemons are perhaps the most brilliant creation of Pullman’s fertile, original imagination. They are the external expression, at once bestial and anthropomorphic, of an individual’s soul. Every physical interaction they have with their humans can be read allegorically—such as the shape-shifting abilities of children’s daemons, the limited distance which a daemon and its human can separate, and so on. However, there are at least three potential dangers if they are not pointed out to a young reader/viewer. First, the very name, which is pronounced “demon” in the movie. Pullman chose their name quite cleverly. According to the OED, “daemon” has three definitions. 1: a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans; 2. an inner or attendant spirit or inspiring force; 3. an evil spirit or devil. Pullman’s daemons are all three, and we must be careful about encouraging children to want to have a personal demon as a constant attendant! Second, Darlin suggested that the external nature of the daemon might have a dualistic connotation, suggesting that our bodies and spirits are separable and independent (although I think that the ultimate purpose is the opposite, since when a human dies, his daemon dies, too, and vice-versa). Third, a daemon is almost always the opposite sex from its human. This suggests that we each are actually both genders—a theory which leads directly into the explicit homosexuality in a later book. Children should be warned about these implications of the otherwise amazing and desirable daemons.
4. Dust is, in a way, the plot of the whole trilogy. How it is viewed by the opposing parties can be seen as a microcosm for Pullman’s entire project. According to the Church (the Magisterium), Dust is original sin. It does not collect on children because children are “innocent”; its accumulation causes temptations, lust, evil thoughts. According to nearly everyone else, everyone we come to love in the course of the series, Dust is consciousness. By extension, it is human creativity, imagination, accomplishment, reason, art, romance… everything that makes the human life worth living. And thus one must embrace and actively practice “sin” in order to be a happy and worthwhile individual. And by golly they do!

These are just a few of the warnings I gave to my students, and I recommend giving them to yourself, your children, and your students. Once these facets of Pullman’s worldview are recognized, go and enjoy the beautiful movie and the brilliant book! But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One final question, on a related but slightly different topic. Just before the movie began, one of my students (“Darlin”) asked, “Do they ever make movies that are just movies anymore? It seems that all the new movies are adaptations of books.” Indeed, it does. At least, the movies with a grand scope, good effects, epic scale, and a huge box office success. Here’s a list of some new movies I’ve seen in the last year or so:
1. Amazing Grace
2. Anna & The King
3. Becoming Jane
4-6. Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, and The Virgin Queen
7-10. The First 4 Harry Potter films
11. Kingdom of Heaven
12. Les Miserables
13-15. All 3 Lord of the Rings
16. Marie Antoinette
17. Merchant of Venice
18. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe
19. One Night with a King
20. Phantom of the Opera
21. Pirates of the Caribbean I
22. Pride and Prejudice
23. Romeo + Juliet
24. Shakespeare in Love
25. Star Wars
26. The Nativity Story
27. United 93
28. Million Dollar Baby

Fifteen of them are adaptations of books (counting the Biblical stories); ten others are historical or literary subjects. Maybe this says more about my taste than about current filmmaking trends; what do you think?

17 December 2007


Today in philosophy class we discussed the telos, or ultimate purpose, of various activities or objects, including technology. We got into an interesting discussion of art and technology's potential to either connect people together into surprising communities (such as the virtual community of strangers created by a blog) or to disconnect them from one another (such as the sad fact that I may never meet some of you commenters face-to-face, or the isolationism invoked by single-user music devices). I think this conversation deserves further exploration--and is perhaps seasonally relevant as you may anticipate giving or receiving technological gifts at Christmas. Before commenting, please take a look at some of Rosie's thoughts: Rosie has a couple of posts here and here and an excellent article here about the relationship of technology to the arts and spirituality and community.

Then I'd like to you write a comment inspired by the following questions.

1. Have you ever experienced artistic or technological community? Little Sarah mentioned in class that she has made some friends based on their interests in similar music, even though she may have nothing else in common with them. Does anyone else have a story about how technology or art brought you into community or created some kind of society?

2. Have you ever experienced artistic or technological isolation? (Are you experiencing it right now, as you answer these questions alone in your room with only the screen for company???) In what specific ways do work of art and new inventions isolate, divide, or even polarize individuals?

