Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Recent Impressions

Over the course of the past few weeks, I've read and watched several interesting things. Perhaps not an enormous quantity, but definitely more valuable literature than I read while at Hope. I am, most definitely, unqualified to comment with authority on these works as I have only just been introduced to them and have not had time to give each more than a single, brief examination. However, I feel an undeniable urge to reflect on a few impressions.

Lilith by George MacDonald:
This is an intense work of fiction. Reading this tale, one can easily understand why MacDonald has been called, "the Father of Fantasy." Because the book is so highly allegorical, metaphorical, and otherwise laden with hidden meaning, it is somewhat difficult to speak of the "storyline," because how the story develops is so inextricably bound up with what the story is about. It's a tale that's not so much about what happens in the story as what happens behind the story and is represented by the story. Like the multiple dimensions that Mr. Vane, the main character, wanders into, Lilith unfolds both on the page, in the imagination, and in one's metaphysical experience of thought.
Mr. Vane, unattached, unconcerned about any pursuit other than his horses and his books of science, ignorant of his own history and manor house, finds himself walking through a closet door in his attic into...the outdoors. Only he is told by a mysterious Raven/man, whose form he can't quite pin down, that he has not come out, but has come in, and that he must continue in, until he finds his home - the place where he can freely go out and in. For the first few chapters, the reader is just as confused and disoriented as Mr. Vane while the character in question stumbles in and out of what he considers his "home" "dimension" - but not at his own will. After he refuses to fall asleep under kind care of Raven and his wife in the cold hall of the "dead" Vane finds that his misguided stubbornness has cost him this rest for the present and ends up wandering a strange world where the moon protects him from grotesque monsters,where phantoms walk, fight, and dance in the woods, where he is made slave to idiotic giants who can't even observe the merry miniscule "children" who gambol around and provide for their captive with an inocence and love endearing to the hapless Vane. Forced at last to flee the giants, Vane meets with Mara the "woman of sorrow" who directs him to the city of Bulika despite the fact that an evil princess dwells therein. Unwittingly, Vane meets the princess on the way, dying, and spends over a month nursing her back to health. She then despises and turns on him, though he then follows her unable to psychologically let her go for a time. Eventually he learns her evil and determines to thwart her, despite her strange spotted leopardess manifestations and the Shadow that walks with her and whom she serves. But she takes him in, deceives him once more and he suddenly "wakes" in his own house. But she is there too as a cat, and so also is Raven, now fully distinguishable as a man. Lilith, for that is the princess' name, is revealed by Adam (the erstwhile Raven) through words of a poetic prophecy, and she must obey him, for he was her husband and has been - in his now perfected state - given power over her. Yet she swears to drink the blood of Adam's children so that the prophetic child who will destroy her may not be revealed. As the narrative develops, Vane once more rebels against the instruction of Adam to the death of the woman/child he loves best - Adam and Lilith's daughter whom Lilith kills. But finally, Lilith is brought to her knees, and overcome by Mara who has constantly opposed the spotted leopardess in the form of a white leopardess. Lilith's "conversion" takes awhile, and even at the last, she cannot open her hand. Adam must cut it off for her before she can sleep in peace. Vane too longs to sleep with the dead who are more alive than those who walk the earth, but for him another task is appointed in order to release the waters which Lilith had stolen from the earth and which will bring life. Eventually he too sleep, resurrects, and finds himself in, well, we would call it heaven. But as he enters heaven with his dear love who has also awakened from her sleep, he finds that he has walked into his own familiar home again.
Now the above disjointed narrative isn't particularly coherent, but then, neither is the book itself. It's a rough portrayal of several narrative themes: yes themes, for there are many.

