Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Great Divorce

An old friend had given me a copy of C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce for Christmas, so I pulled it out after finishing Farrell's book and read through it during the remainder of the flight. (Like most Lewis, it's a very quick read.)

You can get a great introductory education reading Lewis, because he has an incredible grasp of the great ideas of Western Culture, and conveys them in a clear and simple fashion, without for a moment being dull about it.

At the same time, Great Divorce contains some of the same traits that annoy me about a number of Lewis' books. It's got a brilliant set of images that convey Christian truths in a truly memorable fashion, and yet as a whole it has kind of a thrown-together feel. The end, especially, is abrupt, almost as if Lewis had taken it as far as he knew what to do with and so dropped it unceremoniously. Perhaps this ties in well with the frame which (though sketchy) is apparently that of a dream the author has during an air raid. The book has something of the rushed quality of something dashed off in a fit of brilliance during said air raid.

I don't want any of this to seem like a put-down of Lewis' primary point and his use of imagery. Figures like the Episcopal Ghost, the mother who loves her son to the exclusion of all else and the husband who feeds on pity, indeed leading it around on a chain in the form of an aging actor, until it finally consumes him (literally) will stick with me for a very long time. Lewis has a unique ability to distill characters who (while not filled out enough to seem like a fully rounded person) nonetheless instantly evoke real people and situations that you are familiar with.

The immediate comparison that occurred to me was to Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, a novel in which an unbelieving Science Fiction author wakes up dead to find himself in Dante's hell, but with a difference: It's possible to escape hell if you are willing to follow Dante's route, rejecting each sin as you go deeper, until climbing through the center of the world to Purgatory. Lewis has written a theologically deeper work with much more memorable images of the nature of sin, and the dangers of setting up another good in place of God's. Niven and Pournelle's book, however, is much more tightly written, with a clearer story arc, characterization and a feeling of finality when one reaches the end.

That said, I'm certainly very glad I read The Great Divorce. But if you get the chance, read Inferno as well.


Julie D. said...

I had the same feeling with The Great Divorce ... that kind of jumbled together problem. However, although I like Niven and Pournelle I never have read Inferno. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to pick that up and compare the two.

Unknown said...

great reviews! thanks. the one below looks good also.

Nate Winchester said...

TGD is my favorite book of Lewis.

Is it perfectly written? ...Well I guess I'd have to agree with you there.

But then I think that's why it sticks so much with me. It's so very much like life, which doesn't really have finality until that one moment. Likewise we don't know the full ends and arcs of every person we meet in life (mores the pity I think) but only a few. Thus we see in the book the ultimate fates of a few the narrator runs into, but not all.

Finally, while plenty of books leave me wanting to avoid Hell, TGD (and Lewis in general) is one of the VERY few books that leave me WANTING Heaven. And that positive longing makes up for a lot of shortcomings.