3. Do you think that the invention of any particular technologies can be inherently dangerous, or is the value of any given technology only in its uses or abuses? What limitations, if any, do you think should be put on the creation and usage of arts and technologies? Or do you think that responses should be made solely by consumers, and not legislated by any authority?

I'll start by narrating some anecdotes of my own. First of all, I've created some kind of a virtual community by means of technology that I would never have been able to create in the "real world," because I simply would not have met people. I've been able to communicate via email and blogs with many noted C. S. Lewis scholars, and the beauty of these contacts is that I've been able to, or am planning to, meet many of those people in "real life." This is a huge blessing to me, since I mostly do my scholarly work in isolation and am not currently a member of an academic community.

But in contrast, I've had many instances when virtual communication has been a hindrance to human relationships. The most common occurrence is a misunderstanding of tone when a message is communicated via email. Now, as a writer, I ought to be able to communicate as well by email as by any other form of written communication. Yet there's something about the speed and facility of email that encourages brevity and haste, to which even I succumb. So there have been occasions on which someone has misunderstood my attitude, or I hers, over email. I'm sure there are other examples in my own life of the disconnections engendered by careless or thoughtless use of technology.

But here's a more serious disconnect: What about the stark severing that can be caused by, or at least a by-product of, sharp differences in artistic taste? I have had very intense, difficult conversations (almost arguments) over the value or quality of works of music or literature. Yes, I know, "No war about tastes" -- but sometimes we [read: "I"] feel so passionately about a book or poem or movie or song that we simple must defend it, or our love of it. I know I've come close to raising my voice (OK, maybe I did raise by voice) over my disgust about the misrepresentation of Faramir in the LOTR movies, or about the poor choice of the weak-faced, scratchy-voice Viggo Mortensen for the kingly Aragorn, or over the consummate artistry of Wagner, or over the moral and theological value of the essays of C. S. Lewis. Yes, obviously, I need to work on my attitude! But there have been, I am happy to report, more times in which the sudden discovery of a conjunction in taste has created or fused an instant connection, which sometimes has led to a lifelong friendship.

I'd like to here some specific examples of times that art has divided or united you from/with others. Thank you!

05 December 2007

December poem of the month

This isn't a Christmas season poem; however, it does pick up an earlier theme about Christianity and Mythology. Perhaps I'll come up with a Christmas poem closer to the celebratory date. Meanwhile, happy Advent!

Semele’s example
Exodus 33:20

This love was tender, terrible: a sweet
self-sacrificing passion. As he kissed
her feet, he promised anything she wished
and swore upon the sacred river Styx.
No love had been like this: so strong it threw
his power down as plaything for her homely
hands. But she was different, for she only
asked to know him in his unveiled glory—
Only that! Zeus groaned and shuddered earth
with weeping, but his oath stood still. In pain
no god had known, he stripped off human raiment,
and, as he knew she must, she died in flames.
Into the vacuum of his agony
their son-god breathed, alive to die and rise in Spring.


04 December 2007

What is the "self"?

At the end of philosophy class yesterday, "Don" brought up the question of the self, and expressed interest in Hume's theories of the self. The following questions were composed by Don for us to answer/ponder this week.

What is 'self' composed of? Your answer might mentioned whether you think the self is composed of a mind, body, soul, spirit, combination, etc.

You might find yourself (if there is such an entity) asking the second question:
Is there such a thing as 'self-perception?' or the related: Can we really comprehend the individual?

This will obviously raise the point that if the self can observe itself, it must then have at least two parts (the observer and the observed) or be split into halves, or be able to perform the amazing, impossible operation of reflexive observation. I'll add something later on about C. S. Lewis's views of enjoyment and contemplation, a logical outgrowth of discussions of the self. But for now: Who are you; What are you?

You could also post on what the positions of various famous philosophers have been on the physicality or intellectual realities of the Self.

30 November 2007

Horror Movies, and Entering into the Story

David Taylor (of Diary of an Arts Pastor) has an excellent new post called Horror Movies Revisited, elaborating on his thoughts from an article he wrote a while back in Christianity Today (which he links to).

I think the art of film is under-represented on this blog, and I hope to remedy that at some point, with more reflections from the excellent courses on film & theology, taught by film director/producer and theologian Bruce Marchfelder, that I've been auditing at Regent. But for now a link to something someone else has written is all I have time for.

