The Redemption of Meaning: Freedom with Respect

Ah.  This is a wall of text.  Again.  I’ve tried to cut it down.  I really have!  I’m sorry, but bumper-sticker discussions just aren’t my thing….

Over the past few weeks we’ve struck both horns of the philosophical modernist-postmodernist dilemma when it comes to reading and writing.  We are told we must either submit ourselves to the tyranny of the author or accept some form of relativism in order to enjoy the free play of the mind.  Thankfully, I strongly believe that this is a false dilemma.  There are other, better ways to answer the questions posed to both reader and author, ways in which we can indeed allow for freedom of an even more awesome sort than the purest relativism can offer without having to ask the author to commit suicide in his/her own text.

Part of the issue here is with postmodern philosophy itself.  In the absence of  knowable truth-claims, it needs something to define itself:  something to animate its worldview.  Philosophical relativism is one such point (of many, but a significant one).  Another, thanks to Michel Foucault, is power.  In the words of Lord Voldemort (very much a thoughtful philosophical postmodernist), “There is no good and evil, only power, and those too weak to seek it….”  For a notable slice of culture (particularly the academics) that has absorbed postmodern thinking, power theory translates into the idea that in the absence of right, wrong, and reason, people are justified in doing whatever is necessary to get others to accept their point of view.(1)  The false dilemma of the author-tyrant and the freedom of postmodernism is one manifestation of this.  It is designed to control the debate and predestine our choice:  Accept a specific point of view or you must admit yourself a slave to another.(2)

If we refuse to let ourselves be defined by someone else’s dilemma, though, a whole new world begins to open up.  Meaning, and our ability to convey it, is the wardrobe through which we step.  The fact that authors can imbue a text with meaning is what gives readers a chance to transcend their own limitations.  It draws us outside ourselves and gives us the raw materials we need in order to create wonderful things.  The problem is, as postmodernists have argued, can we realistically accept even the idea of “meaning”?

Christians in particular have a good philosophically consistent case for their belief in meaning because it is grounded in a transcendent cause:  God Himself.(3)  We think and communicate because, simply put, God Himself does.  To further J. R. R. Tolkien’s idea of the sub-creator, we become, in effect, “sub-communicators.”  God possesses the ability to imbue language with meaning and so does the human race, being made in His image.  Therefore, quite literally, words and symbols take on meaning because we give it to them.  We are able to communicate those ideas from one mind to another (albeit in imperfect imitation) because God can do so.  If we can give meaning to language, then authors have a reason to think that they can say something in a text.  The author has a chance to really mean something.

(Of course, we are not God.  We are not even little gods.  We cannot even begin to expect to do any of this absolutely, as God does, and any time we try it will be only a poor copy.  As authors and artists, we can create a mountain, as God did–but who has ever seen a mountain in a painting or a story that compares to actually walking one?  As good as our imitations may be, the Real thing is better.)

Going a step farther, as God does not force Himself on His creations, authors cannot force themselves onto their readers.  His truths are there for us to engage, but He doesn’t just write them wholesale over our brain matter.  He expects each of us will approach Him on our own and we will come to our own conclusions.  He even gives us the freedom to come to the wrong conclusion.  Authors relate to readers in exactly the same way.  Authors can put profound meaning into their prose for readers to discover, they can make it as easy as possible for people to see it, but they don’t have the ability to force anyone to understand or accept it.

I doubt our context is as unique as these guys…

When it comes to readers, it is very true that each person has his/her own unique context that radically affects the process of reading.  Postmodernism is 100% correct on that point.  This means of course that every person who comes to a text will have a his/her own individualized reading experience and also his/her own particular difficulties in identifying the author’s meaning.  This is similar to the fact that every believer who interacts with God has his/her own story to tell.  That experience in reading is as valid as the author’s in writing, but it doesn’t follow that since it is the former therefore obliterates the latter.  On the contrary, it would not be possible without it.

All of this points to a compelling dynamic growing from the collision of innovative thoughts that, while resembling elements of modernism and postmodernism, is far bigger than both.  In an ideal world, authors emerge as creators who imbue texts with original, knowable meaning.  Readers bring their own life experiences to the text, each person’s context like no other.  Each reading is therefore relative, but not to itself, as postmodernism implies.  It is relative to the primal meaning of the text, but flavored by the identity of the individual reader.  This is an important distinction, because the powerful, even life-changing result of a reading is created by the union of the author’s meaning and the reader’s specific context.  It is not simply a case of the reader forcing his/her own meaning onto a passive piece of prose.  As a result, the reader’s insight is every bit as valid as the author’s meaning because it is separate from that meaning.  It rises above the text and becomes something new without having to redefine the initial intent.

