C. S. Lewis on the Final Frontier: Science and the Supernatural in the Space Trilogy
Oxford University Press, 2009
256 pp., 52.00
Sword between the Sexes? , A: C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
Brazos Press, 2010
272 pp., 22.0
Lewis, Sex, and Gender
Sanford Schwartz contends that C. S. Lewis' Ransom Trilogy is about "ideological warfare." Each volume in the Trilogy "examines another facet of the seemingly impassable conflict between Christian tradition and the evolutionary or 'developmental' tendencies of modern thought." Out of the Silent Planet examines Wellsian Darwinism; Perelandra examines Emergent Evolution; That Hideous Strength examines the Babelian desire for the self-transformation of man into God.
Schwartz states that a major premise of his work "is grounded in the perception that each of the providentially governed communities with which Ransom is associated—the 'unfallen' Mars and Venus in the first two novels, and their terrestrial counterpart, the manor of St. Anne's, in the finale—is constructed not as the polar opposite but the transfiguration or 'working-up' of the specific phase of the evolutionary model to which it stands opposed." This "premise," he argues, is "consistent with Lewis' Augustinian view that 'bad things are good things perverted.'"
Certainly, Lewis, like Augustine, believed bad things to be good things perverted. However, it does not obviously follow that good things are bad things transfigured, and this "premise" ought to have been argued to rather than argued from. But let that pass: one can swallow an undefended premise if it leads securely to revelatory conclusions. Let us instead focus on the best part of the book, Schwartz's treatment of Perelandra, for it is this second novel which, judging by the works listed in the bibliography, was his way into the Trilogy, via his special study of Bergson.
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes a "momentous experience" he had when he was twenty years old, "that of reading Bergson in a Convalescent Camp on Salisbury Plain." Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was a French philosopher whose ideas about "creative evolution" were internationally influential in the first half of the 20th century. Lewis learned from Bergson to "avoid the snares that lurk about the word Nothing," to understand "necessary existence" (which Lewis terms a "divine attribute"), and also "to relish energy, fertility, and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence of things that grow." Without Bergson lighting the way, Lewis would have been unable, so he said, to appreciate artists of a certain kind: "all the resonant, dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people like Beethoven, Titian (in his mythological pictures), Goethe, Dunbar, Pindar, Christopher Wren, and the more exultant Psalms." He considered Bergson's philosophy to be the "profound" version of that which other writers, such as Bernard Shaw, had popularized and vulgarized, and he evidently thought it to be a serious enough error to be worth dismissing, as he does in Mere Christianity: "The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost." But note: he dismisses it; he doesn't say it's worth sublimating or "transfiguring."
Schwartz, a learned and wide-ranging writer, has made a special study of Bergson and his politics of vitalism and is thus well placed to draw out Lewis' probable debts to "Bergsianity" (as Schwartz calls it) in Perelandra. The most striking of these debts is the way he puts on the lips of his villain, Weston, the word "Nothing," and Schwartz's discussion of "nothingness" and its relationship to the "Bergsonian plenum" is alone worth the price of the book.
He also argues that Weston's shift from espousing materialist "Wellsianity" in the first novel to propounding "creative evolution" in the second is reflected (positively) in the dynamic "and remarkably Bergsonian" character of the new world that Ransom discovers on Venus:
In a dramatic departure from the traditional views of the earthly paradise, Lewis presents the prelapsarian order as a state of continuous flux, a "universe of shifting slopes." … Instead of an immutable condition that precedes the fall into time and change, Lewis's new Eden is a world of perpetual movement …. This feature of the novel rarely receives the attention it deserves: when it is not simply taken for granted or chalked up as a clever conceit, it is attributed either to the "floating islands" that appear in extant scientific accounts of Venus's atmosphere, or to hints of an evolving Eden in Milton's Paradise Lost. These are significant sources, but the shift from Being to Becoming on Lewis's mobile paradise is so pronounced--and the psychological, spiritual, and cosmological implications of this "inversion of Platonism" explored in such exacting detail--that a more far-reaching alternative suggests itself: the new world on Perelandra is a Christianized "working-up" of "creative evolution" itself.
