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The problem of being Susan

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Jul. 4th, 2006 | 6:35

In the very long and interesting (and tangled) skein of comments to rj_anderson’s essay ‘The Problem of Susan’, several people expressed their frank disbelief that Susan Pevensie could ever forget her time in Narnia to the point of thinking it had all been a silly childhood game. Actually this is the most grimly plausible of the suppositions behind Lewis’s treatment of Susan in The Last Battle. I can say this from personal experience: I have suffered something very like it myself.

When I first read The Lord of the Rings at the age of twelve, I was horrified — ‘transfixed’ would not be too strong a word, even before it lost so much of its original vigour through casual overuse — by the sufferings of Frodo and Sam in the last stages of their journey to Mount Doom. The Ring tortured and brainwashed Frodo, sealing him off from himself bit by bit in its attempt to take over his mind and break him:

‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’

‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.’

That speech of Frodo’s has haunted and terrified me ever since. So has Job 3:25: ‘For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me.’ And, as it turns out, with grim good reason: for these two terrors have intersected in the events of my life in a peculiarly unpleasant and damaging way. I beg your indulgence for going on at length about my extremely unimportant self, but I must if I am to explain what I mean by this, and how, in a sense so exact that it almost ceases to be figurative, I myself have been Susan.

By this I mean that I, like Susan in The Last Battle, have had real and definite experiences that I afterwards lost the ability to believe in; though I have done what I could to resist this loss of belief, as Susan may not have done — for Lewis never recorded that part of her story. It was not ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’ that led me astray, nor even their masculine analogues, I being too definitely unattractive to be exposed to such temptations. They say we are all tempted by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Some have interpreted Susan’s denial of Narnia as a surrender to the Flesh, but I think it more likely the work of the World. For while the World has never offered me such pleasant temptations, I, too, have been lured into questioning the reality of my own most precious memories.

To explain that statement, I am afraid I shall have to describe some of those memories, at least as far as they remain to me. Two sets in particular touch on my argument, one maudlin, the other, perhaps, downright mad. I shall begin with the maudlin, so that only those hardy souls (if any) who persist right to the end of it need trouble themselves about the mad.

I have never been loved, I mean romantically or sexually, though there was once a time when I thought I had been. No doubt a person acquainted with the real article would quickly have detected the imposture, but I knew no better and believed it was real. I was involved with a woman for just under four years, most of it spent ‘living in sin’ as it used to be called; we went as far as buying a house together, but she would not hear of actually marrying me. What I did experience very vividly, at least in the earlier stages, was the feeling of being in love, and seeming to have it requited. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before, and needless to say, nothing like it has happened since. I was in more or less the position of Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, who married the first girl who was ever nice to him.

But when we broke up, and still more in a painful incident about two years after (for we remained vaguely friendly at first), my ex-mate treated me with calculated cruelty and spite, doubtless from a wish to drive me off and be completetly rid of me. Among other things, she explained that she had never loved me, and had only taken up with me because she was out of her mind at the time. Now that she had recovered her sanity, she said, she could see how worthless I was, and so she wanted nothing more to do with me. I recall that she talked a lot about codependency, in the manner of someone who has read an article in Cosmopolitan and three web pages on the subject and therefore considers herself a thoroughgoing expert.

Of course that shook me badly. Either she had been lying when she said she loved me, or she was lying when she said she never had; either way she was a liar, and in fact I found out about a considerable number of other lies she had told me over the years. Clearly I could not place any reliance upon anything she had ever said. Obviously I had made a tremendous fool of myself during our time together. All this made the thought of those years and that relationship tremendously painful to me. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis says:

And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin.

What happened to me then was not damnation, but it was enough like it to contaminate every memory of the woman whom I once thought I loved, but in truth never even knew. In the end it became too painful for me to revisit those memories at all, and I locked a great part of myself away. I have at ordinary times a very retentive memory — amazingly retentive, some people say, and more accurate than most people’s, though that may be saying little enough. I can still remember foolish things I did as a child of six, and still blush at the memory; but I cannot remember more than fleeting echoes of the pleasant things that happened during those four years. Like Frodo, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. When I think of one, the pain and shame are too intense; the mind balks, and I cannot remember more, for the necessary associations will not come. And I cannot even believe in the value of forcing the issue and dredging for those associations, for as I now know, my perceptions at the time were fundamentally false.

