Tuesday 19 June 2018

The best neglected book? The Great Divorce, by CS Lewis (1946)

Although it is perhaps not CS Lewis's very best book (which would probably be, according to taste, The Screwtape Letters, That Hideous Strength, Abolition of Man, or the Narnia Chronicles), his fable The Great Divorce is perhaps the one that I find comes to mind more often than any other.

You can find a copy here

The reason I think of it frequently, is that TGD is the wisest of books concerning the most significant, yet difficult, of Christian doctrines for modern people - the nature of, and necessity for, repentance of sins. In particular, that The Problem for salvation (the choice between Heaven and Hell) is not the size of a sin (how sinful it is), but whether a person is prepared to recognise and acknowledge a particular sin as a sin. 

Thus, a repentant murderer is in Heaven; an insincere Bishop prefers to remain in Hell.

A further value of TGD is that it shows exactly and plausibly why a 'normal', everyday person might actively-choose Hell, and for reasons that would perhaps be regarded as utterly trivial by another.

The title of 'The Great Divorce' has always been the book's biggest problem - since it is both off-putting and misleading. In fact the book is an easy and enjoyable read, full of humour and satire - as well as poetry and visionary fantasy, along similar lines to The Screwtape Letters. It is also manageably brief (about 150 pages).

If you want to know a bit more before giving the book a try, I can recommend Adam Greenwood's article; which discusses the book from a Mormon Christian perspective.

But why not just read the thing! 


Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that the greatest fault of The Great Divorce is that it concedes at the outset the modern presumption that God cannot be really interested in Justice per se, only in extending the ultimate degree of mercy which anyone is willing to accept. Thus the portrayal of Hell is purely existential...the grey town would be a Heaven if the people there only nice enough to themselves, let alone anyone else.

This is a necessary accommodation in entering into a discussion of sin with the modernist mindset (though it is useless for dealing with postmodernism). But as was habitual with C.S. Lewis at one period of his work, the framing story blurs the line between reality and fiction. While C.S. Lewis is careful to say that "it was only a dream", he does so in a way that makes it seem like a claim of revelation.

So the story is poorly adapted to the necessary followup of "this is a hypothetical situation, this problem would remain even if God had no interest in Justice, but only in Mercy." The problem is that God really must love Justice as such, rather than merely a means to an end, or God could not be Almighty nor omniscient. I use "Almighty" rather than the debatable "omnipotent" precisely because Almighty is characterized by the Old Testament (a full definition would take longer and be harder to understand, but it at least does not admit the endless silliness of creating stones too big to lift and angels dancing on the heads of pins).

The problem with simply using Justice as a means to an end is that it is profoundly unjust. Justice will not suffer it to go unpunished. You can do so, but there is a cost, and the cost is that you can never be Almighty or omniscient. Thus something like the grey town could not be allowed to exist. Of course C.S. Lewis does a fair job of showing that it doesn't 'really' exist, compared to Heaven, but it is unconvincing absent the addendum that the example is entirely hypothetical and exists to show that, if God did not provide for a just and proper Hell (easily recognized as such by all consigned to it), the result would be a crawling damnation drawn out eternally.

The story would be much improved if the opportunity were taken to emphasize that it portrays the state of afterlife prior to Final Judgment. I also think that some things could be done with Heavenly bodies being able to sustain movement at the speed of thought, to remove the idea of laborious regression away from eternal objectives being necessary to come back, as well as to better emphasize the freedom being offered (and to characterize the work of Eternal progress in more intellectually stimulating terms...for all that I'm anti-intellectual I don't hate the idea of intellectual work and satisfactions).

Still, looking at it in context of how many other works treating the subject with anything like the necessary degree of seriousness even exist, I'm inclined to agree that while I can see reasons it is not considered his greatest work (I actually enjoyed Pilgrim's Regress quite well in comparison), it is incomparably superior in relative terms as a meditation on the subject of damnation (although the majority of the action happens on the threshold of Heaven, the narrative is more focused on the final damnations of various spirits as they refuse to accept salvation, so the portrayal of Heaven is more of a backdrop than anything else).

