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"I lived and knew myself": self-knowledge in Till We Have Faces.

TILL We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis's last and--many would argue--greatest novel, has much to offer on the topic of self-knowledge. In order to explore this, however, a brief summary of the plot may be helpful. The plot itself is largely based on a reworking of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, as told by Apuleius, but the final version is very much Lewis's own. As he indicated in his preface to the British edition, "This re-interpretation of an old story has lived in the author's mind, thickening and hardening with the years, ever since he was an undergraduate. That way, he could be said to have worked at it most of his life" (1). Set in a pre-Christian culture, the novel is narrated by the central character, Orual, Queen of the land of Glome. It starts out as an accusation of the gods for all that they have inflicted upon her. As a young princess, she explains, she had found herself acting as parent to her stepsister, Psyche, a beautiful young woman who is much drawn to the life of the gods. Indeed, Psyche ultimately ends up the bride of one of them, the god of the Grey Mountain, son of Ungit. Orual's possessiveness and jealousy lead to her betrayal of Psyche, and subsequently Orual takes to wearing a veil in her new role as Queen of Glome. The veil is, she claims, convenient because it hides her unattractive features from her subjects, but the reader is aware that in veiling herself, she is choosing to hide from the consequences of her actions, from the gods, and ultimately from herself. For forty years Orual functions in stoic denial, working tirelessly for her country, day after day, until one day, she is forced to hear the story of herself and Psyche in a way that jolts her, not to an honest recognition of her jealousy, but to anger at the gods. It is this which prompts her to pick up her pen and write her account and her accusation of them.

At this point there is a break in the book. As Orual says at the beginning of Part II, the writing of her account changes her profoundly. She comes to see things clearly as she is forced to put her story into words, sifting through the truths she has been denying. Alongside this, other means force her to face the truth too; words spoken by others about how she has used those around her, especially her faithful tutor, the Fox, and Bardia, her faithful friend and servant. Visions and dreams force her to descend deep inside herself and to recognize what she has become. In her despair, she tries to kill herself, but the god of the Grey Mountain intervenes, and she is left, broken and alone, to try to understand who she is. Ultimately, she hears herself, standing unveiled before the gods, defending what she has done, babbling until eventually she is silenced. At last, through a rather complex series of events, she comes to a point of truth, a realization of what really happened, and how she has been running from the truth for forty years; not just the truth about what she did, but the truth of the real nature of the gods. By the end of the book, standing once again before the gods, without veil and without deception, she is able to understand why the gods have treated her as they have.

In his preface, Lewis outlines some of the themes: "Recently, what seemed to be the right form presented itself and themes suddenly interlocked: the straight tale of barbarism, the mind of an ugly woman, dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other and with vision, and the havoc which a vocation, or even a faith, works on human life" (1). That these are to be found in Lewis's version of the myth is undeniable, but the statement is far from conveying the sum total of this highly suggestive book. From a man whose directness and clarity of communication were undeniable strengths, any summation C. S. Lewis provides of Till We Have Faces seems strangely tangential. Out of a number of comments made by Lewis on the novel, only one comes close to identifying what could be argued to be the central concern of the book. Moreover, when asked about it by Clyde S. Kilby, Lewis's comments upon it pointed in a different direction, this time primarily towards distorted natural human love, possessive and resentful of a family member embracing religion. Psyche, Lewis states, "is an instance of the anima naturaliter christiana ... in some ways like Christ because every good man or woman is like Christ." He went on to say, "But of course my interest is primarily in Orual." She is, he says, an instance, a "case," of human affection in its natural condition: true, tender, suffering, but in the long run tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession (Letters Vol III 831).

Both statements, the preface and the remarks to Kilby, are particularly interesting because both point towards differing aspects of a many faceted book. Lewis had prefaced his remarks to Kilby by commenting, "An author doesn't necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else," but it is hard not to conclude that Lewis knew more of "the meaning" than he felt able to say (Letters Vol III 830). For one thing, there is probably much of Janie Moore in Orual because she was the person in Lewis's life who had been, to the very end, probably most jealous of his conversion to Christianity. (2)

I am not alone in feeling that Lewis's interpretation is far from giving the whole picture. James T. Como states that Lewis was wrong "in saying that it is about a woman corrupted by possessive love. That may be what he intended, but he produced very much more ... and addresses a question which nearly monopolizes the contemporary mind: What is personhood and what are we to make of it?" (184). More specifically, Chad Walsh has commented that "the central psychological theme, though not clear until almost the end of the book, is the quest for self-knowledge" (163). If this seems somewhat removed from the author's own claims, it is interesting to find that this statement can be supported by one brief comment by Lewis, which he made in a letter to Dorothea Conybeare. In explaining the title of Till We Have Faces he said, "The idea was that a human being must become real ... must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or persona" (Letters to a Sister 261). It is the theological import behind this sense of veiling and unveiling that I want to explore here.