Lewis' reading of Bergson very probably had an effect on Perelandra, but the basis upon which Schwartz makes his claims and the extent to which he pushes them are questionable. Why, for instance, should we choose to see Perelandra in the context of "a dramatic departure from the traditional views of the earthly paradise"? Like numerous critics of the Ransom Trilogy before him, Schwartz has been misled, it would seem, by the superficially biblical properties onstage in Perelandra (fruit, temptations, a naked woman in a garden state), not realizing that Lewis is less concerned with the apple of Genesis than with the breasts of Venus. He is not so much reworking the biblical Eden with the help of the élan vital as imagining femininity by means of the goddess of love, the sensuous, curvaceous, maternal Aphrodite (filtered, of course, through his Christian and fully scriptural theological imagination). Ideological issues of "emergence," of "Becoming," of "flux," appear in the novel because they pertain to this central theme of femininity, not because they are its central theme. We need not search out reasons for Lewis' departure from traditional views of the earthly paradise: the earthly paradise was never his starting-point.
Likewise in Out of the Silent Planet: its hunts and hierarchies, its straight lines and compartmentalized rationalities, impart what Lewis felt was basic to the spirit of masculinity, symbolized there by means of the Martial planetary god. The ruthlessly linear, competitive stratifications of naturalistic "Darwinian theory" are not the raw materials of Lewis' theme, which he somehow "takes up" and transfigures into an "imagined archetype": on the contrary, these things show how the masculine impulse can all too easily go off the rails, for indeed "bad things are good things perverted." But because Schwartz is not seriously interested in Lewis' presentation of gender, he overlooks these points; he lets the tail wag the god.
Schwartz gives such scant attention to the masculinity and femininity themes of the first two books in the Trilogy that he can describe it as one of the third book's "problems" that it "ventures headlong into controversial matters of sex and gender." To be sure, these matters are controversial, but there is no "headlong" about it. The whole Trilogy is structured to reflect Lewis' ideas about men, women, and marriage. This accounts for the surprising heterogeneity across the three volumes and also explains why the first word of That Hideous Strength is "matrimony." Schwartz very helpfully highlights the "Gothic" aspects of That Hideous Strength and usefully ties these generic considerations to the "techno-magical" devilry which the novel satirizes, but he finds it so easy to "bristle" at the "inherently patriarchal assumptions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition" concerning gender that he cannot relax into this more central theme of the story.
Schwartz describes himself "as a scholar of early twentieth-century modernism and as a relative latecomer to Lewis." This self-description neatly encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of his study. The author's expertise in modernism enables him to provide informative accounts of currents in modernist thought that have a freshening and illuminating effect upon one's understanding of the Trilogy; it is good for once not to approach Lewis along classical or medieval lines.
But that he is a "relative latecomer to Lewis" and a modernist rather than a classicist or medievalist may help explain why Schwartz is so little aware of the importance Lewis attached to the planets as "spiritual symbols of permanent value"; so little aware of the value he gave to a plot's location as well as to its more obvious "message" ("What's the excuse for locating one's story on Mars unless 'Martianity' is through and through used?" as Lewis wrote in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, January 20, 1954); so little aware of the central role he afforded psychomachia in romance (Ransom's physical combat with Weston is an objective correlative of spiritual warfare, not "an open attempt to justify, if not sanctify, the recourse to arms").
