C. S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce”, Chapters 12 & 13

“Do you mean then that Hell – all that infinite empty town – is down in some little crack like this?”

“Yes.  All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.  Look at yon butterfly.  If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.” – C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 138

After posting something from my other site on Facebook, a friend yesterday noted similarities between what I’d written and the above-mentioned chapters of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.  I’m not a fan, but my wife has a copy of the book buried in her bookshelves, so I dragged it out last night and read the particular chapters.  All I can say is I was affirmed in my belief that (a) Lewis isn’t much of a writer; and (b) his “Christianity” is not one with which I identify.

In many ways, The Great Divorce is structured much as Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  A person is led on a journey through the afterlife, although Lewis’s character rides a bus rather than walks.  Unlike Dante, with Virgil at his side, there are few asides and sly digs at politicians and others.  Lewis just doesn’t have Dante’s eye for detail, either gruesome or glorious.

Dante’s poem bears a family resemblance (if I can import a Wittgensteinian term) to the courtly love poetry that had developed in the previous couple centuries in France.  Indeed, Dante is searching the afterlife for his beloved Beatrice, something the bards of France would have accepted as noble.  It is at this point, however, that any resemblance between the two works ends.

For all so many praise Lewis, he is a clumsy writer, his attempts at describing both the horrendous and the beautiful falling flat.  That is part and parcel, however, with his view of “Christianity”.  His faith, like his writing, is a pleasant, conventionally moralistic, middle-class British bourgeois vision of good and evil, with rewards and punishments doled out for the oddest reasons.  In the chapters in question, Lewis’s character sees a woman whose beauty and light he tries, and fails, to describe, meeting up with a pair of characters, dark and shriveled, again failing to capture what was probably an attempt at pitiful and pathetic.  It turns out the woman, in life a person filled with so much joy and love she managed to change the lives of those she met, even casually, could not change the heart of the one person who mattered most: her husband.  A dour, self-pitying, passive-aggressive soul, his resentment toward his wife has, it seemed, so warped him that he refuses to let go even in death, where such letting go is possible, of the chain that ties him to a comically tragic Thespian through whose voice he speaks his disdain and on-going resentment.

I kept thinking, “Really? If this woman was as wonderful as Lewis seems to think, she couldn’t penetrate the stone-cold heart of her husband, who wishes he could have seen her dead at his feet?”  To be damned for being a sullen adolescent throughout one’s life makes of hell not so much a place to fear as a place of scorn.  Equally, to believe this woman, whose light to Lewis’s character is near blinding in its love and joy couldn’t have touched her husband, the one person in her life who truly mattered, enough to melt that heart, well, perhaps Lewis’s tolerance for light is a bit low.

Yet, here we have all that is wrong in Lewis’s vision of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, and Christianity.  Rooted in a conventional morality, he is solely concerned with who is “good” and “bad”, in some ill-defined internal way.  While certainly attempting to portray the good as beautiful, the reader gets no sense that Lewis really understand beauty as an integral part of the good (as Dante surely did in his pursuit of the beautiful Beatrice).  Furthermore, to view damnation as resulting from amounts to little more than British social psychology among members of a particular class is as drawn and pinched as the general British view of morality.

There is no sense, at least in these chapters, that evil is not the sulking of the self-absorbed.  Evil is what Lewis, and his contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien, experienced on the front lines in France during World War I.  Evil is the mass grave that was World War II, through which Lewis also lived.  Evil is leaders – German, Japanese, Russian, and even British – allowing those under their protection to die horrific deaths without a thought of the misery they were causing.  While much is written about the mass starvation Stalin allowed, the German genocide of Jews, Roma, and others, and Japanese experiments on their own people through Unit 731, few know that in 1943 India, then the homebase for what was termed the China-India-Burma Theater, underwent a famine that killed tens if not hundreds of thousands.  Even as bodies literally piled up in the streets and Indian leaders begged for relief, Churchill refused, directing any and all food imports to India solely to the troops.  Any military personnel caught sharing their food with civilians would be court martialed and shot.  We tend to think of Churchill as the great hero of The Battle of Britain, yet he is no better, no less a war criminal, than the traditional monsters whose names we remember from history books.

What evil is not is whiny middle-class men.  What good is not is a person whose love seemed to touch every other life except her husband’s.  Hell may or may not be smaller than a grain of sand; on its size I have neither opinion nor emotional investment.  On the other hand, I do know there is more to good and evil, salvation and damnation, than existed in the mind’s eye of C. S. Lewis.

As to his writing, Lewis is, much as his person in life, large and clumsy, preferring to use large hammers and bludgeons to make obvious allegories, instead of being far more subtle, again like his friend and contemporary Tolkien.  While dismissing allegory, it cannot be denied that some, at least, slipped the net Tolkien drew around his massive story.  Images from the front lives of the dead floating in flooded shell holes and trenches; he and his wife romancing beneath spring trees recounted as the romance between Aragorn and Arwen; and the far larger mythology, stretching back to The Silmarillion echoing Milton and the Bible.  Unlike Tolkien, however, the allegory in Lewis is the point of the story.  One can read and enjoy Tolkien without giving a thought to possible analogs in Western Christian mythology.

I know it will shock many people who find in Lewis both comfort and a voice of faith similar to their own.  I could not find comfort in such heavy-handed prose, without an inkling that beauty and ugliness are more than just light and dark; that good and evil are more than just psychological states of being among the middle class of Britain; and I could not find a faith that resonated with my and others understanding of the Gospel as a radical break with the broken world, a radical break that nevertheless reaches across the chasm to heal the wounds we have wrought.  Lewis’s heaven and hell are, to me, paltry things, neither to be desired nor feared but either avoided at all costs for their stuffiness or dismissed with a laugh for their pettiness and lack of horror.

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