It leaves me much more completely alone than I was before these things happened. I cannot trust my happy memories of the people I have thought were my friends, or really quite believe that I am reading people right when I think they are being friendly now. The wells have been poisoned at the source.

Eustace Clarence Scrubb, when we first meet him in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, makes cruel and merciless fun of Edmund and Lucy whenever he catches them talking about Narnia. You may recall his unfinished limerick:

Some kids who played games about Narnia
Got gradually balmier and balmier—

We can safely assume, children being the little savages they so often are, that this was not the only cutting remark the Pevensies had ever heard from their peers about the ‘game’ of Narnia. And if ever they told any grown-up but Professor Kirke about Narnia, they were probably either ordered to stop making up such silly lies, or told patronizingly, ‘Of course it’s real to you.’ The first is the Puritanical way of dealing with such things, the latter the Relativist; and I think most of us have had the experience, as children, of telling an improbable truth to some grown-up who reacted with one or the other kind of disbelief. The temptation to give in and falsely confess that one made it all up can be very strong, especially under threat of physical punishment. St. Peter denied his Lord three times in one night, and I suspect we have all denied lesser truths under pressure. The World continually tempts us to apostasy and false witness, because it cannot be bothered to find out the facts, or to believe them if it did.

At least the Pevensies had each other to cling to, and each other’s testimony to remind them that Narnia was real. But gradually a wedge was driven between Susan and the others. She had always been the most practical of the four, the least given to games and imaginings. The first time all four of the children visited Narnia, it was Susan who wanted to turn back for safety’s sake, though she changed her mind readily when Lucy insisted on her own obligation to help Mr. Tumnus. Again, it was Susan who thought Lucy was either pretending or imagining things when she saw Aslan across the gorge in Prince Caspian, and even when Susan caught a glimpse of him, she convinced herself that it was an illusion — until all the others said that they could see him too. If the Pevensies were Aslan’s disciples, Susan played the role of Doubting Thomas.

That was Susan’s last visit to Narnia, and when we next hear of the Pevensies, she had gone with her parents on a trip to America of some months’ duration, because she ‘would get far more out of a trip to America than the youngsters’, as her mother said. We are also told that ‘she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age)’, and that she was the pretty one of the family. (Already we see Lewis setting the stage for her apostasy, with four books yet to be written.) All these things must have increased the distance between her and her siblings, and I suspect when she came back from America they felt as if they hardly knew her. She must have thought she had grown up, and they must have thought she was getting very full of herself. In fact, she was beginning to be seduced by the World. There are few things the World likes to do so much as to turn pretty girls’ heads.

The fact that Edmund and Lucy had yet another adventure in Narnia, when Susan had been told that she was too old to return, would have been yet another hammer-blow on the wedge. No doubt Susan envied her younger brother and sister for that, and took refuge in her new-found status as a budding woman of the world; and the World was not having any nonsense about Narnia. Once the breach was that wide, Susan was effectively alone. And it is very difficult to keep a faith alone; indeed some people, including some very learned Churchmen, have held that it is impossible.

And that leads me from the maudlin to the mad—

I was raised as a sort of milk-and-water Christian, by which I mean that I was never baptized, but sent to Sunday school under the auspices of the United Church of Canada. That was in the 1970s, when the United Church was just beginning to lose its Christian faith and doctrine, but even then it was the most wishy-washy and, as it is called, ‘liberal’ of the Canadian mainstream denominations. The minister at this particular church began as a sound enough Christian, I believe, but about the time I was due for confirmation (which would have required baptism as well, a thing I was terribly afraid of, because I had never seen any but infant baptisms at that church and thought I would be laughed at for doing something so babyish) he attended some seminars in California which seem to have cured him of his faith entirely. On the two or three occasions when I spoke to him privately about matters of my own faith, he gave me the standard ultra-liberal line that the creeds were of merely symbolic significance and the Bible had to be interpreted in a way that deprived it of almost all meaning. From this I concluded that the whole church was a humbug, and fell away into a morass of disillusion.

