Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Problem of Susan 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI just read Neil Gaiman’s "The Problem with Susan," a short story whose title is a play on Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Susan is a character in Lewis’s beloved Narnia series, while The Problem of Pain is a treatise in which the Christian apologist tries to explain that pain is a good thing because it brings us closer to God. Lewis proposes that God makes us suffer because if we didn’t we would just be these obstinate, free willed beings who would never know the glory of God because we would never need him; therefore, suffering and unspeakable pain are good for our souls. (Not so sure I agree with that premise, Clive. That’s a little too much of “My daddy beats me ‘cause he loves me” school of thought, the kind of conclusion a bewildered, abused child draws to explain why the person who should love and protect him most is brutalizing him. In fact, the more I think about it, that’s some pretty sick shit.)

In both the Chronicles of Narnia and "The Problem of Susan" Susan is an English girl, the oldest child of the Pevensie family. The children are sent from war bombed London to an eccentric relative’s estate to ride out the war. Once at the estate, the children discover a wardrobe that is a portal to Narnia, a magical kingdom populated by talking beasts and figures from Greek, Norse and Arthurian myths and legends. In Narnia, the children find danger and adventure and plenty of Christian allegory. Of course the religious symbolism, as heavy-handed as it is, completely went over my head when I was read the stories, but it still resonated, and I adored the books. The Chronicles of Narnia were and remain the most treasured books from my childhood, and I reread them every couple of years or so with the exception of the horrid Last Battle, the final book in the series.

The book is basically Armagedon for Narnia, and in the course of the book Lewis sadistically destroys everything the reader holds beloved. There is a particularly painful and detailed scene in which the traitorous dwarves shoot arrows into all of the talking, sentient horses, something that was particularly horrible and distressing to me as a child. Even worse, at the end of the book he kills off all of the Pevensie children in a train crash except Susan. The reader is supposed to take some consolation in that although the children die horrifically, they end up in heaven, a place even more glorious than Narnia. Susan, however, is denied and ‘has’ to go on living because she stopped believing in Narnia and became too "too fond of lipsticks and nylons and invitations to parties.” Nice. What kind of message is that? You can be an intolerable brat and be reformed, as in the character of Eustace, or you can betray your family, like Edmund, and redeem yourself, but if you acquire the natural, normal tastes of a your woman then you’re denied heaven? What kind of message is that? Was C.S. Lewis really such a fussy, misogynistic old confirmed bachelor (he wrote these before he married stalker fan Joy Gresham) that the worst sin a person could commit was to like what a normal teenage girl would? I guess you could argue that Susan committed the worst sin by losing her faith that Narnia existed, a chilhood game she has outgrown, but I still think her punishment is harsh and unfair.

The only explanation I can find for the The Last Battle is that C.S. Lewis went completely off his rocker. I have also found the biographical details of his life to be very illuminating, especially his relationship with death. It seems most wounding event of his childhood was the death of his mother when he was a nine. Before he could even begin to process this tragedy, he was sent off when to boarding school, where, in the grand English public school tradition, he was beaten, brutalized and buggered. As a young man he served in the trenches in WWI, where he witnessed first hand the wholesale slaughter of his chums, and after being wounded returned to England to finish up his education at Oxford. He also went on to fulfill a promise he had made to a slain comrade. What follows might explain some of his problems with women.

From The Narnia Skirmishes, a New York Times article by Charles McGrath:

"For more than 40 years, he lived with the mother of a friend named Edward Moore, with whom he had made one of those earnest World War I pacts: if anything happened to either of them, the other would take care of his friend's family. In the event, it was Moore who died, while Lewis came down with trench fever and was later wounded, not severely but badly enough that he was sent home.

