Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jumping in on Lewis

Well, I would rather wait and let someone else lead the conversation on Till We Have Faces, but I finished it on our recent trip to Texas and am already forgetting some of the thoughts it inspired. I had read the book before (maybe 10 years ago?) and remembered the plot but not the nuances. I commented to my sister on the phone thatI like this book, but it’s not on my list of favorites, and I have a hard time putting my finger on why I don’t LOVE this book, because I love the idea of it and I love the ideas in it. On the other hand, I didn’t love CS Lewis’ space trilogy either, so maybe it is that his fiction, aside from the Narnia books, doesn’t have the luminosity of his apologetics and memoirs. Maybe it’s the dream sequence at the end that seems like an artificial appendage. Maybe it’s just my taste buds.

Even though I don’t have this one on my all-time fave’s list, I did like it better this time around, especially reading it right after my recent review of world lit. Orual’s complaints don't seem quite so farfetched this time around. She’s so bristly and self-defensive that she is difficult to like as a heroine, and I think when I read this book the first time her faults seemed less excusable through the lenses of my own idealism. Her selfishness in her treatment of Istra/Psyche is so obvious to the reader that it’s hard to sympathize with her when she blackmails Psyche. Nonetheless I had more empathy for her this time, maybe because it’s so tempting to see yourself as ugly and unloved, the injured or aggrandized party, and to waste emotional energy contemplating how others have failed or abandoned you. I can only guess as you get older, you gain more and more experience in the shortcomings of human love. You would think that loving others would get easier with practice, but it’s easy to imagine how Orual doesn’t want to grant the people she loves the freedom to leave her. I didn’t want the Fox to leave her either. I fear that my own brand of love tends dangerously toward the devouring variety, also.

And what heartbreak to learn at the end of your life how much your selfishness has hurt others when you thought you were loving them. It’s hard to imagine that Bardia would’ve lived his life differently if his queen and his wife were less jealous of each other, but maybe he would have suffered less if they were more generous in allowing him freedom to divvy up his time between them the way he saw fit.

I’m still unclear about what to think about Ungit -- and how much of the pagan world is Lewis representing as figures for Christian faith? Is she supposed to be a fearsome pagan earthy fertility goddess to be abandoned, the Eternal Feminine, or some allegorical figure for the desire for fruitful rituals and faith? What does Psyche’s trip to the underworld to get Beauty for Ungit mean? That Psyche’s figurative death and resurrection out of love for Orual make Orual beautiful and worthy of standing before the god?  It's tempting to read this as allegory, but then the characters don't fit in a neat box, like the Fox who seems to represent the rational view of life, but he loves poetry and the girls and seems to want to believe in something.


Melanie B said...

I've been hesitant to jump in myself simply because I have a hard time knowing what to make of TWHF. I do like it a bit more every time I read it. Emily, like you I don't love it but I rather suspect that it's Lewis's best work. And I do think that it has the potential even to become a favorite over time if I ever really get a handle on it.

Though Orual is really not a lovable character like Lucy Pevensie or Jill Scrubb, still I think she's so very human and I identify with her perhaps more than I really feel comfortable with.

"And what heartbreak to learn at the end of your life how much your selfishness has hurt others when you thought you were loving them."
That is really one of the things that makes this book so uncomfortable to read. The knowledge that Orual's self-deception isn't really out of the ordinary, the suspicion that were I able to see myself clearly I'd look more like her than Psyche.

I'm not sure what to make of Ungit either. There does seem to be some similarity in Lewis' treatment of her and of Tash in The Last Battle. The idea that whatever is true and good in the devotion offered to Tash (or to Ungit or any of the pagan Gods) will be credited to the worshiper as righteousness. But Ungit is more complex than that simple formula. She also represents that devouring love, the selfishness and greed which grasps at its object and seeks to control and manipulate.

And what to make of the problem of the Greek statue or Aphrodite, which clearly is meant to be a lesser Goddess than Ungit? Is it because the statue is less honest, it has the same ugliness at it's core but whitewashed to look beautiful?

One of the things I can't quite work out is what to make of the declaration that Orual is Psyche.

I think Psyche's trip to the underworld is a type of the crucifixion. Psyche is (almost) the innocent victim who willingly lays down her life for her undeserving sister while Orual is still steeped in sin. She's not quite innocent though, is she? She knows she shouldn't light the lamp and does so anyway. What would have happened had she refused, had she sought some other way out of the dilemma Orual set her? Is there another way out? What if she'd left the palace and gone back with Orual? Would that have been better than a betrayal of her marriage? Or would that too have been a betrayal only of a different kind?

I do like that the novel is not a clear allegory. Lewis is doing something much more complex and more interesting.

GretchenJoanna said...

I haven't read the book recently enough to comment - I am just jumping in to ask what the next book(s) are that you will be reading...just in case I could read along.

Melanie B said...

That conversation hasn't actually happened. Though I guess the next book will be up to me. We've delayed my turn till June since we never discussed Till We Have Faces in April. And I'm chronically undecided. I guess I really should stop to consider what I want to suggest to the group for our next read.

Bittner said...

I just finished reviewing the Chronicles of Narnia on my blog and I'm currently reading through the small publication of Lewis's poems. And I've always loved his novels and meant to read TWHF but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
I didn't know much about the plot though so I really enjoyed reading your review and the comments people added.
Have a good Memorial Day!

Heather said...

This isn't the most relevant comment, but I have thought for a while that Leonard Cohen's song Alexandra Leaving is a musical version of TWHF. Here's a link to it on youtube, with the lyrics, in case you're not familiar with the song: What do you all think?