Tag Archives: literature

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

I finally got through it. Starting it again recently, I got hooked and read in the evenings until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is an extraordinary book, more powerful to my mind than The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters combined. It’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Somewhere along the way, I think I read or heard that Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, a poet, helped Lewis edit the book. I imagine she contributed to its strength.)

If you’re interested in mythology and the ancient world, you’ll probably enjoy Till We Have Faces, and you’ll certainly appreciate it.

Here’s the opening paragraph and excerpts from the second paragraph:

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

“Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain…. I will write in Greek as my old master taught it to me. It may some day happen that a traveler from the Greeklands will again lodge in this palace and read the book. Then he will talk of it among the Greeks, where there is great freedom of speech even about the gods themselves….”

This narrator is Orual, Queen of the fictitious land of Glome, which shares a world with the Greece of ancient history. Writing in old age, Orual will tell the story of her life, and especially her relationship with her youngest sister, Psyche.

Glome’s goddess is Ungit, and she requires of her priests animal, and sometimes even human, sacrifices.

The “old master” mentioned above is called the Fox, a red-headed Greek brought to Glome as a slave. Working for the king (Orual’s father), he teaches Orual and her sisters when they are children. Fox is skeptical of the religious worldview of Glome, if not strictly skeptical of the existence of the gods. His Hellenistic philosophy seems to lean toward a rationalistic worldview, maybe similar to Stoicism.

But what Orual experiences throughout the book is a universe with rich metaphysical and religious realities woven into her adventures yet countered by her own skepticism.


(Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and since has appeared in several editions.)

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

“Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt like of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts. To some extent even theology has embraced impoverishment, often under the name of secularism, in order to blend more thoroughly into a disheartened cultural landscape. To the great degree that theology has accommodated the parascientific world view, it too has tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. But the beauty and strangeness persist just the same. And theology persists, even when it has absorbed as truth theories and interpretations that could reasonably be expected to kill it off. This suggests that its real life is elsewhere, in a place not reached by these doubts and assaults. Subjectivity is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” — Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (The Terry Lectures Series)

Please also see “The objectives of metaphysics, the objectives of science.”

Thus sayeth the Archbishop of Canterbury — in ‘Henry V’


As I sit here in Lambeth, home of Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury —

Yesterday I couldn’t resist taking several photos of the 1888 monument in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This panel on the monument includes a quotation spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury character in Shakespeare’s Henry V. When Prince Hal’s father dies, Hal (a.k.a. Harry) becomes King Henry V, and as the Archbishop of Canterbury notes, the new responsibilities instantaneous turned the revelling boy into a serious-minded adult.


Engineering reliable serfs for a stable economy: diminishing the fine arts and humanities in education

Darcy Wells Ward wrote a fantastic post entitled “The Great Humanities Crisis.”

Ward writes, and quotes an unidentified Nussbaum:

…policy makers want to create a generation of workers, not thinkers. “The student’s freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained, obedient workers to carry out the plans of the elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technology investment.” (Nussbaum, 21)

The most powerful people can use their influence to create systems that engineer more serfs.

However, not all of the most powerful people always want to engineer serfs for themselves. Good intentions might guide efforts to engineer new policies.

Still, sometimes, the most difficult message to communicate is a message that says the present, current good intentions are not going to bring good outcomes.

Fear of poverty and fear of low status spur anxious parents and practical politicians and school districts to emphasize reductive skills that secure good salaries — and emphasize those salaries more than humane sensitivities and understandings born from the civilizing influence of well-taught and well-presented arts and literature.

Ward again:

…it is only a matter of time before the lack of interpersonal skills, as well as personal growth, created by inquiries into history, philosophy, art, music, and language will catch up with us.

Moving a society forward, like becoming an educated person, requires a balance of appreciation for traditions and appreciation for new research and theories.

Confucius once said, “Enliven the ancient and also know what is new, and then you will be a teacher.” And, you will be a citizen. And, you will be fully human.

Note: This balanced perspective won’t be accepted by certain threads of cultural conservatives, by certain threads of progressives, or by Serf Engineers.

Paradoxes for Better Living, 4

Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung...Come now, do I really give you the impression that I advocate a life of inactivity? I have only buried myself away behind closed doors in order to be able to be of use to more people.” — Seneca, in Letter VIII, translated by Robin Campbell (his translation differs somewhat from the linked translation)

Writers serve in solitude.

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov’s short fiction was undergirded by a spirituality and a morality that suggested what one critic called “internal blindness” — a blindness of the heart detected within the privileged characters of Chekhov’s short stories.

“And perhaps nothing is as tragicomic in our daily experience as that highly serious comedy of errors, moral and spiritual in character, constantly falsifying social relations and human intercourse…. Our own reciprocal misunderstandings are due not to material appearances or optical illusions, but to internal blindness.” — Renato Poggioli, “Storytelling in a Double Key,” an essay on Anton Chekhov’s short stories

Footnote on the reliability of the Bible: Let’s say we met 30 minutes ago

Let’s say you and I met 30 minutes ago.

We met in a hotel lobby, and a passing comment about a sports car became a conversation.

I told you, “Hey, I just got a new Jaguar.”

You said, “Wow — that’s cool!”

Then we decided to share a ride somewhere.

We walked up to my car. It’s a Honda Accord.

You said, “Oh, I thought you had your Jaguar with you.”

I said, “No, I just have an Accord.”

You wondered if I’m crazy or a liar or what.

We got in the car, and I started driving.

We passed a convention center, and a sign for an upcoming concert turned the conversation to music.

You said, “I really love jazz.”

I said, “Awesome! I’ve got a massive collection of jazz in the back. We’ll get it out when we pull into a gas station.”

When we pulled into the gas station, I reached into the back and pulled out a small compact-disc holder. I handed it to you. You opened it. Inside, you found five CDs of 1980s pop.

“This doesn’t look like a jazz collection,” you said, a little exasperated.

“Oh, I don’t have a jazz collection with me — I have a few 1980s pop CDs,” I said.

You thought I was crazy or a liar or something.

Now, in the past 30 minutes, twice I’ve told you something, and then I changed my story.

Do you think I’m trustworthy?

Maybe, just maybe, some of the debates about Biblical discrepencies could be described this way:

The “liberal” text critics might say, “Look, in this passage, the Bible clearly says he had a Jaguar, and in this passage, the Bible clearly says he had an Accord. This is a problem.”

The “conservative” text critics might say, “Look, the important thing is that he had a car, just like he said.”

The “liberal” text critics might say, “How can you call this inerrant? He said he had a big jazz collection, and then he said he had a small 1980s pop collection! This is what you mean by inerrancy?”

The “conservative” text critics might reply, “He said he had music in his car, and he did, and that’s the importance of this passage. Ergo, inerrancy preserved!”

Of course, this analogy doesn’t work for every instance of factual discrepency, but it might just apply to some.

Could it be that the “conservatives” have a very broad, liberal view of what makes a text trustworthy?

(And why don’t we talk about this in church? It’s like the elephant in the room.)