Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

some thoughts on C.S. Lewis

I've been incredibly busy lately, so busy and stressed I haven't even been reading much; which means that, as I at least under these circumstances do, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about writing, and things I've read previously, and things I want to write about things I've read previously. And then I write, or try to, when I have a spare minute.

The thing is, it's incredibly difficult, at least for me, to write about things I love. I've noticed that, looking back on my various reviews and essays. The ones I am least happy with are the ones where I am most happy with whatever I'm writing about. I've been wondering why that is. It's not difficult for me to write about things I like, or about things I like very much indeed. But the books of my heart, the books I've reread so often I can recite portions; the movies and visual media I rewatch on an incredibly regular basis; the music I can't listen to without putting it on repeat for an hour-- I find I have to use angles and swerves, when I try to write about those. I have to edge up to them. I have to rant about how they're out of print or compare them to something else the author did lately or tie them in to a conversation I am having elsewhere. I don't seem to admit, in writing, how much I love some of the things I love. It goes without saying, and if it doesn't, I don't fill people in on it. (My username is taken from a novel. I have never written about that novel. I'm not going to now.)

This is not uncommon among critics. It's rare that you get something like that project Roger Ebert has where he sits down and writes reviews of movies he just simply thinks are amazing on a fairly regular basis. Often, too, when a reviewer does something like that, it becomes A Critical Defense Of The Thing In Question, an argument about the thing's objective* merit. Entire schools of criticism have been founded because a friend-group really, really liked a maligned subgenre. Entire artistic movements, and the theories which go with them, ditto.

* We are not at present getting into the whole objectivity-in-art discussion.

Myself, I have no particular urge towards A Critical Defense Of, well, most things, honestly. Upon thinking about it, I find that in my case, specifically, I find it hard to write about things I love because there are two assumptions I expect my audience to have when they read my reviews or a piece of my critical writing, neither of which is helpful:

1) that because I love xyz, I am trying to get my audience to love it, also.

Well, not as such, no. I enjoy it when people like things I like, because then I have people to talk with about the things. I enjoy it when I can help people find things they didn't know about and turn out to like, because then everyone is happier. But I am also delighted, as a reader, when a critic sees something interesting in a book I know perfectly well that I hate and describes it to me. It doesn't mean I have to like the book better or even think it is a better book. The criticism, as a work in itself, is valuable. I like being shown things I haven't seen, and I enjoy people who argue brilliantly for things I disagree with. Nabokov wrote an essay about Jane Austen (he hated Jane Austen) of which every single word is flagrantly, screamingly Wrong including 'and' and 'the', and it is a great essay, well-reasoned and hilarious, entertaining as hell when you can stop flailing your arms and shouting at him. I would be proud to have someone have that kind of experience with an essay of mine. I am never going to like Proust, but I can have Sylvia Townsend Warner's experience of Proust any time I want, and she is much better and wiser at loving Proust than I think I could ever have been if I were a Proust person. I would be proud to have someone get something like that from an essay of mine, also.

2) that because I love xyz, I am unaware of its flaws, or must defend its flaws, or will be hurt by people bringing up its flaws.

No. We love what we love. A novel, for instance, has been defined as a work of prose of x words length which has something wrong with it.

It's keeping myself from being defensive that's really the hard part, here. To say cheerfully yes, that character is two-dimensional, the soundtrack should have been handled differently, the author was a product of the British Raj now wasn't he. To admit, but not to defend.

It can be hard to deal with the fact that there are things that are very, very wrong with the things you love, and sometimes they are things that hurt people. Sometimes they are things that hurt you. But no one can answer for another person what amount of that kind of hurt makes it not worth it. If I love something, and it is a considered love, I have decided it is worth it for me. I do sometimes ask myself, gently, whether I am failing to notice particularly problematic or hurtful things about new loves, when I am in the flush of first meeting something before I sit down and really think about it. I will recalibrate my own emotional calculus when someone else points out something very hurtful about something I love which I had never thought of. I do point these things out to others, when they have new infatuations, or when they ask for my perspective. But in general, I find it is a human courtesy to assume that people consider the things they love worth it.

The problem is that when something is so very flawed, as most things are, sometimes we judge ourselves for finding the thing worth it. Sometimes we judge other people on what they find worthy. And sometimes they judge us.

