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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Narnia in the Spotlight, Part 2

A more interesting critique of Narnia than Toynbee's (not focused on the movie, BTW) is the article "Prisoner of Narnia" by Adam Gopnik. Gopnik is himself a children's writer (his books sound interesting and I'd like to read one of them). He appreciates Lewis's imagination, but he clearly resents the fact that Lewis insisted on trying to "imprison" his marvellous fantasies within the "straitened and punitive morality of organized worship." The power of Lewis's fantasy, Gopnik argues, is that his imagination liberated him (if only partially) from his self-chosen dogmatic prison. Fantasy, in Gopnik's view, should exist in its own right. It is harmed rather than helped by being associated with any actual system of belief. It is an escape for Christians just as much as for materialists, since in Gopnik's reading Christianity is intrinsically hostile to myth and imagination.

Gopnik supports his claim by invoking none other than Lewis himself, in the _Allegory of Love_. Lewis argues that the writers of Renaissance romantic epics--Ariosto, Tasso, and Edmund Spenser--could exploit pagan mythology for imaginative purposes because it had been "disinfected of belief." Gopnik sees this as a brilliant insight into the nature of imaginative writing, an insight belied by Lewis's later attempt to "reinfect" his mythopoeitic imagination with Christian belief.

It's an ingenious argument, and I'd have to reread _Allegory_ in order to respond to it adequately. I read it more than ten years ago, and it shaped my views of medieval courtly love literature until quite recently. But the more actual medieval literature I read, the more I think that _Allegory_ is nearly as wrong-headed as it is brilliant. For instance, Lewis says that courtly love was intrinsically adulterous, incompatible with marriage (i.e., married people cannot possibly be courtly lovers of each other), and anti-Christian. Perhaps that's true in some original "ideal type" sense. But I'm not sure even about that. Erec and Eneide, the first known courtly romance of Chretien de Troyes (one of the earliest and greatest masters of the genre) is a romance about how courtly love relates to marriage. The hero and heroine fall in love and marry in the first part of the poem. Being married to one's lady does turn out to have some problems for a courtly lover--most notably that since you can stay in bed with her all day you have less incentive to do noble deeds in her honor. And later on Eneide's loyalty to her husband is tested when she encounters an amorous count who offers her the kind of courtly homage that Erec no longer gives her. But the conflict between courtly love and marriage is precisely what refutes Lewis's thesis. The two things are not kept in separate compartments. One does not drive out the other. The problem of the poem is how to relate them to each other successfully. And the far more Lewisian (though still not adulterous) courtly love couple who appear at the end of the story are presented as a dysfunctional foil to the (ultimately) successful relationship of Erec and Eneide.

True, Erec and Eneide is a very early courtly romance, but that's the point. Lewis says that the attempt to reconcile courtly love with marriage came much later, and if I remember correctly he attributes it to Protestantism (though I think he acknowledges that it's prefigured in Chaucer--at least I hope he does). But what we find in Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale," or even in Spenser, is not radically different (it seems to me) from what we find in Chretien.

I'm not sure that Lewis's argument about Renaissance mythological poetry fares much better. After all, the pagan gods were invoked in a very similar way throughout medieval literature. (Erwin Panovsky--at least I think that's who it was--in an article I once read on Renaissance art made the point that what was new in the Renaissance was the combination of pagan themes and classical style; both of these things had occurred separately at various points throughout the Middle Ages.) How does poetry "spread its wings" less freely in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" than in Tasso or Ariosto? And Spenser's use of pagan mythology is wound together with a copious use of Christian imagery. Lewis argues that since Spenser is a Protestant, this use of Catholic imagery is equally part of the "machinery" and is not related to Spenser's actual beliefs. But I don't think it's that simple. Protestant though Spenser was, he is clearly drawing on a tradition of Christian chivalry that he thinks has a very real relevance for Elizabethan courtiers. And I'd argue that the same is true of his use of pagan imagery. Spenser doesn't worship pagan gods, but he does believe in the realities symbolized by the "Garden of Adonis" in book 3 of the Faerie Queene. (Lewis, I should add, does not suggest otherwise.)

Insofar as the Renaissance writers do use pagan imagery purely for its own sake with no relationship to what they actually believe, I think that it weakens their art. I tend to agree with Tolkien to some extent that there is something very flimsy and superficial about much of the mythological machinery in Renaissance poetry (and still more so in the 17th and 18th centuries). Where Renaissance mythological writing is strongest--as in Spenser--it is strong precisely because it is trying to bring pagan and Christian (and, in Spenser, Catholic and Protestant) visions of life together rather than keeping them in separate compartments.

