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Milton, Lewis, Pullman, and pop culture

13 February 2016

Yesterday we went to the second part of David Levey’s paper on “Reading Irreligiously” (for the first part see TGIF: reading irreligiously | Khanya). Much of the paper was devoted to a comparison of Milton’s Paradise Lost with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Gustave Doré's illustration for Milton's Paradise Lost, III,

Gustave Doré’s illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost, III,

I’m not going to try to summarise David Levey’s paper, but will rather try to respond to some of the questions he raises. Perhaps the first thing I should do is confess that I have not read Paradise Lost because I am prejudiced against Milton. I blame Milton for the conception that many English-speaking people have of the devil or satan as Lucifer, and many seem to believe that this understanding is biblical.

In the Bible “Lucifer” is an epithet of the King of Babylon (Isaiah 14). The whole passage is a satire on the fall of a tyrannical ruler who thought himself the brightest star in the political firmament. This is seen theologically and typologically as an image of the fall of Satan, the type and model of earthly tyranny (Luke 10:18; John 12:31; Rev 12:9).

I suppose my prejudice was, at least in part, inspired by C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his novel Perelandra:

He had full opportunity to learn the falsity of the maxim that the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. Again and again he felt that a suave and subtle Mephistopheles with a red cloak and rapier and a feather in his cap, or even a sombre and tragic Satan out of Paradise Lost, would have been a welcome release from the thing he was actually doomed to watch. It was not like dealing with a wicked politician at all. It was more like being set to guard an imbecile or a monkey or a very nasty child.

What Lewis describes is what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”.

In David Levey’s comparison between Milton, Lewis and Pullman it soon became evident that there was also a cultural difference, linked to the time and the place in which the works were written.

David Levey’s paper says of Narnia, “No sexuality  whatever: at the end Susan does not pass through to Aslan’s country because she has taken too much interest in lipstick and boys. Boys/men take lead (except for Lucy, sometimes). No violence”. But that is not true. In The Last Battle Jill Pole takes the lead in exposing “Tashlan” as a donkey in a lion skin, which rather goes against Tirion’s culture. Of Pullman’s work Levey mentions increasing sexual awareness, explicit violence, and strong emphasis on truth.

Concerning sexual awareness, I think Levey is right, but it has little to do with Susan (more on her below). For me the lack of sexuality in the Narnia series was most apparent when I rather hoped and expected that Polly and Digory would grow up and marry and live happily ever after. But they didn’t. Lewis quite explicitly expressed his distaste for any writing that suggested sexual feelings or sexual relations among children, and in the case of Polly and Digory his distaste seemed to extend even to when the children had grown up. But the thing that struck me most about His Dark Materials on first reading is Pullman’s thinly-veiled railing against Christian asceticism throughout the series, yet in the end Will and Lyra, despite their feelings for each other, opt for something very similar to Christian asceticism, and end up like Polly and Digory, though with more angst.

The fate of Susan in the Narnia stories is somewhat different. Of this Pullman said (The Cumberland River Lamp Post – An Appreciation Of C.S. Lewis):

And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.

This is a rather misleading account, because in The last battle Susan is allowed to grow up, but two of the other characters, one younger and one older, comment on what she has grown up into. For Jill Pole, who, as far as I can determine, was aged about 11 in the story, says, somewhat disparagingly,  “she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. I can recall having similar thoughts about older teenagers when I was 11. And Pullman’s own heroine, Lyra, who is the same age, has little time for the kind of world that Susan was interested in, which she experienced when she went to stay with Mrs Coulter in London., and quickly became aware of the superficiality of its attractions and the dangers luking beneath the surface.

If Pullman got this wrong, others got it even more wrong. So we read in The Ramshackle Vampire: Sorry, Ladies, C.S. Lewis Finds You Tedious and Icky:

The Narnia novels, which C.S. Lewis wrote as children’s stories, generally avoid sexual themes. An episode in the final book that Lewis’s readers call “the problem of Susan” thus becomes multiply alarming: it brings sexuality (teenage romance) into the series and then condemns it, and the women who express it. In The Last Battle (1956), Susan Pevensie was denied re-admission into Narnia – and thus allegorically into Heaven – because she dared develop an interest in “makeup” and “boys,” neither of which left her time for Narnia or Aslan. Several authors have subsequently addressed Lewis’s callous dismissal of Susan in their own stories.

The general picture given by these critics is that C.S. Lewis is against life and growing up and adult sexuality. This connotation of “adult” sexuality seems to be the one found in “adult” bookshops.

But The last battle does not actually mention “boys” in this context. When I first read The last battle (at the age of 24) what Jill’s comment about “nylons and lipstick and invitations” conveyed to me was the lifestyle of a fashion-obsessed social-climbing airhead.

Oh yes he is (oh yes he is), oh yes he is (oh yes he is).
His world is built ’round discotheques and parties.
This pleasure-seeking individual always looks his best
‘Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion. (The Kinks)

Yet that is the lifestyle that Lewis’s critics seem to regard as “grown-up”.

The other odd thing about these critics is that they claim that Susan was refused re-admission to Narnia because of “lipstick” and “boys”. This again is reading into the text something that is simply not there. Her siblings, who were presumably interested in other things, were likewise refused readmission to Narnia because they were too old. We are told nothing about what eventually happened to Susan other than that she was no longer interested in Narnia because she was so wrapped up in her fashion-conscious social-climbing lifestyle. While the others were on the train, she was possibly at a cocktail party, perhaps similar to those thrown by Mrs Coulter. It might have fallen to her, as their only surviving relative, to make the funeral arrangements, for her siblings at least.

And that brings us to popular culture, where the most admired lifestyle is apparently one of a dedicated follower of fashion, a dedicated consumer of goods like nylons and lipstick. This is apparent in the dissing of the humanities in academia — universities should rather be offering courses in producing and marketing lipstick and other cosmetics, rather than teaching useless stuff like history and literature.

And works for many of us born in the 1940s too

And works for many of us born in the 1940s too

But this is perhaps where popular culture of the 1990s until now differs from from that of the 1950s, when the Narnia stories were written. People speak of generations like X and Y, and they have different cultures. I don’t know what letter my generation has, but it fell somewhere between the Beat Generation and the hippies.

There was popular culture, and there was the counterculture, which commercialised pop culture was always trying to coopt to make money out of it.

“Lifestyle” originally referred to a countercultural lifestyle, rejecting the dominant values of society. But it wasn’t long before the banks were advertising “lifestyle banking” with images of yachts, expensive cars and mansions — a Susan Pevensie lifestyle for the middle aged, perhaps. That was really grown up.

Last Thursday we had the opening parliament and the State of the Nation Address (SONA) amid cries of #PayBackTheMoney and #ZuptaMustFall. But just as impoerant, and demanding almost as many colum centimetres, was the fashion parade SUNDAY TIMES – From SONA to Zika: 10 things that happened this week you should know about

The State of the Nation Address may be focused on political topics but with every important event come important fashion moments. From Thuli Madonsela’s canary yellow gown to the long gold dress of Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s wife, Noma, designer Gert-Johan Coetzee dominated the red carpet. Here are our best and worst looks from the night.

Back in the 1960s some of the countercultural Christians were called Jesus Freaks, but it wasn’t long before they were coopted by suit ‘n tie Christians, who were soon marketing a new line in plastic hippie Christian kitsch in the Christian bookshops.

I think I’ll stop there. If you want more, try Pilgrims of the Absolute by Brother Roger, CR.


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