Saturday, July 28, 2007

I is for Inklings

As you may have guessed, this is a transparent ruse to free up ‘L’ and ‘T’. I haven’t actually read anything by any of the other Inklings except Charles Williams. I got three of his novels at the used bookstore many years ago because C. S. Lewis said such gushy things about them, but found them unsettling. I suppose I should dig them out and re-read them. I know Charles Williams was by all account a good Christian chap, but his novels produced the same oily unpleasant feeling in my mind as the works of William Burroughs. The universe of ‘The Place of the Lion’ and ‘That One About the Grail’ is not essentially rational, unlike the universes of Hawking or Aquinas (or Lewis or Tolkien) – I am lost and motion-sick there, like I am on the 'Nova Express'. I also didn’t get the same sense of reality to the spiritual side of things that is there in Tolkien (in a melancholy, oceanic way) or in Lewis (in a more often than not paralyzingly scary way).

Williams influenced Lewis, I think, most obviously in ‘That Hideous Strength’ (here I go again, making ‘Just So’ stories about things I know not wot of) and it probably would have been better if he hadn’t. ‘That Hideous Strength’ was my favourite of the three once upon a time, but today I would be more pleased if the Space Trilogy had turned out to be:

Out of the Silent Planet
The Dark Tower

For all the blurbs one reads, or used to read, about so-and-so being ‘like Tolkien’ I don’t think anything anyone else has written is much like the Lord of the Rings at all. The widespread Tolkien-imitating movement has been a very imperfect movement that has not imitated the essential Tolkien-ness to any significant degree. My own Tolkien-mimesis has been somewhat different, in that I read the Appendices first, and immediately went off making new alphabets and chronologies of imaginary empires. This habit has stayed with me ever since. Beyond that, Middle Earth is simply the sub-created world I know of where I can hear most clearly that voice crying, ‘Balder the beautiful/Is dead, is dead…’ out of the cold grey northern skies. It is simply there in the background, the one true mythology of the fragmented culture I have grown up in.

My enthusiasm for Lewis has followed what I expect is a fairly typical trajectory. I read Narnia enthusiastically before I started high school, started ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ but couldn’t get into it, and then returned as an undergraduate to read enthusiastically verything he had written, fiction and non-fiction; since then my enthusiasm has cooled, ever so slightly, as I have grown older and more crotchedy and harder-to-please. After all this what appeals to me most is certain bits of the theology of Narnia, which are not precisely Christian and seem to me to be an improvement.

Take, for instance, the words of Aslan in the last battle to Emeth the Calormene:

“Child, all the service though hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me ... for no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

Emeth says that he has been seeking Tash all his days, and Aslan replies:

“Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Lewis could never have written anything like this in his apologetic works, because it would have been a distortion of the ideology he had bound himself to uphold. If only it was de fide! And take the story of how evil entered the world in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’: it doesn’t explain the ultimate origin of evil, any more than Genesis does, but it is much more satisfying to my way of thinking.

My own theodicy was to a large part inspired by the footnote in the following bit of ‘Mere Christianity’ which when I have re-read it since seems to actually mean something quite different:

The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them;but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave)and you also have something else(how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe there need not be anything but the facts. Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, and that may be the whole story.*
But men behave in a certain way and that is not the whole story, for all the time you know that they ought to behave differently.

*: I do not think it is the whole story, as you will see later. I mean
that, as far as the argument has gone up to date, it may be.

I find that C.S. Lewis scares me easily. This is because he really, really, believes in the scary things he is writing about. There is the island where dreams come true in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. There is the figure of Weston the Un-man in ‘Perelandra’. I once read the metaphor about the orange in Perelandra in a shed in Charters Towers, alone in a thunderstorm at night. I do not recommend this. The scariness is equally there in his non-fiction. Essays like ‘The Problem with X’ always make me feel that the things I have been putting up with and not bothering too much about are dragging my nearest and dearest- and me, too- ineluctably towards the Pit, which is too grim and horrible and Jansenist a feeling for me to carry around.

1: I am jealous; my wife once dreamed an ending to The Dark Tower, which by all accounts was excellent.


Mike Taylor said...

This really is the most disgraceful cheat. You should be ashamed of yourself, Evil Dr. Clam!

Dr. Clam said...

You're right, of course. I am ashamed of myself. :(