I'll just tag on quickly to David's post with my favorite horror movie (I don't like many and haven't watched any since beginning to think more specifically about film as it relates to faith, so I don't have a lot to compare this to): The Sixth Sense. In it a young boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) has a troubling gift of being able to communicate with spirits who don't know they are dead. "I see dead people," he tells the child psychologist (Bruce Willis). What I liked about it: It's very suspenseful without being too gruesome. It was very well acted, an especially brilliant performance by the young Osment (age 11), who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor. It has a delightful surprise twist in the end. Now I'll have to see it again and watch for some of the things David talks about, and see if the way I watch it has changed now that I've been studying film theory and the theology of film.

OK, one other thing I thought of before I end this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about an idea that I've been introduced to relatively recently: Fiction and film are meant to be stories which we can enter into, identify with the protagonist, and participate in some way in the hero's journey, coming out the other end with new ability to face whatever challenges it was the main character faced in the story. I had never thought of the concept of story that way before, and in fact I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that notion. It must be second nature to people who have read lots of fiction all their lives. But I've come from a math & computer background, was never really much into reading literature until the past 10-15 years, and most of the reading I do is non-fiction. Though I've watched movies all along, I probably don't see anywhere near as many as the average filmgoer. So I haven't learned to read stories or watch movies with an eye to entering into the narrative. I view it all objectively as something that is happening "out there" in the world of make-believe, or else something to educate me about some period in history (e.g., Schindler's List). I might grip my chair if the action gets intense or suspenseful, but I never imagine myself facing the same monsters or difficult parents or whatever challenges there are in the movie. The closest I've come to being transported into the world of a movie is the feeling I sometimes get when I come out of a cinema, that time in the outside world has stopped and doesn't matter anymore. I'm still running through all the open questions the movie left me wondering about, and I can be in a daze for several minutes. But I am not actually seeing myself in the shoes of one of the characters. Am I imaginationally handicapped? Do you enter into stories you are reading or watching? Is that something one can learn how to do, or does it just happen without you knowing how you do it? Is there any hope for me? Or is my more cognitive experience of movies perfectly valid and I should just not worry about it? Or is it possible that I do actually enter into stories without being aware that I'm doing it, and I just need to learn to be more self-aware while I'm reading/watching?

27 November 2007

When is an anti-religion actually a religion?

Someone, in order to satirize the idea of Intelligent Design, created a spoof religion which says the universe was created by a being known as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That tongue-in-cheek "religion" soon gained followers who rallied around their common opposition to Intelligent Design. But at least one of them actually began to believe this invented deity was someone out there she could pray to. The American Academy of Religion took up this phenomenon in a session on "the Subversive Function of Religious Parody" at their annual meeting earlier this month. With our recent discussions of presuppositions regarding the existence of God, I thought people here might be interested in reading the article (Pasta monster gets academic attention) and perhaps commenting on it.

24 November 2007

Books to Read Before You Die

The Modern Language Association (MLA) has published a list of 30 books adults must read in their lifetimes. Here it is:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

It seems a kind of random list. I've read 15 of them; maybe that's why I think it's random! Anyway, how many have you read, and which ones would you add or subtract? I personally think the world would not be one jot poorer for the non-existence of The Life of Pi.

I would add:
The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams
The Narnia Chronicles and Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet by Shakespeare
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Confessions by Augustine
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce
Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

For now. I'll surely think of others.

23 November 2007

Unbiased or intolerant -- the only options?

Is it possible to teach without bias?
Is it even desirable to do so?

For several weeks last year I was posting a series on “What’s your worldview?” and “How do you express and present your worldview through your teaching and your art?” We discussed a few points of my worldview here and here and here. I’ve been meaning to revive that series, so maybe I’ll do so soon. But there’s a basic assumption underlying that second question (“How do you express and present your worldview through your teaching and your art?”), which is that it’s good to express and present your worldview to your students or audience. Even more: that it is good and desirable to convince your students/audience of the truth of your worldview.

