By Dr. Crystal Hurd
According to legend, Janus was the god of “beginnings”. When portrayed in Roman art, Janus had two faces. One face looked to the past while another looked to the future. What a strange issue, having two heads. I can barely keep up with one. It must have been the root of many disagreements and compromises for poor Janus. “Where do we eat?” “Why can’t you stop snoring?” “Why must we share one toga?” Thankfully, we mortals only have one head, but the feeling of being “conflicted” is something we have all experienced. For my inaugural entry on All Nine, I want to explore spiritual and artistic duality in C.S. Lewis’ poem “Reason”:
Set on the soul’s acropolis the reason stands
A virgin, arm’d, commercing with celestial light,
And he who sins against her has defiled his own
Virginity: no cleansing makes his garment white;
So clear is reason. But how dark imagining,
Warm, dark, obscure and infinite, daughter of Night:
Dark is her brow, the beauty of her eyes with sleep
Is loaded, and her pains are long, and her delight.
Tempt not Athene. Wound not in her fertile pains
Demeter, nor rebel against her mother-right.
Oh who will reconcile in me both maid and mother,
Who make in me a concord of the depth and height?
Who make imagination’s dim exploring touch
Ever report the same as intellectual sight?
Then could I truly say, and not deceive,
Then wholly say, that I BELIEVE.
As I began preparing to write this blog, I researched some of the mythological elements incorporated into Lewis’ verses. I knew that the virgin referenced in the second line is Athena, the goddess of wisdom and reason. According to legend, Athena is one of three virgin goddesses and therefore is pure. She is described as a “celestial light” and anyone who sins against her will be tarnished beyond redemption. Athena is then juxtaposed to the daughter of Night, who is referenced as “dark” (in contrast to Athena’s “light”) three separate times.
The aim of the poem is to present Athena (the maid) as the symbol of Reason, and the daughter of Night and Demeter (mothers) as different, not conflicting, forces of Imagination. Lewis states that if we can embrace both “maid and mother” in us, then we can perhaps find our faith (“I BELIEVE”) is not in opposition to our intellect.
But let us inspect the imagery. Lewis is presenting two women: one who is a strong force, a “light” and the other a brooding, mysterious lady who is “warm, dark, obscure, and infinite.” He continues to describe her: “Dark is her brow, the beauty of her eyes with sleep/ Is loaded, and her pains are long, and her delight.” No offense to Lewis, but I seem to gravitate towards Night’s daughter. She seems to be much more fascinating than Athena, who just stands there with her spear, shield, and that miniature statue of Nike (“victory”) on her right palm. The daughter of Night sounds much more interesting, more intriguing.
So I wrote up a nice little piece explaining all of the symbolism and Lewis’ marriage of Intellect and Imagination. It was a standard, run-of-the-mill literary criticism you find among bookworms. Kelly graciously wrote me back and asked a simple yet significant question, “This is nice, but where are YOU in this?”
The question made me pause.
Who am I? As a writer, and a fairly young writer, I wasn’t so sure until Kelly asked me. You see, I’m two writers really: the “Scholar” and the “Scribbler”.
The “Scholar” is the obsequious girl who strives to impress other scholars. She is a keen observer and ceaseless student of proprieties and expectations. She cautiously writes a line then checks over her shoulder for someone’s validation. She makes 800 flash cards to practice for the GRE so she won’t look like an idiot on paper when applying for Master’s degree programs. She spends copious amounts of time aligning herself with an ideal so she can gain the approval of others. She often has everything together, so you must respect her for that. She portrays a formidable strength, perhaps an impermeable shield, to deflect the “slings and arrows” of criticism and nepotism. As soon as she grasps one brass ring, she is coveting another. Success is her addiction and she has no plans to rehabilitate. She is perfectly predictable. Ultimately though, she is motivated by a suppressed fear – fear of rejection and fear of isolation. She is steadfast, dependable, but lyrically “sterile”.
Then, there’s the “Scribbler.” In the past, she was suffocated by the illusion of pure erudition – a false notion that all unscripted sensations must be white-washed and revised using three- and four-syllable words for art’s sake. But the “Scribbler” is not afraid anymore. She is the wife who folds the laundry and tries to characterize the sound of kibble hitting a metal dog bowl. She sings loudly with the radio to the consternation of passing motorists, sometimes sneaks in a Nutella sandwich while on a diet, and smiles each morning when the sun streaks through the tree branches before she leaves for work. More importantly, when you wound her, she bleeds. Sometimes the injury produces prose, or poetry, or extended entries in her journal. She doesn’t always display it, but she feels. She is the one who kept a straight face when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and later (during stolen moments) cried in despair. Her desire for emotional transparency leaves her vulnerable. This can sometimes take her writing to dark places, but at least she insists on honesty. But where there is great pain, there is also ecstasy. Candor can introduce us to love, joy, and other emotions which transport us to great heights (“and her pains are long, and her delight”).
More often than I want to admit, the “Scholar” and the “Scribbler” have rhetorical fist fights. I first noticed the distinction when I wrote a paper in graduate school on Victorian child labor and religious persuasion. For kicks, I wanted to do a narrative introduction, so I described a British lad weaving through a dizzy maze of towering machines. Exhaustion weighs down his frame, sweat dampens his brow, and his clothes reek of grease and oppression. The realization on his face is unmistakable – he is as disposable and mechanical as the very equipment he must operate. When I close my eyes, I can still see him as he traces a path through the endless factory floor, past unreasonable overlords and other hopeless automatons. When I turned the paper in, my professor enjoyed the interesting approach. “Scribbler” only had one paragraph on that assignment but since then the two writers have been at each other’s throats.
Today, the “Scribbler” is victorious.
Lewis is right – two very different aspects can be unified in the same person. They are not always calm or cooperative, but they compose the essence of who we are. I need both of them to survive. They are the threads which run consistently through the tapestry of our lives, the yin and yang, the two halves which create a whole – a true reconciliation.
Poems, by C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964)