Thursday, October 29, 2020

Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis

The strongest argument for God in the face of evil is that from Job, and I honestly don’t find it compelling. That argument as I understand it, God’s response to complaints about evil and injustice in the world is simply, “I’m God and I’m so far beyond your comprehension that to question me is silly, like a flea questioning the motives of the herd of buffalo that tramples it.” That argument was convincing to me once, and honestly I think the greatest expression of it I’ve encountered is presented in the second part of Till We Have Faces. But I’ve come to wonder how that argument to justify human suffering is substantively different from the madness inspiring Old Ones of the Cthulhu mythos. It just doesn’t square with the idea of a loving god. But despite ideological drift and no longer finding the central argument Till We Have Faces presents convincing, I love this book. If I were ever to be swung around on that, this would be the book to do it.

The novel takes the form of the retelling of the myth of Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche's sisters, Orual, who is presented as a Queen in a small (fictional) realm that shares the world with the Ancient Greeks. It is written as her complaint against the gods. Why did they bring Psyche into the world only to be sacrificed to them? Why are they so cruel to Orual herself? The first part lays out the story, and in the second half she is answered, to her satisfaction, by a variation of the Job argument: “I ended my first book with the words 'no answer.' I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”

This is at least my 12th time reading the novel, and someone might reasonably ask, why, if you don’t find the Job argument convincing would you keep reading the book over and over?  There are several answers to that question. One is that I find her complaint against the gods pretty convincing. Lewis, in the 20 or so books I’ve read by him, was only this raw and questioning in A Grief Observed, the published form of the notebooks he kept after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, who is reported to be a heavy influence on the writing of Till We Have Faces. Another is that despite not being convinced by the argument about the gods, in talking about them Lewis is incredibly effective at evoking the awe that science fiction, fantasy and mythic stories are touted for, a sensation akin to worship. Another is that it is very smart about the way that religious people and irreligious people (represented in part by the priest of Ungit (Aphrodite) and Orual’s teacher The Fox, who aside from being a well drawn character represents Greek philosophy) in many cases do not understand each other on a fundamental level. Another is that it is incredibly written; for my money it’s far and away the best thing that I’ve read by Lewis. 

But the thing that pulls me to the book more than anything else is that it is profound about the difference between self and self perception. About self deception. Like the ants sorting seeds in Psyche’s task, Orual’s sorting out her own motives “was a labor of sifting and sorting, separating motive from motive and both from pretext." The first part of the story is Orual telling her story, and like so many people making things about herself when they are not. In the second section she goes back over the story with the perspective she’s gained from her first attempt at it. It’s the difference between being good and appearing good. “Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, "Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words." A glib saying. When the time comes at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words." Lewis takes this on to the previous statement about the god of the mountain himself being the answer to the questions. 

While I can’t follow Lewis that far, I find the book absolutely compelling as a story and as an invitation to self examination. I like that Lewis lets himself doubt here. The fact that he wrote a narrator who is a (relatively) believable woman may owe to his marriage to Davidman. There is speculation that she, not Lewis, wrote the book. I don't buy that, but I’m certain she had a lot of input. Like Godric and The Moviegoer, this was once an annual reread to which I returned after not reading it since 2017. Like those, despite my ideological drift, I still love the book and it is firmly in my canon.

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 25/35

Readathon 3/3

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