Saturday 26 August 2017

The Problem of Susan

I think CS Lewis was very wise in deciding that Susan was not going to make it to heaven when he had her preferring nylons and lipstick to Narnia thereby rejecting the spiritual world for the material one. We don't know what eventually happened to her but it may be that her choice was decisive or then again it may not since she would perhaps have had time to regret her decision.

For those who haven't read The Last Battle, the final story in the Narnia series, let me just explain what I am referring to here. The Pevensey children, who once came to Narnia from this world and ruled for a full life span as kings and queens, are involved in a train crash in England and they all die except Susan who was not on the train. They return to Narnia but not the Narnia they knew before. This is the higher, more archetypal Narnia which remains after the created, or more worldly, version is destroyed at the end of time. It is now a heavenly realm, or the approach to such, and the children have earned the right to be here because they have stayed faithful to Narnia and the principles of which Narnia is an embodiment. Susan, however, the eldest sister, has not. She has renounced imagination for reality or what she thinks of as reality. Basically the here and now, what's in front of your eyes and can be touched, tasted and so on sort of reality. The reality that everyone agrees is reality and what really matters. Susan has grown up but in growing up she has lost her soul.

Lewis was wise because there are many people like that, people who, when young, are still sensitive to spiritual things but as they grow up and the world closes in around them forget. Why do they forget? They forget for various reasons but two of the most common ones are that their inner perception was not that strong to begin with while their propensity to be attracted to worldly things was strong because of a spiritual deficiency within them. There was a materialism in their soul which is brought out by the temptations and distractions of the world so they lose contact with deeper reality.

These are hard words but nothing is gained by soft-soaping the truth. Susan was spiritually weak but Peter, Edmund and Lucy were spiritually strong, especially Lucy who was always the closest to Aslan/Christ, exonerating Lewis of any silly charges of sexism. We should note that Edmund had started off badly in the first story, siding with the witch through greed and ambition, but came good in the end so Lewis allows for both eventualities, the sinner who repents and the believer who loses her belief because of the pull of the world.

Susan could be any one of us. If we fall away from truth then an initial awakening is not going to help us. Yes, we must awaken to the spiritual world and see it as the true world but then we must keep faithful to that however hard it gets and however separated from it in our consciousness we seem to become. Susan had had the immense good fortune to have what amounts to a spiritual experience when young but she lost contact with that. She lost contact because she now regarded it as make believe as she had become distracted by worldly things, but we can also lose contact if we, while still believing with our outer mind, don't live up to it. We can believe in God but if we live as though this world is the proper or prime reality, as many outwardly religious people do, then it is as if we did not believe. For what use is belief if it doesn't transform us or, at least, totally reorient us? So many people profess religious belief but act and behave little differently from those who don't. Their heart is still in this world. Their belief is shallow. They may seem good people in a conventional sense but they do not have any real love of God in them and that, when all is said and done, is the only true spiritual virtue.

Susan not only lacked this love (unlike Lucy who had it in abundance) but she had lost belief altogether because her priorities were elsewhere, in her case possibly sensual satisfaction and the pleasure of being admired. She can serve as a warning to us all, that the spiritual path is a life long journey which must be constantly worked at and deepened or it will just lead back to the world even if externally all seems well. If we would really build the truths of the spiritual world into our consciousness then that must always take absolute precedence over everything else.

Susan admired and was admired by the world but she had lost the one thing that really matters.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William, I agree that the treatment of Susan is one of Lewis's masterstrokes of reality in the Narnia chronicles.

This does happen, I have seen it and I have been it - and it is one of the saddest things in the world.

Yet it is the officially recommended and sanctioned behaviour - and to admit (in public discourse) to anything other than total and embraced disenchantment, is to be regarded as foolish, insane, dangerous; and to put oneself beyond the pale of responsible adulthood.

(The ruling demons of modernity absolutely insist on this!)

William Wildblood said...

Yes, in the eyes of the world Susan is the intelligent person and the other three are deluded self indulgent and probably selfish too.

Michael Dyer said...

Related I think,

About a year and a half ago I finally understood why Thomas Aquinas referred to his extraordinary body of work as "straw".

The reality behind the words is the most important thing, real faith, real hope, real charity (I like the AV keeping the word charity in I Corinthians, it is love in the active sense that is being captured). Thomas experienced mystical things later in his life, if I recall correctly we only know he did because of contemporary witnesses to for example levitating during a celebration of mass. He never stopped believing what he wrote but he went from map to territory and saw the map as just a piece of paper compared to the wild forest he had entered. He actually "entered Narnia", metaphorically speaking.

This is where in my opinion, faith and works are so intertwined you can't tell one from the other. If you thought of the world of Christianity as the real world, more real than the one we live in, you are going to do things you would never have done otherwise. Do is an active, movement oriented word.

There is a danger on both sides of freedom and keeping the commandments, where the "system" becomes more important than the reality, an empty faith that "believes" but navigates the world on the worlds terms, or an empty faith that ruthlessly keeps rules or ceremonies without any spirit behind it. We see both of these all the time but I only ever seem to see warnings about the latter. Both are an insistence in living in unreality.