During my teens I suffered various other tribulations not germane to this story, and just about Christmas of my eighteenth year, I decided that I had had enough. There seemed to be no point in suffering any longer, no hope of any improvement, and I honestly believed that the people I knew would be rather relieved than saddened if I were dead. I therefore made up my mind to commit suicide. Christmas was always the hardest time of year for me psychologically, as it is for a good many people; one is supposed to put on a cheerful face and enjoy ‘the spirit of the season’, whilst making frantic sacrifices to Mammon, fighting with the enormous crowds in the shopping malls so that people you don’t much like can have gifts that they don’t really want. I believe that the suicide rate always takes an upward blip around Christmas, and I very nearly contributed to that statistic myself.

I had made up my mind to lock myself in the bathroom, slit my wrists, and bleed to death in the shower. I might well have succeeded. But first I had shut myself up in my room to steel myself for the final ordeal, and as I was lying on my bed, mentally and morally exhausted, staring at the ceiling, I felt the kind of cold and desolate peace that comes from utter resignation. The game was over, and I had lost. I didn’t have to struggle anymore.

It was about then that — I must make it perfectly clear that this was not an auditory hallucination — I unmistakably did not hear what was unmistakably not a voice. I had the sense, as it were, of someone else’s thoughts being downloaded into my head at high speed, and then sorting themselves out into whatever words they could find in the speech centre of my brain. It was a queer feeling, and set my teeth on edge. (Some time later, when I first heard the distinctive squeal of a high-speed modem, it set my teeth on edge in almost exactly the same way.) The effect of all this was very curious. It was most like subvocalization while reading, except that I was not reading. If it had been a voice, it would have been dry, cool, dispassionate, and utterly impossible to ignore. It was more than twenty years later that I read C.S. Lewis’s account of such an experience in Till We Have Faces. Orual’s encounter with her gods was very much like what happened to me, so much so that I can only suppose Lewis himself had had such an experience at one time:

There was great silence when the god spoke to me. And as there was no anger (what men call anger) in his face, so there was none in his voice. It was unmoved and sweet; like a bird singing on the branch above a hanged man.

And again:

A voice came from beyond the river: ‘Do not do it.’

Instantly — I had been freezing cold till now — a wave of fire passed over me; even down to my numb feet. It was the voice of a god. Who should know better than I? A god’s voice had once shattered my whole life. They are not to be mistaken. It may well be that, by trickery of priests, men have sometimes taken a mortal’s voice for a god’s. But it will not work the other way. No one who hears a god’s voice takes it for a mortal’s.

‘Lord, who are you?’ said I.

‘Do not do it,’ said the god. ‘You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.’

‘Lord, I am Ungit.’

But there was no answer. And that is another thing about the voices of the gods; when once they have ceased, though it is only a heartbeat ago and the bright, hard syllables, the heavy bars or mighty obelisks of sound, are still master in your ears, it is as if they had ceased a thousand years before, and to expect further utterance is like asking for an apple from a tree that fruited the day the world was made.

Whatever it was that happened to me, it resembled that in too many respects for coincidence. You are free, of course, to suppose that I invented the whole episode after reading Till We Have Faces, or that I projected Lewis’s description back onto whatever it was that did happen. You could also explain it away as a psychotic episode, and say that Lewis must have either suffered from the same psychosis himself or read good descriptions of it. It may comfort you to believe such things. It would comfort me if I could believe them myself, but I know them to be lies. Something very peculiar happened to me that day, and I am only alive because of it.

In the last passage I quoted, Orual was about to drown herself in a river. And the voice that was no voice said to me, as the voice of the god said to her, ‘Do not do it.’ And like Orual, quite naturally I asked aloud, ‘Who are you?’ The response to that took a few moments to sort itself out into words in my mind, but it found the exact phrase quickly enough among the detritus of my religious education: ‘I am that I am.’

