Sunday, August 17, 2014

A stealth modernist's divine lamppost

Lev Grossman, a fantasy writer whose works I have not yet been privileged to read, has a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful tribute to C. S. Lewis, who brought him into the worlds of reading and of fantasy. He focuses first on a passage that I used to xerox for students, also trying to capture its magic:
Even more than that, it’s the way he uses language—which is nothing like the way fantasists used language before him. There’s no sense of nostalgia. There’s no medieval floridness. There’s no fairy tale condescension to the child reader. It’s very straight, and very clean—there’s no Vaseline on the lens. You see everything clearly, not with sparkles or a flowery sense of wonderment, but with very specific physical details. Look at the attention to detail as you watch Lucy going through the wardrobe:
This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. "I wonder is that more mothballs?" she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. "This is very queer," she said, and went on a step or two further.

Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
She feels the softness of the coats, she hears the crunching under her feet, she bends down and feels the snow, she feels the prickliness of the trees, and just like that she’s through the wardrobe and into Narnia. There are no special effects in the passage. He’s making magic, but he’s making magic out of very ordinary physical impressions. It’s very powerful, and it’s very new. I don’t think anybody wrote this way before he did. He came up with a new way to describe magic that made it feel realer than it ever had.

It works because he’s writing fantasy—but he’s working with the tools of realism. Even though he had this wonderful romantic yearning nostalgia, he writes like a modernist. He writes like Hemingway, like the Joyce of Dubliners. Though he was writing shortly after the time of the modernists, he observes reality in the meticulous, almost disenchanted way they did—but he puts those tools in the service of a totally different effect.
He writes like Hemingway, like Joyce in Dubliners -- that is so startling, because Lewis so misunderstood and so set his face against modernism.  I've always thought of this quality as a casual ease, which extends to his rendering of thought and motive, to historical detail in historical fiction -- his tossing off of the politics and economy of a small obscure kingdom on the edge of the Greeklands in Till We Have Faces is a wonder to behold -- and to description of imaginary landscapes, which he once noted in passing he used to dream up either just to pass the time or to get to sleep, I can't quite recall which.

I'm going to quibble with Grossman a little just so I can agree with him more. I have a caveat about this:
But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.
This business of characters wrestling with their inner demons is true for Lewis -- and, I'm willing to bet, for Grossman -- but it's not true in most fantasy, or at least not in particularly illuminating ways. C.S. Lewis was a great unscientific psychologist, the kind who naturally observed the way his own mind, emotions and motives worked and could report back, reproduce the psychomachia in imagined characters.  He was particularly good at the way we deceive ourselves, cook up comforting false self-justifying narratives -- give our cardinal vices nicer-sounding names, as Screwtape, his devil giving instruction in how to seduce and damn a human soul, put it. Most fantasy that I've read lacks this dimension.

There's an irony in this, as Lewis himself, as part of his rebellion against modernism, argued that deep characterization was overrated in his own time as the sine qua non of serious fiction. In romance and adventure, he asserted, the main character need only be a plausible vehicle for the experience, the characterization of the world he (generally but not always "he" in his own fiction) inhabits. Yet his characterizations have an easy verisimilitude, and in Narnia, the two boys who start off disturbed and embittered and self-deluding, per Grossman's example of Edmund, are the strongest. His virtuoso performance on this front is with the self-regarding little solipsist Eustace in Dawn Treader, who after some rather venal misbehavior -- slipping off on his own to avoid a communal work task -- finds himself transformed into a dragon:

In spite of the pain, his first feeling was one of relief. There was nothing to be afraid of any more. He was a terror himself now and nothing in the world but a knight (and not all of those) would dare to attack him. He could get even with Caspian and Edmund now--

But the moment he thought this he realized that he didn't want to. he wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends at all. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices.
Lewis' more permanently evil (and adult) characters share an instrumental logic that also rings true. Other sentient beings are means to an end to them. They are not sadistic per se, just "frighteningly practical," as Lewis says about Uncle Andrew and the Empress Jadis, two characters who think the ordinary rules of human behavior don't apply to them.

My quibble, again, is that this lightly sketched but plausible motivation, this offhand psychological verisimilitude, is rare in fantasy. It's completely absent in Tolkien, for example, in whose world it's totally cool to kill as many orcs as you can and never worry about any fellow feeling in them, as they are totally evil.