Given the intensely personal nature of the themes explored, it is hardly surprising that Lewis refrains from stating more about this aspect. However, a close reading of his letters indicates that in the late 1940s and early 1950s Lewis became aware of his own persona--and began to work at "speaking in his own voice." In one sense there is irony here--that the unveiling of Lewis remained so tacit, or so veiled, that few have seen the personal nature of this book. The power of Till We Have Faces may lie in the fact that it is myth, not autobiography, but, as Lewis himself acknowledged, it may be that he could not yet be fully aware of the full import of that myth: "Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows: in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and could not come to know in any other way" (Letters Vol III 789-790).

ALTHOUGH Chad Walsh speaks of the central theme being the quest for self-knowledge, it is more accurate to speak of Orual's gaining of self-knowledge as the central theme of the book (Schakel 52). Self-knowledge is not actually sought by Orual; on the contrary, her life has been a long process of evasion until, at the end of her life, her defenses are overcome, and she is forced to consider the consequences of her actions. Lack of self-knowledge has been a predominant characteristic of life at the palace. It could be said of her father, as of Lear, "he hath ever but slenderly known himself' (King Lear I, I). Her father's death was without affective recognition, just as he gave no affective recognition in life. It was he who first had Orual veiled in order to conceal her ugliness. When she takes to wearing the veil consistently, Orual declares it to be a sort of treaty made with her ugliness, only retrospectively realizing that it is, as Schakel puts it, a way of covering her "inner ugliness" (56). The veil suggest more than just this: it implies the veiled goddess of the ancient mystery cults of Isis and Venus; the Neoplatonic idea that great truths should be veiled (Lewis, Spenser's Images 43); and ambivalence in Orual's relationship to others, including those closest to her. However, it reverberates in particular with the deliberate refusal of accurate perception which Orual dons when she puts on her veil. She refuses to see what is really there, choosing instead to see the facts as they suit her own ends.

Orual's self-deceptions start small, but they are many and they grow in audacity. For example, she refuses to accept Psyche's statements about her marriage to the god of the Grey Mountain, suggesting that she is either mad or a liar. For Orual to open her mind to belief in the god would also require her to admit her jealousy of anything that has taken Psyche away from her. Then, having destroyed Psyche's marriage, she continues to rationalize her jealous behavior, even though she herself is granted a glimpse of the god's palace and can no longer claim that the divine realm does not exist. And later, when in rebuke the god himself appears to her, proving that he is neither villain nor monster, she still contrives to manipulate the truth:
   Though my body crouched where I could almost have touched his feet,
   his eyes seemed to send me from him to an endless distance. He
   rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had
   thought, done or been. A Greek verse says that even the gods cannot
   change the past. But is it true? He made it to be as if, from the
   beginning, I had known that Psyche's lover was a god, and as if all
   my questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage
   and business of it, had been trumped up foolery, dust blown in my
   own eyes by myself. (129-130)

His declaration, culminating in an aporia or a "riddle," as Orual calls it ("You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche"), passes almost without comment (130). Back at the palace, she also avoids the probing questions of the Fox. In time she persuades herself that the gods do not actually exist. As Doris Myers has suggested, she chooses to ignore the evidence: "Her choice is not based on the claims of rationality, or science, versus the claims of faith; it is a choice contaminated by self-centeredness and the desire for control" (209). Jealousy, anger, shame, and fear--words often repeated in the novel--combine to make a veiled existence more attractive, or apparently easier, than an exposed existence. The donning of the veil symbolizes the defenses which she uses, and those defenses are integral to Orual's embarkation upon a complex trajectory of self-deception.

Over time, the defenses thicken. Her self-deception becomes part of her, as the veil has become part of her also. The outer, external Orual begins to become a separate entity, and it is this self that she chooses to nurture. Upon the death of her father, Orual takes the position of Queen--and decides that in doing so, she shall let Orual die. "If Orual could vanish altogether into the Queen, the gods would almost be cheated" (152). Over a period of many years she recreates herself:
   ... the Queen of Glome had more and more part in me and Orual had
   less and less. I locked her up or laid her asleep as best as I
   could somewhere deep down inside me; she lay curled there. It was
   like being with child, but reversed; the thing I carried in me grew
   slowly smaller and less alive. (170)

To the best of her ability, she grasps her new role, warring and ruling and making use of the fear which the veil instills in ambassadors and subjects alike. In order to be Queen, she feels she must drive all womanliness out of herself; more significantly, and of this she seems unaware, she is trying to drive humanity out.

ORUAL's self-deception has ramifications which damage herself, her retinue, and her kingdom* She becomes inured to the influences of her actions--if she is Queen and hence depersonalized, so she depersonalizes others, and their loved ones in their turn. The Fox, having opted to stay in Glome for her sake, dies largely neglected by her. Bardia also dies, worn out in her service. Her love for them has degenerated until it becomes a kind of hatred. As Lewis argues in "Two Ways with the Self," there are two kinds of self-hatred. Orual exhibits the development of the type which hates selves as such:

It begins by accepting the special value of the particular self called me; then, wounded in its pride to find that such a darling object should be so disappointing, it seeks revenge, first upon that self, then on all. Deeply egoistic, but now with an inverted egoism, it uses the revealing argument, "I don't spare myself"--with the implication "then a fortiori I need not spare others." ("Two Ways" 120-1)