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Some valid points there. It is an interesting aspect of Lewis that his explicit theology is very orthodox, bare bones, harsh even; but his imaginative theology - in the novels and stories - is much more heterodox and positive. (Owen Barfield noticed this.) In The Great Divorce, what the reader takes away fron the story is therefore rather more than CSL would like to admit, 'in public'!

(Much the same happens with Tolkien. Both men were very reluctant to question or challenge the official theologians of their churches, but their best work often goes beyond the standard doctrine.)

a_probst said...

At the time I read The Great Divorce, my choice to mount a filmed version was the Polish director Wojciech Jerzy Has (The Hourglass Sanatorium, 1973, and The Saragosso Manuscript, 1966, among others). His signature surreal creepiness would have been perfect for the scenes in the town and aboard the bus. I'm sure he could have done justice to the golden valley as well.

He was reportedly agnostic, so the screenwriting and producing would best have been handled by Christians.

(I'm glad I pressed the refresh button before posting this. There had been no comments a few minutes ago when I started keying this! Talk of a filmed version seems trivial now, but here goes.)

Remember, this was meant to be a fable; calling it a dream or a vision was a dramatic device ("You have yet to taste of death." And, "I'll have no Swedenborgs among my children.").

Seijio Arakawa said...

For me personally there are three vivid moments in The Great Divorce that stick in my memory, one of which is very good indeed and the other two I dislike intensely.

The very good moment is the artist told that he must see the work of his own hands as no different than the work of another artist. Although I am a bit perplexed that this was presented as a hard bargain. I would love to give up pride in my work if it meant I could enjoy seeing it take shape just as I am excited by a new work by another author I like. I would also love to be able to spot the flaws in my work and see the room for improvement as easily as I spot such things in works by other authors I did not enjoy.

The two moments I dislike intensely are the subtle misrepresentation of George Macdonald and the Saint and Tragedian scene. Adam G's review covers the problems with the latter rather well. About the former, after actually reading George Macdonald (particularly 'Unspoken Sermons'), I would dare say that CS Lewis treats his spiritual master rather shabbily and puts words in his mouth that convey an attitude rather contrary to the actual George Macdonald's writings. It were better to present an honest disagreement with one's teachers than to do this kind of thing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ probst - "calling it a dream or a vision was a dramatic device" - I expect he was modelling this on the standard medieval dream vision, as seen in most of Chaucer and Piers Plowman.

Karl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl said...

The title alludes to Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but I only know this from Lewis's own preface, so for me the allusion fails. A more accessible title might be The Bus Between Heaven and Hell.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I feel no real discomfort with the Saint and the Tragedian, though I admit that it is clearly contrary to the essential doctrine of Christianity.

But I don't derive any comfort from the idea that Christ (or any other good person) suffers eternally from the sins and pride of those who ultimately refuse His mercy. Thus it does not discomfit me when someone implies that to not be the case. It is merely a factual error of minor import to everyday life, like someone believing that the phases of the moon are because the moon rotates and is black on one side. I wouldn't trust someone under that misapprehension to pilot my lunar lander, but it's merely worthy of a laugh in any other context.

And I think that, practically speaking, it is important to recognize that though the suffering of Christ (or any saintly person) for the finally damned is beyond the comprehension of more ordinary mortals, it is infinitely overwhelmed by the joy that surpasses all comprehension (one of the things that even God cannot fully know is the unlimited greatness of His joy in Creation, it is not merely beyond mortal understanding but logically impossible to fully apprehend). The Saint walking away to lavish her love on those seeking to be worthy of it may still feel sorrow, but to a less sensitive and pure heart it may seem she cannot be both sorrowful and caught up in her chosen duty of love for all of God's creation.

Yet so it is.

