Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Great Divorce: Later Episodes and Major Themes

In this, my third guest blog on The Great Divorce I'll be saying a few things about the later episodes in the book (that is, mainly after the appearance of George Macdonald as a character) and about some of the major themes. We're nearing the end of our time with The Great Divorce. I'll be doing just one more guest blog after this one. I hope to post it by Sunday so you'll have time to make some final comments and then move on to February's book (Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev).

Later episodes in The Great Divorce

In last week's blog I discussed a few of the earlier episodes: the Big Ghost who wants his "rights," the Episcopal Ghost, Ikey (who is trying to take apples back to hell), and two women (the embarrassed one and the flirtatious one) who appear just before and just after George Macdonald's entry on the scene as a guide and teacher for the character Lewis.

This week we'll turn to later episodes in which we meet an artist, a woman who wants her husband Robert, a woman who wants her son Michael, an oily man with a red lizard on his shoulder, and the Tragedian and the Dwarf (husband of Sarah Smith, who has already been mentioned admiringly in readers' comments over the past couple of weeks). Of course I'll only be scratching the surface of what could be said about these episodes.

The artist obviously has an ego problem: despite his claim not to be concerned about his reputation, he explodes with indignation when he learns that his "side" in an artistic controversy on earth is losing, and he says he wants to go back to write an article or start a journal to promote his cause. Lewis uses this episode to make some profound points about art and humility. The Spirit who meets the artist doesn't demand that he give up his art, though he needs to stop clinging to it like a possession; rather, he needs to give up worrying about himself. He needs to remember what first stirred his interest in art: a love of light, which of course is part of the glorious reality God has created. He exemplifies a problem that can afflict any artist: becoming more interested in artistic technique than in the realities that technique can convey and then sinking even lower to be among those who are less interested in the art itself than "in their own personalities" or "reputations." He has to reacquire his original love of God's creation and lose his sense of ownership over his own works of art. Then, we are told, he can enjoy his own works "just as if they were someone else's: without pride and without modesty."

That remarkable closing phrase suggests that true humility doesn't mean refusing to enjoy our own creations or insisting that they lack value--in fact, thinking about how poor our work is can be another way of focusing on ourselves. Rather, we should appreciate our own work as if it were not ours, glorying in whatever is good about it simply because it is good, not worrying who has captured a bit of divine beauty or truth in their art but simply enjoying the beauty and truth themselves. As Lewis puts it in an essay titled "Christianity and Literature," the Christian will ask "of every idea and of every method" "not 'Is it mine?', but 'Is it good?'"

When I mentioned the woman who wants her husband Robert and the woman who wants her son Michael, I hope you noticed the chilling implications of the word "wants." It almost suggests devouring; there is certainly something controlling and possessive about this kind of "wanting." Both episodes show the dangers of a false kind of love in which a person fails to truly desire the welfare of others but "wants" those others in order to satisfy a craving for someone to control or possess. Despite the self-justifications (which they apparently believe) these two women's motivation is in fact selfish--they are using others to try to give meaning to their own lives. As Lewis puts it somewhere else, such people live "for others"; you can tell the others "by their hunted look."

Besides Lewis's insights, one thing that makes these episodes memorable is the authenticity of the two characters' language--their manner and tone is frighteningly familiar and realistic. We have heard people who talk--or have heard ourselves talk--just like this. By creating such vivid, recognizable characters, Lewis helps us see the horrible reality that sometimes underlies what we call "love." The woman who wants her husband Robert, for instance, has convinced herself that she is the unselfish one, always doing her duty and ready to forgive her resistant husband. But the reality is that she made his life on earth miserable, prevented him from following his real inclinations and gifts in order to make him what she considered "successful," and drove him to a nervous breakdown--all, supposedly, for his own good. Now she wants him back because, without him, her life is empty. Near the end of the episode she pronounces the chilling, revealing words, "I must have someone to--to do things to."