What results is an mutually beneficial experience–entirely original without denigrating anyone.  The author is respected and owed a debt of gratitude by the reader, who would likely never have had that particular experience without picking up that specific book.  The reader fully realizes the effects and truth of his/her context and they enable the reader to create something one-of-a-kind and (hopefully) beautiful every time a fresh text is read.  Ideas and feelings come into existence no one else would ever have been able to create, not even the author.

Saying it is one thing; knowing it first-hand is another.  Try thinking this over as your read your next book.  Give the author his/her due and search out the intended meaning as best you can.  Take that meaning, mix it into your own context, and watch something remarkable and even magical happen.  Then, consider sharing that experience with others by taking up the pen yourself to share your insights.  Become a link in the chain of literature that stretches even into eternity, providing someone else the chances to create that you were afforded!

 newrule

(1) Now, I have no doubt most regular people influenced by postmodernism have never thought it through to that extent and are, to the best of their ability, quite honest and open–but the movement that sparked their worldview puts it quite differently.  I know I’ve seen more and more of it in the media and in “scholarship.”  Facebook virtually drips with it–just dare to say something un-PC and watch what happens.

(2) Another falsehood modernism began and postmodernism conveniently leaves unchallenged in this case is the idea that the only valid answer is a recent answer.  Once we accept that premise, we arbitrarily close ourselves off to the wealth of information and wisdom that preceded whatever is “current”.  Of course, since the postmodern era (or the post-postmodern one) is the only “new” worldview on the block, we are expected to look there for our answers.

(3) It is beyond the scope of this article to argue for God’s existence–that doesn’t imply that I think doing so is unnecessary.  If you can grant me that hypothetically or at least are willing to allow for meaning and communication as coming from another source, the rest of the article might be of use.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect
Advertisements

The Demeaning of Meaning: Why it Matters, Biblically

In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.

newrule

This week I am speaking specifically to Christians, particularly those who take their Christianity seriously.  Therefore, I am assuming a few things I know I would need to defend elsewhere.  Perhaps it will “sound like a sermon,” but I think the ideas important enough to take that risk. Choosing to accept postmodernism and the relativism it brings with it–often through the back door–can appear on the surface to be both beautiful and empowering.  Unfortunately, postmodernism is also philosophically shallow, and it doesn’t take much digging before you reach the rotten parts underneath.  For Christians, the postmodern way of reading in particular is deadly to a living, breathing belief in Christ and cannot be lightly held.

To say that postmodernism, properly understood, is completely incompatible with Christianity seems to be a drastic, over-the-top statement to many these days.  After all, postmodernism is thinking outside the box and giving voice to your own, unique ideas.  It opens the doors to your imagination by defying the stultifying structures of the past that arbitrarily box us in.  As we mentioned last week, it clears away the possibility of authorial idolization, and it encourages the reader to search for new insights in the text.   It has, for Christians, helped people to move beyond simple “hellfire and damnation” legalism to a freer, more caring belief that focuses on God’s acceptance and love–something that was definitely needed at points in the Twentieth Century.  What could possibly be so wrong about it that I think I’m justified in calling it “deadly“?

To be a “Christian” is to strive to be “like Christ.”  We base our lives and our beliefs off the incredible fact that the Son of God deigned to debase Himself and enter into our world in mortal form, just like us.  More amazingly, He didn’t just do it to stop by to say “hi” or to try out something new as a way to escape cosmic boredom.  He intentionally suffered one of the most painful deaths imaginable to a human being in order to span the gulf between us and God.  In doing so, he took on the sins of an entire race’s existence* on His shoulders.  Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian uni-multi-verse, and the main theme of the Story that God has written into the foundations of space and time, from which our own stories emanate.  Further, Christians are People of the Book.  Without the Bible, we have no reliable knowledge of Christ or of His Story other than to say He existed.  There is the testimony of nature and the “inner light” (for lack of a better description), but the backbone of it all is the Book, and Christians explicitly say they worship the Author of the Universe.