It is a long time before Orual can recognize that in this long phase of her life she is a devourer of men, "the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men's stolen lives" (209). Her face has become the face of Ungit, the devouring goddess--but she has not noticed. This devouring of others, objectifying and manipulating, can be traced back from a failure in self-love. Just as she has been unable to love herself, so too Orual is unable to extend full--and freeing--love to those around her. Her sin is cupiditas, or excessive and possessive loving, which punishes what it cannot possess. It is love, but it is love distorted, and as Bardia's wife, Ansit, points out to her, such loving is a form of devouring. Lewis's language insists that Orual's self-deception is cannibalistic in its consequences, as it is "gorged with other men's lives; women's too. Bardia's; mine; the Fox's; your sister's; both your sisters'" (200). Later, once Ansit's accusations have contributed to the long, slow process to her unveiling, Orual is able to admit that "a love can grow to nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love" (201).

Such distorted love is intimately connected to a failure in self-knowledge, as Rowan Williams points out in his comments on Augustine's anthropology:

So when we say that someone lacks self-knowledge, we don't mean that she lacks information, or even that she is not given to thinking about herself ... Lack of self-knowledge is a failure in spiritual and moral habit, a deficiency in the skills of living according to nature. It is inseparable from failure in love, in the sense that the mind misconceives its own nature when it loves (and so identifies with) objects that do not correspond to its most true and fundamental aspirations ... Augustine holds together the moral skills of truthful, un-self-regarding love with the capacity for authentic self-awareness. ("Paradoxes" 129)

Orual's lack of self-knowledge is indeed a failure in habit as well as in love. Her self-knowledge has been distorted by a long orientation away from the truth, just as her original love for Psyche is distorted into the self-regarding cupiditas, and the effect is that she is blinded to the consequences of her actions. As Williams later says, with reference to De trinitate X, viii, "When [the mind] loves something other than its own loving action (towards God and neighbour), when it is so attached to particular objects and their remembered images that it can no longer distinguish itself, its fundamental orientation to love, from the succession of transient impressions, it fails in self-knowledge" ("Paradoxes" 129). This succinct interpretation of Augustine is an apt summation of the failure in love and concomitant failure of self-knowledge which is played out by Orual (and indicative of the way in which Lewis concurred with Augustine on this topic). One of the characteristics of the novel is that the characters are both highly particularized and highly representative, and Orual is a character both particular and representative. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote, "I do not think it is our fault that we cannot tell the real truth about ourselves; the persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence, simply will not go into words" (48). Orual's self-deception is part of the human condition, and the telling of it is similar to that of the Hebrew mashal, as John Sykes has pointed out in "Till We Have Faces and the Broken-Hearted Reader." In other words, her story of self-deception is intended to aid the reader in a reading of his or her own life, jolting the reader into recognition, just as David was jolted by Nathan.

THE penultimate stage before Orual's facade is torn asunder is a frenzy of activity, an avoidance of the truth which threatens to break through the facade:
   I did and I did and I did--and what does it matter what I did? I
   cared for all these things only as a man cares for a hunt or a
   game, which fills the mind and seems of some moment while it lasts,
   but then the beast's killed or the king's mated, and now who cares?
   It was so with me almost every evening of my life; one little
   stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and
   glory of queenship, to my own chamber, to be alone with myself;
   that is, with a nothingness. (178-9)

Orual as Queen has embraced the Stoic's outlook, with carefully controlled emotions and emphasis upon the material and the rational. We see it when she says that she locked a door in her mind in order to avoid thinking of Psyche and courting madness. She learned to fence, learned to ride horseback, and learned about "the physical parts of philosophy, about the seminal fire, and how the soul rises from blood ... about plants and animals and the positions, soils, airs, and government of cities. I wanted hard things now, and to pile up knowledge" (138). The autonomous, self-sufficient life of Stoicism has already been seen in the figure of the Fox, a philosophy which he later seems to regret, denouncing his "trim sentences" and "prattle of maxims" (Schakel 80). But Orual has imbibed deeply of his philosophy. It suits her to accept only that which can be scientifically proven, to fall back on rationalism, for then she need not deal with that which falls outside that rubric.

Lewis spoke from experience when he showed that the self that forgets itself is not on any safer ground than a radically reflexive self. Louis Dupre even goes so far as to speak of forgetfulness of the self as "an even more serious threat to selfhood"--"routine work drudgingly performed, conventional ideas unquestioningly accepted, objective ideas never interiorized gradually erode the very possibility of growth and development ... If despair means lack of possibility, as Kierkegaard wrote, then the spiritually obtuse live in despair, though they may not know it" (43). And we do glimpse despair in Orual, whether recognized or not, in the ongoing sense of life-seen-through-a-veil, in her sense that all of her activity is unimportant: "I did and did and did--and what does it matter what I did?" Materially she does much to improve the lives of her subjects; she is fair, diligent, efficient, even kind. But inside she has shrunk so much that she is a "nothingness." Ultimately all wrong approaches diminish the self. Orual's adult life, this "little death," as Nathan Comfort Starr calls it, is a kind of living death