The episode with the mother who wants her son raises some additional issues. If God loves us, why would he take away people we love? Why in this case does a mother lose her son? Through the character George Macdonald, Lewis gives at least the beginning of an answer: God's love for us doesn't necessarily guarantee we'll have everything we want as soon as we want it, but it does mean he'll give us, at the right time and in the right way, what is for our ultimate good. And he may--for our own and for their good--have to separate us from those we love. In this case, it appears God knows this woman does not truly love her son and will never learn to love him until she learns to love (and submit to) God first. She needs to become godly in order to love with a godly love. Given that God is her creator (her relation with Him is "older and closer" than her relation with her son) and given that God's love is perfect, she cannot become godly until she puts aside her desires--even powerful and natural ones--and trusts in Him. Unfortunately, the mother in The Great Divorce is so entrenched in the demanding, possessive, self-centered state she thinks is love that she sees God as an enemy. The true nature of her "motherly love" is revealed when she says of her son, "He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever." We're even told she might demand to have him with her in hell rather than allow him to be happy in heaven.

One of my favorite episodes--partly because it is the only one that without question ends happily--is the one with the "dark and oily man" with "a little red lizard" on his shoulder. The lizard may represent any kind of sin we cling to, especially a sin that has become addictive (as all sin is to some extent). The oily man is embarrassed by the sin but can't let it go. He's afraid the process will hurt, and the sin has become so much a part of himself he's afraid he'll be losing part of his own identity if he loses it. He wants to think about giving up the sin (but wants to put off having that actually happen) or let go of it gradually. But he is told he must make a choice now: "There is no other day. All days are present now" (Latter-day Saints may be reminded of scriptures that talk about the fatal effect of "procrastinating the day of our repentance"). When the man gives in, the lizard is violently killed--the process of wrenching it from the oily man apparently does hurt. But then the lizard turns into a glorious stallion, the oily man becomes bright and solid--in other words, he becomes for the first time truly a man--and the "new-made man" mounts the horse and rides off joyously toward the mountains.

The point should be clear: when we give up our sins, though the process may be painful, we will be more than compensated by being enabled to experience true joy. But not only that--something in the sin itself, or in the confused desires that led to it, will be transformed into something glorious. We will be freed from our addiction, from the enslaving power of sin, and the true and innocent desire that had to be twisted to become sinful will be magnificently fulfilled.

Lewis's point may be clearer if we notice that the oily man's sin is specifically identified in the book as being lust. Lewis is suggesting that God does not want to annihilate our desires, including our sexual desires, but wants to transform them into something holy. "Lust" is our name for what happens to sexual desire when it becomes self-involved, disconnected from genuine love, anxious, and secretive--and addictive as well, since (under these conditions) it can't be truly satisfied. Though lust produces self-loathing, we may find it hard to give up because, in our confusion, we think giving it up means losing part of what makes us human. (Isn't sexual desire "natural"?) Yet the truth is that if we turn our sexual desires (in whatever imperfect or distorted shape they've gotten into) over to God, he can make them into a source of life, power, joy, and love. (As Lewis puts it, "Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.") If I'm understanding him aright, Lewis is saying that God doesn't want our natural desires and energies to be weak or lifeless; he wants them to be powerful. But they can be powerful--and positive and productive--only when we submit ourselves to God and let Him kill and heal all that is twisted and sickly in us.

The last major episode--and to me one of the most chilling--is the one in which we meet the Tragedian and the Dwarf (on earth, his name was Frank). (The accompanying picture is from a dramatic version of The Great Divorce performed by the Lamb's Players. I've seen them do it--the performance was stunning.) I respond as I do to this episode because this is a character I especially identify with. In his voice I recognize my own. I think I've gotten a lot better over the years, but I have a problem with self-pity and with getting a perverse substitute for happiness from letting other people know what they've done to make life difficult for me. I see the "Tragedian" as the way Frank habitually presents himself to others--the dramatic embodiment of his sense of being wronged. The word "Tragedian" suggests both Frank's self-imposed misery and the posturing and dramatizing he displays through this false "self" he has created. The real Frank is called a "Dwarf" because he has become less and less himself--and less and less of a real person--the more he has let the false self take over. The two seem connected by a chain to suggest that Frank has allowed himself to be enslaved by this false, manipulative, even destructive way of trying to get people's attention and love. Frank almost gives in more than once, but his self-centered craving for pity is so strong that he would apparently rather be miserable than give it up.