I should say in passing that that phrase from Exodus had always been quite impenetrable to me before, and was never so again. When, a year or two later, I encountered the ideas of contingent and uncontingent being in an elementary philosophy class, and the version of the ontological argument that holds that God must be necessary if He is not impossible, I immediately understood what was meant: I had experienced it, however faintly, myself. Years later still, I bought the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, in which (in a passage about Tom Bombadil) he said, ‘We need not go into the sublimities of “I am that am” — which is quite different from he is.’ I was quite certain that I understood something of those sublimities, though I had not (and still never have) had any formal teaching on that particular subject, and have never read any theological discussion of the point. It is intensely significant that both Tolkien and the Un-voice said ‘I am that [I] am,’ and not, as most modern translations would have it, ‘I am what I am’; but I feel myself being drawn into a digression, and if anyone is still reading this, I beg your pardon. The story has been drawn out more than enough already.

To shorten it as much as is still possible, the un-voice told me that it had not made me for this purpose, and flatly forbade me to kill myself. There was no question in my mind of disobeying, any more than there was in Orual’s. There is a tone of voice that even we mortals sometimes use that brooks no denial, a tone of peremptory and unquestionable command; and it takes great strength of mind to resist it, even if the speaker has no claim of duty or loyalty on the hearer. This was like that, only incomparably stronger, perhaps because it was not mediated through human speech, perhaps because of who was speaking.

But that was not the only presence in the room, or in my mind if you prefer, that seemed definitely separate from me. There was a second, which resembled a voice much more than the first. It was a strident yell, saying, ‘Don’t listen!’ It seemed to stir up all kinds of rubbish in my head to try to distract me from the Un-voice, and when that failed of its purpose (for I was very interested in what the Un-voice had to say, never having experienced such a thing before) it resorted to merely screaming over and over, No! No! (I have recognized that tone in human utterances since. It affects me rather like a blow to the solar plexus, leaving me dizzy, nauseated, and slightly shocked. But I digress again.)

The Un-voice, however, was willing enough to speak up so that I could hear it if I wanted to. It finished having its say, despite interruptions, and then both it and the strident yell were gone. I have had briefer encounters with the Un-voice twice since, though not in moments of such overwhelming emotional distress; and each time it reminded me, like an impatient teacher telling a lazy student to look up the answer to his obvious question, of a Biblical verse. It can do no harm to say that the first was ‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’ and the second was ‘Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

I have described these things before to a few persons who were soundly Christian and fairly well versed in theology, and none of them found anything implausible about it. They seemed generally agreed that this was a genuine religious experience, and that the Un-voice was a communication from God. (The fact that it had told me to do something so obviously necessary from the standpoint of Christian morality helped. They all agreed that it would have been a different story if it had told me to do something evil.) None thought I was hallucinating, lying, or mad; or at least they did not say so. My present therapist suggested that such a thing could be a one-off hallucination induced by severe stress and the mind’s desperate desire to find an escape from a hopeless situation, but that seems so obviously an ad hoc explanation that it really does not convince me. But — and this is where Susan comes back in — I was not convinced by the experience either.

For what happened to me admits of at least two easy explanations. One is that in an hour of (to me) supreme crisis, God intervened just for a moment to keep me from destroying myself. The other, of course, is that it was some kind of psychotic episode. It happens that I have been under the care of psychiatrists, psychologists, and psycho-this-that-and-the-others for the greater part of my life, and none has ever diagnosed me with schizophrenia or any other malady that would make me prone to hallucinations. And I have never had hallucinations at any other time, except for the kind that happen when one wakes suddenly from a vivid dream (usually a nightmare) and the sights and sounds of the dream persist for just a moment after waking. I was certainly wide awake when the Un-voice spoke to me, and in any case the experience lasted much longer than the fleeting after-image of a dream.

As Sherlock Holmes said, ‘Whenever you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ But it is very hard to maintain one’s belief in an improbable truth unless one has outside help. Certainly the message of the Un-voice had its intended effect. From that day to this I have never seriously thought of suicide, except once when I was put on Prozac for a few days; and that was a psychotic episode induced by the medication. (My doctor took me right off Prozac again after the police found me sitting in the middle of the road, waiting hopefully to be run over, and took me to a hospital for psychiatric observation.) It is worth recording, perhaps, that during that episode I was also a convinced and hardened atheist. It has been fashionable now for over a century to explain away various kinds of religious experience as psychotic in origin; so I am rather amused to be able to point to an anti-religious experience that was definitely psychotic in origin. Sauce for the goose, you might say.

