A Great Gulf Fixed: The Problem of Obsessive Love in C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces
Amelia F. Franz
Reprinted with permission by the author
I. The Gulf:
I am eight years old, and I watch my father weave his spell behind the pulpit: he is all intensity. I am two pews removed from where he stands, and I am transfixed, listening once again to the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. Of all the parables--The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Laborers in the Vineyard--it is this one I find most fascinating, most terrifying.
"Between you and us there is a great gulf fixed," says Abraham to the rich man in hell, speaking through my father's voice and the King James version, "so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."
The image of the rich man torments me. I see his face shining up between dark-bronzed furnace pipes burnt dull by the fires of hell, hope in his eyes. The kind of hope that makes him willing to give it all up--the cars and the giant screen and the two-story house--to save his brothers from sharing his fate. Meanwhile, Abraham reminds him how the tide has turned, while Lazarus hovers somewhere in the wings, remembering: those dogs licking my sores, those crumbs that fell from his table. Lazarus hovers on, caught up in his memories, and Abraham turns his back and slowly walks away.
Superimposed on my vision of the rich man and Lazarus is the memory of my mother's explication of Revelations chapter seven: the union of postmillenial saints in Heaven with the father and his angels, the day when God will "wipe every tear from [the saints'] eyes," and they will feel no more sorrow for lost loved-ones who missed out, only blissful union with the divine.
At some point these two narratives (the rich man and Lazarus, God wiping tears from the saints' eyes) become confused in my childhood's recollection. They weave into and out of each other until I no longer distinguish them as totally separate narratives. I see all the saints (my mother among them) looking across a great gulf directly towards me on the other side, with tears in her eyes. At this point God catches sight of her face and is suddenly all around her, wiping away the tears before they can run down her cheeks and drip from her chin. Finally, I see her eyes in their eternal form: empty, distant, void of the slightest hint of regret. They look through me without seeing me.
How much of the narrative has been formed in mosaic fashion, from odd pieces of sermons, Sunday School lessons and bedtime Bible study I cannot say. How much of the actual sermons has been subsumed into a myth of my own making --a striving to come to terms with my own adult religious landscape--I can only guess. What seems certain, though, is that these memories share a common theme, and upon the somewhat numinous nature of this theme depends its emotional and mythical power: the great gulf, Arnold's "salt, unplumbed, estranging sea" that ultimately and irrevocably divides believer and nonbeliever in traditional Christianity.
I find this existential problem powerfully dramatized in the interplay between characters in C.S. Lewis's "retelling" of the Cupid and Psyche myth, Till We Have Faces, regarded by many Lewis critics as his most sublime and profound adult novel. Till We Have Faces is a tale in which "mother and wife and child and friend will all be in league to keep a soul from being united with the Divine Nature" (304). It is this allegorical thread-- the great gulf fixed between believer and nonbeliever, and its consequences when the spectre of obsessive love enters the picture--I will extract from the tale with the aim of futher illuminating the profundity of Christian imagery and belief in the novel.
The first person narrative is set in the ancient kingdom of Glome, a land ruled by a tyrranical king and religious coterie in service of the goddess Ungit. Narrated by Princess (later Queen) Orual, the first section of the novel presents itself as an open complaint against the gods, particularly the god of the Grey Mountain, who have brought Orual such pain and distress over the years, yet offer no answers or explanations to justify the suffering.
Orual says she has suffered much at the hands of the gods, but what most torments her is the loss of previous sister Istra (Psyche), in which loss Orual shares responsibility and blame: this loss of Psyche results primarily from Orual's jealousy and rage at the gulf dividing herself (nonbeliever) and Psyche (believer). The second, and much shorter, section of the novel, which breaks off with the dying Queen Orual's last utterance, epiphanically proclaims the Queen's great realization. She now understands why there can be no answer, no justification, from the gods at her charges against them: How can they speak to us face to face, she asks, till we have faces?
II. Obsessive Love and the Gulf
When I was eight I was prey to a psychic affliction that I suspect is rather common among early adolsecents: I was paralyzed with fear that my parents would be taken from me. Now, fear of one's parents being taken away sounds ordinary enough. The uncommon aspect of my particular angst lay in the identity of the one responsible for the impending loss--the man himself, the son of man, in all his glory. Descending from Heaven with the blast of a trumpet, summoning all the living and the dead to be caught up with him in the air. In every weekly trip to the grocery store there was a moment of sick panic when I looked up to find my mother absent, the shopping cart half-filled. I would hurry up and down the aisles, dreaming up a lie to explain my sudden need to find her.
And on long, yearning, tortuous mosquito-thick summer evenings I would steal to the window that looked out from the kitchen onto a corner of the back yard, needing to see my parents walking up together past the pecan trees and on through the dusk, heading back to the house. An indescribable lightness, a wash of relief would sweep over me when I heard my father's whistle, my mother's singing, then the sound their shoes made crunching up the concrete steps. This manic cycle lasted well into my teen years.
