Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Being Taken In

“Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death?” said the King. “That would be nothing, nothing at all. Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.”
“I know,” said Jewel. “Or as if you drank water and it were dry water. You are in the right, Sire. This is the end of all things. Let us go and give ourselves up.”
“There is no need for both of us to go.”
“If ever we loved one another, let me go with you now,” said the Unicorn. If you are dead and if Aslan is not Aslan, what life is left for me?”
They turned and walked back together, shedding bitter tears. (C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 1956. London: Bodley Head, 1972. 31)

The Last Battle is not popular. People who enjoy Lewis’ other Narnia books, who find they can excuse all that Christianity nonsense in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or ignore it in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, tend to find themselves stumped by The Last Battle. Lewis is accused of being heavy-handed, offensive, dreary, of having an axe to grind, of sacrificing plot to religious allegory that is too ponderous to be affecting and too overt, dark or naïve for a childrens’ book.

Well, perhaps. But then why does it still invariably reduce me to tears?

Partly it’s the quality of the prose, pure Lewis. Simple, direct vocabulary, but with a beautifully resonant rhythm that pulls you right in:

The Bear lay on the ground, moving feebly. Then it mumbled in its throaty voice, bewildered to the last, “I – I don’t – understand,” laid its big head down on the grass as quietly as a child going to sleep, and never moved again. (122)

And partly it’s that combined with his ability to state a common experience, simultaneously evoking it in such a way that the moment becomes my defining literary experience or memory of that feeling:

Then Tirian realised that these people could see him; they were staring at him as if they saw a ghost. But he noticed that the king-like one who sat at the old man’s right never moved (though he turned pale) except that he clenched his hand very tight. Then he said:
“Speak, if you’re not a phantom or a dream. You have a Narnian look about you and we are the seven friends of Narnia.”
Tirian was longing to speak, and he tried to cry out aloud that he was Tirian of Narnia, in great need of help. But he found (as I have sometimes found in dreams too) that his voice made no noise at all.
The one who had already spoken to him rose to his feet. “Shadow or spirit or whatever you are,” he said, fixing his eyes full upon Tirian. “If you are from Narnia, I charge you in the name of Aslan, speak to me. I am Peter the High King.” (49-50)

But to a large extent it’s that I love the book, and have done since childhood, and that, of course, affects and informs my experience of reading it now. That love can be rationalised and explained in many ways – the two examples above for a start – but is also in itself also a factor in how I respond to the book. I remember when we were quite young we had a series of audio tapes of several of the Narnia books – not dramatised, just read aloud, with incidental music at appropriate moments. And the score for The Last Battle was so moving, so noble and sad (two of Lewis’ favourite adjectives, of course), that I was always sobbing through the final battle in the stable door. You wouldn’t stop to question the xenophobia, the absolutism, the religious agenda, to mock the pretensions of Peter and Tirian and Jewel, because you didn’t want to. You wanted to believe the story.

"But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash that his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, child?” (166)

Reading the story now, I want it to remain the Narnia I remember and love; and so it does. The elements that made me love it are still there. I have changed, not the book, but I can choose to see it primarily with the eyes of a child, and not any of my sets of adult eyes: the ones I closed and turned away from the priest in Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral when I stood in the choir loft, wondering why the rest of the congregation couldn’t see certain of his words for the propaganda and mass manipulation they were; or the ones with which I would read Chaucer, detached from its emotional context, only to analyse; or the ones with which I would read a Harry Potter book, impatient with Rowling’s inability to notice her own moral grey areas (a group of kids being obnoxious at school does not mean they will all be irrevocably evil and should therefore be ostracised by all right-thinking people for the rest of their lives).

So I can see the shortcomings in Lewis’ writing, and the potential offensiveness of his preaching, but when I read it I choose not to see it. I choose to immerse myself in it and take it at face value, just as I believe in trawþe for Gawain’s sake when I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Not being a Christian, I take ‘Aslan’ purely on his Narnian terms, isolating Lewis’ version of right and wrong from the real world. But others prefer to take a more active approach in their reading.

