Getting medieval on matter – C. S. Lewis and “stuff”

This morning I’m going to try to knock out some C. S. Lewis material for the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Since Joe Ricke’s invitation to submit an abstract for the 2014 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan came as I was working on this chapter, here’s what I shot back to him. In some form, it will work its way into this chapter:

When he contemplated the material world, Lewis appreciated both its quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). He loved a good storm – and the stormier the better – just because of it being so marvelously what it was. He appreciated the beauty of a waterfall as something inherent and objective – and was concerned for the souls of those who did not (in his Abolition of Man).But he also appreciated that when he saw the waterfall, he was seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

Lewis really did believe he could see God’s own beauty through his sense perceptions of the material. Moreover, he believed that as he did see in this way, he was actually peering through the less real, the less solid, to the more real, since God is the realest and most solid thing there is (which is why the shades of The Great Divorce hurt their feet on the sharp grass of heaven). He was, in other words, an Augustinian, Pseudodionysian, Neoplatonist—that is, medieval—dinosaur thumping about in a modern materialist age.

This paper will romp a bit in Lewis’s expository and imaginative writings, peering at how his medieval, sacramental perception of matter emerges in various forms throughout his corpus, from the creation narrative of Perelandra and the redemption narrative of That Hideous Strength to the talking animals of Narnia. In the latter case, as Michael Muth has argued, he built his talking animals on medieval bestiaries, which themselves functioned—Lewis once said (in Allegory of Love)—sacramentally. In so many ways, Lewis showed his readers how the stuff and creatures of the world act as symbols or sacraments of a higher reality (or, as in the case of the endragoning of Eustace, a lower but still super-natural reality). In fact, as he preached so powerfully in his sermon “Transposition,” given on Pentecost 1944, the material world is the only way we can see the immaterial. That’s just the sort of “rattletrap” creatures we are.

The question that Lewis frames in “Transposition” goes like this: “If we have really been visited by a revelation from beyond Nature, is it not very strange that an Apocalypse [That is, the Bible’s Book of Revelation] can furnish heaven with nothing more than selections from terrestrial experience (crowns, thrones, and music), that devotion can find no language but that of human lovers, and that the rite whereby Christians enact a mystical union should turn out to be only the old, familiar act of eating and drinking?”

He answers this question at the end of the Narnian Chronicles, as Lord Digory says, speaking of that the Narnia the children had experienced, “That was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here; just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia. . . . And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words but when he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato. Bless me! What do they teach them at these schools!” the older ones laughed.”

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