What's in  book?  What a bit, if you're a Christian...
What’s in book? Quite a bit, if you’re a Christian…

The fundamental premise of all forms of postmodernism I’ve ever encountered–relativism–undoes and invalidates all of this.  Indeed, it assaults the very idea of the author, not only in the text but in our lives.  If we regard God as postmodernism regards the author, then at best we’ll be gracious enough give Him a passing nod; at worst we’ll be taught to completely disdain Him and to actively rebel against Him.  Simply put, we set ourselves in His place. (This is starting to sound familiar….)  Can we trust the Bible–a book–if we don’t believe that books have meaning or that they convey the mind of the author?  Should we believe that there is Meaning to the universe if we don’t believe there is meaning in even the little piece of it we hold between two covers in our hand?  Should we share a faith with someone else if we don’t believe that any one narrative is truer than another?

The short answer is that we if we accept a postmodern worldview, we have no compelling reason to say “yes” to any of those questions.  We can try, and that is what many Christians who have incompletely understood postmodernism attempt to do.  They accept contradictory premises:  The Bible is accurate and Christianity is the exclusive way to salvation while also insisting on and applying a worldview that denies authors matter, books can communicate objectively, or indeed there is anything we can know is true.  The result is the lukewarm Christianity that we see around us.**  People accept a premise from scripture to be true only while it is convenient.  When it ceases to be easy, they invent a new interpretation of it that suits them better, imposing their will (more often, that of others) onto the plain meaning of the text.  It is, in fact, the death of Christianity by any real, historical definition and the realization of the serpent’s promise to Eve:  We are defining our right and wrong over God.

But there is a better way.  Christians don’t have to accept the false dilemma posed by postmodernism.  The Biblical worldview provides us with a way to understand both author and reader that will allow us to transcend the cold confines or modernism without having to drink the poison of its successor.  We can give respect to the author without neglecting the reader, and the combination of the two can allow for powerful new evolutionary ideas.  More of that, next week.

Next Week:  A Better Way

 newrule

*Perhaps He was righting the entire universe.  After all, He has only told us our story.  Other stories might be more incredible still–and that is saying something!

**You might say, “But I don’t believe that, and I consider myself a postmodernist!”  Perhaps you don’t, but you are feeding your mind and your spirit on a steady diet culled from a society of thinkers who do?    Further, what premises did you unknowingly have to accept in order to decide you were a postmodernist in the first place?  For example, in deciding to express a postmodern love and respect for all points of view did you accept the reasoning behind it–that they are all equally valid and no one is “more true” than another?

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

The Demeaning of Meaning: The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished

In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.

newrule

Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?

–Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in The Patriot

Last week we established (I hope) that while critics of the author have created something of a bugaboo in their depiction of the author as tyrant, there are some sincere concerns we could raise concerning authorial idolization.  This week we see the pendulum swing, as it so often will, to an equally dangerous extreme.  Western literature in the late Twentieth  Century, claiming to be terrified by the threat posed to innocent readers,  reacted by utterly destroying all that it meant to be an author.  In place of the author, they offered a real Tyrant of the Text, or more precisely, millions of tiny tyrants.  However, rather than freeing readers this approach instead enslaved them to a sort of petty ruler that is harder than ever resist: themselves.

In the late Nineteenth Century, there had indeed been a very strong focus on the author as the arbiter of the text, even if it did not rise to the boogeyman-tyrant some have alleged.  At times, the text itself and its plain meaning were both lost in the search for the writer’s intent and biography.  In response to this over emphasis, the New Criticism broke the text off from the author, insisting it had a life of its own.  They began to study it separately, taking it apart much as the scientists of the period might enthusiastically vivisect some poor animal.

In divorcing the text from the author, they therefore broke it away from the writer’s meaning and intent.  While the New Critics were personally still sincere in their search for meaning, it didn’t take long for a new movement to ask the obvious question:  If a text has no permanent tie to its author, how can it mean anything?

Three thousand tyrants on the march....
Three thousand tyrants on the march….

Enter postmodernism.  Disgusted with the arrogance and failed promises of the “Enlightenment” and early progressivism, postmodernism called everything previous generations had believed so fervently into question.  While postmodernism is a very diverse thing, it can usually be boiled down to this: the application of the idea of relativism to a particular field of study.  (That can look radically different in different contexts–hence why some scholars miss the connection.)  With no absolutes, there was no Truth, no transcendent right and wrong, no objective meaning to life in general.  Further, the very idea that an author could communicate at all came under siege from the deconstructionists, who insisted in their relativism that language could communicate nothing of objective value.  After all, words must mean one thing and not another regardless of context for language to be useful, and it was strongly argued (ironically through language itself) that this was impossible.  Language was simply a relativistic arrangement of arbitrary symbols that could be interpreted however the reader felt like interpreting them.  My truth might be different from your truth and I might take your arrangement of symbols to say something completely different than what you intended because my context was different.