So for me, personally, when I write about something I love, the temptation is always to over-defend, to say the bad things are not such a flaw, not such a big deal, and insist that anyway I hashed it all out years ago and have critical literary analytical doubletalk to try to deal with it, and then show my work. Which takes away from writing about, well, any of the reasons I actually care for the thing in the first place, instead of the reasons not to. If I, or anyone else, is going to judge me for caring about something, the judgment should at least be based on the positive side of my relationship with it, but all too often I find that in my essays I use the flaws of the thing I am writing about as a mechanism to distance myself from the consequences of admitting I care deeply.

Again, I think that's not just me; I think a lot of critics do that. I think part of it comes from the sense that academic writing, or writing which resembles it, should not be tainted with the subjective, or with the messiness of emotion. Part of it comes from the difficulty of showing vulnerability in public, and the embarrassment and fear that go with that. There are undoubtedly other reasons too. But wherever it comes from, I think it's a bad habit and I want to stop doing it.

Anyway, I wrote all that so I could write about C.S. Lewis's Perelandra. I'm going to assume some familiarity with the book if you're reading this; as I have hopefully made plain, I don't intend this to be a review in the conventional sense. I want to talk about this book in a way which hopefully goes better than the conversation I usually end up having about it, a conversation which involves the other person saying 'you really--' and me saying 'yes' and the other person saying 'but--' and then I go hide in a corner because I do know, I really do, honestly.

But there it is: if you are making a list of the books which have most shaped me, Perelandra would be very, very high on that list, and if you are making a list of the books I love the most, it would be similarly high. I do not believe in favorite books, not single ones. There are too many. Based on my habits, though, one could make a strong case for Perelandra as my favorite. I do not at this point in my life take my copy absolutely everywhere, but I do take it on all overnight trips, without exception. It is one of the books I simply pick up at intervals and open anywhere and then read around through the end and back to the start and on to where I picked it up this time. It is also one of the books I can finish and then turn back to the first page and begin again without reading anything else between readings, though I don't do that as often as I used to.

This has been true since I was twelve, when the entire Space Trilogy was under the tree at Christmas, from my parents. I had been read all of the Narnia books except The Last Battle because neither of them like that one (and, it turns out, neither do I), but I had no notion that Lewis had written anything else. Those were the years when writers I loved could turn out to have entire finished series I had never heard of which dropped into my hands, complete. All I remember of the rest of that holiday was reading the books, and then rereading them; they sucked me right under and everyone knew better than to drag me out again.

I am fond of Out of the Silent Planet still, and I still do reread it, although not very often. It's not a bad little book. That Hideous Strength-- I am going to resort here to metaphor. Imagine the Space Trilogy as a finger-ring. That Hideous Strength is the giant, clunky, horrible-shade-of-grey, scrapes-your-damn-knuckles what-was-anybody-thinking too-square concrete lozenge that somebody shoved a hole for your finger through, and you have to deal with it every time you take the ring on and off and also whenever it hits something, but otherwise it fades into the background. Out of the Silent Planet is a tiny evanescent blue-and-pearly glass bead strung on a single delicate piece of gold wire, hung above the main jewel in its setting.

Perelandra is the jewel itself.

What do I love so much about this ludicrously Christian allegory, Adam and Eve and the temptation on Venus? Why do I come back to it over and over and over?

Firstly, it is the most lushly gorgeous, richly delicate, beautiful book I can think of, simply in terms of what it describes and the way it describes it. I do not have a visual imagination. I have tried. The best I get from description is a sense of what would be wrong, visually, if someone drew the thing described as a picture for me; consequently I know, for instance, that I dislike Alan Lee's Lord of the Rings art intensely but I cannot tell you what would be better.

I have a kinesthetic, tactile, and olfactory imagination. With elements of temperature.

I have never, ever read anything which is more strongly written specifically for that. I will now quote something at random by picking up the book and opening it:

Each of the bright spheres was very gradually increasing in size, and each, on reaching a certain dimension, vanished with a faint noise, and in its place there was a momentary dampness on the soil and a soon-fading, delicious fragrance and coldness in the air. (p.48)

The only visual adjective we get in this long sentence is 'bright'. Everything else is motion, texture, smell/taste, degree of wetness, temperature, size. The book has and uses visual language, and in my opinion quite well, but it contains more non-visual sensory descriptions than, well, anything else I can recall reading. The visual descriptors usually add a color and hue spectrum to what is being mostly described via motion, touch, and scent. And what Lewis is trying to describe this way is literally Paradise, the Garden, the most beautiful anything the writer can imagine. This riotous sensory detail, which grabs me incredibly firmly because of the way my brain works, is entirely devoted to giving the reader pleasure and delight.

