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Subjectivism Addressed in Lewis’s Fiction
Lewis’s fellow Inkling and friend, Charles Williams, wrote a cycle of poems about King Arthur and Camelot. After Williams died, Lewis wrote a book of literary criticism about this poetry. In this study, called Arthurian Torso, Lewis makes it explicit that characters in fiction can become subjectivists. As he writes about William’s King Arthur, Lewis notes a fatal flaw in Arthur that manifests itself the moment the king wonders, “‘The king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom made for the king?’ That is the question. The right answer has been given in the quotation from Dante’s De Monarchia prefixed to the whole Taliessin volume: ‘Hence it is that the proper operation does not exist for the sake of the essence, but the essence has its being for the sake of the operation.’ Lovers exist for the sake of love, poets for the sake of poetry, kings for the sake of kingdoms: not vice versa. And Arthur is already wrong about this matter.”
Williams believed that “function precedes essence.” One’s essence was brought into being because of some prior function that it was necessary to fulfill. In the Genesis account of creation, light is created before the luminaries; that is, the function of light preceded the creation of the essences sun, moon, and stars that were designed to fulfill the function of light. Arthur fails as a king the moment he speculates that the kingdom might be made for the king rather than the king for the kingdom. The subjectivist is no longer responsive to the world the way that it is; he would rather deny the reality and play the utilitarian.
So it is with virtually all of Lewis’s evil characters in his fiction. Each in some way draws on the example set forth and modeled after Williams’ King Arthur. And with each, Lewis is making a rhetorical point: he warns his readers about subjectivism.
Limits of time and space prevent a full analysis of all of Lewis’s villains; nevertheless, the most impressive example of a subjectivist villain in Lewis’s Narnian books is Jadis, Queen of Charn, who becomes the White Witch of Narnia. As a Queen in Charn, Jadis is so evil that her entire kingdom mounts up in a war against her. She has learned through magical arts how to speak “the Deplorable Word.” This word gives the one who utters it the power to destroy the whole world while saving only oneself. As the war goes against her, and it is evident she is unwilling to be held accountable for her evil, Jadis uses this weapon. In that very act, she becomes anti-Aslan (or anti-Christ). She destroys others to save herself; by contrast, Aslan gives his life to save others.
The self-referential acts of Lewis’s villains tend not only to destroy others but to destroy self as well. Lewis wrote, “Unity is the road to personality.” I can truly know myself only in the context of relationships and the give and take that goes with them. To deny the validity of others is, in the end, to deny my own humanity and the road to maturity.
Lewis makes this point rhetorically in his science fiction through the character Weston, who comes to be called the unman. Similar instances abound in Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Those whose controlling interests have denied humanity to others become little more than nearly evaporated beings. It is all consistent rhetoric for the man whose warnings against subjectivism have their zenith in The Abolition of Man.
So what is the point of all of this, and what application might it have? First, Lewis saw the dangers of subjectivism. He recognized that, “In coming to understand anything we must reject the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.” To fail at this point is to lose any sense of perspective; as Lewis observes, it is as if one might begin to believe the train tracks really did narrow the further they moved towards the horizon. The subjectivist becomes self-referential and utilitarian towards others; he does so in a way that can imperil the humanity of those around him as well as lead to the loss of his own humanity. The loss of objective value leads to the abolition of man, and puts the subjectivist at risk of becoming an unman.
A second point can be found in this: the self-aware are more likely to be empathetic. Empathy is an incarnation-like quality; it allows one to enter into the real world of others as Christ did—to be a giver, not a taker. Lewis wrote, “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbors, and the false image of myself.” Empathy begins with the assumption that I know something of others by virtue of a shared humanity. I may disagree with them, but I will treat them the way I would want to be treated. An empathetic and objective person not only sees the world and its need, but also recognizes that all have a propensity to subjectivism and all are capable of cloaking their own evil as well as that of others.