Thursday, 14 April 2011

Why DO I hate C. S. Lewis so much?

Partly it's the hammer blows of unsubtle allegory, but it's basically theological. In the final instalment of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, the children are killed in a train crash when they go back to our world. Sorry if I've just ruined the plot for you. It's all done in a dreamy and calm fashion, and then he goes and summarises their violent deaths thus:
 'The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.'
Susan, of course, isn't with them - as an adolescent female, she's become interested in lipsticks and tights and is therefore persona non grata in heaven. But we'll leave aside Lewis's misogyny and skip straight to the anti-humanism. By characterising life on earth as 'school' - the boring version - and as a training period before the important and fun bit, Lewis completely rejects the idea that life on earth has any meaning at all. It's just the waiting room. 

That makes me very angry. I'm with the radical atheists on this one. Life is exciting and meaningful and important precisely because we are little more than a brief blip of consciousness between eternal nothingness. We shouldn't live as though what we do will get us into heaven - it leads to a life of caution, oppression and calculation. Whereas if you're keenly aware that we've got until tomorrow, or next year, or at best a few decades, then everything we do is invested with huge significance. 

Of course, this is rather idealistic. If I really lived like this, there'd be less blogging, less TV, less idly staring out of the window and more grand romances, bungee jumps, political assassinations and coups d'état in my live. As it is, I largely wasted my twenties and my thirties (half-over now) are sliding by in a welter of Green Lantern t-shirts and arguments about Stoke City's back four: interesting yes, but not things I'll look back on as major achievement when faced with the blackness on my deathbed. 

Lewis's disgusting formulation is a classically Christian approach: heaven as a disciplinary measure designed to make you behave. It's deeply conservative too: slaves were always told that they'd get their rewards in heaven if they behaved while on earth - socialists say get your rewards now, because there ain't no heaven. John Stuart Mill called the afterlife 'a more cunning sort of police' (in 'The Utility of Religion') and suggested we all pursue progressive activities while alive, achieving immortality 'in the life of those who are to follow them'. 

To Kafka, the paradox of the human condition was that we thought we'd been expelled from one Paradise and looked forward to entering another (if we were lucky), when in fact 'we are currently there, whether we know it or not' (one of the Zürau Aphorisms). 

Let's give the last words to Pliny:

All men are in the same state from their last day forward as they were before their first day, and neither body nor mind has any more sensation after death than it had before birth. But wishful thinking prolongs itself into the future and falsely invents for itself a life that continues beyond death, sometimes by giving the soul immortality or a change of shape, sometimes by according feeling to those below, worshipping spirits and deifying one who has already ceased to even a man.These imaginings are characteristic of childish gibberish and of mortal men greedy of everlasting life.  (Pliny, Natural History, p. 103) 


Benjamin Judge said...

Sir, I dispute the fact that you have argued about Stoke's back four. I dispute it. That is all.

Dan said...

I like to think that largely wasting your twenties negates the need for a mid-life crisis later on. Whilst our dynamic, ambitious contemporaries who were hard working and successful in their twenties have their inevitable breakdowns in their forties, we'll be (if my theory holds true)writing important books, recording important songs and doing other important, interesting things.

Like eating important, interesting cheese.