Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In Lewis's country

From Chapter 1 in Thomas Howard's The Achievement of C.S. Lewis (1980):
I may illustrate this problem by referring to my own experience of teaching prep school and college students. I have sometimes given a class the following list of words: majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, purity. The reaction is quite predictible: either a total blank, embarrassed snickers, or incredulity. The entire list of words lands in their laps like a heap of dead basalt meteorites lately arrived from some other realm. They don't know what to do with them. They have never encountered them. The words are entirely foreign to the whole set of assumptions that has been written (or I should say televised) into these students' imaginations for the whole of their lives. Majesty? The man must be mad. Valor? What's that? Courtesy? What a bore. Virginity? Ho-ho—there's one for you! Chuckle, chuckle.

After I have gotten my reaction I point out to them that this awful list of words names an array of qualities that any Jew, any pagan, and any Christian, up until quite recently in history, would have not only understood, but would have extolled as being close to the center of things. Their vision of reality presented them with a picture in which these things appeared as not only natural, but blissful. Lewis understood the daunting improbability of awakening the stultified modern imagination to ancient and eternal blisses and realities. He understood the task, and he undertook it by means of the oldest method there is. He began to tell stories (sometimes you can smuggle something in as fiction that you can't force on people in a debate). ....

In the moral mythology of C.S. Lewis, the way of health lies along the well-trodden path, not in newly blazed trails. I suppose that if Lewis had lived long enough to see the phenomenon of "happenings" he would have started in horror (he was shock-able) at these quite vividly dramatized imaginations of hell. For hell, in Lewis's vision, is the ultimately unstructured place, the place of final fragmentation and randomness and inanity, and this is what was celebrated in the happenings of the 1960's.

The City of God on the other hand (thought Lewis, and St. Augustine, and St. John the Divine, and others) is a city four-square, with adamantine foundations and high walls, whose denizens have learned to experience as bliss the steps of the Dance. They are called saints, and their joyful vision of things is wholly remote from what we find extolled in the imagery of contemporaneity. Lewis's works of imagination adumbrate their vision, for if there is one word that rings like the peal of a thousand bells from Lewis's country, it is the word Joy.
Thomas Howard, "The Peal of a Thousand Bells," The Achievement of C.S. Lewis, 1980.

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