I find two moments in the narrative especially heartbreaking--Lewis's words, "I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy" (in other words, something in the Dwarf wants to give in and open himself to joy, but he struggles against it), and the Dwarf's disappearance, "perhaps . . . somehow absorbed into the chain," as if Frank ends in total bondage, total self-deception, and total misery, having lost his true self and having in effect become the craving he couldn't give up. This episode helps make clear why we must lose ourselves in order to truly find ourselves.

Sarah Smith may seem almost too good to be true--but keep in mind that she is in heaven and has turned herself over to God. I see her as embodying Lewis's idea that even the most ordinary human being, with a common name, living in a small and unknown corner of the world, can become a glorious and godlike being. Lewis expresses the same idea in these famous words from "The Weight of Glory": "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."

Lewis also gives Sarah Smith what, in my opinion, is one of the best lines in the book: "What we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved." Ah, yes! We truly do need divine help for our human love to turn into the pure love of Christ.

Another photo from the Lamb's Players production of The Great Divorce

Some major themes

I've already touched on many of the book's themes: the nature of sin, the nature of love, the joy that God has in store for us, the dangers of valuing a religion of the mind over a real encounter with God (think of the Episcopal Ghost here), and--especially in the book's symbols and imagery--the transcendent reality of heaven that makes hell and even earth seem insubstantial by comparison.

This last idea--that heaven is not less but more real and substantial than earth--seems to me especially important. In another book (Miracles) Lewis goes so far as to say that, even though he accepts the creeds that claim God is "without body, parts, and passions," he interprets them to mean "without body, parts, and passions" of the sort that we humans are currently capable of understanding or experiencing. But to whatever extent having a body and having passions are positive realities, God must incorporate those realities to a transcendent degree. And so Lewis would prefer to call God "transcorporeal" rather than "incorporeal," for God certainly does not lack some reality we possess. If God "exists at all," Lewis writes in Miracles, "He is the most concrete thing there is, the most individual, 'organised and minutely articulated'"--one way of saying that God is the most real, definite, and specific (and by implication, solid and substantial) being there is.

Two other themes that seem to me especially important relate to agency and selfhood. According to The Great Divorce, God doesn't arbitrarily assign people to heaven or hell; people end up being where they choose to be. The bus driver tells his passengers they don't have to return to hell; they can stay in heaven as long as they want. George Macdonald (as a character in the book) says, "All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."

So why would anyone not choose Heaven--that is, a fullness of reality and a fullness of joy? Again, the character Macdonald says, "There is always something they prefer to joy--that is, to reality." And what, we may ask, would that be? As far as I've been able to figure out, it turns out that, in every explanation and example given in the book, what is chosen instead of Heaven has something to do with self or with one's image of or feelings about oneself--with one's dignity or sense of being in control or of being properly appreciated or fairly treated. The Big Ghost wants his "rights" and doesn't want to have to depend on anybody else. The Episcopal Ghost wants to be free to think whatever he wants rather than open himself to a reality outside of himself. The flirtatious ghost wants to be noticed. The Dwarf (speaking through the Tragedian he has created) wants to be loved, needed, appreciated, and pitied--but all in a needy, clinging, self-involved, and ultimately false and unhealthy way that doesn't allow him to be open to others or to offer himself to them. The woman who wants Robert and the mother who wants Michael are focused entirely on their own cravings to possess and control. The artist wants to be appreciated. He also wants to be "right"--that is, he wants his side to win in the ultimately insignificant arguments going on on earth.