Was this an irrational fear? When viewed in context--a child immersed in southern Pentecostalism, viewing her parents as believers and herself as nonbeliever--the fear seems excusable, perhaps even understandable. The important point, however, is not whether this type of separation anxiety is a rational phenomenon, but that my fear (like Orual's fear) led, I am now convinced, to an inability to experience the divine as other than a threat. Orual, as well, comes in her fear of losing Psyche to turn away from any possibility of herself experiencing the divine, by wresting Psyche away from the embraces of her God. This "sin" of jealousy and obsessive love leads Orual to resist yielding to the higher love destined for Psyche, and ultimately to destruction of the object of her love and the hardening of Orual's own soul to the point of self-induced misery and guilt for the rest of her days.
Orual first feels the pain of the great gulf after the kingdom's subjects begin to perceive that the Princess Psyche is something more than mortal, that she is somehow touched by the gods. Her beauty is remarkable, certainly, but it is not only her beauty that convinces the kingdom of her uniqueness. A certain radiance and artless perfection, rather, seem to emanate from the young woman. The sick soon begin flocking in hordes to the palace gates to be touched by the "goddess." Psyche is praised and revered throughout the kingdom. Until, that is, the harvests turns meager and the masses look for a scapegoat. Only one answer presents itself: a blood sacrifice. A perfect sacrifice . Psyche, the princess, the goddess. Orual raves in protest, nearly mad with pain, and falls into a temporary state of senselessnesss over the impending sacrifice of her beloved sister.
It is decided by the King, after some deliberation, the Psyche will bound (in the usual fashion) to a single, leafless tree on a dark, stony stretch of the grey mountain. There, it is believed, she will be devoured by the holy Shadowbrute; presumably, the curse of sickness and famine will then be lifted from the land.
Strangely, though, Psyche relates to Orual only days before the sacrifice that she has always felt a certain vague longing for the Grey Mountain, even for the holy Shadowbrute. For as long as she can remember, Psyche has felt herself somehow destined for a land beyond the Grey Mountain, far from Glome. In fact, she has never felt truly at home in Glome. This aspect of religious belief--longing for another world--is one used by Lewis elsewhere as proof that humankind was created for another world: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity 106). Orual, in typical fashion, interprets Psyche's longing for the far kingdom as a slight against their own relationship, giving in to the omnipresent urge to selfish, and self-centered, love.
"Ah, Psyche," I said. "Have I made you so little happy as that?" "No, no, no," she said. "You don't understand. . . It was when I was the happiest that I longed most. . . Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche, come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to . . . I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home. (74)
This idea of the Christian being destined for another world is one found not only in Lewis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred for his anti-Nazi stance during the Hitler era, also stressed the "otherwordly" element of Christianity as a separating force, dividing believer from nonbeliever and the nonbeliever world. In the work now seen as Bonhoeffer's credo, The Cost of Discipleship, the fundamental separateness of the Christian from this world is expressed. "They [Christians] stand as strangers in the world in the power of him who was such a stranger to the world that it crucified him . . . . They show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to this world " (123).
It is important to note here that Psyche functions as both Christ figure and the quintessential Christian in his eternal quest for righteousness and divine union. It is this facet of Psyche that enrages Orual, triggering her obsessive love-rage, pitching her into a fit of spite and jealousy over Psyche's proclamations of longing for the Grey Mountain. Orual, however, clearly aware of her destructive emotions, does admit the true source of her feelings toward Psyche, on more than one occasion:
Since I write this book against the gods, it is just that I should put into it whatever can be said against myself. So let me set this down: as she spoke I felt, amid all my love, a bitterness. Though the things she was saying gave her (that was plain enough) courage and comfort, I grudged her that courage and comfort. It was as if someone or something else had come in between us. If this grudging is the sin for which the gods hate me, it is one I have committed. (75)
Psyche's ultimate downfall, after the sacrificing on the mountain, comes to pass after Orual and Bardia (trusted royal bodyguard) travel to the Grey Mountain to look for any trace of Psyche, hoping to find her body sufficiently intact for a proper burial. Instead of finding a scattered corpse, however, Orual meets Psyche herself on the mountain, looking amazingly healthy and bubbling with joy over new "husband," a god who has rescued her and taken her to live in his palace (which Psyche alone, at this point, is capable of seeing). True to the Cupid and Psyche of Platonicus's Metamorphoses, Psyche's new god-husband keeps his face veiled, and only comes to her in the cover of night.
Orual first takes her sister for mad, but eventually is convinced (in spite of herself) that perhaps she should leave Psyche to her newfound joy, to the love of her husband. But here jealousy and obsessive love step in, grudging Psyche her happiness, her love. Orual is unable to comprehend, much less approve, of any love for Psyche that usurps her own. Orual, predictably, resents the gods for the gulf now so plainly separating her from Psyche.