Of course, there had always been problems interpreting authorial intent, but now postmodern readers  ceased to even make an effort to discover it.  If it was not even theoretically possible for the text to mean something, if the language in which it was written communicated nothing objective or reliable, why even try?  This obviously not only “emancipated” the reader from the “tyranny” of the author, it obliterated the author entirely.  Carried to its logical end, this idea makes the reader the sum total of the reading experience.  The text means nothing and anything the reader takes from it is relative to that reader and to his or her experiences and thoughts.  The reader imposes his or her will onto the text, rather than taking something from it.  For many people, it is a liberating experience to think that they not only have something to offer, they define the process.  In a grander way, it is a chance to fulfill that which humanity has sought since Eden:  to revel in the power of a god, to determine our own truth, and to create our own reality in the text (albeit on a pitifully small scale).

We have, however, traded the one hypothetical tyrant three thousand miles away for the three thousand very real tyrants one mile away.  Worse, they are lords of an impoverished state who can never offer us more than we already have.  While I have made what I think are strong arguments against postmodernism elsewhere*, I begin to find a selfish one to be the most potent of all:  the idea that the reader is the essence of the text is not, and could never be, fulfilling to anyone who aspires to rise above the level of a narcissist.   When I read a book, an article, or a story, I’m looking to go beyond myself.  I want to experience something new, something bigger than me.  I want to read a story or see a world I could never have thought of on my own.  I want to engage with a mind different than mine, one that will show me ideas and consequences that would never have occurred to me.  If postmodernism were to be correct (and thankfully I don’t believe that it is), none of that is possible.  How can the text introduce me to something bigger, grander than myself if it has nothing to offer me other than what I bring to it?  Further, this must be universally true for all readers, if the text is truly relative to them and not to some higher standard.  A genius could never transcend his own brilliance anymore than a dullard could be free of his ignorance. They each look into a text and see only themselves starting back out.

I would prefer to suffer under the “tyranny” of an author with the hope he or she could open some new door to me I hadn’t noticed before than to know I’m forever stuck looking at the same four windowless walls through different sets of reflective glasses.

But there is an even greater danger in this debate for those who call themselves “Christian.”  It has the ability to shake, indeed to invalidate, our entire faith.  We’ll look into that question next.

Next Week:  Why It Matters, Biblically 

 newrule

*i.e  They really mean to say there is no meaning?  They use language to insist that language communicates nothing? There are no absolutes except the absolute that there are no absolutes?  Only academics could take nonsense like that and pretend it’s profound, let along take it seriously.  It would be more respectable intellectually for them to simply spend their time twiddling their thumbs.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

The Demeaning of Meaning: The Author as Tyrant?

I’m going to try to do a very un-bloggish thing this month.  🙂  I know we’re supposed to make sure blog posts are all pithy and self-contained.  I want to look at an unpithy, complex set of questions:  How should we approach the idea of meaning in literature?  Does the author impart meaning to the text, is it something the reader brings to it, or is there something greater at work here?  I do think this is a very important question, for Christians in particular but also for intelligent readers in general.  In short, we’ve been led astray.  We’ve been fed a bill of goods.  In recent years, we’ve been told that we, as readers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion as engaging as I do.

newrule

Read my book, peon!
Read my book, peon!

The idea that the author has tyrannized the reader for centuries is, quite frankly, a bit of a postmodern bugaboo.  However, it a bugaboo that haunts the dreams of a number of recent literary critics and the theories they espouse.  If the author can impart meaning, then he/she has a reasonable claim to controlling the reader’s interpretation of what is read.  That is something that makes some people of a relativistic bent nervous and, if carried too far (in theory), not wholly without reason.

Does an author have absolute control over the meaning of a text?  Some postmodern thinkers believe so.  In some fields of study–such as history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–that indeed seemed to be what some authors intended.   As one historian of the time noted, facts “when justly arranged interpret themselves.”  When presented to a reader, then, there was no room for unique thought.  Readers would be forced to agree with whatever the author said.  According to this theory, scientific history would produce the perfect book, just like science as a whole would the perfect human, the perfect society, and the perfect world.  Once such a book was completed, there would be no need to revisit the subject.  There would be nothing more to say–the author’s account was absolute.

If that is the case, then it is reasonable for at least some readers to gradually regard themselves as nothing more than slaves.  The author would have assumed complete theoretical control of the exchange.   The text itself wasn’t something you could engage, and you weren’t supposed to be interested in what you could bring to it, only what you already found inside it.  At least that is the bugaboo version of the story used to justify the modern dismissal of authorial intent (Nasty uncomfortable thing.  Makes you late for dinner!).

