The Pilgrim’s Regress – C.S. Lewis, A ~ BitterSweetLife

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Pilgrim’s Regress – C.S. Lewis, A

A Flash Review: Impassible Rifts, Inconsolable Desires, & Dragons



The Pilgrim’s Regress is not typically mentioned in the same breath as C.S. Lewis’s “blockbuster” works—The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity and the Narnia books—and Regress doesn’t represent Lewis at the top of his game apologetically. Nevertheless, the book can’t be considered less than brilliant.

Pilgrim’s Regress is the first book C.S. Lewis wrote after his conversion to Christianity, and is his attempt to allegorically document the journey he took to reach faith in Christ, looking back over his shoulder, so to speak. Admittedly, Lewis’s prose in this book is sometimes dense in terms of layered meaning—but I have a hard time faulting this type of density! It just means you pause occasionally to ask yourself, What is he implying here?

Lewis presents a vision of the world that has the memorable lines of Narnia, in that it both embodies and transcends temporal reality.

Probably some people have been deterred from the allegory by its tone (whimsically erudite) and references (reflecting a classical education). Despite this, Pilgrim’s Regress is more incisive than its namesake, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, despite the statistical popularity of Bunyan’s book (second only to the Bible in terms of Christian “literature”) I’d give Lewis’s allegory the nod.

The ontological blueprint, or map of meaning, which Lewis presents is both economical and easy on the eye. Each of the cardinal directions (North, South, etc.) has a significance that is simple but allows Lewis to adequately describe the philosophical atmosphere of earth—a realm where asceticism and hedonism clash, while the supernatural exerts a haunting magnetism on either side.
"This sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it."

Lewis presents a vision of the world that has the memorable lines of Narnia, in that it both embodies and transcends temporal reality. The terrain of Pilgrim’s Regress—frozen North, swampy South and inexplicable “Grand Canyon”will be hard to forget. All the more so because I trace the same landscapes with my spirit.

I was also struck by the way that the central themes of Lewis’s thought were present here in allegorical kernel form. The Sehnsucht joy, or inconsolable longing, which Lewis describes so clearly in Surprised by Joy (his autobiography) and other books is present as “Romanticism” in Pilgrim’s Regress. The Afterword is invaluable in tracing this element in the story, and here Lewis clarifies what he wanted to convey (he notes that “Romanticism” has seven meanings other than the one he intends in Regress!):
The experience is one of intense longing...though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight… This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, although the subject may not at once recognize the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated. This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. “Oh to feel as I did then!” we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bitter-sweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it. [emphasis mine]

This strand in Lewis’s experience never fails to resonate with me. (Especially when he describes this “intense longing” using “my” terminology!) Another high point for me was Lewis’s depiction of the “Dialectic of Desire,” which describes the process through which he came to Christ. His longings (for something yet undiscovered) led him, blow by blow, from Atheism through Pantheism and various forms of humanistic thought to Christianity. Intriguingly, Lewis suggests, “The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof” (The Afterword).

In other words, Lewis believed that a person wholeheartedly pursuing the deepest fulfillment life could offer would eventually come to Christ. In a sense, I think he was right on this—if only people were this determined and this authentic in their searching. If only desire ran this deep! Perhaps Lewis was coming to terms with the fallible longings of humans when he later wrote, “Our desires are not too strong, but too weak.”

I had better give up on the “high points” now, or this Flash Review will become a literary form of halogen lighting. I’ll only say that the character of Reason, riding her war horse with sword in hand, and the glimpses of Heaven that seep into the novel, are beautiful. Also, this story contains dragons—and that's always in a book's favor.

Ultimately, Lewis was perhaps at his best when he spoke about the presence of “eternity in the heart of man” (Ecclesiastes), and he doesn’t fail to strike this soulful note in Pilgrim’s Regress.

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9 comments:

Andrew Simone said...

Did you know Lewis was not terribly fond of the book and thought it had some serious flaws?

That said, I am with you, it is certainly worth the read.

Verashni said...