In every case, the characters seem to be choosing self over God and over joy--which ironically means a diminishment of their true selves. As the character Macdonald puts it (quoting Milton), they would rather "reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." Instead of their saying to God, "Thy will be done," God has to say to each of them, "Thy will be done," even when that means their choice to be miserable. They end up being so shut up in themselves (in their own minds and desires) that they cannot receive the blessings God would gladly give them: "Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see." Lewis's point here has scriptural support, including this remarkable passage: those who are finally cast out "shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received. For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:32-33).

How do we avoid this kind of resistance to heavenly joy? Since the problem has something to do with self, we must (according to Lewis) willingly submit ourselves to God. The embarrassed lady in The Great Divorce is asked, "Could you not, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?" We are told of a man who had invested so much of himself in the question of life after death that he can't give it up even in heaven, where the question has been answered. The solution would have been to have "had a good laugh at himself" and "begun all over again like a little child and entered into joy." But he won't do it. Michael's mother is told she just needs to admit she's been wrong: "We've all been wrong! That's the great joke. There's no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living." But she's offended--that is, her prickly, dignified, self-justifying ego is offended--at the suggestion she might be wrong, and so she refuses to give in.

Lewis explores these issues in other books, for instance, describing his own resistance to "interference" in Surprised by Joy and discussing "the great sin" of pride and the need for total submission in Mere Christianity. In The Four Loves Lewis examines why our "natural loves," including familial affection, romantic desire, and even friendship, are part of what we have to submit to God. Left to themselves, he says, they go bad--become obsessive and destructive. We must offer them to God, in a sense allow them to be killed, so they can be resurrected and transformed by God's grace into the transcendently good and godly realities them have it in them to become.

The Great Divorce thus presents themes that appear throughout Lewis's works. But they appear here in an especially memorable way. What The Great Divorce contributes is a series of vivid examples showing how these principles (choice, self, submission to God, etc.) might work themselves out in individual cases.

Between now and the final Great Divorce blog

In my final blog I'll have a few more thoughts about the book, including what I feel are some of its limitations. But what I'm most looking forward to now are readers' comments. I hope you'll post comments before the weekend to assure a good discussion before my final blog and the end of our current adventure with The Great Divorce. I'd like to know if there are other themes you think are important or if there are any significant episodes you think I've overlooked. I'd like to hear additional thoughts on the episodes I have discussed or on the themes I've brought up. Was Lewis right? Do you see any personal applications? Have you had experiences--or do you know of other people's experiences--that relate to what you've read in The Great Divorce?

Or feel free to bring up anything else that strikes your fancy, preferably something that occurs to you in the course of reading or thinking about Lewis's book.


older singer said...

What a wonderful post, Bruce Young!
I think that Sarah Smith's line "Most of what we call love is the craving to be loved" expresses the plight of almost everyone in the book--except the love they crave is not God's love, but a mortal imitation of it. Even lust masks itself as love. Michael's mother wants her motherhood more than her son's joy. The forever fixing wife wants the love of a man she herself has created or "done over," rather than offering herself to--and recognizing--the man God has created.
That's relevant to the title as well. The great marriage binds us to God, whose light allows to view the glory of those who surround us. The great divorce binds us to our fantasies and our own shadows.
"Bridle your passions that ye may be filled with love."

Factotum said...

Wow, throughout that post I came up with perhaps pages of comments--truly thought provoking!

First, again on the oily man with the lizard: as I was reading the post, the lizard for me took on a new name--eating disorder--I'd say we currently have a world-wide lizard epidemic. Girls (I don't know of any boy as of yet) are clinging to these lizards choosing hell over heaven because it might be painful to get rid of. They think that if they just put off getting rid of it until they're emaciated and grotesquly thin that it'll be easy or perhaps that the lizard will leave on its own. How wrong they are and how sad that something as small as a lizard could have such devestating effects.

I'll save more of my comments for tomorrow.

Ben Crowder said...

The Spirit's comment to the artist about the love of light has stuck with me ever since the first time I read this book, working its way into my own (rather amateur) art and photography and becoming part of the way I see the world. Light (along with the interplay of shadows) gives me goosebumps. It makes me happy that light and dark figure so prominently as symbols in the eternal scheme of things.