Sometimes I dealt with my memories of what had happened (which always remained quite vivid and exact whenever I recalled them) by deciding that I must after all have been out of my mind: an unsatisfactory solution, because my mental state (apart from the daily fluctuations of my depression) had not noticeably changed since the Un-voice spoke. It was necessary to assume that I had been mad all along and was still mad; and I was often prepared to believe this, even though none of the professionals who dealt with me ever diagnosed any such disorder. The problem with chronic depressives, indeed, is often that they are too sane: they do not see the world through the graceful veil of self-delusion that makes it tolerable for normal people. Strict realism is almost a sure recipe for depression. But most of the time I dealt with it the way humans have always dealt with unpleasant facts: I pushed it into the back of my mind and ignored it.

For many years after that, I was almost entirely deprived of the company of Christians. My parents were no longer churchgoers, and neither were any of my friends; some were strident atheists, some were neopagans of various stripes, some were blandly indifferent to the whole subject of religion, and a very few were like me: people who believed the tenets of Christianity, but belonged to no church and were reluctant to say anything about it. It did me no good to know that the churches were still out there, and often well attended. For all I knew, every one of them was as much a humbug as the United Church I had left. I might be the only person living who was still fool enough to actually believe the things that they professed. Even when I became aware of churches made up of people who still believed in the Creeds and taught them faithfully, I shied away from them because I was ashamed of myself and thought they would be sure to reject me. Like St. Athanasius, though for far worse reasons, I was solus contra mundum. It was almost more than my spirit could bear.

It was not until four years ago, in response to a gesture of magnificent generosity from a Christian youth leader attending a conference in town (but that, too, would be a long digression), that I summoned the courage to go to a church and ask to join. I chose the Catholic Church, not only because I believed it to be doctrinally sound and to have a healthy respect for the intellect (I have always strongly admired men like Jerome and Aquinas), but because it seemed the one church that might have a place in it for a rational-minded fantasy writer, however unsuccessful. I had had Pentecostal acquaintances try to tell me that fantasy was inherently Satanic, and Fundamentalist acquaintances who seemed to think that reason itself was a cheat and a trick of the Devil. But remembering the devout Catholicism of Tolkien and Chesterton, I visited the Vatican’s website, and found there an appeal from Pope John Paul II to the artists of the world, and especially the writers, to lend their talents to Christ and to the Church. I felt almost as if he had personally invited me to join, and when the people in charge of RCIA at my local parish inexplicably refused to reject me, I decided that I had found a home. I was duly baptized at Easter of 2004, and it was the first time in my life that I ever felt truly accepted. But I had only arrived there after decades of struggle and unrelenting self-doubt.

If I could explain away this odd experience of mine as a figment of my deranged imagination, certainly Susan could do exactly the same with her experience of Aslan. In fact, I don’t doubt that the fear of Aslan (for God is very uncanny, and too direct an experience of the numinous is a stressful and even painful thing) weighed heavily in the scales against the pleasures of remembering Narnia, and influenced her to block it all from her mind. Likely by the time the other Pevensies died in the train wreck, she had literally forgotten her experiences in Narnia, and could only remember talking about them afterwards — which she would then have to dismiss as a game. The associations that would have led on to memories of Narnia itself would have been blocked by the pain of her estrangement, like my memories of being in love.

Even today, I am sometimes overtaken by moods in which it seems certain to me that I must be, and always have been, insane; but even that is not enough to undo me wholly, for unlike Susan, I have met Puddlelglum. I have always considered him the real hero of The Silver Chair, and I was moved to tears by his speech to the Witch of Underland:

‘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 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. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.’

