Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Till We Have Faces

C.S. Lewis penned a memorable reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth in his much lauded novel, Till We Have Faces. Orual, Psyche’s older half-sister, is the protagonist and first-person narrator of this mythical autobiography. As a solipsistic narcissist, Orual progressively alienates herself from those whom she loves and who love her. The whole work can be characterized as an ill-conceived lament to the gods about what Orual misperceives to be their manifold injustices against her. She refuses to wake up from this self-imposed spiritual nightmare until the last moments of her life when she finally seems to accept the epiphany of God's face and her own. Deo Gratias!

No matter how unlikable Orual is or how difficult it is to sympathize with her plight, her eventual acceptance of spiritual realities and her grudging acquiescence to humility-- after a lifetime of rationalist skepticism, misguided love, and utter hubris-- offers the reader a ray of hope. For surely, if a protagonist like Orual can finally come to self-knowledge, can see her own face, and can make the initial step towards intimacy with God, the most inveterate sinner among us has a shot at eternal happiness in the face to face beatific vision with God Almighty.

Rich symbolism abounds in the work. This brings great delight to the decoding in the interpretive process, but it also induces not a few migraines. So it goes with Modernist era fiction, I suppose. What stood out to me most is how Lewis transforms the original mythical account into a kind of pagan foreshadowing of Judeo-Christian revelatory content. For example, Orual unwittingly plays the role of the trickster figure as a deluded lover obsessing about Psyche and unwilling to relinquish her to Cupid. She persuades Psyche to betray Cupid’s only command, not to look upon him. This leads to Psyche’s exile from the palace and her various trials and tribulations before she can be reunited with her love.

All of this is evocative of the Fall in the Genesis. Orual is an amalgam of Satan and Eve who uses rationalizations to tempt Adam (Psyche) into betraying the god of love. Psyche’s exile and Orual’s participation in her trials (suggested through the vision sequences in the latter half of the novel) point to the larger theme of salvation history: man’s alienation from the God, himself, and his neighbor through the ravages of sin and his ever so slow journey back to the heart of God. It takes Orual the rest of her life to come to grips with what has transpired in the encounter with Psyche at the invisible palace. Her sin blinds her from seeing what should otherwise be transparent—the grandeur of the spiritual realm, her own spiritual identity symbolized by her face, and the truth about the incredible justice and love of God.

C.S. Lewis’s novel is a mythical antidote to the Modernist tendency to reduce the deposit of faith to superstition (Bardia, Trom, the Priest of Ungit, old statue of Ungit) or a mere ethical system consistent with the magisterial dictates of the empirical rationalists (Fox, Orual, Arnom, the new statue of Ungit). Mere Christianity is somewhere between these two schools of thought. It certainly possesses and is possessed by mystery, for God is ineffable and sublime. Words, images, and rituals cannot contain Him nor do they adequately describe Him. They are valuable mystical analogies, even efficacious sacraments, that touch His divinity but do not explain it. God is the Logos, too. This means the revelation of His triune Personhood is also rational or superrational; it is not irrational as some suppose and assert in the public square.

The difficulty lies in those instances where the mystery or superrationality of God transcends the human mind and imagination to fully understand or appreciate. This is where myth is useful. It bridges the gap between mystery and superrationality by fleshing out these difficulties through the aid of stories. C.S. Lewsis’s Till We Have Faces is a masterful reflection on the human condition. This literary gem encourages the reader to see connections with the misguided Orual, so that he or she will not waste his or her life in an obdurate denial of the incomparable luminescence of our spiritual face and God’s. In the final analysis, Lewis gets it fundamentally right: Till we have faces, we cannot see, know, or love God's face.

No comments:

Post a Comment