Even so, it is not death. Death does not come in this way. Orual will not disappear completely into the Queen. Lewis makes it clear to the reader that Orual is an unreliable narrator, one who sets up syllogistic explanations, ignoring or misinterpreting the small but myriad indications that she is falsifying her conscious understanding of her world. Plagued by sounds and sights which reverberate from her unconscious right through to her consciousness, the Queen cannot conquer Orual. Multiple images convey this: images of burial, locking, damming, chaining, gagging, even murder. The most constant one, the weeping sound which so constantly haunts the queen as a reminder of Psyche, may literally be the sound of chains in the well, but it is also, in a sense, a remnant of Orual, hidden but not silenced.
   I later discovered that there was no part of the palace from which
   the swinging of those chains could not be heard; at night, I mean,
   when the silence grows deep. It is a thing no-one would have found
   out who was not always afraid of hearing one sound; and at the same
   time (that was Orual, Orual refusing to die) terribly afraid of not
   hearing it if for once--if possibly, at last, after ten thousand
   mockeries--it should be real, if Psyche had come back. But I knew
   this was foolishness. (172)

The use of parentheses here (and elsewhere) is representative of the parenthetical way the old Orual infiltrates Orual the Queen; the old Orual is walled off, buried alive, but still--somehow--present. Having physically walled off the well, Orual is still not free. Her unconscious surfaces in wakeful dreams, when she occasionally senses that she has gagged with stone both herself and Psyche. Try as she does, she is unable to stifle Orual, nor forget the wrong that she has done. Order her consciousness as she will, she cannot silence her unconscious.

For Lewis, the recognition of the surface--"the 'I' as I perceive myself'--involves the recognition of facade as facade (Prayer 76). It is not that that the "I" is necessarily a lie, but that the depths also need to be recognized, mysterious though they may be. And for Lewis, only divine aid can help in this, as he demonstrates in Till We Have Faces. Eventually, exhausted and worn out from her attempt to control and protect her self-image, Orual attempts suicide, but the gods intervene. In the exchange that takes place, Orual's lack of true self-knowledge is starkly evident. In order for her to reach full recognition, she is told that it is necessary for her to "die before you die. There is no chance after" (212). Well-tutored in Greek reasoning, Orual concludes that this necessary death is an extension of her behavior to date, another manifestation of stoicism, a death of passions and desires and vain opinions. Thinking it to be the Socratic "skill and practice of death," she attempts stoic detachment. But this is not the death which Orual has been told to seek. Rather, it is a clear reference to Lewis's belief that the self, having been recognized, must be renounced. Self-giving, he believed, was part of the rhythm of all being. Psyche learns the lesson early in life, realizing that new life often only arises from "deaths": "To leave your homec ... to lose one's maidenhead--to bear a child--they are all deaths" (54). It is the dialectic of renunciation and fulfillment to which Lewis referred consistently throughout his writings. (3) For Lewis, Christ's death was in conformity to this paradoxical rhythm, whereby self exists to be abdicated, and upon abdication becomes more fully self (Problem 121).

GEORCE MacDonald wrote in "The Final Unmasking," "The only terrible, or at least the supremely terrible revelation is that of a man to himself" (239). By drawing upon MacDonald's sense of the terror of the revelation of the self, as well as the Jungian concept of individuation, Lewis conveys a consciousness forced to face that which it has tried to bury? For Orual, gaining self-knowledge is a "terrible" process of deconstruction as, layer by layer, falsehood and deceptions are stripped away. This image of stripping recurs frequently in Lewis's writings of the early 1950s, as Stephen Medcalfe has pointed out. In the images which Medcalfe considers, the stripping is usually painful--like the loss of layers of skin, for example--and it heralds a transformation in what lies beneath; what Medcalfe does not mention is the way in which this stripping occurs in Till We Have Faces--probably the most graphic and certainly the most thorough example.

The changes in Orual are wrought by a relentless dialectic of external mirrorings, partially conscious rememberings, and divine showings. The first, the external mirrorings, are those in which people reflect her behavior to herself: home truths from Ansit and Tarin; and a mashal--the truth told in myth form--from the priest of Essur. These begin the process of Orual's self-transformation, alerting her to her jealousy and the distorted love which has motivated her, and so she is forced to self-scrutiny, turning to the internal world of her memories to try to defend herself. "All day, and often all night too, I was recalling every passage of the true story, dragging up terrors, humiliations, struggles, and anguish that I had not thought of for years, letting Orual wake and speak, digging her almost out of a grave, out of the walled well" (186). Her writing, intended to justify herself before the gods, functions on another level. It becomes a form of confession, a journey of interiority, a spiritual exploration which profoundly changes her. It too functions as a mirror. "In the individual life," said Lewis, "as psychologists have taught us, it is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us" ("Descriptione" 12). Orual reflects in Part II of Till We Have Faces upon the completed account that constitutes Part I:
   Since I cannot mend the book, I must add to it. To leave it as it
   was would be to die perjured; I know so much more than I did about
   the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing
   itself ... The past which I wrote down was not the past that I
   thought I had (all these years) been remembering. I did not, even
   when I had finished the book, see clearly many things that I see
   now. (191)