Very well. Suppose all that happened to me, or that I thought happened, was merely the afflatus of a sick mind. Suppose that I am insane and have been all along. I still owe my life to that insanity, and in all honour I owe it my loyalty as well. And since I have nothing better to go on than my perceptions, I can only act as if I trusted them as long as nobody gives me anything better to trust. Someone saved my life that day, and with the brain I have, damaged as it may be, I can’t perform the act of believing it was only me. I’m on Someone’s side even if there isn’t any Someone. I’m going to live as like a Christian as I can even if there isn’t any Christ. And if I should die for that belief, it’s small loss, for without it I would have died more than twenty years ago. A man can only live so long on borrowed time; sooner or later he has got to pay it back.

But oh! it has been a hard task to hew to that belief alone all these years. I have known many who would have broken under the strain. I can understand how Susan would have yielded. The World, which had no place for Narnia, tempted her with ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’, the perquisites of an attractive young woman. It never offered me anything of the kind. Not wine or women or popularity, not love or money or fame or success, not a ‘place in society’ or even a steady job. Any one of those temptations might have overthrown me, for I have lived my whole adult life in a famine of the soul. Man shall not live by bread alone, but a man who has tasted no bread for years might easily sell his soul to get it.

No, I shall not blame Susan for making the choice she did. And if she were a real person, and not the product of C.S. Lewis’s much-maligned imagination, I would pray that she might live to rediscover Aslan in her own way and in her own good time, and come at last out of the Shadowlands into Aslan’s country. Lewis himself explicitly left that avenue open for her. I do not believe that any good creator, human or divine, could do any less. As for me, I have a corrosive doubt of my own convictions; I am strongly inclined to think that anything I believe must be wrong, simply because it is I who believe it. But I hope that I am wrong about being wrong, and that there is a Heaven, and that all who seek it may be given the grace to find it, even if I cannot. Meanwhile I can only pray with the father of the possessed child in Mark, ‘Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief.’

And that, as nearly as I can approach it, is what it is like to be Susan.

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Comments {23}

R.J. Anderson

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from: rj_anderson
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 14:33 (UTC)
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Thank you for such honest, searching words about a topic which, as you could see from the comments in my journal, seems to hit a sore spot with a lot of people. To me the very passion of the arguments generated by this part of The Last Battle shows that Lewis knew exactly what he was doing, rather than (as some have charged) callously and impulsively defaming one of his characters for the sake of mere shock value. It would be nice to dismiss Susan's fate so blithely, but I think deep down we all know there's more to it than that.

And in regard to what you've said above about doubt, my brother sent me this quote from The Screwtape Letters in e-mail this very morning:
"Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

To which all I can say is: yes.

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

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from: fpb
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 17:30 (UTC)
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That is the greatest sentence in the whole book, and that is saying something. I even passed it on to a Muslim friend of mine, and she found it as moving as I did. It is possible to analyze it in terms of successful rhetoric - the perfectly realized series of clauses, covering outside and inside, and leading to a falling close of such stark simplicity that all response is silenced - but the thing is, nobody ever wrote that well unless he was writing something true.

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Tom Simon

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from: superversive
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:22 (UTC)
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Thank you for stopping by, and for your kind words. After I posted this, I was rather afraid that you might find it offensive or at least completely loopy, and not want your name associated with it. Others have reacted so to posts of mine that riffed off their own, one reason why I left LJ in such haste last summer. It is a very great relief to know that you do not disapprove.

That is indeed, as others have said, the very best sentence in The Screwtape Letters. But I am not nearly so good as all that. There is at least one area in which I have never yet managed even to seriously intend to do His will. It is perhaps fortunate that I have so far been spared the temptation to do anything really destructive about it.

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Jo Walton

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from: papersky
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 15:11 (UTC)
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That's fascinating. Thank you for writing it.

I wrote this about Susan a while ago, and I thought you might like to see it in this context.

The worst of it was that she'd quarrelled with them
And now they were dead, all dead, her parents too,
Nobody left but her awful aunt and uncle,
Their faces collapsed like their future.
Still she stood at the graveside, calm, composed,
Pale-faced, with folded hands, her shoulders back,
She'd been a queen once-in-a-dream,
She might be bereft but she knew how to behave.
If only they'd not quarrelled in these last few years...
They'd called her shallow and she'd called them babes,
They had not wanted to grow up: they never would.
She, more than ever, knew she had no choice.
The service droned, but something -- she looked up
Saw cassock, surplice, and a lion's eyes.