I would highly recommend Lilith to any literature lover who has any taste for metaphor and symbolism. As in any work of fantasy, the theology is perhaps not quite orthodox and chances are the theology of the writer was not completely either, but imperfection finds its home in all of us.
A few key points that that stand out in my memory are:
(1)Vane's fear and trust only in himself prevents him from heeding wise instruction and receiving blessing. As a consequence, he usually ends up orchestrating the exact opposite of what he intends. His intentions are good, but fail when he relies on his own reason and impetuosity.
(2) Lilith is a slave to her own appearance, power and majesty to the point where she sacrifices all others to gain her own ends. For this reason she serves the Shadow, though she herself imagines herself independent and all powerful in herself. She fears and hates whatever may end her beauty and power - particularly her daughter. Lilith's live is sustained by gorging herself on the lives of others. The most explicit examples of this are her "white leech" manifestation which sucked the life from Vane and the "spotted leopard" manifestation which devoured the infants of Bulika.
(3) Evil is opposed to children and the family. It's pretty obvious. Lilith wants conception prevented and kills the children who are born. In contrast, Adam and Eve are fruitful, and the little "Lover" children are the most obvious mortal "good" in the story.
(4) Water. Water gives life, and Evil takes water. But Evil cannot steal all water - some will be saved.
(5) Mara the Woman of Sorrow. She constantly opposes Lilith, not to harm her but to bring her to repentence. Mara is the voice which calls all she comes in contact with to contrition and repentence. Her scarred, concealingly wrapped face contrasts Lilith's flaunted gorgeousness. In her house, children may rest safe and bread may be given them - one day at a time. In her house also, Lilith is wracked by light and truth, hammered as it were by the Law, until she is broken to the point where she can be healed.
(6) Lilith's hand. In her painful inner torment, Lilith refuses to repent. In the same breath, she also refuses to open her clenched hand. Even when broken by revelation of who she truly is, and ready to repent and seek the mercy and aid of Adam, she cannot open her hand. She strives with all her might and cries out in anguish, but for all her exertion, she cannot cause her hand to open and release what it held within. Until her hand is opened however, she cannot "sleep" the blessed sleep of Adam and Eve's chill chamber; she cannot enter life. She pleads with Adam to open her hand for her. At the last, the hand must be cut off. But that is not the end of the hand. Vane is charged to carry the hand following the slightest noise of the underground water to the stream's very source. There he must dig down to the water and bury the hand in it.

I suppose that's enough rambling reflection on Lilith.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.
This book was also very moving for me. I didn't know Lewis could write like this. As the plot proceeded, I found myself more and more convicted. As Orual began to realize that she was Ungol, I began to realize I was Orual. The same Orual who was made to see that all her life she had been draining the life from others who loved her. (Somehow, I think Lewis meant it to be that way) The rest of the story overwhelmed me. Especially the point where Orual brings her complaint against the gods before the Judge. When she opens her mouth to read the scroll upon which she has written her accusation, what spews forth is but an indictment of herself, a true exposition of her true self in it's selfishness. Orual realizes that to hear herself was the answer of the gods to her accusation. All that she had written against them before was but a facade over her real self. Without her true face, she could accuse the gods; once she had a face, she could not.
In a way she could not fathom or grasp, the ugly Orual was Psyche. And Psyche herself walked through the bitter dark places to bring back the antidote to make "Ungol" - the monstrous, the ugly - beautiful.
In the end, Orual knows why the gods give no answer. "You yourself are the answer. Before your face, questions die away."

I will admit that I was crying by the end of the book. There are just some tales that do that to a person. We weep because we realize that the story is not about some fantastic people in far off faery-land: it is about us. Honestly, I think that is at least part of what makes a good story. The stories we love help us to see and learn about ourselves in some way.

I also read G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday and was deeply affected by that as well, but I will not venture to reflect on it here.

As for some more superfluous stuff, last Saturday I watched two movies - one with a large group of students and friends, the other at a professor's house with only my classmates.

The first was a Russian film called Andrei Rublev.
This film was in Russian, but had some English subtitles. I won't say it was the greatest movie, or even "one of the 15 greatest films of all time" as its jacket proclaims it, but I found it worthwhile nonetheless. The theme, more or less, centered on the midievil Russian monk iconographer Andrei Rublev and if it failed somewhat in making a concise point, it succeeded in painting a graphic picture of Russia as it was - the pagan, the Christians of all stripes, treacherous, cruel princes, and murderous Tartars. Basically, these served as a backdrop to illumine the gentle character of Andrei Rublev. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this film, what makes it impressive despite it's very outdated photography and apparent lack of focus is the fact that it was made in Soviet Russia and even funded with Soviet monies. If you have 8 minutes, watch this and wonder for yourself that it was produced in Communist Russia. According to a friend, the filmmaker went to the Soviets and asked for funding to make a film about a great Russian folk-hero. The goverment unwittingly aided him, never guessing until it was finished that the "people's" money was supporting a film about an Orthodox monk. Parts of the movie are gruesome and grotesque and I wonder why certain sections are included. Perhaps I simply do not have the cultural background necessary for all the elements to speak.

The second movie - which I saw snuggled under quilts with my class in a professor's basement, eating HUGE slices of apple pie with slabs of vanilla icecream - was Casa Blanca. Again, I don't think it would qualify as one of my very favorite films, but I enjoyed and much appreciated it.
Most importantly, I was glad to see that Hollywood could show that real love upholds fidelity, and where another love conflicted with fidelity, the most loving thing that love can do is to release the thing loved. I could just hear a whisper of "We should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our neighbor's wife, worker, or animals, but encourage them to stay and do their duty" as I watched. The various moments of comic relief were much welcome as well.

And I probably should (a) not post this before proofreading, and (b) go to sleep, but I think I'll disregard (a) in deference to (b) as it is almost 1am.

I realize even now that this post isn't really very coherent, but I guess it isn't really meant to be. I just needed to let my fingers ramble around the keyboard a little while on these subjects.

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