C.S. Lewis merely represents it badly, I think, probably more out of the utilitarian concern that Tragedians are more likely to allow themselves to be saved if they are told that none will grieve their self-chosen damnation.

As for Macdonald, I think it only appropriate that C.S. Lewis has him admit that even the greatest minds were wrong about nearly everything important during their mortal life, and have learnt better in Heaven...though it is hard indeed that he should give out his own views as those of the perfected version of Macdonald. But it can hardly be helped once he puts out the conceit that this all came to him in a vision.

Bruce Charlton said...

Given the power and memorability of the work, the 'problems' with The Great Divorce are, indirectly, merely indicative of Lewis being a great writer.

Perfection is only attainable at a 'minor' level; and the greatness of Lewis comes from his personal qualities, of which any work can only be an imperfect and incomplete expression.

For example, Hamlet is an extremely flawed play - easy to pick holes in. The Importance of Being Earnest, by contrast, is almost-perfect. But which is greater as an expression of the human condition? The ultimate difference between the two is the difference in stature between Shakespeare the man, and Wilde the man.

Seijio Arakawa said...


> Given the power and memorability of the work, the 'problems' with The Great Divorce are, indirectly, merely indicative of Lewis being a great writer.

Oh, certainly! Even the Saint and Tragedian is a brilliant scene, in that lesser writers would deftly dance around this question without calling attention to it and without even noticing there is any question of this kind whereas CS Lewis puts it in a way that is impossible to ignore. And with CS Lewis presenting his views so explicitly, the reader understands the mind of CS Lewis the actual living Christian -- self-contradictions and all. Which is more valuable than one might think, since it demonstrates that Christian belief isn't just for people who know their Aquinas by heart and can always recite it back and forth without disagreeing with a single sentence of it.

However, here is George Macdonald on the same question:

> When once to a man the human face is the human face divine, and the hand of his neighbour is the hand of a brother, then will he understand what St Paul meant when he said, "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren." But he will no longer understand those who, so far from feeling the love of their neighbour an essential of their being, expect to be set free from its law in the world to come. There, at least, for the glory of God, they may limit its expansive tendencies to the narrow circle of their heaven. On its battlements of safety, they will regard Hell from afar, and say to each other, "Hark! Listen to their moans. But do not weep, for they are our neighbours no more." St. Paul would be wretched before the throne of God, if he thought there was one man beyond the pale of his mercy, and that as much for God's glory as for the man's sake. And what shall we say of the man Christ Jesus? Who, that loves his brother, would not, upheld by the love of Christ, and with a dim hope that in the far-off time there might be some help for him, arise from the company of the blessed, and walk down into the dismal regions of despair, to sit with the last, the only unredeemed, the Judas of his race, and be himself more blessed in the pains of hell, than in the glories of heaven?

This is not a one-time thing, but represents a view often re-stated, both as explicit philosophy (multiple times just in that same book of sermons) and implicitly in many works of fantasy. If George Macdonald (whether the real or fictional one) repented of this view, it would not be some subtle vaccillation of philosophy, indeed he has a rather large body of literature to repent of, and had better make that repentance explicit.

And here George Macdonald in The Great Divorce:

> I know it has a grand sound to say ye'll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye'll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.

This is a direct repudiation of George Macdonald's own most basic motivations behind the earlier passage, but that fact is not made explicit. It is only obvious as a repudiation to someone who has read George Macdonald, which makes the way the character is presented seem rather misleading to me. As I read George Macdonald's works after I read The Great Divorce, I was certainly surprised at the contrast.

This may not have been intentional on CS Lewis' part, but it is something that leaves me with a strong dislike for the book in spite of my agreement that it is important, well-written, and very good in many other scenes and points.

Seijio Arakawa said...


> ...though it is hard indeed that he should give out his own views as those of the perfected version of Macdonald. But it can hardly be helped once he puts out the conceit that this all came to him in a vision.