If I were asked which fantasy world I most wanted to live in, it would be the floating islands of Perelandra, no question. Because I can almost imagine what they smell like. But not quite. And I want to.

Secondly, the book anchors its fantastical worldbuilding in pragmatism in a way which takes the practical into account, and then shows the exact limits of the practical.

With a lot of allegory, and especially with theological fantasy, the day-to-day issues of life are nonexistent and irrelevant. If the heroine's name is Purity, she will never need a bathroom, and she probably won't need to eat, either-- and she will, ninety-nine percent of the time, be a boring piece of undercharacterized sexist cliche. Allegory requires a layer of grounding in human complexity in order to bear real relevance as symbolism for human problems. But the level of practical detail which makes a fantasy novel a novel can be a level too great for the allegorical symbols to stay symbols. Once Purity gets blisters if she rides her horse too long, she's a character, and your reader goes off on head-tangents about whether those blisters are an attribute of the character or of the symbol or what, since the two are no longer one thing. Then the allegorical point goes all fuzzy and you wind up with a clunkily symbolic story which stops being an allegory at all and probably isn't a good novel, either.

The ways Lewis chose to get around this work very well for me. Perelandra is definitely an allegory, but it is an allegory with a human being at its center. The allegorical point of Ransom is to represent humanity, which is a neat trick, because the more he behaves like a fully-rounded, novelistic character, the better he makes his allegorical point. And this means that Ransom is allowed to consider practical things and have human needs, to a certain extent, without breaking Lewis's construction.

Which Ransom does. And then Lewis goes through and delineates the boundary between human concerns and where allegory takes over.

For instance: when Ransom lands on Venus, he finds himself in the ocean, and he worries about whether there will be land within swimming-distance. There is, but only after he has swum his very hardest. This becomes a motif, that there will be a solution (a dolphin to carry him, an island, an answer) presented after Ransom has worked the hardest he can possibly work and harder than he thinks he can. At a late point in the book, therefore, when Ransom is basically miraculously saved from being crushed by a breaker when he falls into an underwater cave and gets washed up on the seaside without a scratch on him... well, it has never once read to me as coincidental. It's not remotely accidental either. It's been established that that's just how things work. Without the setup, it would be completely ludicrous. The boundary of allegorical space, in which the physical is subordinate to the symbolic, is right there just outside human effort.

Or another example: when Ransom first lands on one of the floating islands, he has to learn how to walk all over again. This sequence is great. We get a really precise description of exactly how he has to learn to balance, and which muscles are hurting him, and how he's moving in ways he was never accustomed to, and how much work he's putting in. And all the time the island is doing things on the water that physics and gravity do not allow. It should be swamped by the sea any number of times, given the height of the waves, no matter what it is made of. We see it being impossible. The text pretty much remarks on it, says outright at one point that the island forms a valley which in England would have had a brook running through it and that it was odd not to see one. In real life, that brook would have been a trickle of ocean water. But the island stays afloat. Again, here is Ransom, dealing with the things people have to deal with, such as walking around, and here is the boundary of allegorical space, literally five feet to his left at the ocean border, and also underneath his feet.

So we know we don't need to worry about the economics of the planet, or the stock from which its only two inhabitants came biologically, because Ransom will do that for us, and then when he hits the limit of what he can find out symbolism and impossibility will take over, every time. It's some of the most interesting worldbuilding I've ever seen; it's as though Ransom is being asked literally to interact with a medieval painting as though that were how the world worked, a comparison Lewis makes explicitly at multiple times. This means I don't have the worries I have with a lot of books, you know, about why they have chocolate in pseudo-feudal-Europe. If Ransom doesn't poke his nose into something, it is literally textually defined as the workings of God. One way to make sure there are no holes in your worldbuilding.

And for me, at least, this does solve the allegory-novel fusion issue. Also, I find it actively entertaining and endearing to watch play out.

