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Commentary on C. S. Lewis, Till we have Faces: A Myth Retold: Pt. 5

The Argument from Joy/Desire

            This is part 5, and the last part, of a blog series on C. S. Lewis's, Till We Have FacesFor Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here. For Part 4, click here.

          Psyche has been promised to the priest of Ungit as a sacrifice, and Orual is no longer allowed to see her. Bardia, however, allows her one last opportunity to speak with Psyche. At the end of the conversation, Psyche explains to Orual that, “I have always—at least, ever since I can remember—had a kind of longing for death.”[1] This notion of longing appears in almost everything that C. S. Lewis writes, even in the poems that he wrote as a young atheist.[2] This longing is not due to being unhappy, and desiring happiness, states Psyche, but, rather, was almost like a side-effect of being in a state of great euphoria, which state was brought on by being surrounded by nature. “And because it was so beautiful,” says Psyche, “it set me longing, always longing. 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.”[3] This joy, this longing, was created by an experience in this world, but was for something which is beyond this world. “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover.”[4]

In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis says that, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such as thing as sex. 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. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”[5] We see, here, some similar elements as those expressed by Psyche in her last words to Orual, such as, an unquenchable desire for something which is beyond the sensible world and which cannot be satisfied by anything in this world, and the notion of returning to that which is one’s true home or country.

Lewis does not include, in Till We Have Faces, the key premise of the argument, namely that there is no true desire such that it cannot be satisfied. This premise, along with the observation, based on experience, that I have a desire for something beyond that which is presented to me by my senses, leads to the conclusion that there must, therefore, be something beyond the sensible world—a transcendent reality which I was made both to desire and which is the satisfaction of these desires. This argument is given life in Till We Have Faces in the experience of Psyche, who both desires that which is beyond the mountains—the god of the mountains, and who finally succeeds obtaining that desire—when she is wed to the god of the mountains.


Conclusion

            Till We Have Faces is not just a story, it is a profound study of some of the most important truths that C. S. Lewis discovered throughout his life—that joy and desire point us towards the transcendent, that there is a reason for evil in God’s plan for the universe, and that true love is a sacrificial decision to give of one’s self (to God first and to others because of our love for God). This story is packed full of deep thoughts, and powerfully portrayed arguments. We have only scratched the surface.

In conclusion, there is one last element of this story that we would like to consider: the frequently repeated phrase “You also shall be Psyche.” We first see this phrase after the god of the mountain has condemned Psyche. The god of the mountain appears to Orual, and after explaining what will happen to Psyche, says, “You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche.”[6] This phrase comes up frequently throughout the book as Orual attempts to understand just what the god meant when he said that she would be Psyche.[7] This is one of the intriguing elements of the book that is somewhat difficult to understand, but which seems to be extremely important. One element, that might help us to understand this intriguing phrase, is found in the final chapter where the Fox shows Orual all the tests that Psyche was forced to endure and accomplish because of her disobedience to the god of the mountain. Orual notes that she seems to have gone through many of the same trials as Psyche, but, whereas Orual did so with much difficulty and sorrow, Psyche did so with Joy.[8] Orual realises that she bore all the difficulties and sorrows that Psyche should have experienced in going through her trials, “‘But how could she—did she really—do such things and go to such places—and not…? Grandfather, she was all but unscathed. She was almost happy.’ ‘Another bore nearly all the anguish.’ ‘I? Is it possible?’”[9] A couple of lines later Orual says, “‘Oh, I give thanks. I bless the gods. Then it was really I—’ ‘Who bore the anguish. But she achieved the tasks. Would you rather have had justice?’”[10] Justice demanded that Psyche be punished, but, Orual bore the sorrow and pain of the punishment of Psyche! In a very picturesque and powerful manner, C. S. Lewis brings in the notion of a substitutionary atonement—Orual bore the suffering of Psyche, and in this way, Orual was Psyche.


Click here for part 6: A Necessary Post Scriptum


[1]Lewis, Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold, 74.

[2]Cf. C. S. Lewis, Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1984), 47-49, 60-63, 68.

[3]Lewis, Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold, 74.

[4]Ibid., 75-76.

[5]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., London: Collins-Fontana, 1956), 118.

[6]Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 174.

[7]Ibid., 176, 216, 308.

[8]Ibid., 300.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid., 301. A little earlier Orual asks the Fox, “Are the gods not just?” To which the Fox responds, “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? (Ibid., 297.)”

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