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asakiyume

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from: asakiyume
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:08 (UTC)
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Thanks, this is really touching. (I'm haunting Superversive's page today...)

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Tom Simon

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from: superversive
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:24 (UTC)
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Haunting, eh? I’m not sure whether to recite some such formula as, Avaunt, dire shade! Urge me no more dismay, or to spit beans at you, or — but I think this is what I shall do — merely to let you stay. A ghost, if friendly, lends such an interesting atmosphere to a place.

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asakiyume

(no subject)

from: asakiyume
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:46 (UTC)
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I'm a friendly ghost :-) I think your page already has a well-established interesting atmosphere, but I'm happy to add to it!

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Tom Simon

(no subject)

from: superversive
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:14 (UTC)
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Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

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Eglantine Brandybuck

(no subject)

from: carbonelle
date: Jul. 9th, 2006 23:57 (UTC)
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Wonderfully fine.

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asakiyume

The Silver Chair

from: asakiyume
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 15:43 (UTC)
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wow, those lines you quoted--those were the root of my whole faith, all through my childhood. I have those lines etched in my brain forever. My parents were agnostics (or whatever), and I never went to church as a child, and yet I have always had this yearning for God. I had an existential crisis at about 9 when I suddenly feared... what if there isn't any God, and all of this just fades away? But Puddleglum came to my rescue.

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.

That's what I've told myself ever since, whenever I've felt breezes of doubt. And it's always, always helped.

And oh--I just wrote the same thing about Susan on rj_anderson's page, but I said I had come to the page from fpb's page, when really it was yours... Yes, I do think Susan will find Aslan's country again. But, as I say in my comment on that page... I adhere to the heresy that all can and will be saved in the ultimate end. I can't bear for anything or anybody to be thrown away or discarded.

Getting all teary-eyed now.

I hope your way in the workaday world does get easier, though--that burden, on top of all the others, makes everything worse...

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

(no subject)

from: fpb
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 17:40 (UTC)
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That was a painful and truthful piece of writing. You have had it even worse than I, and you have my entire sympathy. But you have built out of it something good - a person worth being. I am not doing some kind of New Age believe-in-yourself type pep talk, when I say that I am glad to know you. And not only because of your excellent literary criticism; that is the result of a mind that is not only fine, but spiritually and morally in the right place, capable of finding the right words for such fundamentally moral issues, not only as the demeaning of heroism (point 6) and of wisdom (point 10), but also of the abuse of narrative to push one's point, which is, in terms of the craft of writing, just as immoral. The fact is that such a stream of constructive and useful truth, truth that not only sets free but also will help others work better - in every sense of the word (and I have a couple of pages written, starting a fantasy adventure, that were stimulated wholly by your criticism) - that such a stream of truth is set free in the world, to do unmitigated good in the field where it is meant, is a fact that arises from your struggles and your sufferings. I wish you were not so self-abasing as you still are - humility is not the same as kicking yourself - but you have already done some good in the world whose effect will last, and you will do more. I believe you are a true artist, and that one day your name will spread beyond our little circle. I prophecy that you will not die before you have tasted the double-edged pleasure of worldly success; and that you will have deserved it.

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asakiyume

(no subject)

from: asakiyume
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:02 (UTC)
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I agree--what a lovely way of expressing it, too.

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Tom Simon

(no subject)

from: superversive
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:28 (UTC)
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I know that humility is not the same as kicking myself. But if I don’t kick myself, who will? The very few people who care enough are far too tender-hearted. Yet if I don’t keep in training that way, the ego grows soft and careless of its guard, and then life — or some malicious person — kicks much harder and more painfully than I have ever done.

Thank you all the same.

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

(no subject)

from: fpb
date: Jul. 4th, 2006 19:49 (UTC)
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Well, I don't want anyone to kick you at all. I do not think it is a suitable health policy.

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Tom Simon

(no subject)

from: superversive
date: Jul. 5th, 2006 0:33 (UTC)
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Ah, if only I had the power to arrange that. But since kick they will, I’ve always felt it necessary to keep up the inoculations.

