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.

The Fall Of Norman (And Norma) Bates

We know the story of Norman Bates:

Norman had been excessively dominated by his mother since childhood, and when she took a lover, he became insanely jealous that she had “replaced” him, then murdered his mother and her lover. Later, he developed a split personality to erase the crime of matricide from his memory and “immortalize” his mother by stealing and “preserving” her corpse. When he feels any sexual attraction towards someone, as was the case with Marion [Crane], the “Mother” side of his mind becomes jealous and enraged. At times, he is able to function as Norman but other times, the “Mother” personality completely dominates him….Norman, in his “Mother” state, had killed two missing girls prior to Marion [Crane].

Sometimes you can know the ending, and not worry about spoilers. This is certainly the case when watching Bates Motel–the television series which supplies a prequel to Psycho. We are well aware we are about to view the descent into madness, into full-blown psychosis, of a young man who, well before we came to know him as a cross-dressing, knife-wielding, homicidal maniac, was a sweet and shy young man. This knowledge, this dissipation of suspense, does not diminish the tragedy unfolding before us; it makes it all the more tragic because we see the characters inexorably moving toward their pre-determined fates. (This fact, this eventual degradation and decline, one in part caused by the psychological trauma our personal relationships can inflict on us, makes for difficult watching at times; I suspect some of my sensitivities are particularly acute because I’m a parent now.)

Bates Motel is not an ordinary prequel; it is a reboot, for it displaces the original Psycho in both space and time (from California to Oregon, and from the 1960s to the present era). But by retaining its central characters and pathologies, it ensures it does not stray too far from the original’s creepiness. And indeed, it might be that it supplies what was always the most intriguing and understated aspect of the original, one only touched upon briefly in its resolution: How did Norman become Norman? What was his relationship with his mother like? Who was his mother? What was she like?

Psycho is sometimes described as the first psychoanalytical thriller; fittingly, Bates Motel‘s primary virtue is that it enables an archaeology of its story. It fills out and makes available for inspection, the contours of Norman and Norma’s pre-history; it tells the story that Norman might have recounted on a therapist’s couch. Bates Motel clearly considers the task of supplying a full-blown causal story to account for Norman’s psychosis a task that is lies beyond its competence, for its writers assume some pre-existent pathology, but even then, we are promised some development and ‘progression’–hopefully, an artful blend of responses to both innate dysfunction and environmental abuse.

Bates Motel can only end with Marion Crane’s car pulling into the parking-lot. In this series at least, we know what the finale will be; we can now get back to clucking over the details that get us there.

Paul Valéry on the Indispensability of Avatars

Paul Valéry is quoted in Stephen Dunn‘s Walking Light (New York, Norton 1993) as saying:

I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.

Valéry’s stress on the sincerity of this claim for the necessity of multiple personalities and selves is required, obviously, in case our first response is to ask which one of his selves is speaking.¹ But with that out of the way, we can get down to inquiring into the grounds for such a pressing need: Why is this multiplicity desirable? Why disdain a coherent, unitary, integrated, self? Or at least, why imagine that to maintain the appearance of one life, one self–for that is all that appears to remain in Valery’s imagining–many others are needed and necessary?

Perhaps because Valéry has noticed, like many of us do, that to want to take on many lives, to imagine living them in all of their particular details, appears as an essential component of our days and nights, that the taking on and trying out, of a new self is an integral part of our appreciation of the arts, and indeed, of others. If we empathize, it is because we can imagine ourselves as another; if we gaze in wonder at a painting depicting the joy, or sorrow, or daily tedium of another, it is because our imaginative capacity has revealed itself in our taking on the beings of those depicted on the canvas in front of us; if we feel ourselves captivated by a novel’s characters it is because we have allowed ourselves to feel themselves in us, to become them while we read.

Perhaps it is also because Valéry notices the difficulty in maintaining a coherent narrative of the self through our past and present, when physical appearances are fleeting, where psychological change is almost as continuous as our external transformation, where the attenuation, modification and alteration of the face(s) we present to our daily circumstances is a never-ending task requiring much careful attention and customization. More importantly it is a task we revel in, not one we resent. If there is a stable self, it appears at best as a convenient, fictional foundation for all the performances staged on it.

So the Internet didn’t create avatars or make them more popular; it just gave them another space to be shown and displayed in. It wasn’t and isn’t any different from all the other spaces in which we put on our personas: the office, the bedroom, the playing field, the performing stage. It lets us pretty up the avatar-construction and the showing and telling, but the activities it facilitates are not considerably different from those that take place in physical spaces: the artful posturing, the careful selection of profiles, the self-regulated speech–a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline with a ‘personality’ can often function just like a feigned accent, a dressing-up, a personality makeover.

From many one, or rather, to approximate one, many. To convey the appearance of a self, one must appear to have many.


1. As Adam Phillips does in Terrors and Experts pp. 81.