The exact nature of their relationship is something that many of Lewis's biographers would prefer to tiptoe around. But Lewis was far from a sexual innocent, and the evidence strongly suggests that, at least until he got religion, there was an erotic component to his life with Minto. Did they actually sleep together, this earnest, scholarly young man, conventional in almost every other way, and a woman 26 years his senior? Walter Hooper, the editor of Lewis's ''Collected Letters,'' thinks it ''not improbable.'' A.N. Wilson, the best and most persuasive of Lewis's biographers, argues that there's no reason at all to think they didn't, leaving us with the baffling and disquieting psychological picture of C.S. Lewis, the great scholar and writer and Christian apologist-to-be, pedaling off on his bicycle, his academic gown flapping in the wind, to have a nooner with Mum. What Lewis saw in Minto is another matter. No one else could stand her. Warnie once described her association with Lewis as ''the rape of J's life.'' He wrote in his diary at the time of her death in January 1951, ''And so ends the mysterious self-imposed slavery in which J has lived for at least 30 years.'' Minto said of Jack, ''He was as good as an extra maid,'' and she subjected him to a kind of domestic slavery that Wilson says he thinks amounted to sexual masochism on Lewis's part. His servility grew worse toward the end of Minto's life, when she slipped into an angry and querulous senility, and he spent most of his waking hours caring for her, for her ancient, incontinent dog, Bruce, and for Warnie, who eventually became a six-bottle-a-day man and was now stumbling around in a stupor all afternoon."

Interesting food for thought relating to Lewis’ problems with death and women. In any case, I love the Chronicles of Narnia enough to forgive C.S. Lewis for The Last Battle. I basically just ignore the book. Neil Gaiman doesn't forgive so easily, however, and The Problem with Susan is an eerie response to Lewis’s idea of God and Christianity as allegorized in Narnia.

You do realize, though, that someone could do with this blog post what you did with Lewis?
For instance:
"Why does Foxy Librarian have a problem with 'The Last Battle'? The roots are to be found in a traumatic event in her childhood --in fact, something that occured while she was still in utero...."
And, as Lewis himself would point out, if beliefs are caused, then they are inadjudicable and irrelevant.
Not to make a comment longer than the post or anything, but you are judging Lewis' views according to a standard: what is it, and how do you demonstrate the warrant of it?
Oh, P.S. The link at the bottom doesn't work --I get a 404 error: page not found.
"in fact, something that occured while she was still in utero...."

I'm not a believer in the theory of "maternal impression" but I do fancy myself a student of human nature. I am fascinated by how the events, time, culture and circumstances of a person's life influence and shape his or her thoughts, cosmology and belief system, and especially how all of this is reflected in his or her art. I loathe presentism, but I certainly don't have any trouble discussing trends in Lewis's writing that I don't agree with and find troubling.
C.S. Lewis is a man of his time and place, as I am a woman of mine. Although a lot of his writings transcend this, I think it's apparent when you read his biography where his sexism and his views of death spring from. They explain a lot, in other words.

I don't think there's anything wrong playing armchair psychologist/FBI psychological profiler.
And another thing -
If people want to return the favor and play armchair psychologist/Hannibal Lecter-Clarice with me and explore why I have such a problem with The Last Battle, well I have no problem with that. Or if someone wants to defend or justify Lewis' views on women then have at it.

Now that I think of it, I guess I found the whole Last Battle scene with the slaughter of the horses particularly upsetting because I was very affected by the rounding up and killing of wild Mustangs in the early 70s. There was a lot of publicity about it, and the images and reports really seeped into my little four year old brain. I remember even having dreams about it. Horses are objects of beloved fascination to most little girls, and the news that our govt was rounding these magnificent creatures with helicopters and turning them into dog food haunts me even to this day. In any case, I think it was sadistic of Lewis to put it in a children's book, but, having read about his life and his experiences with the death of those around him, I can understand why he did it.
The difficulty arises if you state that someone is completely a person of their place and time. Then no thoughts are valid --or at least no thoughts can be determined to be valid, including the thought that all thoughts are product of context.
However, there ought to be a principle of selection, of determining where Lewis (for instance) is transcendent, and where he is culturebound. That yardstick cannot be our own culture, for obvious reasons.
The slaying of the horses is a very emotionally disturbing moment: there is anger at those evil jerks of dwarves, dismay that Tirian's allies are falling, grief over the destruction of the horses one instinctively loves. You will not find me disagreeing that it is an upsetting thing: but I would disagree that it ought, on that account, to be kept from children: and I would also disagree if you suggested that it is untrue. I think the whole behavior of those dwarves is very psychologically accurate.
Armchair psychologizing? My guess is that you don't feel undeserving and there are parts of St. John's Revelation that you don't like.
I certainly don't think people and their art are completely of their place and time. If that were so, their art would be nothing but historical curiousities. The Narnia books remain so beloved to this day because they resonate and touch on some universal truths (in the Jungian archetype sort of way.) They endure for a reason.