Orual finds that her task becomes a sorting of memories, a sifting of pretexts and motives, neglected as they were in the course of her life, but awaiting scrutiny now; a task that in her dreams becomes a sorting of a huge and hopeless pile of seeds, "sifting and sorting, separating motive from motive and both from pretext" (193). The emphasis is that which we find in Augustine, for example in the Confessions: "The power of the memory is great, O Lord. It is awe-inspiring in its profound and incalculable complexity. Yet it is my mind: it is my self" (223). Rowan Williams also emphasizes the importance of the role of memory in the Confessions: "Identity is ultimately in the hand of God; but this does not mean that it is a non-temporal thing. It is to be found, and in some sense made, by the infinitely painstaking attention to the contingent strangeness of remembered experience in conscious reference to God" (Wound 71).

There are aids to this making of identity in conscious reference to God, Lewis believed: writing, reading holy writ, and prayer. The latter two may have been given little place in Till We Have Faces because of the difficulty of the pre-Christian context, but he speaks of them elsewhere. Prayer--to which we shall return later--is a recurring theme. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his adult practice of prayer as "the beginning of extroversion," for it brought him out of himself (181). Moreover, prayer was an intersection between God and humans, a hinge of the relationship. So too with the Bible: "To read it is ... to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself' (Lewis, Psalms 95-6). Scripture is a means of transformation, in a subject-object embrace. It is, as Lewis wrote, a mirror in which we can see "the reflection of our own silly faces" (Psalms 102). This image is in accordance with James 1:22-24: "Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like." A mirror, MacDonald argued in "The Mirrors of the Lord," takes into itself--it doesn't simply reflect (48). Lewis quotes from MacDonald's sermon in the George MacDonald anthology: "opening the door to Him, holding up our mirror to Him; then He comes in, not by our thought only, not in our idea only, but He comes Himself and of His own will--comes in as we could not take Him, but as He can come" (Lewis, George 114). So humans too, shall be "bright stainless mirrors reflecting back to God his own boundless power and delight and goodness" (Lewis, Mere 206). It is a two-way process, where face recognizes face. Using the language of Martin Buber, Lewis put it this way in Prayer: Letters to Malcolm:
   We are always completely, and therefore equally, known to God. That
   is our destiny whether we like it or not. But though this knowledge
   never varies, the quality of our being known can ... Ordinarily, to
   be known by God is to be, for this purpose, in the category of
   things. We are, like earthworms, cabbages and nebulae, objects of
   divine knowledge. But when we (a) become aware of the fact--the
   present fact, not the generalisation--and (b) assent with our will
   to be so known, then we treat ourselves, in relation to God, not as
   things but as persons. We have unveiled. Not that any veil could
   have baffled his sight. The change is in us. The passive changes to
   the active. Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we
   offer ourselves to view ... By unveiling ... we assume the high rank
   of persons before Him. And He, descending becomes a Person to us ...
   The Person in Him--he is more than a person--meets those who can
   welcome or at least face it. He speaks as "I" when we truly call
   him "Thou." (18-9)

The emphasis upon the assenting "to be so known" is crucial--we assent to be known and therefore we assent to know ourselves and to know God. Unveiling, paradoxically, allows us to know God and to know ourselves reflected in Him.

But for Orual, in pre-Christian Giome, writing is the primary means of transformation; "the change which the writing wrought in me ... was only a beginning; only to prepare me for the god's surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound" (191). It is likely that Lewis is referring to a practice called an Examination of Conscience, a Puritan concern, with which Lewis would have been particularly familiar, considering he labored over sixteenth-century literature for almost twenty years before publishing English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama in 1954. There, he challenges the fictive nineteenth-century view of Puritanism and emphasizes the more truly Puritan "farewell to the self with its good resolutions" which was based upon a buoyant humility: "all the initiative has been on God's side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all shall continue to be free, unbounded grace" (32-3). Given the similarity of emphases which we find between Lewis's and the Puritan's sense of written self-examination--both journal and autobiography--it is quite possible that his view stems at least in part from them? The motive behind Puritan autobiographies was often both didactic and autodidactic, as Owen Watkins argues: "the autobiographer had in addition involved his present self in the task of looking at his past self; he tried to re-create his experiences so as to convey both the impact they had on him at the time and their meaning in the light of subsequent experience and knowledge" (Watkins 237). It may be that Lewis himself found this to be particularly true in the early 1950s. He comments in Surprised by Joy that for some self-examination begins at conversion, and for others it ends there; for him it had ended, or so he obviously believed at the time of writing (181). But having written Surprised by Joy more or less immediately prior to Till We Have Faces, he had found himself drawn back to a self-examination which he had forsworn; the re-creation of his experiences was heavily autodidactic, whether or not this had been his intention. Like Augustine, Lewis is not claiming absolute objectivity for the memory--we note that Part I of the novel is a biased account by Orual--but for Lewis, as for some orthodox Puritans, self-exploration is both temporal and set in constant dialectic with God as revealed through scripture. As Rowan Williams puts it,