And, as I have pointed out before in Books & Culture, it is the Ransom Trilogy or Cosmic Trilogy, not the Space Trilogy! Lewis never called it the Space Trilogy, and he took pains to direct us away from the term. In Out of the Silent Planet, he writes that the word space is "A blasphemous libel …. Space was the wrong name …. If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning." Schwartz is entitled to disagree with Lewis and argue that space is the right word, but the difference should be acknowledged and explained. Alas, he passes over the point in silence, indicating that he is not as au courant with his subject matter as one would have hoped in a book of this (otherwise very scholarly) tone and temper.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen also calls the Ransom Trilogy "the Space Trilogy," and she, like Schwartz, does not fully explore its theme of gender (as we will see further, below). This is all the more remarkable because gender forms the focus of her study, A Sword Between the Sexes? C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debates.
The basic argument of Van Leeuwen's book is that Lewis, over the course of his writing life, journeyed to a "preference for people," thus leaving behind his earlier endorsement of gender essentialism and gender hierarchy, an endorsement that Van Leeuwen regards as having been erroneous on theological grounds and in any case unsupportable on empirical grounds.
Van Leeuwen finds in A Grief Observed a "pointed rejection" of his youthful mistakes; he "effectively retracted"—indeed "actually repudiated"—many of his earlier views about gender. Two other late works by Lewis, The Four Loves and The Discarded Image, show a similar sort of change. In sum, Lewis made a "late-life embrace of gender equality and gender role flexibility."
Van Leeuwen's thesis is to be welcomed insofar as it takes us beyond the uncritically approving and uncritically hostile treatments of this subject which have to date characterized so much Lewis scholarship. She rightly observes that Lewis has been alternately "lionized and demonized" for his views on gender. By contrast, her own approach is intended to be a mixture of "the affirmative and the questioning." She starts by admitting her own extensive debts to Lewis; the rest of the book is largely critical.
In the course of her argument, Van Leeuwen makes some effective points. For instance, given that the three great Creeds of the Church (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian) make no mention of marriage, let alone the kind of marriage Lewis outlines in Mere Christianity, is he justified in presenting his views thereon as part of "mere" Christianity? In private correspondence with one of his former students, Mary Neylan, Lewis qualified his views on marriage by saying they were "only my own idea" but strangely did not include such a reservation in public: "[W]hen actual persons—as opposed to abstract audiences—were involved, Lewis was usually aware of what he could pass off as 'mere Christianity' and what he could (and should) not."
Van Leeuwen's "formal training is in academic psychology." The stronger parts of this book come when she draws on her professional expertise in psychology and the social sciences. Her historical sketch of the gendered socio-psychological pressures that helped to differentiate Lewis from Dorothy L. Sayers is one example. Another is her presentation of empirical research into gender traits. Chapters 4-5 and 7-10 of this book constitute a really worthwhile contribution to the literature on the subject.
When operating on literary and theological territory, Van Leeuwen is much less sure-footed, and her reading of the Ransom Trilogy is the obvious example. The second sentence of her book is taken from Perelandra, where Lewis writes: "Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality, than sex." Given the centrality of gender to the Trilogy, one would have expected it to be afforded at least one whole chapter to itself. This, after all, is Lewis' serious, sustained, imaginative treatment of Van Leeuwen's chosen subject. Instead, it receives only a brief discussion in chapter 2 and scattered references elsewhere.
More troubling than the brevity of the treatment, though, is its shallowness. Van Leeuwen accords Out of the Silent Planet virtually no analysis whatsoever, and yet this is where Lewis is attempting to depict masculinity. Perelandra, Lewis' presentation of femininity on Venus, fares only marginally better. But before she has even mentioned the titles of either of these books in the main text, Van Leeuwen jumps unreflectively ("headlong" we might say!) into the third novel, That Hideous Strength. This she describes as "a forum for displaying Lewis's views on gender," yet it is the Trilogy as a whole which is that forum, and the third book cannot be properly understood without seeing it in context: it is only after having carefully established his understanding of gender principles in the first two novels that Lewis tries to show how they might receive a mundane expression in the persons of Mark and Jane Studdock.