If that is what the conceit inevitably leads Lewis to do, then it was not a good conceit, but I don't believe this was the only way to write such a conceit. If anything, in the universe depicted by the Great Divorce, repudiation of Unspoken Sermons would have been the choice that changed George Macdonald from a damned shade to the redeemed angelic being. That is a hard and dramatic choice indeed! To throw away a life's work of preaching, even a life's work of preaching that did some good and inspired others greatly, because all of it was built upon a subtle, if well-intentioned error.

If this were addressed, then the redeemed George Macdonald could greet the main character with whatever philosophy Lewis cared to put in his mouth; the fundamental disagreement would not be blurred-out-of-focus and the literary choice would seem to me perhaps a little indulgent (like the Christ character in Chesterton's 'Man Who Was Thursday') but not outright misleading.

Seijio Arakawa said...

Finding myself commenting on this matter prompted me to re-read The Great Divorce. I enjoyed the same parts I had enjoyed previously and disliked the same parts I disliked previously, but I found myself pondering my own motivation in commenting so vehemently.

Does CS Lewis misrepresent George Macdonald? Probably. Could the situation have been presented more carefully in the book? Possibly. But the misrepresentation is hardly likely to affect what people know about Macdonald in the long run. And it is hardly relevant, since whatever truth exists in George Macdonald's views is not George Macdonald's sole property. Is denouncing Lewis' presentation more likely to lead the readers to pay attention to Macdonald's work? No, that seems unlikely. So, did the vehemence in my comments come from wanting people to enjoy George Macdonald's work more (as I have enjoyed his work) or from wanting people to enjoy CS Lewis' work less (as I had disliked The Great Divorce)?

Therefore some assertions of my comments are correct, but the overall motivation behind presenting these facts was incorrect.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that the question C.S. Lewis poses to Macdonald is eminently fair and just.

"Which is more likely to actually do the Tragedians and other damned more actual good, to promise to commiserate with their suffering in Hell or to tell them that the joy of Heaven will be infinitely greater and more significant?"

I do feel that Lewis goes too far in implying that commiseration for the damned should not be felt at all. I don't feel it myself, but then I'm not a quite such a Saint as that...I defer to greater Saints along with God and Christ who say that they feel it with an overflowing passion. Perhaps it is because I don't feel it that I can so dispassionately suggest that it is best to try and be honest with them as possible and let them chose whether they will damn themselves for spite rather than take hold on salvation...after all, I'm the one that simply has no stake in it either way.

In fact, while I've made so bold as to have pretended to complain of being told of the sorrows felt by the merciful on behalf of those who have chosen Hell, I actually don't mind even that. I really am completely impartial as to how they should feel about the damned, as long as they are honest about it.

However, that insistence on honesty compels me to demand that they choose their demeanor towards those on the cusp of damnation with an eye to what will be most convincing of the futility of Hell and the reward of Heaven. Just not going so far as to lie.

Christ said, "between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence." This was in the context of a parable, but it is important to remember that Christ's parables used valid principles to teach other valid principles. That is to say, it would be strange if no such barrier really existed, or rather it would make Christ a liar if He knew (as He should have) that it didn't exist.

But I will agree that Christ does not say "well, Lazarus doesn't really feel like helping you." I think that the Lazarus in the story would want to help the rich man in Hell (as he gave him opportunities in life to avoid it), but it is too late.

Is there no way the gulf can be bridged, with the power of God? I believe it must be possible for the blessed to visit the damned...with certain conditions.

And the first of them is written thus: Thou shalt not disparage the reality and greatness of the joy of Heaven, for such would imply to the damned that their damnation is unjust or the fault of anyone but themselves.

If you can't show such a countenance as would prove to them that Heaven without the damned is infinitely better than Hell with them, then you can't visit them. So if you actually want to be blessed in companionship with them, then first learn the glory of God.

Otherwise, you can accomplish nothing other than to be damned with them. And nothing is so hateful to the damned as their own kind.