Now, there’s a tricky line to walk here. There’s been something of a consensus in discussions on this blog that an artist should not push her beliefs on her audience, because then the art is degraded to propaganda. There’s been agreement that if you want to present your beliefs to someone else, you have to do so in a gentle, non-threatening manner and leave your listener to decide for himself the truth of your claims. And in class this past week, several people proposed that education should proceed without bias; that all sides of a question should be presented with equal weight to a student who will then decide for himself which position, if any, is true or correct. The example we discussed was the Evolution vs. Intelligent design. AVA suggested that parents and/or school supervisors should hire two science teachers or practicing scientists for lectures on origins: one who believes firmly in and works from the premise of macroevolution, and one who believes firmly in and works from the premise of young-earth creationism. Then students should be allowed to determine for themselves which position is correct.

Well, that sounds like a good proposal. But there are at least two problems with it from a covenantal Christian point of view. First, we Reformed Christians believe that human beings are totally depraved, and therefore incapable of accepting or even recognizing the good without the work of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of more experienced Christians. Second, most Christian parents take a vow (at the time of their babies’ baptism or dedication) to raise their children in the Word of God, to train them up in the way that they should go. Therefore, if the parents strongly believe that one position or another is the Biblical position, they have made a promise to try to train their children to understand and commit to that position.

Maybe Evolution/Creationism is a touchy example, because there are plenty of Christians who think that Evolution and the Bible are perfectly compatible. But think of other “issues” for a moment. Think about other debatable doctrines, such as Predestination and Free Will, or Infant vs. Adult Baptism, or interpretations of the Lord’s Supper—Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. “Real Spiritual Presence” vs. Memorial. Or consider moral/social/political issues rather than doctrines, such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, illegal immigrant status, gun control, health care, education, global warming, the War in Iraq.

In these doctrinal and social debates, wouldn’t the ideal parents present both sides to their children and then also present all the arguments in favor of the side in which the parents believe? Wouldn’t ideal teachers lecture from both points of view but then announce which side they support and why? Because the perfect parents and teachers care about their children/students from a holistic point of view: as a teacher, I want you students to become well-rounded, godly people, and I’m as concerned for your salvation as I am for your grades.

I know that sounds intolerant. How dare I believe that I know what’s good for your soul? But I do believe that God has revealed what’s good for human souls, and I want my students to follow God’s way instead of the world’s way. I want to teach that, as well as teaching facts about when and where Shakespeare lived and how many lines make a sonnet and how to pronounce “epistemology” and what are the major characteristics of Romanticism.

Here’s the bottom line: Is communication with a view to persuasion always propaganda? Is certainty bigotry? Is commitment intolerance?

What do you think?

15 November 2007

War in Heaven: fantastic, or frustrating?

A fellow online writer, Orphan Ann, and I have been having a friendly debate about Charles Williams's War in Heaven. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce our debate here, so I am doing so, with slight editorial omissions and alterations. Please feel free to participate!

Orphan Ann wrote:

Dear Iambic Admonit,

You commented in my Livejournal about Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven and I thought I’d tell you what I though of the novel now that I’ve finished it. In short, I liked it, but found myself strangely unmoved. I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular. And this looks true to me throughout the different parts of the book.

The plot, for instance. It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realise that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked wilfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succouring the physical. (Did Williams read thrillers, and was this a deliberate subversion, do you know? Or did he just do what he felt he had to?) As far as I can remember, the mystery subplot serves only one plot function, “mopping up” Persimmons at the end. But the “good” characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about; I can only remember two times they take the initiative (when the Archdeacon steals the Graal and when Mornington and the Duke attack the chemist’s shop [which was a scene I enjoyed, even if it did involve my favourite character being killed off], which backfires mondo.) I realise that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read. The Graal’s defence mechanism makes the good side’s actions retroactively pointless, it seemed to me, as well. Now, on the one hand, I quite enjoyed seeing plot subverted, but on the other hand it made the story seem designed solely for the edification of the Archdeacon and the readers – which isn’t just “preachy”, but, I think, completely disrespectful to both readers and characters. There’s no compassion in it. That’s going a bit too far, as both Adrian and Jessie are saved by the Archdeacon’s making a nuisance of himself, and the Satanists’ ill-starred attempt to kill him, but it’s certainly the main thrust of the novel. You won’t find many descriptions of it as “Good vs. Evil struggle over the fate of a serving girl and a four-year-old boy”.