Truthful self-knowledge thus entails a constantly self-critical autobiographical project, striving to construct the narrative least unfaithful to the divine perspective. It will, of course, never be the divine perspective, because what God sees, I learn (and constantly, with every new action, must unlearn). ("Know Thyself" 221)

The right reading of one's life is one that can only be done with divine aid. Part II is a critique which shifts, erratically but inevitably, towards the divine perspective. Behind Orual's recovery of the truth is the intervention of the gods. Orual herself comments, "the gods kept me to my two labours, the day's and the night's" (194). Her dreams have the quality of visions, which she attributes to the gods, saying, "they so drenched me with seeings that I cannot well discern dream from waking nor tell which is the truer" (209). In one dream, she is forced by her father to dig through layers of clay and rock until she sees herself in the mirror that she used to dread --only to see that she has the face of Ungit. It is at this point that Orual finally reaches the beginning of anagnorisis, or recognition in Aristotle's sense; she can no longer deny "that ruinous face was mine" (209). She has reached, at last, the crucial recognition of the fact that she has devoured men's lives: "This vision anyway allowed no denial. Without question it was true" (209). But she clings to a final remnant of succor--that her love for Psyche was genuine. It is for this reason that the gods have not yet finished with her--"the mirrors of the Lord" shall continue to reflect the unflinching truth. By the end of the next vision, a scene of trial, her complaint is demolished. Forcibly unveiled and naked, the old crone with her Ungit face makes her accusations before the crowds. She hears her own voice babbling and realizes what poisonous words she is uttering, but it is not until the gods in their turn present her with scenes of her treatment of Psyche that she finally comes to full recognition of the truth. At last there is no deceit in her. As she can now say to Psyche, "Never again will I call you mine; but all there is of me shall be yours. Alas, you know now what it is worth. I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver" (239). It has been a long, painful process to bring Orual to this point of honesty and repentance. It is the fulfillment of the god's declaration made so many years before on the mountainside, "You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche" (130).

TILL We Have Faces is a profound statement of the fact that the conditions for true self-knowledge are consonant with the conditions for true selfhood or personhood. Indeed, selfhood and personhood seem to have little distinction in Lewis's work, and "personality" seems to carry the same weight. Personality--"the quality or fact of being a person as distinct from a thing" (OED)--recurs throughout his work. He was using it in an older sense, now almost replaced by "personhood." (6) In a sermon entitled "Membership," Lewis stated, "Personality is not a datum from which we start. The individualism in which we all begin is only a parody or shadow of it. True personality lies ahead--how far ahead, for most of us, I dare not say" (129). The notion that personality is locked up inside us, waiting to be expanded or expressed, is Pelagian, and defeats itself (131). Kierkegaard shared the same view--translated by the same word--"by God's help, thou shalt succeed in becoming a man, a personality" (Kierkegaard 67). (7) Both men believed that personality was not something which humans are born with. Lewis argued that "the key to it does not lie in ourselves. It will not be attained by development from within outwards. It will come to us when we occupy those places in the structure of the eternal cosmos for which we were designed or invented" ("Membership" 129). One becomes a self, but unlike Existentialist thought, it does not occur through mere existence, but through an overcoming, through a life constantly given back to God. As Lewis put it in a letter, "I become my own only when I give myself to Another" (Letters Vol III 348). This is a constant state of consciousness and effort. For Lewis, personality grows through encounter, desire, obedience, humility, faith, love, and discipline: "Some tendencies in each natural man may have to be simply rejected. Our Lord speaks of eyes being plucked out and hands lopped off--a frankly Procrustean method of adaptation" ("Membership" 130).

To refuse the Procrustean method, however, is to refuse personhood. In That Hideous Strength, protagonist Mark Studdock approaches the moment when he would "begin to be a person" (Hideous 575). Until that point he has been a blank canvas, a puppet in the hands of others. Indeed, he has been in danger of losing any sense of personal identity in his identification with the Belbury group. In contrast, Jane, Mark's wife, not only learns this lesson, but foreshadows for us what Orual shall experience.

She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable met her with no veil or protection between ... the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped and vanished ... The name me was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being which did not fully exist but which was demanded. (Hideous 683)

This becoming oneself through giving onself back to God is a lesson which Orual learns late in life.

FOR Lewis, certain conditions were essential to enable occupancy of those places for which we were designed. Firstly, knowledge of the love of God enables self-knowledge and selfhood. Self-recognition for Orual, as for Augustine, necessarily comes after the recognition bestowed by the divine: "What I do know of myself I know because You shed your light on me; and what I do not know of myself I shall not know until 'my darkness shall become as noonday' in the vision of your face" (Confessions 211). Augustine is unequivocal on this: "Let me know you, for you are the God who knows me, let me recognize you as you have recognized me" (Confessions 207). Recognition necessitates particularity--which love bestows. As MacDonald put it: "For no-one but God sees what the man is ... He is to God a peculiar being, made after his own fashion and that of no-one else" (Lewis, George 45-6). In The Problem of Pain, Lewis adds, "Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you" (117). Heaven is not for humanity in the abstract; rather it is for concrete particularity. "Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another, the communion of saints" (Lewis, Problem 119). The distinctiveness of each soul is built into the universe, but it is incumbent upon a person to become the name which is reserved for him by God.