Of course, in the realm of literature as well as of history, reality was much different.  While there was a significant focus on the author as the key to the text for quite some time, the idea of the author-tyrant seems to me (and I’m open to being disproved) to be mostly a modern invention.  Most authors have always encouraged engagement with their text even as they have tried to convey their meaning through it.  Readers demanded no less, as illustrated by the oft-quoted comment by Machiavelli.  When he sat down to read, he would “take off my rough mud-stained country dress. I put on my royal and curial robes and thus fittingly attired I enter into the assembly of men of old times. Welcomed by them I feed upon that food which is my true nourishment, and which has made me what I am. I dare to talk with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. Of their kindness they answer me.”  People have continued that engagement throughout time, no matter if it be when the author was considered to be either tyrannical or superfluous.  The historians kept writing books arguing about history, the critics always sought out new plays by brilliant playwrights, and even the literary theorists who themselves attacked both author and meaning formed themselves into schools around their favorite authors.

That doesn’t mean, though, the author cannot indeed be idolized to the point of absurdity, and this perhaps does illustrate why people might choose to rebel.  When we allow an author to be treated as something more than human, we lose perspective.  Authors are not infallible; neither are they omniscient, even in their own texts.  While I certainly grant there are people far more learned than I, they are not so far above me that we do not share a common grounding in human experience.  The very fact we are who we are means that though there is undoubtedly something I have to learn from them, I probably have something I could teach them too.  Therefore, when I sit down to read something composed by mere humanity, I am not doing so with the intention of simply receiving a “good talking at” by the author, and, while I should give the author his/her due, I will not be wholly focused on what the author thinks or wants or had for breakfast the morning he/she wrote the passage I’m currently on.  To do so would be to cut myself off from half the experience of reading!   I have my own experiences and my own ideas I bring to the table, and I want to use them to tease out new insight.  As I read, I often see something unique I believe is just as truthful as what the author intended, but has apparently escaped notice.  I argue with the author (successfully at points, not so at others) and in general become as much a part of the experience as the author does.

So, while we need not accept the bugaboo, the author as the total end of reading and writing simply will not do.  Unfortunately, when the late Twentieth Century tried to find a new way, sans author, the result would be to overthrow a theoretical tyranny with a real one:  That of the reader.

Next Week:  The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished 

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

Susan Pevensie: Always a Queen of Narnia?

This month LHP is highlighting some of our readers’ favorite previous posts from our authors.  We hope you enjoy them!

___________

 

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of Susan that ISN’T Anna Popplewell?

When we think of The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is not, perhaps, the first character that comes to mind.  She is robust and relatively well developed, but she also seems to be more of a supporting character.  After all, it is Lucy who leads the children into Narnia and seems to form the strongest bond with Aslan.  Edmund is the traitor redeemed, and Peter becomes the High King.  Susan’s most unique aspect is also one of the most controversial points of The Chronicles:  She is the only one of the four Pevensie children to fall away and not make it into Aslan’s country at the end of The Last Battle.  This has upset a couple of generations of readers now, and it has led to charges of sexism against her creator, C. S. Lewis.  For many people, Susan’s fall is one of the worst points of the books; it bothers them enough that they can’t let it go.  Fortunately, there is much more to Susan and her situation than what her critics imply.

As early as Prince Caspian, we see hints of something happening to Su.  When Lucy sees Aslan, Susan knows in her heart of hearts that she is telling the truth.  She refuses to admit it, even to herself, and later feels horribly guilty about it.  At the end of the book, Susan and Peter are returned to our world where they are expected to grow up and apply all of the lessons learned in Narnia.  By the time we meet them again in The Last Battle, their paths have diverged dramatically.