More importantly, there's a vital sense in which the inner battle in Narnia does give way to pure escapism. The outcome for those who face up to demands on their courage is guaranteed by an omnibenevolent deity who makes his presence and role manifest.  Lewis' real --and only -- genius as a theologian is giving this deity, the lion Aslan, imaginative body --as he does with heaven, by making the experience of it dynamic, something that keeps unfolding. This is really the ultimate fantasy. Here's how it unfolds near the end of  The Magician's Nephew, when the two children are transported back into our quotidian world:
Both the children were looking up  into the Lion's face as he spoke these words. And all at once (they never knew exactly how it happened) the face seemed to be a sea of tossing gold in which they were floating, and such a sweetness and power rolled about them and over them and entered into them that they felt they had never really been happy or wise or good, or even alive and awake, before. And the memory of that moment stayed with them always, so that as long as they both lived, if ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that it was still there, quite close, just round some corner or just behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well.
That is C.S. Lewis' over-story, the one that Lucy reads in a magic book in Dawn Treader and then can't remember, except as one remembers a few fragments of a dream:
Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn't remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do, do, do."

"Indeed, yes. I will tell it to you for years and years."

When the divine guarantee is manifest, it's easy to be brave -- and Lewis tries to make it manifest for children in a way that will last all their lives. Here's how it plays out for the newly dead (though he doesn't know it yet) King Tirian in The Last Battle, on the threshold of an apocalypse almost literally transcribed from The Book of Revelation:
The sweet air grew suddenly sweeter. A brightness flashed behind them. All turned. Tirian turned last because he was afraid. There stood his heart's desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself...Then he fixed his eyes upon Tirian, and Tirian came near, trembling, and flung himself at the Lion's feet, and the Lion kissed him and said, 'Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour."
It's true that Tirian has never seen Aslan before this moment. But he lives in a world in which Aslan's benevolent oversight is an accepted fact. Battles within and without in such a world take place in a babyproofed nursery.

It's poignant that a man whose mother died of cancer when he was eight years old, who lived through years of British boarding school sadism -- including one school, attended in his earliest years, that he compared to a concentration camp -- and who went up to the front line trenches of World War I on his nineteenth birthday, embraced a world view in early manhood that babyproofed the universe in this way. I wouldn't  say that fantasy was not an escape for him (though he didn't see it that way). Rather, he created the ultimate escape out of a sublime imagination.

Two more magnificent bits in Grossman's response to Narnia. First:
...the portal in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe becomes a magnificent metaphor for reading itself. When she opens the doors to the wardrobe, it’s like Lucy’s opening the covers of a book and passing through it to somewhere else—which is just the same experience you’re having at the moment you’re reading the passage. You’re watching Lucy do the same thing you are, just in a way that’s dramatized and transfigured.
That is so true. And in fact, Lewis literally believed that the kinds of reading experiences he sought to evoke -- the wave of immortal longing that he called joy -- was a deliberate part of God's wiring of the human soul, a way of making us yearn for God.  He wants his readers to feel that sweetness and toss in that see of gold. So not only is the entry into fantasy world a figure for reading, but reading itself has the potential to shadow forth what he regards as ultimate reality.

Then this:
And then, there are things that he does that are simply not replicable. The lamppost in the woods: there’s something indescribably strange and romantic about that image, which recurs at the end of the book. In some ways, you read Lewis and think: I can learn from this guy. But sometimes you have to sit back and think, I’ll never know how he did that. You know, I’ve seen the lamppost in Oxford which is alleged to be the Narnia lamppost. To me, it looked like an ordinary lamppost. I would not have seen that lamppost, and gone home and to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You had to be Lewis to see it for what it was.
Lewis wrote at some point, "All seven of my Narnian books, and my three science fictions books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood " ("On Stories, p. 53). That image does not quite have the lamppost, but it's almost literally a step away. It really is uncanny.

There is in my town a nicely landscaped, bending narrow lawn behind an old brownstone building that my wife and I call "lantern waste" because it has a lamppost in the middle of it. As it happens, I took a friend of my twentysomething son past it on a run the other day and asked him if he was familiar with Narnia. He was, and he said something about the back-story of how the lamppost came to be in Narnia. I mentioned that that story is in book 5, The Magician's Nephew, which is the series' prequel. He said that he thought that in recent  printings, Nephew was recast as Book 1. If that is true, it's a mistake.  The lamppost in Lion is all the more numinous because its presence is never explained: it's pure image, and a link between the two worlds, the London of the blitz the children have left behind (which Grossman situates beautifully as the background terror to be wrestled with in Narnia), and Narnia.  And the back story, delivered to a child already immersed in Narnia, has its own numinosity, the awe of origins discovered later.

The singularity of what Lewis did with Narnia is indeed there, in the lamppost. That is the light of Lewis' imagination, his bridge between our world, the worlds he created, and the heaven he believed those worlds prefigured. Whatever you think of his theology, and the provenance of the otherworldly longings he called "joy," he had an extraordinary power to evoke them.  Now I'd like to see what Grossman evokes.

*Thanks once again to The Dish for opening yet another window.

More on C.S. Lewis
Joy Eludes the Archbishop
These books are for kids? C.S. Lewis says no
C. S. Lewis, democrat by default
Dreams of purity are pernicious
Siblings at the end of days

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