Thirdly: Lewis is not afraid of going for the gusto.

When I read the book the first time, I had no idea what he was going to do for an ending, because I didn't know much about either allegory or fantasy but I knew that what would make an ending in one would be really pretty dumb in the other. I had a sense that the book was going to have to do something weird and ambitious and crazy to have any kind of ending at all-- at twelve this was a deep feeling that any ending I could hypothesize felt completely and totally impossible-- and then yes, he went there. The prose poem.

I actually like the prose poem as a prose poem, and as a philosophical statement, and I agree with bits of it and disagree with bits of it and so on. But mostly: he went there. When I got to it the first time, I didn't know there was a there to go, but he threw narrative and structure and paragraph breaks and distinction between speakers and much of English syntax merrily out the window along with the brakes. He didn't back out of the ending, because it had to be neither allegory nor fantasy and my, it certainly isn't. I always applaud when an author kicks over the traces like that. It can be a great idea (The Stars My Destination, Lud-in-the-Mist) or a terrible one (and I know some people think it was that for Lewis). But it satisfies me down to my bones that he went for it, every time I get there.

Lastly, and the most importantly, and leaving out a lot of other things: this is the book that taught me how to argue with the books I read.

Because it grabbed me on every sensory level no other novel tries to do and then it presented me with a whole bunch of ideas and concepts, some of which I agreed with, and some of which were obviously and totally contrary to my experience, and some of which I had never thought about at all. And the things I disagreed with were urgent and pressing, sharp and painful, as distressing as the experience was beautiful, I couldn't let it sit, I couldn't stop arguing if I wanted to. There are books that, when you hand them to a kid, you don't get the same kid back again. You get a more adult version of the same person afterward. The problem is that nobody can accurately predict which books those are going to be. I had that happen to me-- not being the same person afterward-- three separate times as a kid with Perelandra, three separate occasions where the argument I was having with that novel was so much a maturing thing that I was shocked that the people who knew me couldn't see the changes written on my face. And then I had it happen once more as an adult for good measure and I cannot swear that book is done with me yet, because it's pulled that too many times now for me to be entirely certain.

A short and incomplete list of things I was really forced to think about because of Perelandra:

-- the existence, or otherwise, of God, and which side of that I come down on
-- whether time has an existence beyond the filters of human perception
-- the existence and purpose, or otherwise, of free will in a theistic cosmos, in a non-theistic cosmos, and in either cosmos if time is or is not a relevant concept
-- whether one would want to spend all that much time around an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient deity, or whether the concept is too terrifying/horrific to handle
-- whether there is any morally justifiable and ethically valid purpose and use for hatred
-- whether evil can best be defined as a thing in itself, or as a void lacking positive qualities, or some combination of the two
-- why it is that authors who are so good in some directions can be so amazingly terrible in others, and what that says about the nature of human stupidity
-- what to do when you are violently angry with an author who has had the bad taste to go and die before you can send an outraged and explanatory letter on how they are wrong, seriously, Jack, still annoyed about that
-- what, precisely, I would have said in that outraged and explanatory letter besides GRAAAAHHHHH TRY BEING SOCIALIZED AS FEMALE FOR TEN MINUTES AND SEE WHAT YOU THINK THEN; these rhetorical strategies have been useful to me in later life
-- how to forgive an author who has hurt you very badly and then gone and died &c., without making excuses for the hurty thing
-- how to begin to write a critical essay, as part of the forgiveness process mentioned above

and I am sure I am leaving a very great deal out.

Plato and Aristotle both believed that the epitome of human happiness is to sit in a nice garden with your friends and some lunch and get into a really good argument about philosophy. Note, argument. Agreement doesn't come into it. If I entirely or even mostly agreed with Lewis, I probably would not be so magnetized, a thing I am sure Plato and Aristotle knew perfectly well.

And though I do not think my conversation with this book is, necessarily, the epitome of human happiness, though it's certainly right up there on how happy I personally get-- and it's another question entirely as to whether Plato and Aristotle were right about the entire concept-- I am glad that Mr. Lewis wrote the garden and the lunch as well as the argument. It feels as though he was going above and beyond rather. I appreciate it.

So that's a chunk of what I haven't been saying about Perelandra.

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