When the group meets inside the stable, in Aslan’s country, Susan is notably absent.  When that fact is brought up, Susan is described as “no longer a friend of Narnia.”  Jill notes that she pays attention to “nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”  Su has even gone so far as to deny Narnia’s very existence:  “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”  As such, she isn’t on the train when the wreck occurs, and she isn’t granted entrance into Aslan’s country at that point. [1]

This subplot has provoked (and continues to provoke) howls of outrage.  J. K. Rowling made the comment to Time magazine that “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” [2]  Phillip Pullman, who constructed an atheistic fantasy series that has been described as sort of the “anti-Narnia,” stated that,

In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.[3]

I would argue that Rowling and Pullman have misrepresented Lewis’s point entirely.  In fact, they may well have done so for the simple reason that they “got” it all too well.  Lewis is making a comment so pointed that it has made millions of people uncomfortable, which is something we aren’t used to seeing in Narnia.  It seems to come out of the proverbial blue, and people simply react to it with hostility rather than really trying to understand it. [4]

What the book is trying to say is that sex and the emergence of femininity aren’t sufficient ends in and of themselves.  Su isn’t kept out of Narnia because she discovered sex, she is kept out because she idolized it to the point that all other things–including Aslan and Narnia itself–were placed in subjection to it.  Growing up became not simply a natural process of maturation, but rather a stylized, exclusive state of being that precluded everything else.  Worse, the idealized state of anything has no existence in reality. [5]  Susan was chasing moonshine, when the real world around her could offer her much more. Polly noted this when she remarked,

“Grown-up indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up!  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”  [6]

Susan has not, in fact, grown up at all.  What she has done is take on an empty obsession, a false idealization of what being “grown-up” means, and that keeps her from experiencing life as a whole.  That obsession has led her away from Narnia, and not “lipstick” at all.  Lewis’s critics are mistaking a symptom for the disease.

None of this involves a denigration of women or  real, meaningful sex.  In fact, it is a very positive portrayal of a  broader, deeper form of femininity where the value of one’s soul isn’t determined by one’s social circle or sex appeal.  Those things have their places, but cannot be ends in and of themselves.

This is made doubly clear in Lewis’s depiction of Susan in The Horse and His Boy.  While far from perfect, she is shown to be completely confident in her own beauty and sexuality.  During the story, she is even considering marriage–which obviously implies an approval of sex.  So, it is clear that the Susan we see referenced in The Last Battle isn’t an inevitability; she could and in fact had taken another, better path before.

Very well, if I must. Not that she isn’t pretty cute…

Of course, much of that level of nuance is obviously lost on Lewis’s critics.  They simply see a criticism of modern conceptions of sex and maturity.  They assume that Lewis’s criticism must fit into a certain sort of mold and, if it doesn’t, they are determined to forcibly conform it to their strawman assumptions.

I think that is a normal, human reaction, by the way.  We all want to be told that “We’re OK.”  We all want to know that our wants, our desires are indeed good, right, and normal.   What Lewis is getting at is a philosophy that is directly antagonistic to modern definitions of feminism, especially its glorification of sex and female sexuality as an ultimate arbiter of meaning.  When that point is challenged, especially in a way that implies that there is something more, something greater, the reactions are naturally instinctual and visceral.  We don’t want to understand the details because, perhaps, the details may just prove us wrong. I can’t say I would necessarily respond differently were the tables turned on me– “There but for the grace of God go I!”

One final point:  Most of Lewis’s critics assign a finality to Susan’s position that simply isn’t justified.  Susan isn’t turned away at the door of the stable–she simply isn’t there when it was closed on Narnia.   There are other doors into Aslan’s country from many other worlds, including our own.  Susan did not die in the train wreck that sent the others into Aslan’s country.   As Lewis noted, “there is still plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get into Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way.” [7]

What’s more, since Lewis did not consider Narnia to be his own private domain–he regularly encouraged his younger correspondents to write Narnia stories of their own–perhaps the final word has yet to be written on Susan.  While I doubt the Lewis estate would tolerate the publication of such a story these days, perhaps someone who understands what really happened to Susan should write it nonetheless.  Lewis left the door open to Susan.  It is now up to our own imaginations–not his–to take her through it.

And so, “Further up and further in!”

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (New York:  Harper-trophy, 2004), 154.
[2] http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1083935,00.html
[3] http://www.crlamppost.org/darkside.htm
[4] Of course, applying Pullman’s own method to his own statements, I might ask why he himself is so biased against “ugly” women that he apparently objects to them “winning” on occasion.  In fact, I am quite disturbed by his use of bigoted visual stereotypes regarding facial structure and arbitrary gravitational measurement, when he should be celebrating the empowerment of a traditionally downtrodden and forgotten underclass.
[5] To illustrate this tendency, just think of Christmas Day (or some other event that you hold dear).  The time we are in never seems to be “as real” or “as perfect” as times past. Worse, our idealized memory often distracts us from our enjoyment of a perfectly good present.
[6] Lewis, The Last Battle, 2004.
[7]  Letter to Martin, 22 January 1957, Letters to Children, (New York:  Touchstone, 1995), 67.

https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=239&h=27&h=27