Narnia: Living With Sadness

[Content Note: Body Transformation, Dehumanizing Language, Reproductive Rights, Silencing]

Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned back into a boy.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7: How The Adventure Ended

(Once again, today will be a short one as I'm still buried in transcripts. If you would like to volunteer to help, I could so very much use the help. More here.)

   On the evenings when he was not being used as a hot-water bottle he would slink away from the camp and lie curled up like a snake between the wood and the water. On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon’s head, well to the windward to be out of the way of his smoky breath. There he would explain that what had happened to Eustace was a striking illustration of the turn of Fortune’s wheel, and that if he had Eustace at his own house in Narnia (it was really a hole not a house and the dragon’s head, let alone his body, would not have fitted in) he could show him more than a hundred examples of emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, lovers, astronomers, philosophers, and magicians, who had fallen from prosperity into the most distressing circumstances, and of whom many had recovered and lived happily ever afterward. It did not, perhaps, seem so very comforting at the time, but it was kindly meant and Eustace never forgot it.

This passage is well-written. I can't remember if I've said that yet about a passage in this book, though whether I've said it or not I'm sure there are other well-written passages that I could point to. Still, for the record, I think this passage is well-written.

I think it is well-written in part because it is a very good example of sympathy between two people, one of which is hurting. (Which makes it all the more strange that so much of this book is an exercise in condemnation over sympathy, but hold that thought.) Reepicheep is recognizing that Eustace is hurting and alone, and is choosing to spend time with him and to tell him tales that he hopes will cheer him up or (failing that) at least distract him. It's a kind gesture, and one that I kind very touching -- not least because Reepicheep is one crew member who has a legitimate reason to strongly dislike Eustace, since Eustace physically bullied the Mouse in a way that he did not with his human crew-mates.

What I do find interesting though, from a textual analysis, is that this is really more sympathy ("acknowledging another person's emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance") than empathy ("understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes"). [Source.] In the Disney Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie, which I will eventually write a big post about, Reepicheep tends more towards the empathic, and in ways which feel very natural to me.

Dragon!Eustace and Reepicheep share a surprisingly lot in common. They are the only non-humans on this voyage, and have persistently been treated as though they are useless (or having more drawbacks than advantages) despite finding creative ways to help on the voyage (such as Reepicheep guarding the water ration). They are both hampered by their physical forms as they live among humans who expect everything to be shaped and sized to their convenience and who aren't interested in helping the Animals overcome any related physical challenges in communication and/or interaction with the humans (such as them not helping Eustace to write out his story in pieces). They have both consistently struggled to be taken seriously, to be listened to, and to not be left behind.

So while I'm sure it is "kindly meant" -- and please understand that I am not criticizing Reepicheep at a Watsonian level; I am speaking about the Doylistic writing choices on display -- for Reepicheep to entertain Eustace with vaguely unrelated tales of dukes fallen in battle or philosophers felled by a nasty head-cold, it strikes me that this is still very distant behavior from him. It would make more sense to me for Reepicheep to speak to Eustace about his own lived experiences and how life as a non-human isn't as bad as it might seem and how there is a thriving community of Animals back in Narnia and how, whether this is to be Eustace's form for a day or for a century, it doesn't make him bad or unnatural or evil or alone or disadvantaged for life. That would make more sense to me, is what I am saying.

But then I realize that Reepicheep can't say all that, because to say that would be to admit that Animals in Narnia are an oppressed class, as well as to admit that their human crew-mates (Caspian et. al.) are participating, consciously or otherwise, in marginalization of Reepicheep and Eustace, and to further admit that the last act of Prince Caspian didn't actually solve the problems underlying the civil war, much as Lewis would like to claim that it did. And the only question left is whether Lewis knew that, and thus dampened Reepicheep's natural empathy in favor of this distant sympathy, or if he used this distant sympathy for other reasons, perhaps as a template for the Appropriate Manly Method of sympathy.

Interestingly, searching on Google for "cs lewis sympathy quotes" landed me on the GoodReads quote page for The Problem of Pain (published ten years before Voyage of the Dawn Treader was written and which I fully realize is one of Lewis' less-fashionable books), and I couldn't help but notice that 41 people have liked this quote (labeled, of all things, "optimism"):

My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to 'rejoice' as much as by anything else.

I don't even know what to do with that*, but I don't think it's presuming too much to take from that the extremely privileged viewpoint that Reepicheep and Dragon!Eustace should keep stiff upper lips and not worry overly much about that whole 'oppressed class' thing. Which is what they are basically doing in text, and which sours me somewhat on the well-written passage that initially touched me.

And I think maybe this is an ongoing issue I have with Lewis; I think some of his best moments in the series are perhaps moments which I am interpreting differently from how he would have me interpret them. I see a Mouse comforting a Dragon and my mind goes to two people who share similarly oppressed lives offering the comfort that the privileged people will not (who can't be bothered with Eustace when they're not "us[ing him] as a hot-water bottle"). Whereas, perhaps, Lewis intends me to see a Christ Aslan-follower properly understanding that non-repentant grief is "bad" and using stories as a means of following the "apostolic injunction to 'rejoice'" as much as possible.

Interestingly enough, the last mega-Kindle sale offered up two collections of letters by C.S. Lewis, so of course I snagged them, though I'm unsure when I'll get a chance to read them. But I couldn't help but notice that Lewis apparently found it amusing in his private correspondence to refer to his readers, including-and-especially readers like me, as cattle:

But most readers will misunderstand if you give them the slightest chance. (It’s like driving cattle: if there’s an open gateway anywhere on the road, they’ll go into it!).

So that's nice and obviously not dehumanizing at all.

* It would perhaps be more accurate to say that I don't know what to do with this that isn't a full solid page of swears. I will say that this mentality (though not this exact quote) along with selective quoting of Paul's exhortations to "think on good things" was regularly used as a silencing tactic during my childhood. There are very few things that can't be deemed Ungodly Grief or Ungodly Thoughts by people with privilege determined to silence you from speaking up about marginalization, oppression, unfairness, or anything else they don't want you to talk about.

One of the things that Melissa McEwan writes about is how marginalized people are by virtue of our marginalized forced to "sit with fear" in ways that privileged people are not. In the same way, marginalized people are by virtue of our marginalization forced to sit with sadness in a way that privileged people are not. I have been buried under utterly soul-crushing depression at various moments in the last month since the Wendy Davis filibuster, precisely because of my marginalization, because I see my state being taken over by men who want to kill women, because there is literally nothing I can do to stop my government from claiming ownership over my body and reducing me to chattel (not cattle, though that term would work here as well, Mr. Lewis) of the state.

Sadness, to me, isn't some tourist destination that I only have to feel when I want to mope about my sins for a bit or when I want to play pity-party for someone before getting bored and going off to do something else. Sadness is where I live. And I live there because I am forced to live there, because I am made to live there by virtue of the fact that I don't have the privilege to move away. Some of my neighbors have that privilege but choose to stay here with me, but the bulk of us living in sad-land live here because we aren't given a choice to live elsewhere.

Policing peoples' emotions (as failure to Constantly Rejoice) is a form of silencing.
Policing peoples' activism (as focusing on Ungodly Things) is a form of silencing.
Policing peoples' interpretations (by dehumanizing them into animals) is a form of silencing.

And I will not be silenced without a fight. I don't know how much more clear to be than that. 


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