Out of the Silent Planet: Modernism and Malacandra

 

CS Lewis“To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.”

These are the bold words of the scientist Weston, confronting the Oyarsa (the godlike, benevolent leader of Malacandra) at the finale of Lewis’ first installment of his Space Trilogy. When Ransom translates this into Old Solar he simply says that Weston did not consider genocide of the Malacandrians, to further the progress of humanity, to be “bent”, evil or wrong.

Weston continues, “Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilization.” Ransom struggles to translate, “living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good…it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead”. Weston announces that the superiority of mankind justifies them to stretch their empire across the universe, throughout Deep Heaven. While reading this I could not help but notice the similarities of Weston’s philosophy to the primitive modernism that came with the Enlightenment.

Darwin’s natural religion came with great hubris, and was reinforced with cultural superiority and domination. Though few people would agree today with the European mindset of the 18th and early 19th century which saw those who lagged in the evolutionary march as inferior not only in the realm of science, medicine and the likes but even when it came to our genes. Thinking back to the dialogue from Lewis, Weston thought that progress of the human race would come about through the advancement of natural science, how much we can control by it and where it could take us. Without lessening the great gifts of the Enlightenment, modernism promised to improve the human race but could not for the fact that the emphasis was on everything else but humans themselves. Though quality of life and command of nature are good things, they are in and of themselves external to the human problem. This human problem shows itself in the attitude of Weston, and the natural religion of Darwin.

The Oyarsa of Malacandra puts the human problem quite well, “In your own world you have attained great wisdom concerning bodies and by this you have been able to make a ship that can cross the heaven; but in all other things you have the mind of an animal.” Once mankind, but more specifically the West, established themselves as superior in everything ranging from culture to social structures then they are not far from imperialism, enslavement and extermination. Through the developments of science we can, I think, rightly pat ourselves on the back for the great capacity for knowledge and advance we possess. But the danger is that we forget what we actually are. Life extends beyond laboratories, hospitals and classrooms to communities, families and cultures. I can understand why existentialism arose in angst against modernism; and why it carried through to full flower in postmodernism that tore off the dangerous shackles of imperial modernism.

Weston went to Malacandra, in an attempt to win ground on which humanity might multiply; only, it would be as effective in making people better, as trying to improve the skills of footballers by giving them a larger field on which to play. Obviously this depends largely on how we define “better” and what we think constitutes progress. But modernism offered little of what most people would understand as fixing the problems that are endemic to human nature, furthermore it offered little to nothing in bolstering culture, the arts and so on (you only need to Google ‘modern architecture’ for proof of this). What does any of this matter? As a Westerner, and a Christian, I think we need to be very careful that we do not enact a new imperialism. The biblical picture of Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21-22 depict a renewed, perfect future in which we retain our cultural differences. Therefore every human culture has inherent good and distinct strengths for the enrichment of the human race. Scientific advance does enlighten our minds, but can do little if anything to change hearts. Christianity has too often been rightly critiqued as eradicating cultures which were and replacing them with Western culture. Weston threatened domination of Malacandra and anything else that stood in the way of his enterprise, we should be careful we do not end up doing the same.

All the quotations above are from chapter 20 of Out of the Silent Planet, unless otherwise stated.

The Ghost, the Lizard, and the Angel

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.

“Off so soon?” said a voice.

The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.

“Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”

“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.

“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.

“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.

“Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.

“Don’t you want him killed?”

“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

“It’s the only way,” said the Angel whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”

“May I kill it?”

“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.

“There is no time. May I kill it?”

“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

“May I kill it?”

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

“The gradual process is of no use at all.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”

“There is no other day. All days are present now.”

“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”

“It is not so.”

“Why, you’re hurting me now.”

“I never said I wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.”

“This moment contains all moments.”

“Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”

“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?”

The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.

“Be careful,” it said. “He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yes. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent….”

“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.

“I know it will kill me.”

“It won’t. But supposing it did?”

“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

“Then I may?”

“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”

Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.

“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialised while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man—an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.

The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I even knew what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see there they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.

(From C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 1946)