The itch that can’t be scratched: a review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Pilgrim’s Regress.”

“The Pilgrim’s Regress” is an earlier work by Lewis which seeks to express an everyman’s journey of faith through an allegorical fantasy adventure, as with it’s obvious main reference point, Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

It is not as well liked or read as much of Lewis’s other work.  This is probably due, in large part, to a problem Lewis himself identifies in a foreword written ten years later.  Lewis admits he was too presumptuous in thinking that themes in his own spiritual journey and conversion would be readily understood by a contemporary readership (that was then, how so more now); in particular, his view of “romanticism,” and its different levels of meaning.  Lewis takes trouble in his foreword to draw out what he understands to be these meanings.  But the main one he uses in the story is, he admits, personal and obscure.  It relates to a kind of yearning for some golden ideal that warms the soul and is in fact a desire for God.  However, Lewis understands it to be often misunderstood by human beings as a desire to return to some comfort zone or nostalgia for the past, for natural beauty, or for the yearning that beautiful music or poetry may engender.   Lewis then warns that this yearning can never be fully satisfied in the human lifespan, as it is meant to lead to God.  Hence it gets twisted into idolatry for sex, the natural world, or some other such channel.  Lewis later gives us a German word for this, “Sehnsucht.”  It is also referred to in “Surprised by Joy” and other of his works.  It is the archetypal itch that can never be scratched in our lifetime.

The story tells the story of John, a boy who dreams of a beautiful island that he has glimpsed through some woods near his house.   This island represents the yearning and “Sehnsucht” in his soul.  In the meantime, he is surrounded by realities such as death, and the possibility of a “Landlord” (God), whose “Stewards” (Priests) direct the “tenants” of the land through a religion full of symbols and rules.  It is the dissatisfaction with this religion in the face of his yearning for the island that sets John off on a voyage of exploration through the land.

On his way he picks up a companion, Vertue, an intense and pained young man determined to lead a good life through his own works and efforts.  Together, on their way, they discover allegorical ciphers for the various philosophical, scientific, sociological and religious trends that have held sway and held sway in Lewis’s time.  This includes representatives of romantic paganism, rational humanism, Freudianism, liberal theology, and so on.   Some of these are more obvious than others, such as the Freudian giant that reduces all his captives to a grim literalism so they can “see through” each other so that each appears a collection of walking blood and guts.  Others are less obvious and allude to trends of thinking more prevalent in Lewis’s day, such as that represented by “The Pale Men.”  However, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear we can still see parallels with our own age, with those theologians and Church leaders who deny God and put in its place some “pale” construct (I think of the “Sea of Faith” movement).

The land where John and Vertue journey is split into a North and South; The North is all barren and rocky highlands (the land of rational humanist thought) and the South, all hot, humid and baggy lowlands (liberal theology and “anything goes” morality and lifestyle).  And in the end John and Vertue must defeat dragons in the North and South before completing their journey.

This is a complex and dense read at times, and it lacks the simplicity and straightforward allegory and narrative that have made Bunyan’s work so enduring.  Lewis himself admits in his foreword that it has “needless obscurity, and an uncharitable temper.”  However, it is still an intelligent, nourishing read, and as is often case with reading Lewis, I felt I was breathing mountain air after having spent a long time in the City.  Not a starting point for those new to Lewis, but definitely one to come back to once you are well acquainted with some of his more accessible and well known works.

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