It would be completely unfair for me to expect C.S. Lewis to have the feminist sensibilities of a Marin housewife. I said before I loathe presentism. But I do detect the inappriopriateness of the slaughter and death in the Last Battle (at least for a children's book, where you have to admit it's weird to kill off 3 of the principal children) as well as the faint misogyny in the Narnia books (little girls are OK, but after puberty not so much so) and I wanted to find out why. Studying the culture of his time and his own personal history have explained a lot to me.

As I said before, I like seeing what makes people tick and how this is revealed in their art.

As far as Revelations, I refuse to debate religion because it's pointless to do so when reason and faith are antithetical. People have spent lifetimes and rivers of blood over Revelations, and there still is no consensus, although our current administration's interpretation seems to be guiding our foreign policy, which absolutely sickens me. I'm strictly in Richard Dawkins' camp.

I wonder if you have read Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which is his response to the Narnia Chronicles?
As far as misogyny goes, it is well to remember that Lucy and Susan are both adult women in The Horse and His Boy. So I don't think the post-puberty reasoning necessarily holds water.
Within the Narnia framework, it is not really Peter, Edmund and Lucy who are killed off, though, is it?
Yes, I have read Pullman. I enjoyed the books and loved Lyra, although Pullman's ideology seemed pretty heavy-handed to me.
Ah, but at least tell me if I am right in my armchair psychologizing. The two guesses I made were based on what you said about the loss of Susan.
I quite understand not debating religion. I don't quite understand universal truths --even in a jungian sense-- from a Dawkins camp. I am also not sure I understand the assertion that reason and faith are antithetical --surely that involves an assumption about the nature of reason which cannot be shown by reason exercised within that paradigm?
Reason vs Faith

I make fun of Ayn Rand and Objectivism all the time, but her minion here nails it.

Most of C.S. Lewis' Narnia women, or the beautiful, seductive, single ones, are villains, witches and La Belle Dame sans Merci types: Jadis, her later manifestation as the White Witch, the Lady of the Green Kirtle.

Lucy may be a grown woman in The Last Battle, but she's still rather a tomboy. I still believe Susan gets nailed for being more of "a lady." I have the feeling that this is Lewis' little payback, even on an unconscious level, for women of this type's sexual power over him, one which he resents and fears for reasons plainly obvious if you examine his biography.
Well, I'm glad you make fun of Ayn Rand. That article you linked actually begged the question. It assumed a form of empiricism --without proving it, or linking to any place where empiricism had been rationally proven--, and whatever validity it might have had contra its primary target, missed me completely. And I wonder if a reasoning mind would claim unswerving allegiance to itself.
Well, perhaps Lewis is paying women back through Susan: but you have to admit that if we accept that paradigm, it would also be quite possible to say that you are paying him back. We could say that thinking of a certain type of woman's sexual power over him is a way for you to free yourself from the oppression he put you under.... And we could provide the same kind of substantiation from your blog.
Slow down girls, this is just a blog.
I would have to disagree with the conclusions Foxy Librarian has presented. I posted my views on Susan in my blog if anyone is interested.

I wouldn't have such a problem if Lewis had Peter or another male character shut out from heaven along with Susan for being too much into earthly things, whatever the male equivalent of lipsticks and pantyhose and parties is.

Lewis misogyny is in line with the doctrines of Augustine and St Paul, both of whom distrust females as temptresses who distract men from God with earthly desires. So, I still think the whole thing is creepy, but I guess it's in line with the grand tradition of Christianity. It kind of reminds me of what the lady killer Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter says in one of his conversations with God: "There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair."
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