Thursday, May 24, 2012

Planet Narnia: Part 2

 As we saw in the first part of this series the primary theme of Michael Ward’s book (“Planet Narnia”) is to show that C. S. Lewis’s Seven Chronicles of Narnia were intended to recreate the touch and feel of the mediaeval seven planet astrological cosmos. In this second part I want to trace a secondary theme found in Ward’s book: That is, with the coming of the Copernican revolution there followed a sense of disenchantment and apparent demystification of the once sacred cosmos. Let Ward set the scene: 

Looking up at the heavens now, Lewis argues, is a very different experience from what it was in the Middle Ages. Now we sense that we are looking out into a trackless vacuity, pitch-black and dead cold. Then we would have felt as if we were looking into a vast lighted concavity P23.

 For obvious reasons Lewis refers to the Ptolemaic astrological cosmos as a “Discarded image”: Lewis revelled in this image says Ward: 

Lewis makes no effort to hide the pleasure he derives from this view of the cosmos. He remarks the human imagination has seldom entertained an object so sublimely ordered; the medieval universe was ‘tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine’. P24 
And it was because he thought it beautiful that Lewis so revelled in the pre-Copernican cosmos. P27 

In a quote taken from Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy Ward conveys to us the contrast in mood invoked by the old and new cosmologies respectively: In the following passage we find Lewis putting his thoughts about these cosmologies into the head of his main character, Ransom: 

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life has come? He had thought it barren; he now saw that it was the womb of worlds whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes – and here, with how many more. No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens – the heavens which declared the glory – the “Happy chimes that ly. Where day never shuts his eye. Up in the broad fields of the sky.” He quoted Milton’s words to himself lovingly, at this time and often. P25 

Lewis is telling us here that our understanding of the meaning of the modern cosmological picture is deficient of much needed emotional vitamins; that understanding fails to fully satisfy our appetite for majesty and mystery and, I suspect, above all, it apparently fails to give humanity that centrality of purpose and position which is implicit in the Ptolemaic universe. But, in my view, modern science is beginning to offer a new kind of empyrean that acts as the hook for our deep seated need for the harmony and purpose that stirs our passions. “Space”, so called, is filled with the quantum ferment of possibility and pervaded by the high temperature medium of gravity; “Space” is the forge in which worlds are formed. (See my posts here for my efforts at trying to make human sense of the cosmic perspective) 

According to Ward, Lewis’s writing of the Ransom trilogy was motivated in part by a desire to address the problem of the disconsolate reaction to the modern cosmological model: 

Following the Copernican revolution, astronomy and astrology became gradually distinct and the former prospered while the latter fell on hard times. P 29 
Milton straddled the old and new views of the cosmos; he marked the transition to the new disenchanted model of the universe from the traditional one which stretched back in time immemorial. The Ransom trilogy… is in large part an attempt to rehabilitate that traditional conception. P26 
There has been no delight (of that sort) in “nature” since the old cosmology was rejected. No one can respond in just the same way to the Einsteinian, or even the Newtonian, universe. P235 

There is still, of course, delight and wonder in nature, but according to Lewis, (according to Ward) that delight is no longer supplemented by an overarching sense of a sublime purpose or belief that the cosmos is  a wonderful magical and mystery show and as such part of a higher context that imbues it with meaning. Ward quotes Lewis as follows: 

By reducing Nature to her mathematical elements it substituted a mechanical for a genial or animistic conception of the universe. The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies, finally of her colours, smells and tastes (Kepler at the beginning of his career explained the motion of the planets by their anima motrices; before he died, he explained it mechanically) The result was dualism rather than materialism. The mind, on whose ideal constructions the whole method depended stood over against its object in ever sharper dissimilarity. Man with his new powers became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold. This process, slowly working, ensured during the next century the loss of the old mythical imagination; the conceit, and later the personified abstraction, takes its place. Later still, as a desperate attempt to bridge the gulf which begins to be found intolerable, we have the Nature poetry of the Romantics. Page 241 

Very telling I think is Lewis suggestion here that dualism is a product of the mind’s alienation and estrangement from its cosmic setting; this is something I myself have been aware of. And when it is not dualism it is an out and out materialism. As Ward himself adds: 

The seeing eye that has stared through the Telescopes in the post-Copernican period has typically been an eye with ‘single vision’, one which notices matter and mechanism and little or nothing else. P243 

Much of the material I have quoted from Ward I find very reminiscent of William Irwin Thompson’s reaction to modern science. Thompson’s reaction can be gauged in the two posts I did on his two books “At the Edge of History” and Passages about Earth. If Lewis calls for the rehabilitation of the medieval mystical regard for the Cosmos (although not for the mediaeval cosmological model itself) then Thompson looks for the re-establishment of a “Pythagorean” science: 

We somehow have to outflank the ignorant armies of the Left and Right to find the space and time to convert our industrial technology to new kind of Pythagorean science. (At the Edge of History P75) 

As we have seen in the quotes above Lewis talks about the relation between the loss of the old mythological imagination and man’s resulting sense of alienation from his home in the cosmos, and this in turn leads to a dualistic philosophy of spirit vs. matter. (Either that or a monistic philosophy of materialism). Thompson’s views resonate with Lewis here: 

There is indeed a “mythopeic mentality”, but it is not restricted to precivilised man, but is to be found in geniuses as different as Boehme, Kepler, Blake, Yeats, Wagner, Heisenberg, and that student of Boehme’s theory of action and reaction, Isaac Newton. Myth is not an early level of human development, but an imaginative description of reality in which the known is related to the unknown……(At the Edge of History P170) 
Birth and death are ultimately confusing; to make sense of them we will have to make our peace with myth…. At the edge of history, history itself can no longer help us and only myth remains equal to reality. ……(At the Edge of History P205) 

A mythos vs. logos tension is chronic in our culture today; when this tension doesn’t end with a sense of emptiness and meaningless attempts are made to resolve it with pathological religious responses such as the gnosticism of the Jesus swoon-ins or the corrupted and caricatured science of the young earth creationists. In their dissonance and inconsonance Christian fundamentalists are returning to geocentrism in order to make human sense of the cosmos: From Gerardus Bouw, through John Byle to Answers in Genesis, we have here fundamentalists whose perverse science of cosmology is leading to some kind of geocentricsm – very directly sense in the case of Bouw and indirectly in the case of other YECs who inexorably move toward geocentric cosmologies. (As a result of geocentrism being implicit in their handling of time) The intellectually pathological state of fundamentalist Christianity as it thrashes over failed cosmological models, has, I propose, a lot to do with the difficulty in coping with the disconsolate feelings invoked by the symmetries that science is uncovering. be continued...


Some posts  where I have touched on material relevant to the above can be found using these links :

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