All of this is to say that insofar as Lewis and Gopnik agree, Lewis is wrong. And he was wrong on a lot of points in the Allegory of Love precisely because he was only recently converted and still suffered from his pre-conversion habit of keeping truth and imagination separate. (I'm not just talking about Christian truth here, but reality of all sorts. Lewis admitted after his experience with Joy, for instance, that he had been wrong in the "Allegory" when he treated courtly love as a purely literary construct. Gopnik makes a great deal of Joy's impact on Lewis. But part of that impact was the final erasure of the schizophrenia which Gopnik rejoices to discover in _Allegory_.) This was the subject of Lewis's "Great War" with Owen Barfield in the 1920s. Gopnik is absolutely right in suggesting that for Lewis Christianity was an escape from that separation. But Lewis was not guilty of "bad conscience" in trying to bring truth and imagination back together. Rather, he was struggling toward imaginative maturity--that complete fusion of intellect and intuition which his youthful atheism had made impossible.

Owen Barfield's criticism of Lewis is far more insightful than Gopnik's, I think. Barfield claimed that Lewis refused to discuss the subject matter of the "Great War" after his conversion and showed signs of great emotional distress when Barfield tried to bring the matter up. Certainly the relationship of imagination and truth continued to be a sore spot for Lewis. Insofar as the _Chronicles_ are too didactic (and naturally, as a Christian, I find this to be the case far less often than Gopnik does), it's because Lewis had not yet fully achieved that maturity. Few of us ever do. But _Till We Have Faces_ (didactic as it is) comes even closer than _Narnia_, I think. And there's reason to think that Lewis was still struggling with the issue at the end of his life.

Among the papers found after Lewis's death was the beginning of a novel set after the fall of Troy. Lewis took as his starting point a Greek tradition that the "real" Helen had never gone to Troy at all. Rather, a simulacrum of her had suffered and aged through the long years of the siege, while the real woman remained in Egypt, magically preserved in all her beauty to be reclaimed by her husband after the war. Lewis's manuscript ends with Menelaus face to face with the dilemma: which is the real Helen? The faded, middle-aged woman whom he found at Troy, or the radiant vision presented to him by the Egyptian priests?

This is the dilemma that we all face, not only in religion but in love, in work, in every aspect of our lives. Gopnik makes a great deal of the contrast between the magical world of Lewis's imagination and the humdrum reality of Christian church life. (To people like myself who came to Anglicanism from low-church evangelicalism, Gopnik's apparent contempt for Anglicanism as a source for imagination and beauty seems extremely odd. But Gopnik may be on target here as regards Lewis; Lewis showed little appreciation for liturgy and usually describes his experiences of church-going as more of a cross to be borne than anything else.) But the local church is important precisely because it is here that the magical world we encounter in imagination invades the world of our daily lives. In bread and wine, in hymns sung by creaky voices, in uncomfortable pews and sermons of varying quality, in the reading of a Scripture that took shape over centuries in the gritty heart of sordid human history--it is then that I hear the gulls crying over Cair Paravel, and feel on my face the air of Narnia on a midwinter night. (These are two of the moments Gopnik singles out as particularly beautiful in the _Chronicles_.)

Gopnik's division between imagination and mundane reality is poisonous. It is the easy way out, a way made increasingly easy by the proliferation of technological shortcuts to the world of imagination. Sex and religion and adventure--they are all only a click away. To bring our deepest longings into the world of daily life is a constant struggle--precisely the struggle to "keep one's belief going" which Gopnik observes and mocks in Lewis's letters. It is, as Steve Taylor remarked (paraphrasing Flannery O'Connor), "harder to believe than not to." The easy way is to "toss away the cloak that you should have mended." But this is not only true for Christians. It is true for every relationship, every achievement, every genuinely human act. To be human is to bring image and reality together. That is what we were made for, hanging in agony between heaven and earth, between angels and beasts. Lewis continues to be relevant, continues to delight and enrage, because he was a bold and articulate modern spokesman for this classical view of human nature--a view at once truly pagan and truly Christian.


Isaac said...

Wow, great review and commentary.

thoughtspot said...

Your review (in true Lewis style) goes to deeper issues invoked by the authors you are discussing.

For the record, I think I recall in _Allegory_ that the specific reference to mythology being "disinfected of belief" was much more limited (and technical): Lewis is claiming that gods and goddesses who did not evoke any particularly powerful associations were then able to be re-invested with a quite different imaginative power, for a quite different imaginative purpose. (In much the same way, Lewis is able to get us to fall in love with a faun precisely because we are so innocent of pagan mythology that we do not immediately think of it as a sexual menace.)

Lewis is making an interesting point about the use and re-use of specific symbols. They die; they are transformed; they are (sometimes) reborn. But this does not in any way invalidate your larger point that belief and imagination can and must be fused.