. . . the world had broken in pieces and Psyche and I were not in the same piece. Seas, mountains, madness, death itself, could not have removed her from me to such a hopeless distance. Gods, and again gods, and always gods . . . they had stolen her. (120- 121)
Psyche pleads with Orual to open her spiritual eyes and see the palace now standing all around her in dazzling splendor; and Orual is indeed tempted. In the end, though, jealousy wins the day. Orual delivers Psyche an ultimatum: either expose this "god's" face this night, or I will kill myself.
To this threat Psyche reluctantly acquiesces, broken with sorrow. Everything, she knows, is now changed, horribly changed, altered forever. She will betray her god to satisfy her sister's love-need. "I know what I do," Psyche informs Orual. "I know that I am betraying the best of lovers and that perhaps, before sunrise, all my happiness may be destroyed forever" (166). The die is cast.
The next morning, as Orual begins, incredibly, to catch glimpses of a great palace rising from the mountain, the valley is suddenly besieged by rockslides, storms, general destruction, and Orual understands suddenly and fully the extent of her guilt. Hearing in the distance Psyche's cries ringing from the rocks, Orual steels her heart, knowing that the deed is done, and prepares to return to her kingdom to live the lonely life of the warrior queen. Her nights henceforward will be haunted by phantomlike howls and clinking of chains, and all her attempts to locate Psyche will fail. It is only in Queen Orual's last hours, when all the dead have gathered to hear her complaint against the gods, that she again meets Psyche. For Orual's sin of obsessive love, for her fear of the dividing gulf, she has sentenced her beloved sister to a life of wandering and toil, and herself to guilt, anxiety, and unutterable loneliness.
III. The Needle and the Damage Done
In Christianity no moment in the history of the soul is more crucial than that preceding repentance, the moment when one admits transgressions, experiences shame, and resolved to seek redemption at any cost. The great nineteenth- century Russian writers--Dostoevsky and Tolstoy among them-- were well-acquainted with this moment and its import for the human condition. Orual experiences such a moment in the final section of the novel, when she is summoned to read her complaint against the gods. Her book, however, her "life's work," appears to her eyes strangely small, dirty, dog- eared, and scribbled in a dark, angry hand. Not only this, but the same words are repeated over and over in the book, vile charges against the gods and declarations of her innocence. It is only as she stands naked before all the dead that she is able to view her life's work, for the book indeed represents the work of her life, in all its vileness, and to appreciate fully the cost of her obsessive love on those around her.
For it is not only Psyche and Orual herself who have been ruined; Orual now recognizes this. Other lives as well have paid the price for Orual's selfishness: the Princess Redival, whom Oural ignored and even detested after Psyche's birth. All along, Orual realizes, Redival was lonely, and only wanted to join Psyche's and Orual's private circle. Poor Bardia, whom Orual (out of jealous love) kept away from his family on any pretense of meeting, planning, or royal business, ended his life overworked, a man who had sacrificed the company of his own family to spend day and night at the palace on the Queen's behest. And Psyche herself, like the mythical Psyche, has been sentenced to eternal toil at all manner of impossible tasks. Orual is guided by the palace slave she always knew as "grandfather" to a place where she is shown images of Psyche performing these tasks.
In the next picture I saw both Psyche and myself, but I was only a shadow. We toiled together over those burning sands, she with her empty bowl, I with my book of poison. (300)
In the end, however, Orual is allowed some comfort and redemption. She learns that Psyche has felt little emotional distress and anguish over the years, that her pain has all been of the physical variety. Orual, instead, has borne all the anguish. Orual learns as well, with her last breath, why the gods give no answer to her accusations, why there is no explanation for her suffering here in this world:
I know now, Lord, why you utter now answer. You are yourself the a answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might --
Here ends Queen Orual's "life's work," which, she has realized, is itself the answer to her questions: "To have have heard myself making [the complaint] was to be answered" (294). The Queen's body, still clutching the scroll, is discovered by a priest, and the scroll is placed in the temple for safekeeping until it can be transported to the cultural and intellectual Mecca of Greece.
I have said that the existential problem of the dividing gulf is powerfully dramatized in the interplay between characters in Till We Have Faces, and indeed, the tension between Psyche and Orual, Orual and Bardia, Orual and the Grandfather, make possible the dichotomy of believer versus nonbeliever, and divine versus human love. Most important to the expression of this existential problem, however, is Orual's interior monologue; by making an Everyman of Orual, Lewis has avoided the danger of gratuitious didacticism, always a possibility with allegory. For it is, in fact, as allegory that the novel must be read. For its recycling of myth and universal insights into human nature, Till We Have Faces appeals to secular readers and critics, and to Christians for its eloquent presentation of the problematics of Christian life on earth. For these reasons in general, and for its particular concern with the dangers of obsessive love, the work will undoubtedly and deservedly retain its seat of honor in the Lewis canon. Queen Orual, for this reader, is memorable, for her pain, her universality, her humanity, and Till We Have Faces is unforgettable for its rendering of the ever- present and ever-dividing human capacity for selfishness and destructive love.