Anyway, giving up possession of our art, so to speak, is rather liberating. It seems like we're more likely to create great art when we're not so caught up in the me-aspect of it -- when we're free to concentrate solely on the art itself. Pulling our focus into ourselves only blinds us from everything else out there. It is hard to separate ourselves from our art, especially when the art is good (though on second thought, when the art is bad it's just as much a problem). But that's where progress lies.

As for the lizard, isn't it beautiful how God doesn't want to "annihilate our desires"? He first created our desires, and then, if we let him, he recreates them -- perfects and sanctifies them. I think it's part of what Lewis says elsewhere (though I can't remember where at the moment -- probably Mere Christianity): the closer we get to God, the more we become ourselves. God doesn't want to make us all the same. But he does want to give us a solid foundation from which we can grow without limit, and that foundation is the set of character traits that we find in Him (love, integrity, selflessness, etc.).

Using pity to manipulate others is something I've caught myself doing many times. "I'm just so bogged down with ______ [fill in the blank -- schoolwork, work, calling, whatever], I don't have any time," I say, trying to make my burden seem so heavy that others won't want to add to it. And it does work, unfortunately, which is why it's so treacherous.

Regarding agency, I love Lewis's statement that the door to hell is locked on the inside. Too true, too true.

older singer said...

Factotum--I really like the idea that the lizard could be an eating disorder. A friend of mine who works with girls suffering from these tragic disorders often asks them, "Would you rather be happy or thin?" The answer far too often is "thin." Also of interest is the very common attitude of young women with the disorder regarding it as a friend. Lewis was RIGHT ON with his symbol.

Factotum said...

In regards to the mother who wants her son: I saw so much of myself in this character it was a bit frightening. If I were to lose one of my children (or my husband) I'm almost certain I would lose my mind. Would I submit to God and allow the Great Physician to heal my wounds or would I remain bitter and blame God forever?

Currently, the main character flaw I have in common with the mother is this: I am often times over protective, wanting my children to remain at home where I can moniter them instead of allowing them certain opportunies (kindergarten is going to kill me)

I also see in this character a possessive love that lives in the past--when her son was "mommy's boy." Parents that fall under this category focus so much on the past that they fail to see their child as an adult, constantly asking their child if he/she remembers such and such time. Because of this desire to possess a time that is in the past, these parents miss out on so much. It is parents like this that I see dragging their 5-year-old to Hell with them rather than allowing them to become the man/ woman that they are capable of becoming?

ML said...

Maybe that's why being a grandparent is heavenly. A grandparent doesn't have the temptation of selfish love, because there are just too darn many other important people in that child's life. The grandparent can only enjoy what moments they have with "their" grandchild.

Change of focus: The flirtatious ghost --- not a fan of horror movies and books, but I would imagine screen writers or authors of the genre would be envious of Lewis' ability to create such gruesome imagery with so few words.

Bruce Young said...

Yes! In fact, Lewis's description is maybe almost too graphic ("If a corpse already liquid with decay had arisen from the coffin, smeared its gums with lipstick, . . ."--sorry to those who never wanted to remember that image again). What I think redeems the gruesomeness is that Lewis is making a profound and potentially redemptive moral point (for sometimes we need to face ugly and evil things to realize how urgently we need to repent and how much we are in need of God's saving power) AND that he doesn't dwell excessively on such things but balances them with positive images that allow room for faith, hope, and having something other than nightmares after reading the book.

older singer said...

Ben Crowder's comments on the artist in _TGD_ will be relevant as we read _My Name is Asher Lev_. In fact, they make a fine transition.

older singer said...

While reading the book of Mark this morning, I came across the passage, "He [Jesus] taught with authority, and not as the scribes." The "scribes" (writers) reminded me of the endless article/book writers caught in the "Publish or Perish" paradigm, who are always rethinking faith and other important questions. The contrast between Jesus' BEING--the authority of the I Am--and the scribes (much like the Episcopal bishop) struck me.

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