Secondly, both interiority and exteriority are essential to full personhood. Lewis's recognition of his own inwardness was a crucial part of his mature development, although he remained aware of the dangers. For the mature Lewis, reflexivity is not necessarily evil. As Charles Taylor puts it, "on the contrary, we show most clearly the presence of God in our fullest self-presence. Evil is when this reflexivity is closed in upon itself. Healing comes when it is broken open, not in order to be abandoned, but in order to acknowledge its dependence upon God" (139). In Prayer: Letters to Malcolm Lewis refers to God as the "ground of our being," upon whom humans depend (66). He continues, "To be discontinuous from God as I am discontinuous from you would be annihilation" (66-67). This is not the same as Pantheism where God is all: rather, he is "all in all," who gives himself through Creation. There is an "ontological continuity ... relation between them" (67). Lewis would brook no self-creation. He aligned himself with the idea that human nature is "given, discoverable and discovered" (Lewis, Literature 380). God "is always both within us and over against us" (Lewis, Prayer 66). The inner turn can be construed as a disease, as Lewis did for so many years, or it can be read, as Mark McIntosh does, as the attempt to create a space in a fragmented world for the speaking, hearing, and searching of God. Overemphasis upon subjectivity is wrong--but so too is total emphasis upon objectivity.

Thirdly, the givenness of human nature is tied in with Lewis's concept of desire, wherein "joy," or sweet desire, leads ultimately to God--because it comes from God. For both Lewis and Augustine, emphasis upon the dialectic of desire was central to their conversion and thought. In Till We Have Faces, Psyche is aware of her longings and the origin of them, but Orual's way of desire is distorted by other, though lesser, desires, and she is slow to recognize what Lewis perceives to be the source of her desire. It is in this respect that Psyche is "brightface" when on the mountain, for she has found that which she has always consciously longed for (76).

Consequently (and fourthly), self-recognition is an ongoing process of seeking and desiring aright, inconstant dialectic with divine revelation. Self-knowledge is not instantaneous, despite moments of anagnorisis. Nor does it consist of a mere self-awareness, for that would throw the knower back into a static understanding. "I lived and knew myself," Orual declares after the vision of the golden rams (215). But it is noteworthy that she subsequently finds out more--much more. It is wrong to say that Orual comes to complete self-knowledge if this is to imply completeness of cognition. Better to say that she is brought to a place where the conditions for self-knowledge and full selfhood become possible in an ongoing process, a process which is only possible because she has come to recognize the role of the divine in her life. Speaking of Augustine's thought in De trinitate, Williams says:

If the mind knows itself, what it knows is the activity of seeking and discovering, not a static object ... the paradox he presses upon us is that a mind intrinsically incomplete, desirous and mobile ... can be rightly and intelligibly said to know itself completely. Self-knowledge is being defined, not as cognition of a spiritual substance, but as awareness of the conditions of finitude and the ability to live and act within them. Hence the further point in X, v that to know oneself is to live reflectively according to one's nature, to live in one's proper place in the universe: as a creature (below God), but a reasoning creature (above the animals). ("Paradoxes" 129)

Living reflectively requires a constant orientation towards truthfulness and transparency with self and others. (8) By the time he wrote Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, Lewis had come to the realization that this orientation is always necessary, if not always possible: "The prayer preceding all prayers is, 'May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to'" (79).

Finally, such transparency is the necessary precursor to full personhood because of the supreme value which Lewis finally places on the relationship with the other. In the final scenes, Orual's anagnorisis is ultimately only possible because of encounters, both human and divine. "I know now, Lord," she says at the end of the book, "why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer" (234). Her change is rooted through and through in the clarion call of relationship. The effort of the will has merely created a persona, whereas a true encounter leads to personhood. It is not to be found in community, nor in faculties such as reason or the memory or will, but is located in honest responses to other "persons," and primarily the personal God. Without transparency, without face to face meeting, there can be no relationship. Orual eventually realizes this: "I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?" (223). It is, once again, the dialectical movement, whereby God and humans work together.

Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view ... By unveiling ... we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, descending, becomes a Person to us ... The Person in Him--he is more than a person--meets those who can welcome or at least face it. He speaks as "I" when we truly call him "Thou." (Lewis, Prayer 18-19)

This is closer to the Eastern idea of synergism than the Western sense of God's radical grace, an area where Lewis perhaps differed in emphasis from Augustine; Vladimir Lossky explains that "it is not a question of merits but of a co-operation, of a synergy of the two wills, divine and human, a harmony in which grace bears more and more fruit, and is appropriated" (198).