Well said as usual Ariel. I had to spend a fair amount of time looking up Lewis's many references while reading this book... he takes intertextuality to a new level! But it was well worth it in the end. I got the impression that he was more cautious about it retrospectively, than not fond. As in terms like Romanticism being misconstrued, etc. But then, I'm not the scholar here :)

Iambic Admonit said...

Yes, and he also felt a bit annoyed about having to revise it with the running headlines. He says "To supply a 'key' to an allegory may encourage that particular misunderstanding of allegory which, as a literary critic, I have elsewhere [in The Allegory of Love] denounced. It may encourage people to suppose that allegory is a disguise, a way of saying obscurely what could have been said more clearly. But in fact all allegory exists not to hide but to reveal...." which his does, or would if we were only better educated. In order to understand Regress, one really needs "small Latin and less Greek," but far more than that average American has. And one needs to have read everything written in those two languages and English, and remember it all well enough to be able to nearly quote it all by heart, as Lewis is reputed to have been able to do!

All that said, it is a wonderful book. I find the afterword the most interesting bit, the bit with the definitions of Romanticism (who else would ever think of using the term "Romanticism" to mean spiritual longing?) and some of his characteristically soaring examples of Joy.

I'm still looking for people to suggest why Lewis wrote off Joy at the end of Surprised by Joy, as something which no longer interested him and was merely signposts to God, not little experiential tastes of His presence. Any ideas?

Ariel said...

As Iambic has been saying, the Afterword to this book is pretty revealing. I have a hard time believing that Lewis came to dislike his first book, but he did come to see the liability presented by excessive scholarship. As Verashni says, "he takes intertextuality to a new level!"

I was glad that I'd already read Surprised by Joy, as it served as a kind of code to help decipher Regress.

"I'm still looking for people to suggest why Lewis wrote off Joy at the end of Surprised by Joy, as something which no longer interested him and was merely signposts to God, not little experiential tastes of His presence."

Really? This is an element in Lewis I've totally overlooked (gasp) if what you say is true...do you have a page number in mind?? (Frantically thumbing through the bio.) I've got to hear more on this!

Camille said...

I discovered this book in my public high school library when I was but a tender freshman. I read it on an annual basis for the next ten years. I don't read latin or greek so all that stuff was lost on me (but I knew enough french to appreciate the french quotes) but I love the characters and the places. He does such a good job of revealing the ridiculousness of so many doctrines. I love what he does to Freud. Good Stuff. Thanks for bringing it back to my consciousness.

Andrew Simone said...

He wrote off joy because he knew what was coming.

Iambic Admonit said...

I think Andrew is right, but that somehow doesn't satisfy me. Here's what Lewis says. It's the last page of SbJ:
"But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. ...when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. ... Not, of course, that I don't often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance."

And thus he ends the book. With what feels to me like a whimper. Here's my problem: throughout my interaction with Lewis's joy, I've always thought it was more than a signpost--that it was those experiental tastes of God's presence by which we know Him on earth. Am I reading it wrong? Or is Lewis not fully serious in the end? Or does he misunderstand himself? Humphrey Carpenter records a strange change in Lewis after his conversion, that he started to say and write things that he maybe did not fully feel, that sounded like "Things a man might say." He was at such pains to subsume himself to God's will that he tried to efface himeself. Is this part of that urge?

~ Admonit

Ariel said...

"When we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. ... Not, of course, that I don't often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance."

And thus he ends the book. With what feels to me like a whimper.


This is absolutely fascinating. I'd completely missed this strand in Lewis...and now I'm wishing I could write a paper on it. Admonit, your theory is as good as anything I could come up with.

I'm still in a state of surprise; I'd always thought that Lewis came to savor Joy as a foretaste of heaven, and therefore not to be shunned...that's certainly the way in which I interpret my own experiences of bittersweet Joy. It's central to the way I live, and comprehend experience.

I think this subject calls for a new post. I'm still chewing on all this.

Iambic Admonit said...

Yeah, I thought Lewis did "savor Joy as a foretaste of heaven," but for some reason felt like he had to brush it off at the end of SBJ, maybe so that these experiences didn't become idolatrous or something. But I'm sure that they kept coming back in all of his works, and belied that nonchalance I quoted above.

Don't steal my paper! :)

 

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