Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Plot

Everyone knows (I hope) that eerie sensation when the repetition of a word, however simple, leads one to suspect its spelling. Even the most common and phonetic of words strike us strangely when they rear their heads too often—our very a’s and the’s begin to achieve a Hopkinsville look. It’s still more disconcerting when the experience happens with faces—when you begin to notice, for example, the curious shape that an eye has, or a nose, or a chin; when for an instant you see in your own race the characteristics that are blindingly obvious to members of other races or, more frighteningly still, when you begin to see the oddity and uniformity of your whole species with the eyes of a preternaturally conscious dog or cat.

I use the words “eerie”, “curious”, “frightening”, etc., intentionally. Seeing the outline of things is in many ways like an out-of-body experience. For a moment these familiar persons or objects with their familiar relations to oneself become strange. It is not the exciting impression of being born again, the exhilarating sensation that some have imagined would be man’s upon discovering a new color or a new planet. It is, quite frankly, terrifying, because it puts you for a split second in the position of an outsider; it strips away all those things by which you have known yourself—appearance, relationships, tastes and preferences—and makes you a lone giant on the edge of a somewhat cockeyed universe. Luckily this sensation rarely lasts for more than a few moments. But for those moments, the most striking thing in this cockeyed universe (aside from its utterly alien nature) is its surprising uniformity. It’s like a poem with meter, alliteration, and rhyme, set to the most natural (for its strange—strange to you—words) music. For all strangers, when they first meet a new tribe, are struck by the tribal unity; it is only later that they discover the unique personalities inside.

In his justly famous essay, "The Ethics of Elfland," Chesterton describes this experience very well. In fact, I am not quite sure why I did not begin with Chesterton. Better late than never, though; and here the master is:

The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism, for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signaling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.

The idea—more of an impression, perhaps—is that the universe is lively and its Creator insatiably delighted in that life. Chesterton—I am tempted to say, irreverently; but there is no real irreverence—likens God to a child who says with each sunrise “Do it again!”

Once aware of this exuberant natural tendency towards repetition, you tend to look for more of it. In an unbelieving person this can lead either toward a long-standing interest in astrology or an equally stout pursuit of science. In an imaginative person it tends to lead either to psychosis or literature—the writing or the reading of indifferently. The appalling tendency of generations past to talk about “the meaning of life” may have sprung from a semiconscious awareness of these monstrous repetitions. For if things that are “always and for the most part” one way can be suspected in consequence of “tending toward an end,” then the place where we live is not just nature in the sense of what is or (more lamely still) what we found around us before we began to alter it, but the Nature that deserves a capital letter: the Nature that shows a conscious desire behind its repetitiveness. We don’t live in a world where half the leaves on a tree are oval and half square, as the numbers on a die are half even, half odd. In consequence, we tend to suspect our own lives are going to be rather more one way than the other—fuller of ovals and evens that squares and odds; happier or sadder than usual. We tend, in other words, to be vain. George Eliot once wrote of Caleb Garth that he was a most unusual man in supposing himself to be quite ordinary. This is so; and it makes Mr. Garth wonderfully humble. It also makes him quite wrong. We are none of us ordinary, in the sense of being average; we are all in the middle of a rather curious story, a story of life-and-death, with heaven or hell at the end of it. We are quite right to suspect there will be more of one or the other in our life—more of success or failure, more of joy or sorrow; and the ultimate revelation of which burden our life has carried will be finally no surprise. Heaven or hell will be fit for me, because throughout the course of my whole life I have been fitting myself for it.

More particularly, though, my particular place in heaven or hell (make no mistake about it: there are places!) will also be an appropriate conclusion to my story. The relations of the people of heaven will be glorified versions of the relations here on earth. Sometimes that glorification may result in a reversal of former relations (in some cases, it had better be so); but the story, if you like, will continue.