Nor did I think the characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri, one of whom explains to Persimmons that they are literally evil for evil’s sake (in the chapter “The Ointment”.) The satirical aspects of the book I felt were a bit mean-spirited, but I often feel that way about satire (not my favourite genre) and they weren’t that bad. But making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair. One of the best characters, I thought, was Sir Giles; any opinions there? All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.) I think the fact that the only foreign characters are both evil (and referred to as “the Jew” and “the Greek”) is related to this. He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.

I didn’t like the ending. It would have been sappy if a lesser talent had written it, but I can’t think quite how to describe it. I didn’t like the fact that Mornington’s death wasn’t mentioned at all, as if it was unimportant, and the rest of the book supports that reading to me. The chapter title was a bad touch. And I thought the identification of the Archdeacon with Sir Galahad, whilst resonating nicely with the Duke’s offhand comment earlier, was truly presumptuous. (That looked like a typical Inklings move to me, wouldn’t you say?)

A few scattered thoughts: the basic Archdeacon/Persimmons structure was too schematic, I thought. I did like the humour, though I wouldn’t call it hilarious; dry, perhaps. Was I totally ignorant to realise that the Holy Grail came from Ephesus? And do you have any idea why Prester John cropped up? I don’t think he’s got anything to do with the Grail at all, and assumed he was an angel, or perhaps the Holy Spirit. But it was only Williams’ second novel, so I’ll definitely give his others a try – have you a favourite?

And I replied:
I’ll see if I can respond somewhat intelligently to your clearly presented objections, but I’m not sure I can. This is due to the fact that the very characters, techniques, events, and other elements that you object to with clarity and precision are some of the elements that delight me—so part of our responses to each other is the incontrovertible matter of taste! I’ve been perhaps raised to enjoy a certain flavor in a book, which you find unmoving. That’s fine. But I suppose the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you. Hum. Let’s see what we can do.

First of all, you say the book is “too intellectual.” This can be either a fault or simply the author’s choice to pack his work with ideas as the expense of alienating certain readers. In C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress, I would say the esoteric intellectualism is inaccessible to a fault. Lewis himself admitted this ten years later in the afterword to the third edition. He wrote it when he was very young, either trying to show off or honestly and naively thinking that everybody else had gone through the same complex intellectual journey he had! But then other books, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or even Moby Dick need all the facts and ideas and thoughts that are packed in; they are as much compendiums of the knowledge of the day (in Dante’s case) or the science on which the story is founded (in Melville’s case) as they are ripping good stories. I think that War in Heaven is the latter, that the thoughts and ideas and big words and metaphysics are integral to the story. But of course, they do slow the plot down. For example, I think that the details of publishing, the pedantic quotes from archeological type texts, etc., are necessary for giving the mock-scholarly background to finding the Grail in Fardles. Could CW have done the same thing in a more lively, lighter way? Well, he couldn’t; somebody else could, I’m sure. Is it a fault? Maybe, but I personally love the layers of dry academic dust on top of the murder-theft-black mass-car chase plot. It just tickles me pink!

Next, you object that there isn’t enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons). Right, there isn’t a lot of time spent. Whether it isn’t enough time is a matter of opinion. Sure, CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional. You correctly observe that none of the “characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri.” Yes, I agree. You could add to that the apparent racism, which infiltrates some of CW’s other books, too, especially Many Dimensions. But I think we need to stop and ponder CW’s Platonism here, as well as his theology. First of all, CW was some kind of a neo-Platonist who believed that everything here is a shadow or copy of its reality in the World of Pure Forms—or, in Christian terms, in Heaven. So therefore his characters were kind of copies of absolute spiritual realities, which is why Manasseh and Dmitri can be “pure evil”: they are earthly manifestations of the Form of Absolute Evil. Adrian is a terrestrial representation of Innocence; Mornington and the Duke are a shadow and copy of the Ideal of Friendship, and so on. Also, CW believed that human relationships (especially romantic ones) followed certain theological patterns. For example, Williams believed that marriage follows the pattern of the earthly life of Christ, including the times of temptation, crucifixion, and death. So he would structure the interactions of his characters to emphasize the action, not the person. Furthermore, one of his friends wrote about him that “I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted” (Browne, E. Martin. Two in One. Cambridge UP, 1981. p. 101). In other words, he will sacrifice the psychological and emotional complexities of a character to the eternal realities or dramas they represent or in which they participate. It’s a choice he made; lots of readers won’t like it. But he’s not writing realistic, psychological fiction or novels of manners and relationships. I’m rereading Pride and Prejudice right now; nothing could be more different! So you are exactly right when you say that “it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.” Yup. And you also say “He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.” Well, of some novels. That’s why he called these “metaphysical thrillers” rather than novels. I think I’ve already tried to explain that he’s interested in people not for themselves but for what they represent, or for the larger realities behind them. But this doesn’t lessen their importance, at least he (and I) doesn’t believe so. It actually puts them in their rightful relationship to the cosmos, and therefore gives them universal and eternal importance, rather than just localized and particularized emotional or psychological interest. And that’s really the very reason other readers (including me) love it!

