Michael Gerson: Reflections on C.S. Lewis and rescuing desire
WASHINGTON -- In appreciations of the writer and Cambridge don C.S. Lewis, it is often noted that he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was murdered. Beyond a confusing congestion at St. Peter's gate, this signifies little—except that lasting influence comes in varied forms.
The eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery is far from the small plaque commemorating Lewis that was recently placed in Poets' Corner. But many will make their pilgrimage to the South Transept of Westminster Abbey to honor not just an author but a man who changed the course of their lives.
Any writer finds reading Lewis a joy. He wrote so lucidly on such a range of topics, from medieval literature to modern education to church music to nuclear war. But for some of us, Lewis' arguments also involved a sudden, jarring reorientation of perspective. The landscape he describes seems fantastical, with mountains jutting downward and rivers in the sky—until, with a twist of logic and common sense, you realize it is you who have been upside down. Intending to curl up with a good book, you find yourself like the prisoner freed from Plato's cave or Lazarus leaving his tomb.
It is the modern assumption that we project our deepest desires on the universe. We long for God, so we conjure up an image of God. We want moral order, so we create values. We feel homeless, so we imagine an eternal home. Our desires, in this view, discredit the reality of our hopes. Dissected and analyzed, they are irrational emotions, socially conditioned sentiments or electrical impulses in the brain.
Lewis called this “the poison of subjectivism” and he drew out the consequences unsparingly. In the realm of ethics, it makes the determination of right and wrong impossible, which hardly seemed an abstract matter in the midst of World War II.
“Unless there is some objective standard of good,” said Lewis, “overarching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours.”
Here Lewis applies the first twist, applying some skepticism to modern skepticism. What if the common attempt of Babylonians, Egyptians, ancient Jews, Confucians, Stoics and so many others to discover a moral order—which Lewis calls the “massive unanimity of the practical reason in man”—was perfectly rational, approximating (with typical human failings and limits) the “absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes”?
So far, this involves the rescue of moral standards, which most of us find a mixed blessing. But Lewis goes further, or, as he liked to say, “further up and further in.” His second twist is more ambitious: What if all the ancient, recurring myths of the human race, all the yearnings of prophets and sages for the touch of God, for a visit from God, were not just the lies of poets, but the hints and rumors of another world?
In this account, our deepest, unsatisfied desires for joy, meaning and homecoming are not cruel jokes of nature. They are meant for fulfillment. What we desire most, said Lewis, is “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
To his own considerable surprise, Lewis came to believe that Christianity fulfilled and completed the ancient stories. “The old myth of the Dying God,” he said, “without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. … By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”
Having found truth in myths, Lewis decided to produce his own—not as pleasing distractions but as reminders that we actually inhabit a world of fantastical, eternal creatures, with noble quests to perform and stories that do not end. And when we discover our true citizenship, he says, it comes with a “happiness … so great that it even weakens me like a wound.”
“I have come home at last!” says a stunned unicorn at the end of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” “This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
This is the achievement of Lewis: to restore the dignity of our desires, which leave us homeless in this world and lead us home.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.