This face-to-face meeting of the human person and the divine Person is glimpsed in Orual. Her moment of recognition--"Never again will I call you mine; but all there is of me shall be yours"--is succeeded by a deep sense of plenitude. She says, "Joy silenced me. And I thought I had now come to the highest and to the utmost fullness of being which the human soul can contain" (232). It is an unequivocal statement of a belief that self-transcendence, rather than self-autonomy, leads to a higher state of being, on earth--and in the eschaton. Lewis had plenty to say on this too--but that is another subject.

Works Cited

Saint Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. Middlesex: Penguin, 1961.

Como, James T. Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C. S. Lewis. Texas: Spence Publishing, 1998.

Dupre, Louis. Transcendent Selfhood: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Inner Life. New York: Seabury P, 1976.

Jeffrey, David Lyle. "Proving the Spirit of Christ: Walter Hilton's Acid Test." Alive to God: Studies in Spirituality. Ed. J. I. Packer & Loren Wilkinson. Illinois: InterVarsity P, 1992. 152-160.

Inge, W. R. Christian Mysticism. London: Methuen & Co, 1899.

Kierkegaard, Soren. For Self-Examination Proposed to this Age. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1941.

Lewis, C. S. All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis 1922-1927. HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

--. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905-1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

--. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Volume H: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

--. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

--. "De Descriptione Temporum." Selected Literary Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969. 1-14.

--. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1954.

--, ed. George MacDonald: An Anthology. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.

--. Letters to a Sister from Rose Macaulay. Ed. Constance Babington-Smith. London: Collins, 1964.

--. Letters to Children. Ed. Lyle Dorsett and Marjorie Mead. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

--. "Membership." The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 119-131.

--. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1952.

--. Prayer: Letters to Malcolm. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1974.

--. The Problem of Pain. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977.

--. Reflections on the Psalms. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1982.

--. Surprised by Joy. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1955.

--. That Hideous Strength. In The Cosmic Trilogy. London: The Bodley Head, 1989.

--. Till We Have Faces. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1998.

--. "Preface" Till We Have Faces. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956.

--. "Two Ways with the Self." The Grand Miracle. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. New York: St Vladimir's Seminary P, 1998.

MacDonald, George. "The Final Unmasking." Unspoken Sermons Series III. USA: J. Joseph Flynn Rare Book Publishers, 1889.

--. "The Mirrors of the Lord." Unspoken Sermons, Series III. USA: J. Joseph Flynn Rare Book Publishers, 1889.

Medcalfe, Stephen. "Language and Self-Consciousness: The Making and Breaking of C. S. Lewis's Personae." Word and Story in C. S. Lewis. Ed. Peter J. Schakel & Charles A. Huttar. New York: U of Columbia P, 1991. 109-144.

Myers, Doris T. C. S. Lewis in Context. Ohio: Kent State UP, 1994.

Schakel, Peter J. Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis: A Study of Till We Have Faces. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984.

Starr, Nathan Comfort. "Till We Have Faces." Religious Dimensions in Literature. Ed. Lee A. Belford. New York: Seabury P, 1982.28-47.

Sykes, John. "Till We Have Faces and the Broken-Hearted Reader." Premise V.3 (July 1998).

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self" The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Walsh, Chad. The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis. New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979.

Watkins, Owen C. The Puritan Experience. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Williams, Rowan. "'Know Thyself': What Kind of an Injunction?" Philosophy, Religion and the Spiritual Life. Ed. Michael McGhee, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 211-227.

--. "The Paradoxes of Self-Knowledge in the De trinitate." Collectanea Augustiniana. Ed. T. J. Van Bavel. Holland: Leuven UP, 1992. 123-134.

--. The Wound of Knowledge. London: Dalton, Longman & Todd, 1990.


(1) This article is excerpted from Sharon Jebb Smith's upcoming book Writing God and the Self." Samuel Beckett and C. S. Lewis, which will be published by Wipf and Stock. This article is used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers,

(2) Janie Moore was the mother of Paddy Moore. When Paddy died in war, Lewis kept his promise to look after Paddy's mother. Lewis lived with her until her death. See Letters Volume II 702.

(3) Psyche is like Christ in that her death is an act of self-transcendence, but it is the same kind of self-transcendence to which every follower is called.

(4) Lewis wrote to a child that there were some "Jungianisms" in the book, but that "the main conscious prosework is Christian" (Letters to Children 107). See Myers 187-203.

(5) Lewis may have drawn, for example, from Walter Hilton, to whom he refers in Surprised by Joy, or from William Perkins, referred to in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. Both men emphasized the examination of conscience, although to what extent Lewis would have agreed with their emphasis is a question which I cannot resolve here. See David L. Jeffrey, "Proving the Spirit of Christ: Walter Hilton's Acid Test," Alive to God: Studies in Spirituality, ed. J. I. Packer & Loren Wilkinson (Illinois: InterVarsity P, 1992), 152-160.

(6) For example, W. R. Inge writing in the 1890s used "personality" as a synonym for the self. W. R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (London: Methuen & Co.), 33.

(7) For Self-Examination was published by OUP in 1941, a year before Mere Christianity was published.

(8) MacDonald's core text for "The Final Unmasking" was "For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known" (Matthew 10.26; Luke 12.2).
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Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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