Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Till We Can Face the God of C. S. Lewis (Part II)

(This is a continuation of an earlier post.)

A major point, that you have to keep in mind, is that Lewis turned the myth of Cupid and Psyche on its head, making Orual the main character. (If I am not mistaken her name comes from the Hebrew “curse of God.” Lewis uses Hebrew a number of times. In Narnia, there is a character named Emeth. In Pilgrim’s Regress, there is a mountain Jehovah Jirah.) He would not have done that unless he identified with her very strongly. Psyche is a goddess born into human flesh. She is perfect, but, in of herself, uninteresting. She is useful to the story only in terms of how others, particularly Orual, react to her. Psyche, the goddess, bears no relationship to us human beings, and cannot be imitated. Orual, a flawed and ultimately tragic human being, reacting to the divine inherent within Psyche, is of great interest.

Tobie makes the mistake of “skipping” to the end and saying that Orual was selfish. Yes, Orual was selfish, but that is almost beside the point. Her selfishness and her love were the same things. It is not that her love was simply a mask for her selfishness or that her love was somehow inauthentic. Her love was pure; she loved Psyche not for anything Psyche could give her, but for who Psyche was. The problem with Orual was that she could not see that her very love was an act of selfishness and that is what made it so dangerous. It is because she so truly loved that she was blinded to this selfishness. How could love be bad? This is a major theme in Lewis’ thought. It is precisely the “higher” desires that can be the spiritual downfall of the person. It is easy for a person to accept that a desire for money, sex and power can be bad and that people who pursue them are being selfish. When you are dealing with things such as love and honor you can always that you are acting “in the name of heaven.”

Orual is spiritually far superior to the other “human” characters, such as the Fox and Bardia. The Fox is a philosopher. He denies the literal existence of the gods, at least the sort of gods that would interest themselves in human affairs. Lewis, quite subversively, makes the Fox a powerful moral figure. He lives and dies based on Stoic principles, always striving to act according to reason. For all of his moral greatness, though, he is unable to appreciate the spiritual dimensions, right before his eyes. As he tells the heavenly court:

I taught her [Orual], as men teach a parrot, to say “Lies of poets,” and “Ungit’s a false image.” I made her think that ended the question. … I never told her why the old Priest got something from the dark House that I never got from my trim sentences. She never asked me (I was content she shouldn’t ask) why the people got something from the shapeless stone which no one ever got from that painted doll of Arnom’s. Of course, I didn’t know; but I never told her I didn’t know. (pg. 257-58)

Bardia is the exact opposite of the Fox, if the Fox stands for reason then Bardia stands for faith. He accepts as a matter of course that the gods exist and that the gods are concerned with human beings. The problem with Bardia is that he lacks the critical element. Since he is incapable of doubting the gods’ existence he is incapable of questioning the gods, if they are righteous, if they have the right to interfere with humanity or if humanity would be better off without the gods. Ironically enough, since there was never a time when Bardia did not serve the gods, Bardia, unlike Orual and the Fox, never gets that moment of salvation, to submit himself to the gods and accept their grace.

Orual is the combination of the Fox’s reason and Bardia’s faith. She is spiritually aware enough to be unable to rule out the possibility that the gods exist or to make them none issue in her life. Unlike Bardia, though, Orual has the intellectual awareness to doubt the gods’ existence. More importantly, because Orual doubts, she is capable of challenging the gods and rejecting them. It is precisely this “satanic” character who ultimately proves to be the one found worthy of salvation, once she decides to accept it.

Psyche suffers for Orual’s sake. One can look at it as Orual being so evil that Psyche had to suffer in order to save her. One could also look at this as Orual is so great that the gods saw fit to send Psyche down to this earth and had her undergo trials and tribulations all so that Orual might be saved.


Tobie said...

See, that's not how I read the love/selfishness confession. I saw it in light of Screwtape Letters, where Lewis has this whole thing about what humans usually call love is simply the desire to devour. Orual's love for Psyche was not pure and holy, it was inherently flawed and selfish, even from the beginning, and it made Orual ignore the doubts that she had about her doubts, ignore the moment of true revelation that she was granted. The process of the book is a process of repair and redemption- of facing up to that one basic truth and atoning for it by correcting it. The task of writing the book itself was part of the process of self-discovery that Orual had to undergo in order to move from the original selfishness to the final redemptive selfless love- to move from goddess to god.

That in no way justifies her original doubt as anything beyond a more primitive moral state from which she can evolve. Because she is the only real character in the book, the evolution is an interesting one, but I think that saying that it justifies the original state as much as the final one is reading into the book what we wish it said instead of what Lewis is getting at.

Izgad said...

You have to be careful with Screwtape. As Lewis warns at the beginning: not everything that Screwtape says should be taken as true even from his perspective. There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on earth.
Screwtape would have you believe that only the will to devour is real and that love is just a cover, instead of two sides of the same coin.
To repeat the point that I have been trying to make. Just because Orual's love is selfish, it does not mean that her love is not real, pure and holy. You cannot separate love from the selfish. Read Lewis' Four Loves.

Tobie said...

But whether her initial love is "real" or not- whatever that may mean- has no impact on whether her doubt is right or not. Even if we grant your claim, her challenge of the gods is based on flawed love. She is, as you say, a human character, who can be redeemed, perhaps because there is purity in her initial love, whatever. All of this has no impact on the question of whether challenging the gods is right and justified. The story of Orual is the story of evolving away from that challenge and rejecting that part of yourself- your selfishness- that really inspired that doubt and that challenge.