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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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"Why should your heart not dance?"
Dinner yesterday at Linda's house in Königswinter near Bonn, with convivial friends, more great food and a magic show courtesy of her grandson, was extremely enjoyable. But this morning saw us travelling to Cologne airport, whence I flew back to England in a dinky propeller plane. I saw nothing of Cologne itself, alas, due to pressure of time.

At the airport there were many signs for an airline called "Germanwings": apparently it's a subsidiary of Lufthansa that deals with short-haul flights, largely within Germany. I tried to imagine a world in which British Airways had a branch concentrating on domestic travel called "Britischenflügel", but the effort made me dizzy so I soon left off.

I have eaten all too well over the last few days, but I knew I was back in Britain when I got to Birmingham New Street and saw a packet of Ranch Raccoon crisps, flavoured (as one would expect and rightly demand) with "sour cream from Dorset". They actually taste pretty good. I made a pious libation of Tizer, and kissed my native turf.

ranch raccoon

Dulce Domum

Over the course of this trip I've been reading the one major work of C. S. Lewis's that I'd never got round to, Till We Have Faces (1956). I'm not sure why I've not read it before: I've had several people tell me over the years that it was their favourite, starting with my father, and I like reading versions of Eros and Psyche, of which it is one. I suspect a certain orneriness, for all that I told myself I was simply "saving it up". Actually, skewering that kind of self-deception is something CSL does particularly well in this book, having refined the technique in The Screwtape Letters.

Anyway, it is indeed very good, stylistically as well as psychologically. (I've not quite finished it, but I'll try to do that tonight.) Inevitably perhaps I keep being reminded of other CSL books. When Orual visits Pysche in her palace and thinks that the fine wine she is offered is water and the goblet holding it merely cupped hands, it's hard not to be reminded of the dwarfs in the stable in The Last Battle, published the same year. And the whole book has a broad seam of The Great Divorce running through it. The deep understanding of grief and depression that underpins A Grief Observed is foreshadowed here, too.

I was particularly struck by this exchange between Orual and the soldier Bardia, after they see Psyche (Orual's younger sister), who is convinced that she has found her way to another world:

"Bardia," I said, "do you think my sister is mad?"
"[...] The Blessed--mad? Moreover, we've seen her and anyone could tell she was in her right mind." (Till we Have Faces, 1956, Chapter 12)

There's an echo here of that other older sister's concern, for a child similarly convinced:

"We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
"Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One only has to look at her to see that she is not mad." (LWW, 1950, Chapter 5).

It's not so much that Lewis recycles as that he recycles a very implausible idea - that it's possible to tell more or less at a glance whether someone is mad. Did Lewis really believe this? In a way he had to, because that assumption underpins one of his most famous arguments for Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (Mere Christianity, 1952

It seems strange that the man who penetratingly analyses so many kinds of everyday self-deception and delusion should be happy to think of madness in the cartoonishly binary terms of someone either thinking they are a poached egg or else being "obviously" sane, and not feel inclined to probe the question further either in apologetics or in fiction.

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Re: Indeed!

Do they think they are poached eggs? That is the proper medical test. Fried or boiled count only as mild neuroses.

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I've never tasted a raccoon, so can't tell if they're quite as herby as the crisps. They remind me a little of the hedgehog crisps from the 1980s.

Lewis can certainly bluster - but he's also very subtle and perceptive about human nature at times. I find it's well worth putting up with the former to get to the latter, but I quite see that tastes might vary.

A writer intending to defend Lewis's famous trilemma accidentally dismembered it.

He started by quoting a Lewis debunker who had asked, incredulously, if, under the assumption that Jesus was as mad as a poached egg, Lewis though we were to take his moral teachings as being as mad as a poached egg.

And the defender said, no, of course not: Jesus's moral teachings are still valid even if he was mad.

Well, then, in that case Jesus is exactly what Lewis said that he could not be: a great moral teacher who just happened to have a bug on about being God.

My own experience is that people can be quite mad about some things and entirely sane about others. Richard Dawkins: the most brilliant and insightful popularizer of Darwinian genetics that has yet lived, and simultaneously, a complete ignorant kook about religion.

Leaving religion aside, Dawkins has been wrong about a heck of a lot of easily ascertainable things, almost always due to his stiff-necked inability to admit that he COULD be wrong. I have a difficult time believing that attitude doesn't seep over into his science writing somehow, but I don't know because I've never cared to read it. But I wouldn't call him mad, or even a kook. Narcissistic, perhaps.

Perhaps not so strangely, that consideration is irrelevant to Dawkins' best writings. His concern is to demonstrate that evolutionary theory is workable, and how that operates. Whether it actually does or not is actually beside the point, since the contrary position is that evolution must be false because it can't work. All Dawkins needs to show is that it can, and he's shredded and diced that argument.

My own experience is that people can be quite mad about some things and entirely sane about others.

I agree, and would have thought that as an Oxford don Lewis would have been in a better position than most to observe this.

Not to mention his relatives. His father, for one, and his eccentric Aunt Lily.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.

Which I have always thought was a pretty limiting thing to say about humanity.

The other obvious solution, even taking the trilemma itself at face value, is to say that the bits about Jesus claiming to be God could have been other people's lies (or bits of lunacy, or whatever). Lewis cannot possibly have been unfamiliar with that argument.

He did address that argument. His response was that if a false belief that Jesus was God originated with, say, the disciples, then that only increases the number of lunatics from one to twelve.

I have to say, that's a thunderously unimpressive rebuttal, for reasons that should be obvious, but that is what he said.

Ah, okay, I'd forgotten that.

Fascinating post - thankyou! I hadn't thought of the links there between TLTW&TW & TWHF! I quite agree. Lewis was a great writer, but he was human, and as my grandmother might have said, 'there's none so blind as them that will not see.' Lewis knew that, but like many of us he tended to apply it primarily to other people.