What If We Are Alone? [A Marsh-Wiggle Speaks]

Orphaned2Our lives are staked on such simple things, aren’t they? Because it isn’t only true that no man is an island, it’s vastly more true that no belief is marooned, that ideas have consequences, and that every accepted truth claim moves in with its entire family. So “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” rather quickly turns into, “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and before we know it, the ball’s in our court.

But when you give every last thing, you want it to be worth it, don’t you? And sometimes, to be utterly honest, we’re not quite sure.

At the back of our minds, is there sometimes this lingering gnawing, the dark suggestion that what we see is all there is? It isn’t that we have strong reasons for disbelief, or that we’re out of evidence for what we do believe, but only that we’ve come to love it so very much – to depend on it and live and move and have our being in it – that even a mustard-seed of uncertainty is unbearable.

LonelyPlanetK.S. Rhoads puts words to this frightful sadness in Orphaned,

you’re born into a union
but you die on your own

a bear on the iceberg
is burning in the sun

what if I go behind the curtain
and see no one?

When I was a child, I asked these questions. Sometimes I opened my mind to the possibility of the void, of everything glad becoming untrue, of life going out like a candle, and all things being of no account. How do you explain the dark aloneness of dust?
Emerald City
When I was eight years old, I read The Wizard of Oz. I read chapter after chapter without pause, and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t find the self-control to put it away and save something to read later. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, I lay awake and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

It’s the ghastliest question of all:

Are we orphaned?

But when I was a child, I didn’t know about amor tan inmenso. I didn’t know there was a love so mighty that the idea of it was better than the substance of anything else; so colossal that we would sooner die for that fantasy than live for the bleak reality of anything else.

Now I don’t ask that question anymore. It isn’t that I’ve outgrown doubt, or moved past anguish or this diseased vision of mine, but in a way I’ve come to happy terms with even the uncertainty that slips in sometimes when I’m not looking. I’ve made my peace with it.

SilverChairThis peace has come all by itself – just slipped quietly in as the years rolled on – but the echo of it exists in many places, leaving me to know I’m not alone in what I have decided. Maybe my favorite of these is found in The Silver Chair.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, remember: Eustace and Jill and the pessimistic Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum are trying to free Prince Rilian from the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle, a witch who is keeping him an enchanted prisoner in the Underworld. In the climactic scene, the witch begins to lose ground as the children and the Marsh-Wiggle recognize the Prince and break his enchantment. In desperation, she resorts to sorcery and begins to work magic on the whole party, to talk them out of their belief in the world outside her caverns.

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

“Yes, there is, though, Ma’am,” said Puddleglum. “You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.”

PuddleglumThe answer is straightforward enough, incontrovertible. But the witch laughs, and laughter is a better weapon than words of reason. She goes on laughing, and bewitching, and before you know it, the whole party hardly even believes in their own homeland anymore. There is something they remember, though. They cling to it frantically: the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And up in the midday sky when they couldn’t look at him for brightness.

“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?” asked the Witch.

“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.

“Can you tell me what it’s like?”

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room, and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.”

“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

“Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone. “It must be so.” And while she said this, it seemed to her to be very good sense.

Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together, “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

“There never was a sun,” said the Witch.

“No. There never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children.

For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her, she said: “There’s Aslan.”

Aslan_SunBut the witch claims no understanding of this word, she doesn’t know what a lion is. How can they explain it? It’s like a cat, only it’s not, it’s bigger and grander with a mane like a judge’s wig.

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow.”

At this point, it’s practically over, the enchantment is nearly complete and Rilian and Eustace and Jill are abashed and quiet. They have given up at last. Puddleglum though, is not quite spent, and with the last of his strength he strikes out and stamps out the witch’s mystic green fire with his two bare feet.

And three things happened at once.
First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

narniaThen Puddleglum speaks, and his speech is at one time defiant, trusting and deeply wonderful, because circumstances have forced him to look that frightful question squarely in the face, and it doesn’t scare him away, and he gives it an answer.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If in some unforeseeable future, everything should crumble and prove to be a lie, and we be left with the mere idea of the Immortal, Invisible Only-Wise, I think I’d be happier serving the thought of that, than the being of any other. Wouldn’t you? Better to be swallowed up in a good story, I say, than choked to death by a bitter actuality. It’s better to go down fighting for theIvanMoiseyev kingdom of heaven if it is a shadow-kingdom, then to rise up ruling in any other. Because if the legend of the God-With-Us is only mythology after all, it’s the best thing to come out of this doubly-wretched world.

And if you give every last thing for the very best thing, it’s worth it. Even if we are alone.

In me there’s this nagging feeling that us feeling like this is strong evidence against our aloneness, that if the story transcends even its own negation, that’s one point for the crowd that says it’s a true story. And when I think about that crowd, I hardly know how to disagree with them.

 

On Suffering, the Russian Soul, & the Kingdom of Heaven

Russian_NightIt’s become a byword, the Russian tradition of suffering. Apparently everyone knows that misery permeates the works of the great writers and merits a substantial paragraph in even the most basic information about Russian literature. Wikipedia devotes an entire section of the Russian literature page to this very thing, stating,

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature.

Happily, I didn’t get the memo about that. A year ago, when I wrote about Imagination as Love, I still didn’t know that what I was writing about was at the very core of not only Chekhov’s writing, but Tolstoy’s too, and Gogol’s and Solzhenitsyn’s and Dostoevsky’s.

