Monday, February 27, 2012

C.S. Lewis: Near the Journey’s End – XV

On October 26, 1963 Lewis writes to Nancy Warner:

“Thank you for your most kind letter. I feel like purring!

“Please remember me to your third son…He is not only a promising scholar but the best mannered man of his generation I have ever met.

“I suppose your philosopher son…means the chapter in which Puddleglum puts out the fire with his foot. He must thank Anselm and Descartes for it, not me. I have simply put the ‘Ontological Proof’ in a form suitable for children. And even that is not so remarkable a feat as you might think.”

After reading the above letter I opened The Silver Chair, turned to Chapter 12, which Lewis refers to above, and found that I had heavily marked and annotated this chapter in previous readings. My dear friend Bruce Harrison frequently quotes from this chapter; I’ll get to Bruce’s favorite part below. While Anselm, Descartes, Lewis, and Pascal used the ontological argument; many philosophers are unimpressed by it; however, on a gut level the ontological argument has a force that appeals to our raw nature – that is, it goes beyond the intellectual and speaks to the depth of our personhood. This is why the argument takes the form of a deep-seated cry from Puddleglum, a protest against the Queen of Underland, a rebellion against the notion that the only things real are the physical things we can see and touch.

“ “Narnia?” she [the queen/witch] said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.” ”

“ “Tell us…[the witch talking] where is this other world? What ships and chariots go between it and ours?” ”

“She [Jill, one of the protagonists] found herself saying… “No. I suppose that other world must be all a dream.” ”

“For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her she said: “There’s Aslan.” ”

Throughout Chapter 12 the Queen/Witch tries to make Puddleglum and the children believe that Aslan and Narnia are dreams, myths; that they aren’t real. She has a counterargument for everything they bring up, trying to lure them into a sleep that will allow her to imprison them. She casts doubt upon every memory they have of Narnia, of Aslan, of the sun, the moon, the stars; she is relentless. And then we come to Bruce’s oft-quoted passage, perhaps the most stirring passage in the Narniad, and it comes from, of all people, Puddleglum – a curmudgeonly character as gloomy as Reepicheep (Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is vibrant and upbeat.

“ “One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia…” ” [Bold print mine].

Shades of Daniel’s three friends in the furnace.

One of my marginal notes in Chapter 12 is, “How do you know something?” There isn’t just the ontological argument here, there is also the issue of epistemology – how do we know what we know? Puddleglum and the children knew the witch’s world was not the real world, they knew Aslan was real, they knew Narnia was real.

The world is hollow indeed if we are accidents looking for a place to happen. Pascal tells us that our dogs never want to be lions or tigers or bears, and our cats never wake up wanting to be elephants, but we know there are greater and more meaningful things than what we can see and touch and taste – we know, we know – we know there is a contradiction in mankind – we can be like angels one minute and like ravenous beasts the next – we have a sense of an ideal of perfection and a corresponding sense that things aren’t right – that they aren’t the way they were meant to be.

And there are times, just like Puddleglum, we need to say to the world’s nihilistic philosophies: Enough is enough. I know there is more!

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