Much of the imagery of the Ransom books is dependent upon medieval cosmology, yet Van Leeuwen omits to note that Lewis describes Mercury, along with Mars and Venus, as representing "those two of the seven genders which bear a certain analogy to the biological sexes" (That Hideous Strength, chapter 15). Why is this interesting and important sentence nowhere even cited? For here Lewis not only suggests that scholarship and rationality (as represented by Mercury) pertain equally to both masculinity and femininity, he also introduces the puzzling concept of "seven genders," indicating that his ideas on gender were far more complex and speculative than Van Leeuwen allows. Regrettably, she does not draw out the implications of Ransom's return to Perelandra or ruminate upon the reasons for the feminine planet's dominant influence at the end of That Hideous Strength, and she shows no awareness that in his connubial reunion with Jane, Mark Studdock embodies what Lewis in The Allegory of Love called "the typically medieval theme of the proud young man (Bayard—Troilus) tamed by Venus." These things are key to a proper appreciation of how Lewis understood the relationship of men and women, and they prefigure much of what he would later say in A Grief Observed, yet they go unnoticed.
Theologically, too, the book is suspect. Lewis is accused, on the flimsiest ground, of flirting with Arianism. In support of her case that Lewis overthrew his earlier beliefs in hierarchy, Van Leeuwen points to his "rather clear rejection of the neo-Platonic hierarchicalization of the Trinity," as if that were tantamount to a rejection of Christian hierarchicalization. And because she equates hierarchy with inequality, which Lewis does not (a difference never recognized or discussed), she assumes that the Trinitarian tradition of the church, with its anti-Arian emphasis on the equality of the Son with the Father, has been consistently non-hierarchical. Refreshing though it was to find a feminist arguing that traditional Trinitarian doctrine, with its language of Father and Son, is not inherently hierarchical, it must be recorded that Lewis, along with the early doctors of the church, thought that of course it was hierarchical, yet not therefore inegalitarian. Van Leeuwen ignores this paradox, as also she neglects Lewis' reflections (in Spenser's Images of Life) upon the masculine metaphors used of the divine nature throughout Scripture. For her understanding of Trinitarian theology, she appears to be reliant almost exclusively upon one source (written in 2002). This whole chapter on the theological background to Lewis' thinking on gender is deeply unsatisfactory.
As for the overall thesis—Lewis abandoning gender essentialism in his last years—that too fails to convince. The supposed change evident in The Four Loves only shows that "Lewis has begun to equivocate," even by Van Leeuwen's reading, and equivocation is not repudiation. The supposed change evident in The Discarded Image is only an argument from silence, which Van Leeuwen concedes but says does not matter because when Lewis changed his mind he did not trumpet the change but "simply dropped from future published writings any reference to the opinion he once held." In fact, however, there are several examples of Lewis publicly disavowing an earlier stance (e.g. the second edition of Miracles, the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress, and The Four Loves, where he revises opinions expressed in The Allegory of Love).
But even if we grant that Lewis might have changed his views on gender silently in The Discarded Image, the supporting evidence adduced for holding such a view still leaks disastrously. When he said "I prefer people," he meant that he preferred people over the "ultra masculine or the ultra feminine" (letter of August 5, 1955), not over the masculine or the feminine simpliciter. And when he wrote in A Grief Observed that "this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes," he meant just that—"beyond our sexes," not beyond our genders. "Gender," let us remember, "is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex." Lewis published that sentence in 1943, and whether he was right, wrong, or a bit of both, is, of course, a question worthy of debate; Van Leeuwen introduces some good reasons for challenging his view. But she presents no solid grounds for supposing that Lewis would not readily have expressed the same view at the time of his death, twenty years later.
Gender issues are a minefield, and this book too is something of a minefield. There are several clear stretches of turf where real progress is gained, but there are also many patches that need controlled explosions. Caveat emptor!
Michael Ward is Chaplain of St Peter's College, Oxford, author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis(Oxford Univ. Press), and co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. His website: michaelward.net
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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