I didn’t read the Sparknotes, only the books. Only War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Overcoat, and The Grand Inquisitor, and half of Chekhov’s Stories. And one of the delightful things about missing the study guides is that you have no idea what to look for, so that when you do pick up a pattern all by yourself, it means something to you.

So it was for me, through pages and pages of the stories about tragedies without happy endings, and hunger that isn’t assuaged, and grief that doesn’t go away, and the long defeat of living. After a time, I sat back and said, “These stories are about suffering. They are all about suffering.” It seems simple enough to the initiated, but to go from not-knowing to knowing at last – there is an exquisite satisfaction in that.

Yet that wasn’t all. In these stories there was something else. The Russian grief is not purposeless. There is a colossal sort of reduction in suffering and in loss: it takes things down to essentials, strips away circumstances, reveals to a man what he truly is. There are hints in it of the possibility that suffering might usher in truth, precisely by ripping out lies.

And Christ. There is in these Russian stories a wild, confused, at times unorthodox fascination with Christ as humble, as suffering. As silent.

fathers-taleThis much I picked up on my own, but was hardly sure how to put it all together and make sense of it. Then last month I read my second Michael O’Brien novel, and found a man with the answers. A man who knows the historic Russian soul, and is intimately acquainted with the turbulent history of the 20th century. A man who knows the importance of traditional imagery better than anyone I can think of, who understands the vital significance of boats and of birds. A man who knows about kingfishers catching fire, and homesickness, and more than anything, who knows about the poor in spirit.

The Father’s Tale is 1076 pages long, but after the first 100 pages or so, it goes by like a breath. Alex Graham is a Canadian bookseller whose college-aged son gets caught up in a cult group and goes missing from Oxford University. The plot follows the timorous, unadventurous Alex as he travels around the globe in the search for his son. It’s a storyline that never works out exactly as you expect, and yet somehow always works out in the best possible way. Like any author who’s turned out this much volume on a regular basis, O’Brien certainly leaves some holes in the book, in terms of weak sentences and things you wish you could rewrite or reconstruct. But then, so does Dickens, and it didn’t seem to ruin his legacy.

O’Brien and I are not on the same page as regards faith traditions, so I’m not entirely in sympathy with some portions of the book, and found some of them exasperating. However, the ultimate themes in here transcend our differences, because they aren’t about icons but ideas, and those ideas are rooted deep in the literature that we both love, beginning, perhaps, with the Bible itself.

One of the many things that the tepid and dispassionate Alex Graham learns in his travels is the mysterious and yet lucid beatitude of poverty.

One becomes empty and poor, and in that state the Kingdom of Heaven is given to you,someone tells Alex while he is en route to Siberia. “To become a poor man is the greatest thing that can be given to us. It is the foundation.”

O’Brien takes the old Russian preoccupation with suffering, and shows its redemptive purpose with astonishing clarity.

Not what you expected, perhaps,” his friend tells Alex, after a particularly disappointing setback in his venture. “But it was a gift.”

A gift?” Alex responds. “It seems a total failure.”

“What is failure? The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

In a public lavatory in Moscow, Alex encounters a dying man. The man is sick and filthy and wasted with substance abuse, and does not wish to live. He is in the drain-hole of the world, he says, the nyet, nyet, nyet. But Alex is determined to rescue him and take him to a hospital, in spite of a disgruntled taxi driver and an unsympathetic nurse. When he learns that the man’s name is Alexei, the Russian form of Alex, he is a bit taken aback by the coincidence, and chooses to call him by the fond and familiar derivative, Alyosha, the pet name that Alex gave himself as a child and a budding Russophile.

Lake-Baikal-russia-iceAlex doesn’t stay long with Alyosha after he sees him admitted to the hospital, but the significance of the incident pursues him throughout the rest of the story. It pursues him to strange and bizarre places, as he finds himself on a train attacked by militant protestors, stranded for weeks with a widowed Russian doctor and her two fatherless sons in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Baikal, and, in an unexpected turn of events, tortured by government intelligence officials in a windowless cell in Siberia. All along, O’Brien is probing deeper and deeper into the Russian psyche, into the legacy of the Soviet era, into the corruption of East and West.

In one scene, Alex speaks to an agnostic Russian with words that are far beyond him, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“Irina, do you remember when we first met, that night on the train? You quoted Pushkin. You said that in our times man was either tyrant or traitor or prisoner.”

“I have not changed my opinion,” says the woman with a hint of bitterness.

“But the Christian is a prisoner in Christ and with Christ and thus he is the only free man on the planet,” Alex says triumphantly. But he does not yet know what he is talking about.

It is in Alex’s greatest crisis of suffering that the ultimate gift is given to him. He wakes up brutalized in a freezing cell, completely dispossessed, and sees a man beside him in an even worse condition. Although Alex feels like his body has become one great wound, he reaches out to other person to try to offer some comfort.

“Who are you?” Alex breathed. Christ_Suffer

“Alyosha,” the lips whispered in reply.

“We are suffering, Alyosha,” Alex sobbed, placing the palm of his hand on the man’s forehead. “But we are not alone.”

The flesh of the forehead was riddled with holes. “You,” said the prisoner, are Alyosha.”

He touched the holes in the hands and feet of the prisoner. He lightly touched the face that a rifle butt had shattered. The hands of the prisoner drew his fingers to the wound in his heart, and his heart was a fountain.

And blessed are the poor in spirit.

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.