Narnia’s Pevensies And Personal Identity

Readers of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe will remember the novel’s dramatic ending: Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, now all grown up and ruling as noble and just kings and queens of the land of Narnia, set out to hunt a mysterious stag; their hunt leads them into the woods, toward ‘the lamp post’–the one that had brought them to Narnia in the first place, and then suddenly, as Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan find themselves back in ‘the wardrobe’ all too soon, they are back in England, back in the here and now, and barely an instant has passed. (Many Narnia years you see, only amount to a second or so of Earth time. Indeed, it is not clear at all that any time elapses while the children are in Narnia; the two timelines are disconnected.)

Of course, because only an instant has passed, the children are children again–they are not adults any more. They have shrunk, physically. But presumably they have shrunk psychically too; after all, back in Narnia, they were adults, and their growth into adults would have involved progression in the physical and psychological dimensions. Interestingly enough, the children remember their experiences in Narnia; which means they have memories of their growing up, their transformation into adults. This journey back to ‘the real world’ is likely to be far more disruptive, then, than C. S. Lewis lets on; Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, are, on their return to earth, facing possibly one of the most hallucinatory of all experiences: years and years have passed by, and then, one day all of a sudden, you find yourself a child again, but  this is not any ordinary child, this is a child with memories of having been an adult once. So, even if this child does not have its physical child capacities any more–perhaps they pre-pubescents again–it still remains an open question whether this child remembers its adult responses in the emotional and psychological dimensions. Does the child now behave as an adult might? What is the effect on the Pevensies as they continue their lives, with these memories reminding them of what they once were? Note that had the children gone to Narnia, and spent say, a few months there, and then been shot back through the wardrobe to land up back in England in the same way as before, these questions would not have arisen. They arise only because Lewis insisted on giving the Pevensies a full-blown reign in Narnia, a long and prosperous one of fifteen years.

Lewis has thus created a tricky situation for the Pevensies. As they grow up here on Earth, they will slowly become adults but they will not be the adults they were in Narnia; after all, Earth is not Narnia: its lands and peoples are significantly different. The Pevensies will have different experiences, encounter different circumstances and react differently. Of course, since they carry around their memories of their psychological growth, they might use those as inputs into their development in this ‘new life’ but they will still certainly not be identical to their Narnia selves. They will have multiple personalities of a sort–perhaps akin to that of the immigrant, who remembers an older world, an older self, older ways of behaving and responding to the world’s offerings. Their friends and lovers and family might find their repeated invocations of their past irritating and bothersome at times, but also of singular interest; the Pevensies for their part, if they play their cards right, will ‘enjoy’ having lived two lives–once again, much like the wise immigrant does, who considers himself fortunate to have experienced ‘two worlds for the price of one’–even if such experiences do bring their own fair share of heartbreak. (The novels featuring the Pevensies themselves span nine years–from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle.)

A budding writer could do worse than to write a novel that tracks the Pevensies’ developments as adults, back here on Earth, when they are done with the Narnia phase of lives, but with those Narnia memories animating their hybrid selves.

Talking Kierkegaard With ‘Non-Traditional’ Students

Philosophy being the discipline it is, I often find myself commenting on the identity of my students: it is how I remind those on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ that there are possibilities here, not always acknowledged, of ways of thinking about the practice of philosophy, inside and outside the classroom. I offer this vague preamble to set up a brief note about a wonderful discussion that took place in my classroom yesterday morning.

Our assigned reading was an excerpt from Kierkegaard‘s Fear and Trembling: the section on the ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’ which draws upon the Old Testament legend of Abraham and Isaac. I was apprehensive about the reading assignment; Kierkegaard is not straightforward at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried; his central thesis, of individual, incommunicable to the rest of the world, departure from the universal ethical to a personally determined goal or purpose, was highlighted quickly. We were able to examine this claim in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac and to contrast it with the behavior of the ‘tragic hero’ in the legend of Iphigenia:

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is clearly evident. The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; the ethical relation…he reduces to a sentiment which has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of morality. Here there can be no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical itself….With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former.

The discussion in class was dominated by four women students: two African-American, one Pakistani, one Jewish. Each drew upon the text, drawing the class’ attention to passages–like the one above–they thought were crucial and deserving of closer attention and analysis. One of them–no prizes for guessing which one–placed the legend in a broader context, supplying details from the Old Testament which enabled a better understanding of Abraham’s actions. Each, by focusing on the text, enabled its close reading and analysis for the benefit of their class mates. My responses to these students–in making note of how such ‘individual faith’ can come to resemble madness, and how Kierkegaard finds Abraham simultaneously worth admiring and yet incomprehensible and “appalling”–invoked the examples of CS Lewisinfamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and Jon Krakauer‘s  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. They responded to these, in turn, with sharp and perceptive insights and further questioning. (They responded to my little joke about how Sarah would have told God to get lost with a few chuckles.) In responding to these, and in trying to offer as charitable an interpretation of Kierkegaard’s claims as possible, we were able to revisit central existentialist themes and establish connections with Kierkegaard’s distinctive relationship to theism and organized religion.

I could not help thinking, as I interacted with these students, of what a distinctively pleasurable moment it was to see them, by their presence in the classroom, and their responses to the reading, demolishing preconceptions and helping reconceive philosophy and philosophical practice in the process.

CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity: Masterfully Flawed Apologetics

CS Lewis‘ Mere Christianity is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of Christian apologetics; it is entertaining, witty, well-written, clearly composed by a man of immense learning and erudition (who, as befitting the author of the masterful Studies in Words, cannot restrain his delightful habit of providing impromptu lessons in etymology.) Lewis is said to have induced conversions in “Francis Collins, Jonathan Aitken, Josh Caterer and the philosopher C. E. M. Joad” as a result of their reading Mere Christianity, and it is not hard to see why. The encounter of a certain kind of of receptive mind with the explication of Christian doctrine that Lewis provides–laden with provocative analogies and metaphors–is quite likely to lead to the kind of experience conversion provides: an appeal to an emotional core harboring deeply experienced and felt needs and desires, which engenders a radical shift in perspective and self-conception. Christianity offers a means for conceptualizing one’s existential and pyschological crises–seeing them as manifestation of a kind of possession, by sin, by the Devil–and holds out the promise of radical self-improvement: the movement toward man–all men–becoming Christ, assuming a moral and spiritual perfection as they do so.  All the sludge will fall away; man will rise and be welcomed into the bosom of God; if only he takes on faith in Christ and his teachings. This is powerful, heady stuff and its intoxicating powers are underestimated only by those overly arrogant about the power and capacities of reason and ratiocination to address emotional longings and wants.

It is clear too, from reading Lewis, why Christianity provoked the ire of a philosopher like Nietzsche. For they are all here: the infantilization of man in the face of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-good God; the terrible Godly wrath visible in notions such as damnation; the disdain for this life, this earth, this abode, its affairs and matters, in favor of another one; the notion of a ‘fallen man’ and a ‘fall from grace’ implying this world is corrupt, indeed, under ‘occupation’ by an ‘enemy force.’ There is considerable self-abnegation here; considerable opportunity for self-flagellation and diminishment. No wonder the Existential Stylist was driven to apoplectic fury.

Lewis takes Biblical doctrine seriously and literally; but like any good evangelical he is not above relying on metaphorical interpretation when it suits him. (This is evident throughout Mere Christianity but becomes especially prominent in the closing, more avowedly theological chapters.) Unsurprisingly for a man of his times (who supports the death penalty and thinks homosexuals are perverts), the seemingly retrograde demand that wives unquestioningly obey their husbands, which might have sparked alarms in a more suspicious mind about the sociological origins of such a hierarchy-preserving notion, is stubbornly, if ever so slightly apologetically, defended.

Lewis’ arguments are, despite the apparent effort he takes to refute views contrary to Christian doctrine, just a little too quick. His infamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and his dismissal of the notion that his supposed Natural or Universal Law of Morality cannot be traced to a social instinct are notoriously weak (the former’s weaknesses are amply referenced in the link above while the latter simply pays no attention to history, class, and culture.)

But Mere Christianity, even if deeply flawed, is still worth a read: you witness an agile mind at work; you encounter a masterful writer; you find yourself challenged to provide refutations and counter-arguments; you even feel an emotional tug or two, letting you empathize with those who do not think like you do. That’s a pretty good catch for one book.

The Pleasures of Etymology Lessons

A persistent reaction of mine while reading is to react with little starts of pleasure when I encounter a little etymology lesson tucked away in the pages of my read. Recently, for instance, I found out that ‘hornbook‘–referring to treatises that aim to provide balanced summaries of a particular area of legal study–originated in England in the fifteenth century, referring to a framed page of study materials–perhaps religious like a prayer, or perhaps more mundane like an alphabet–laminated by a sheet of transparent horn. I also learned that actors perform ‘roles’ because in the same time period, they performed their parts by reading lines written on rolls of paper. And so on.

Every week it seems, brings forth an etymology lesson of sorts, one which sends the nerd antennae quivering and the geek flag a-fluttering. Earlier this year, I read CS LewisStudies in Words, a veritable bonanza for the etymology-enthusiast. I was every bit as pleased as I expected; besides providing ample opportunity to be awed by the Lewis-meister’s erudition, Lewis’s masterful study provided weeks of ‘Did you know that ‘national,’ ‘nature’ and ‘nascent’ are related?’-type talk.  These little etymology-bombs aren’t bon mots, and they aren’t conversation-stoppers, but they do provoke the odd raised eyebrow and are quite satisfying to dispense, a kind of verbal largesse, if you please. (Other recent favorites include: ‘You do know that ‘legal,’ ‘ligament’ and ‘religion’ share a common root, right?’) It helps of course, that none of my listeners have ever smacked me upside the head, and have instead, provided gratifying responses along the lines of ‘Really?’

But besides providing the incurable nerd an opportunity to show off in polite company, why does etymology provide such pleasure? Most fundamentally, I think, it is because it suddenly makes me aware of the sometimes-mysterious history of the seemingly utterly familiar. I use words all the time: I read them, I write them, I speak them; I agonize over which ones to use; I perform feats of combinatorics with them. They seem handy, mundane, close at hand. But when the etymology of a word is put forth, I become aware of the metaphor that lurks at its heart, the long passages of time that it wears lightly, of its handling by a host of fellow speakers, writers, readers, all subjecting it to the impress of their idiosyncratic usage. The thickets around that contingent combination of letters clears and I see back to the time of its original application and deployment.

We are swamped by words, all the time. To receive an etymology lesson is to realize the enormous history we all bear lightly, as we go about our daily lives, making contact with loved ones, giving directions, communicating ideas, dispensing instructions, and all of the rest; among our daily chatter, our scribbles and notes, lurks the history of countless revisions, emendations and imaginative coinages. A history that we, with our continued usage of words, rewrite on a daily basis. Perhaps the true pleasure of the etymology lesson is to realize that by indulging in the most mundane of daily acts we partake of a gigantic collective artistic and historical project. That should put a smile on any face.