Most famously, Neil Gaiman wrote a short story in 2004 criticising Lewis’ treatment of Susan, excluded from Aslan’s country for her love of “nylons and lipsticks” (Last Battle 138), left behind in England to mourn all three siblings and her parents. And I’m currently following the writing of a fanfic author, bedlamsbard, who regards The Last Battle as we have it as effectively an Apocalypse myth (and refuses to admit The Magician’s Nephew as canon at all). Her Dust in the Air picks up the story five years after Jill and Eustace are sent to Narnia, with Narnia in Calormene control and resistance reduced to fitful guerilla warfare in the outlying forests. Tirian is perhaps as much a fugitive from the angry Narnians as from the Calormenes, Cair Paravel and the surrounding city are a New Orleans-style melting pot of different cultures, languages and styles, every race and culture and family has its own motivations and opinions which necessitates a good deal more political negotiation than just waving a sword and crying “For Aslan!”, and the Pevensies (all four of them) are rather surprised to be summoned back to Narnia by a dark magic ritual (involving Susan’s horn and the life’s blood of a willing Centaur) performed by a group of religious fanatics who are convinced the kings and queens of old are demigods.

So for this author, reading Lewis provokes the desire both to explore the world farther, and to amend it. Reading Dust, and her simultaneous reflections on writing it, is an exercise in reconsidering points of Lewis’ writing that could have been handled differently if he had chosen to engage with his own world on a deeper, more realistic level, rather than light fantasy and heroism. For example, living back and forth across two worlds, ageing and returning to childhood, has tipped Bedlam’s Pevensies much closer to the edge of sanity than Lewis’ idealised English children. If the world held no interest for her, provoked no love, there would be no motivation to engage with it on that deeper level; but if it were perfect, if she were happy to be entirely that audience Lewis portrays and no more, to take him entirely at face value and let his views shape hers – to be, effectively, constructed by him – she would have no reason to write her own version.

So she constructs him instead - more directly than any critic. She makes her own Narnia, her own Last Battle, writing her own reading of the text.

But she found, a few days ago, that some anonymous reader has been through the fiction she’s posted on her journal over the last two years, and written a series of comments on how she’s ‘got Lewis wrong’.

So this begs the question of which party in the experience of reading ought to be prioritised: the author, or the reader?

It’s not a novel question at all (pun intended after the fact): it’s one that most literary critics have had to grapple with at some point in the process of defining their critical approach in general. For example:

It does not follow for Hirsch [in Validity and Interpretation (1967)] that because the meaning of a work is identical with what the author meant by it at the time of writing, only one interpretation of the text is possible. There may be a number of different valid interpretations, but all of them must move within the ‘system of typical expectations and probabilities’ which the author’s meaning permits. Nor does Hirsch deny that a literary work may ‘mean’ different things to different people at different times. But this, he claims, is more properly a matter of the work’s ‘significance’ rather than its ‘meaning’. The fact that I may produce Macbeth in a way which makes it relevant to nuclear warfare does not alter the fact that this is not what Macbeth, from Shakespeare’s point of view, means. Significances vary through history, whereas meanings remain constant; authors put in meanings, whereas readers assign significances.

This is all well and good, so long as all we want to do with a text is seek the author’s purpose. But it a) presupposes that the author had one (only one?) finite purpose and b) that it can be discovered, which, by its own argument, it can’t: anything I discover about the text is a significance, even if I discover it while in pursuit of meaning. If meanings remain constant, they resist historical change, and sorry, but history has changed. I am not living in Lewis’ world, or Chaucer’s, and more than that, I am not living in their minds. Seeking to construct the author’s thoughts is a futile exercise because, as Hirsch admits, we will never be in a position to know what those thoughts were, even if we do hit on the right meaning. ‘Meaning’ therefore becomes everything general or unarguable that we can deduce about a text, without allowing us to probe further. Or rather, we can – but anything we come up with is automatically subordinated by being assigned the label ‘significance’. Essentially, reader is completely subordinate to author. Or to what we perceive the author to be. It’s a circular argument, and the only way you can get anywhere within it is to decide what is, overall, most likely to be the author’s intention – or submit to the opinion of some great authority on the subject – then make everything else fit that. Which leads eventually to something like this:

“And now there’s another thing you got to learn,” said the Ape. “I hear some of you saying I’m an Ape. Well, I’m not. I’m a Man. If I look like an Ape, that’s because I’m so very old: hundreds and hundreds of years old. And it’s because I’m so old that I’m so wise. And it’s because I’m so wise that I’m the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to. He can’t be bothered talking to a lot of stupid animals. He’ll tell me what you’ve got to do, and I’ll tell the rest of you. And take my advice, and see you do it in double quick time, for He doesn’t mean to stand any nonsense.”
There was dead silence except for the noise of a very young badger crying and its mother trying to make it keep quiet. (35)

And of course, I’d rather have the freedom to do many more things with a text than simply seek the author’s purpose. That has its place, of course, but too much of it and not only do you cease to think for yourself, you cease to enjoy: in fact, you lose the text.

So do we have a third party in this equation – author, reader and the text itself? On either end there is an absolute (more or less) – the author’s intention and the reader’s reception – and in the centre there is the nebulous thing itself. I rather like the analogy of text as performance: actor, audience and that space between them that comes to life. The actor has something he[1] wants to convey, the performance is rarely exactly what he had in his head, and what the audience sees is going to be different again. I went to see The Merchant of Venice some years ago, and there is a terrible moment in the judgement scene when the tables have turned completely on the once-triumphant Shylock, and Antonio asks the Duke to be lenient and spare his life. Just one thing more: “that for this favour, he presently become a Christian”. And that is a line that makes me cringe; but many people in the audience laughed. There was a question and answer session with the cast after the play, and I asked the Antonio what he thought of that moment – did he believe Antonio was trying to be merciful, save Shylock’s soul despite him by forcing his conversion? And he said no – his Antonio was being purely malicious, purely vengeful. So what I saw in that actor’s portrayal of Antonio (which was a moment of horribly wrong-headed nobility) differed from what the actor saw, and from what the rest of the audience saw (which somehow found a way for that to be funny).

So we have at least three interpretations in the theatre – but of course, they were none of the disinterested. The members of the audience who laughed were predisposed to respond with laughter because the rest of the play was acted as a light comedy, even if they appreciated the darkness of that moment. I know the play well and love it, knew that line was coming up, and expected to find it appalling because I always do: and therefore, I did. And the actor has just been up on stage wholely immersed in portraying a man who is about to have his heart cut out and now has a chance to get his own back – it’s hardly surprising that he sees it as Antonio’s revenge and thinks it’s fully justified. And between them all, playing a game of cause and effect with each point of view but being wholly defined by none of them, is that thing called the performance. And I also, in different times and contexts, will respond to that line differently – in the theatre with the gut-wrenching emotional response, in narrating it to a friend with irony and amusement, in writing critically with detached evaluation.

So, thanks but no thanks to that anonymous commenter – there is no right way. My way of reading is not your way and not Lewis’ way and, most of all, I reserve the right to change my way. I want to feel free to say, on some days, “So what on earth do all those leopards and tigers in the Narnian army eat? I hope they’re vegetarians, or some of the herbivores are going to be finding those living conditions in Aslan’s How very cramped. And also, Lewis, I reserve the right to decide that people are not evil just because they spread oil on their bread instead of wholesome English butter”. But on other days I will read The Last Battle, or Pride and Prejudice, or the Odyssey, with whole-hearted emotional immersion, believing in it and living in it. If the text is good, I want to have faith in it, even if I don’t agree with it. It deserves that. And it's as much a challenge as the other, really, because to believe in cultures and ideals that aren't yours is hard work.

I shall let Lewis have the last word, on the condition that he and I agree to disagree to a certain extent, on the subject of How the Dwarfs Refused to be Taken Into the Text.

“Look out!” said one of [the dwarfs] in a surly voice. “Mind where you’re going! Don’t walk into our faces!”
“All right!” said Eustace indignantly. “We’re not blind. We’ve got eyes in our heads.”
“They must be darn good ones if you can see in here,” said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.
“In where?” asked Edmund.
“Why you bone-head, in here of course,” said Diggle. “In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”
“Are you blind?” said Tirian.
“Ain’t we all blind in the dark!” said Diggle.
“But it isn’t dark at all, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”
“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there?”
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (146-150)

[1] Yes, I know, but I’m using the male pronoun for a reason – or rather, using the fact that I’m about to talk about an example involving male actors as an excuse to avoid that ugly s/he business.

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