Also about characters, you also say that “the ‘good’ characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about… I realize that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read.” Well, maybe. They certainly are passive. But their passivity is a choice; not CW’s choice, now, but their own choice. It’s the active, intentional decision they have made to submit their wills to the Will of the Omnipotence. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. Williams grants his heroes or saints—Isabel Ingram, Archdeacon Julian Davenant, Chloe Burnett, Anthony Durant, Sybil and Nancy Coningsby, Peter Stanhope, Margaret and Pauline Anstruther, Betty Wallingford, and Lester Furnival—a profound serenity that might be called “the peace that passeth understanding.” It is their quietness, their unshakable tranquility, that allows them to be the instruments of averting or righting catastrophes.

So then you talk about the plot. You are precisely right: “It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realize that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked willfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succoring the physical.” Yes. I honestly do not know if CW was being deliberately subversive, but I suspect he was. And I love that! I think it’s just hilarious that you being the book with that perfect, fantastic opening sentence, expect this to be a page-turning murder mystery, and then it turns out to be a metaphysical drama and the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important. I don’t know, it just makes me chuckle endlessly. Maybe I have as twisted a sense of humor as CW did. I just don’t see this method as “completely disrespectful to both readers and characters” as you do; I just think it’s a clever and tricky as any magician’s sleight-of-hand. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to the reader who has no idea what she’s getting herself into, and this was his first novel. But I just love the idea of being totally fooled.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say “making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair.” Would you want to explain that a bit more?

Now you introduce a complex and interesting discussion. You think Sir Giles is one of the most interesting characters, and I agree; he turns up again as the primary villain in Many Dimensions. Then you observe: “All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.)” Hum. I’m not sure. Let’s see. I think Sir Giles and Persimmons are extremely spiritual; Persimmons actually worships a spirit—Satan—and both are very in tune with the spiritual world. Williams would just argue that there’s a good side of the spirit world and a bad side, and that all the characters are spiritual, but some have chosen “The Dark Side,” as it were. He himself, by the way, dabbled in the Dark Side. Williams was a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for either four-five years or for his entire adult life, according to various sources. He reportedly practiced bizarre sexual/magical/poetic rituals with various young women. If nothing else, he was something of a mystic and was fascinated by all that side of the spiritual world which Christianity traditionally avoids or forbids. So I really don’t see an non-spiritual characters in the book. And I’m not sure that all the “non-Christians” are miserable. Barbara isn’t. She is a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character, who grounds Lionel when he’s about to fly off into black depression. And I get the feeling that Lionel’s deep skepticism and negativity are such integral parts of his disposition that even if he “got saved” he’d be the same way. Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter.

You didn’t like the ending. I understand. I’m not sure how to respond to it, either. I also hate the fact that Mornington goes unmourned. But again, that’s because he was a part of something so much larger than himself that his death is caught up into redemption and all that. And the same goes for the archdeacon’s death. He didn’t really die; he was absorbed or assumed into the larger life he had always worshiped. I don’t have a problem with his identification with Galahad; I just think it’s weird and bizarre, not presumptuous. It has to do with Archetypes again. He’s another manifestation of the archetype of the male virgin who is given over to a quest or a cause. Williams’s great work is his cycle of Arthurian poetry. He worked his favorite themes into these poems; he saw his life and the human body and theology as all indexing together onto/with “The Matter of Britain” (his name for the collective Arthurian legend) in some kind of holistic correspondence. In Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), Galahad’s household was the ideal civilization of the True Logres where reciprocal love and the bearing of one another’s burdens were practiced. Yes, this is a typical Inklings, times ten! And it thrills me.