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Eglantine Brandybuck

(no subject)

from: carbonelle
date: Jul. 9th, 2006 23:58 (UTC)
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Nothing useful or helpful (or what I imagine to be these things) to write - but that such words as yours ought not be read unacknowledged.

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The Cheese Elf

(no subject)

from: kalquessa
date: Jul. 10th, 2006 20:11 (UTC)
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I must echo the Queen of Cats, here, as I've nothing that could be called useful to say in response to this. I just wanted you to know that your above post brought tears to my eyes. It has so much truth to it. Thank you so much for writing this, and for having the strength to post it.

Also, I must thank Carbonelle for linking me here. I hope you don't mind if I add you to my friendslist. I'd like to lurk a while and read some more of your essais.

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jenosopher

(no subject)

from: jenosopher
date: Jul. 13th, 2006 6:44 (UTC)
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I followed kalquessa here... Thank you so much for sharing.

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Norilana

(no subject)

from: norilana
date: Jul. 15th, 2006 3:36 (UTC)
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It may or may not be a coincidence (personally I dont think there are such things as coincidence -- all things happen in a concerted manner together, for a very good reason), but you might take a look at this post about Two Voices. :-)

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John C. Wright

(no subject)

from: johncwright
date: Jul. 18th, 2006 16:00 (UTC)
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I had a very powerful religious experience when I suffered a heart attack. I had been a lifelong athiest until that moment. During a timeless moment, I became aware of a mind infinitely greater than any human mind, which stood beneath my thoughts as the unseen roots of a tree stand beneath its branches twigs and leaves. What you describe as an instant silent download which was then interpreted by the speech centers of your brain fits the description of what happened to me.

Susan's temptation has also tempted me. It would be very easy for me to say that the revelation I received was an hallucination, a dream, a false memory. It would be very easy to ignore it without bothering to invent an excuse. But it was none of these things: it was a reality aside which the reality we know seems temporary and false.

The silent voice that spoke to me used phrases and language I later found in the Bible. Now, again, this could be explained away be coincidence, by buried memory, or by some psychological trick. Occam's razor cuts out all these explanations because a simpler one presents itself: Christ talks now as He did in ancient Galilee, in simple and mysterious metaphors, using small objects (keeping your hands clean, or feeding sheep) to refer to great moral objects (purity and charity).

Faith is not a matter of blind belief where there is no evidence; it is a matter of trusting your memory and your reason when you see what you know to be an optical illusion; it is a matter of ignoring the Bent Eldil, whose purpose is to distort our conclusions.

Atheists act on this impulse as well as religious people: tell an atheist a credible ghost story heard from a sober and unimpeachable source, and he will struggle to retain what his reason tells him is the case, and he will try to find a way to dismiss the story as an optical illusion.

If the human memory were like a tape recorder, if the human mind were honest, if man in fact was not a fallen being, it would be easy not to forget.

People who find Susan's forgetfulness hard to believe are people who do not believe anything that is hard to believe.

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Nate Cull

The Un-voice

from: natecull
date: Aug. 22nd, 2007 23:40 (UTC)
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(Coming to your journal from archives of John C Wright's)

"It was about then that — I must make it perfectly clear that this was not an auditory hallucination — I unmistakably did not hear what was unmistakably not a voice. I had the sense, as it were, of someone else’s thoughts being downloaded into my head at high speed, and then sorting themselves out into whatever words they could find in the speech centre of my brain. It was a queer feeling, and set my teeth on edge."

YES! I know exactly what you mean, and this is to me a very good description of what the experience feels like.

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A Very Delayed Response

from: simply_danike
date: Jun. 14th, 2008 18:08 (UTC)
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A friend of mine sent me a link to this just the other day.

This post really moved me, I have to admit. I have found myself to be similar a person to Susan, though, like you, I have found my way again. I never doubted the existence of God, but I have memories that I don't accept, or dislike accepting, as reality.

When people ask me why I believe in a God I can't see, I often use the quote you used.

"‘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 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. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.’"

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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princesselwen

(no subject)

from: princesselwen
date: Nov. 20th, 2013 1:45 (UTC)
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Thank you. That really helped me.

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