Because Christians know this, the reflective among us sometimes lean towards “reading the end.” It is a fault common among novel readers, and even among some lovers of detective stories. We don’t like to be dragged out twenty or two-thousand pages for nothing; we do like to see something nice at the end, or at the very least, something to which we can adjust our expectations. If we know we will be (or would have been) disappointed by the death or the marriage of so-and-so, we can continue with the story without having any undue hopes in that direction. Likewise, in our own lives, we wish (and some non-Christians try) to read to the end. If only I’d known I wasn’t meant to have that job, or that career, or that person as a friend or a spouse—if I’d known that I was meant for this and not that—I wouldn’t have wasted my time there. If I’d known it was the golden key after all, I wouldn’t have wasted time trying the silver and the copper in the lock. The thing most of us want from God (if we will be honest) is not even so much that He would do our will as that He would make His will known—because we think, after all, that if we only knew that things would be easy.

The obvious difficulty with this attitude—so obvious that it can take years to see it—is that if it were good for us to know God’s will, He would certainly make sure that we did.

But this is a hard thing to blindly accept—how could we possibly be better off in ignorance of the Divine plan? There may be a thousand reasons, but I can think readily of at least two.

There was once a prince, who had three keys which he had to try in a lock. He had won all three successively by long toil and hard battle, and not a little humiliation; but he felt it was all worth it to win the princess who was locked in the tower. The first key of copper he had long ago discarded, and likewise the second of silver. When he got at last to the gold it slipped sweetly in, and the door swung open, and the princess was his at last. But he found to his chagrin that she had known about the keys all along. When he asked her why she had not warned him that the first two keys were no good, she replied that she would not have been sure he was the right prince if he had not gone so far as to try all three. It was a good thing for her that she was a very beautiful princess, and that he was that right prince.

God does not, after all, care so much about what we do in the world. He may intend for us to work great works like Mother Theresa or small ones like the making of a good family; He may use us in any of a thousand ways for His glory and the salvation of others. But what He finally cares about—what will matter the moment we stand face to face with Him—is not what we have done but how we have done it; not what we have made but who we are. The very failures, the dead ends, the mistakes may have been necessary, not just to prove I was “the right prince” but to make me the right one.

But surely (someone objects) I would do anything for heaven—for God. It isn’t rational to turn up one’s nose at so great a reward! God knows who I would be at the end of my life—why can’t He make me so right now? If He did create me without my cooperation, why can’t He save me the same way? I’ve already given my consent!

I think the answer to that is quite apparent to anyone who ever really loved a princess. Much as he might, in certain moods, wish she would say yes immediately, he knows he would be rather ashamed of himself if she said yes while he was still unworthy.

As for the notion that God could somehow miraculously sanctify a person’s will so as to make them ready for heaven—I suppose He could do it, and for all I know it may have happened. But I don’t think it can be common. He values choice rather more than we do (He puts such stakes upon it!); but even we must admit we had rather be raised like bad children than like good puppets.

This is one reason why I think we are not allowed to know how to avoid our plot snarls. The other is a little more ominous. Which of us, after all, can be quite sure that, offered the ultimate choice—heaven now or not?—we could at this moment say yes? I like to think that I would give the right answer. Half of my prayers are concerned with getting myself to make the right answer—but the other half are far more mundane. We think we want heaven, but how can we really be sure? I had rather be given the offer after I have been stripped of everything else, when I am quite sure of making the right choice, than when there is even the faintest possibility of my hesitation. The angels had only one quick choice, and some of the angels fell.

But this is a serious blog post, and a melancholy ending to one. I will close with something that is, on my honor! pertinent and cheery.

Certain people of my acquaintance have long been puzzled over my affection for Emma Wodehouse. She is for many the least appealing of Austen’s heroines (barring perhaps poor Fanny Price); she is so cock-sure of herself and so often wrong. I have tried various stratagems for explaining my devotion in the past, including the rather ludicrous suggestion that I enjoy seeing somebody so mistaken fall flat on her face. I have also been heard to say on occasion that I like Emma because I am like Emma—a suggestion met invariably with howls of derision and brows of disbelief; for the truth is, thankfully, I am not like her in personality at all. But I do wonder . . . in the cosmic scheme of things . . . if I may not be, a little like Emma: trying endlessly for small plans which I think great, and seeing them time and time again fall flat before a plan that is infinitely better than anything I dreamed of, and yet at the same time deeply familiar and desired . . . Well, if that is to be heaven! I do want it; and, I dare say, so do we all.