As far as the Holy Grail coming from Ephesus, and why Prester John crops up, I’m really too ignorant of Arthurian lore to comment intelligently, except to refer again to what I wrote above about CW taking everything he ever believed and mapping it all on to the Arthur legend. I do think that Prestor John was the keeper of the Grail in one thread of the legend, but I don’t really know.

I do hope that you give some of his other novels a try. Descent into Hell is probably his best, and The Place of the Lion is my favorite. But a fair warning: in all of them, you will probably be frustrated by the flatness of his characters, because they continue to be subordinate to the great forces they serve. I’d love to hear more of what you have to say if you read more.

~ Admonit

12 November 2007

How do I know I'm not lonely?

This morning in philosophy class, we listened to “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles and discussed the worldview that is presented in that song -- one of existential loneliness that posits the impossibility of meaningful interpersonal relationships. Now, it is possible to argue (and some members of the class did suggest) that the Beatles were actually teaching that there is a solution to loneliness, or that the song insists that no one needs to be lonely, or that people are created as social beings and only live meaningless lives when they are all alone -- that “love is all you need” and so on.

But a tangential conversation developed. We discussed the proposition that each person is totally and completely isolated in his or her consciousness, inaccessible to anyone else. I referred to the following passage from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:
A Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?
Some ladies in the class insisted that they know for a fact that not everyone needs to be lonely, and not everyone is isolated. To prove this fact, they cited personal experience, in which they had enjoyed personal connection with one another in which “the masks came off” and they were able to be perfectly honest with their friends, sharing everything and feeling totally connected. So then we had to ask what proof they had that such experiences were real and not subjective, deceptive, emotional realities. “Z” suggested that we could apply sensors to the subject’s head and measure her responses to various human interactions, thus proving a real physiological response to the honesty of friendship. But then, how do we know that the biochemical counterparts to emotional realities are any more “real” in an objective sense? Then “hmmm” asked the very good question: Why should emotional or experiential claims be subject to “objective” scientific [evidentialist] tests to prove their validity? So I am converting that question in this week’s post questions:
How do we know that someone’s subjective experience is a true reflection of reality? and By what means can we verify truth-claims that are based on personal experience or emotional states?

You may object that we do not need to test such claims. But consider the following situations:
1. How do you know whether or not you are really in love? Isn’t that just a subjective emotional state?
2. Someone claims to have seen an angel. How do you know he or she is right or wrong?
3. Someone claims to have personal knowledge that God cannot exist, due to occurrences in his own life that prove there cannot be a loving God. He knows for a fact that if there were a good God, He would not have allowed such suffering as this person has experienced.
4. Someone claims to have been emotionally abused by a spouse or a parent. What constitutes emotional abuse, and who determines that someone has been a victim of such abuse?

Perhaps you can think of other examples. Please respond to the questions in bold above and to the situations here if you like. I’ll add one more question, for the artists in the group:

How do you know when a work of art (painting, sculpture, poem, novel, play, song, movie) is good? Is artistic value based simply on how you feel about the work?

Thanks! Enjoy!

08 November 2007

What are your presuppositions?

I've begun teaching another philosophy class, an extended version at a different school. This is a fine arts center with a Christian foundation, so I'm hoping to really gear the class towards Aesthetics and the application of philosophical questions/ideas to both the making of art and the development of a Christian worldview.

Yesterday, in our first class, we discussed presuppositions and van Till's idea that we cannot set God aside in order to hypothesize. However, that is exactly what we need to do to some extent when studying philosophy. We need to pretend we know nothing in order to learn something--in order to learn anything at all.

To that end, I have two questions for my readers and my philosophy students.

First: What are your fundamental presuppositions? In other words, what are the basic assumptions on which you base everything you believe and how you live your life?

Second: What knowledge or worldview do you hope to impart to the audience of your works of art? If you create paintings, poems, songs, pieces of music, sculptures, dances, plays, novels, or any other works of art, what spiritual or philosophical ideas do you present through those works--whether intentionally or not?

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!