20 June 2009

The Heraldry of Heaven: Cosmic Longing in Lewis’s Dantean Universe

This coming Wednesday, we're heading over to Oxford for the Perelandra Colloquium. What follows is the original version of my paper abstract; the paper has changed somewhat in scope and organization since then. Now, I am not going to talk much about the "ineffability" aspect, and I am going to compare CSL's embodied topography with Dante's more directly. So the whole paper is going to focus more on CSL's response to Dante.

The Heraldry of Heaven:
Cosmic Longing in Lewis’s Dantean Universe

The publication of Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia last January awakened a new interest in Medieval aspects of C. S. Lewis’s fiction, specifically his emblematic use of the geocentric cosmology. Ward traced Ptolemaic imagery in the Narniad; this paper (part of a larger study on the development of Lewis’s sehnsucht) will trace several ways in which the Ransom trilogy revives Dante’s sacramental view of the geocentric planetary arrangement. Lewis saw the Medieval Model of the Universe as a vehicle for spiritual truth: specifically, as a means of communicating sehnsucht, the crux of his theological imagination. This brief study will begin by showing seven ways that Lewis employs the Ptolemaic/Dantean universe. The most important is the motion inherent in the spheres; Lewis’s planets have a clear theological motive for motion: “the revelry of insatiable love.” Lewis embodied his immortal longings in the orbits and Oyeresu of his planets.
Next, this paper will explore the sensory expressions of sehnsucht on Malacandra and Perelandra and their teleological implications. Lewis incarnates divine discontent in physical locations. He carefully crafted the topography of Malacandra to embody heavenward desire; everything on Mars strains upward. On Perelandra, features of the lush environment arouse and incarnate longing. The landscape expresses the elusive nature of joy through the vicissitude of the floating islands.
This discussion of longing on Perelandra leads to an exploration of two paradoxes central to sehnsucht. First, each of Ransom’s sensory experiences arouses desire, yet the satisfaction/evocation of desire does not seek a repetition of its stimulus—suggesting it is a fulfillment, rather than/as well as a yearning. The longing is a desire for the longing; or, the longing is its own fulfillment. Lewis explored this conundrum in Surprised by Joy, ultimately relegating it to a one-dimensional role as signpost to God. However, the rich complexities of his mythopoetic fiction are more imaginatively suggestive and satisfying than any prosaic taxonomy.
The second paradox arises from the very nature of textuality. Language falls short of expressing or conjuring a sensory reality (Lewis returns to this theme often, including in his letters), yet authors choose to employ language to continually reenact and portray that failure. The text of Perelandra enacts not only the central paradox of language, but its exponential relative: joy’s mystical ineffability. All his life, Lewis strove to articulate an incommunicable joy. This ongoing struggle led him to personify the telos of sehnsucht in the eldila, Tor-Oyarsa, Ransom, Maleldil, and the physical planets. In the end, Lewis’s narrative transcends this paradox in a glorious, ecstatic synaesthesia about the consummation of sehnsucht: the mystical “Great Dance” at the end of Perelandra. Mythical/mystical description, by embodying joy, absorbs and so sublimates ineffability into afflatus.

~ Sørina