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Lancia E. Smith
In the Face of What Devils May Do: C. S. Lewis' Re-Adjustment and the Defeat of Despair
By Andrew Lazo
Many thanks to Kelly for asking me to guest in this spot, and furthermore for asking for something on C. S. Lewis. I have been grappling recently with a cycle of unpublished sonnets by Joy Davidman, Lewis’ future wife, and in so doing have delved back again into Lewis’ sometimes troubling, sometimes transcendent poetry. When her kind request came in, I immediately knew what I wanted to write about: Re-Adjustment. Holly Ordway based her own Pain Sonnet 9: Unmaking Language on the tenth line that reads, “For devils are unmaking language. We must let that alone forever.”
Lewis closes his poem with a mirroring dewdrop, which of course echoes William’s Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand.” And the dew, with its promise of freshness and its significant power to show us all reality, does little to undo the pessimistic tone of the poem. And this tone forces me to a rare state of affairs: I must disagree with Lewis. But not quite yet, for there is much to this poem that can call us to live well and even to hope in the face of our generation.
Before disputing with Lewis’ pessimistic assessment, I want with full voice to agree with his call to “[u]proot [our] loves, one by one, from the future.” Yes, to treating our loves with care. Yes, oh yes, to pulling them up from a future that will in all likelihood bear little resemblance either to our deepest hopes or our fondest fears. How vividly Lewis points us to the vital reality that “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls “the fierce urgency of now.” This is what T. S. Eliot calls “the awful daring of the moment’s surrender.” This very moment, as we read and write, as we remember these words and go about our days, this is the only moment we have. And while we cannot do all things today, this moment, we can do some things. One thing. And we can do it well.
I also agree that forces have arrayed themselves against language. Devils indeed, and unmaking not only words but the meanings behind. One deep irony that troubles my days comes from thinking about how, in this world based on text, language seems to slip away. The forces I fight from day to day in the classroom and at the keyboard seem all too subtly yet effectively well-armed in their attempt to silence good words, or make off with meaning. I don’t decry emoticons, texts, and tweets, but I despair if this is all we have left. And here’s where I believe that Lewis got it all wrong.
For I regularly find myself in the warm company of “a posterity of gentle hearts.” My friends and I have picked up the signal ringing out, however faintly, from Lothlorien, from Avalon, from the glad and golden courts of Cair Paravel. The echoes come clearly in our eager ears, and we can understand their story. Lewis’ pessimism loses me here; perhaps he has in this poem given way to a carrion comfort of despair that I (and all those I love best) reject out of hand.
Lewis is right that now offers us some shining wet reflections of all we yet can find. He’s right that moments, though small, offer sometimes disproportionate significance as they make up the tiny puzzle-pieces of these our lives we long to live well. I would argue that Lewis’ despair fails to serve us—but more so, it fails to convince me. For all those with whom I surround myself do understand their story. We read them, argue about them, and then write some ourselves. Poetry, in measurable and meaningful ways, certainly continues to thrive, and makes eyes shine. I count as the most precious hours of my life those I spend laughing and fighting and creating and reciting and singing and dancing, all as responses to their stories.
Yes. Devils are unmaking language. But my fellowship and I refuse to believe that’s the end of the story—for we’ve read the right sort of books, and we know down to our bones how this and all stories must end. All the more, we who can understand a story have busied ourselves re-making it, stitching it back together, sub-creating, and creating more joy as poignant as grief. And in such celebration of the grace of language, and flying in the face of whatever devils may do, we place ourselves patiently, hopefully, faithfully on the side of the angels.