Years ago, when I was teaching at Tilton, a guy working there told me I would like C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, seeing how I love Dante, Milton, and William Blake. Now that I will never talk to the guy again, I finally got around to reading it and more than anything else, it sort of made me freak out. In undergrad, when I read Dante, I was at a totally different place in my life, things were good, life was easy, I didn’t have to worry about money, I was surrounded by people who loved me, etc. Now though, reading something sort of similar with this book at a time when I am working a job that I absolutely loathe and dread going to, living in a city where I know few people that I have come to associate with a type of hell, I couldn’t help allegorizing The Great Divorce into being about me and my life.
Well, I guess that was sort of the point, like it was with Dante, but man does it make me feel sort of weird. First off, I mostly read the book while riding the bus to my shitty job and in the book souls are taken from a bus from Hell/Purgatory, depending on how one looks at it, up into a Heavenly realm. Once there, the ghosts that were on the bus are met by angels that they more often than not knew in life. Everyone has a Beatrice to guide them through Heaven as Dante did, but they haven’t made it in yet. They must choose to let go of the lives they lived on Earth and drop their egos and they have to do it right then because every moment contains all moments when you are beyond time. Again like with Dante, there is always a choice involved, and those that choose good will always find it. In Lewis’s words: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.” (75).
Ok, this is more or less why the book unsettles me, I seriously don’t like the way things are going right now with the nature of my mindless, droning work that forces me to be social in a way that makes connection with anyone there impossible and just makes me feel lonely along with everyone else there. I keep applying to other jobs but I haven’t had any luck. Then there is where I am living, here in the South where I know no one hardly and few people love me, and I want to get back to the Midwest so I can be closer to my family but there is my female companion who I love greatly to think about and we have this place here and they want us to sign a year lease or get out and we don’t want to spend another year here in these crappy jobs but we can’t move anywhere without something lined up and so on and so forth. I feel like I am one of those ghosts making up excuses why I can’t just leave it all behind and get out. But there are seriously so many things to consider. In any case, I don’t like feeling this way and keep comparing my situation with those in Lewis’s conception of Hell. This isn’t exactly suggesting a great state of mental health but I am hopeful and what not, but every time I think it can’t get any worse and something’s gotta turn out right and what have you, oh, it does get worse, like with this thing about having to move out. And I have to say, the prospect of not finding a better job somewhere else and having to move to another place here in this godforsaken city is so depressing that I can’t think about it for more than a few minutes at a time without totally freaking out.
Another way that Lewis’s conception of Hell resembles the one described by Dante is that Hell is more or less a nothingness and the deeper you go through into the depths of it, the less and less the souls there become. It is like a negation of humanity which is how I and others I have talked with working service industry jobs feel in these often times degrading positions. Lewis makes this idea most effectively when he details an account of a husband who has come up from Hell and meets his wife who is among the happy angels. The man is sort of a duo, one part is that of a giant and the other that of a dwarf that seems to sort of control it, but in actuality, it is the other way around, the dwarf is trapped behind this giant that serves as an incarnation of the man’s sin which he refuses to let go of and that for which he is damned. As he comes closer and closer to letting go of his affliction, the dwarf grows bigger, but then when he turns away and goes farther and farther into this persona, the dwarf shrinks until it is eventually too small to see. Then all of the sudden, when the dwarf is completely overshadowed by the giant, poof, they disappear, back into Hell. When the narrator asks his guide why the wife doesn’t go into Hell to try and get him out, the guide responds, “There’s not room for her… For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself,” (139). Hell, as Lewis tells it, is just some little particle, the size of an atom or something, when compared to Heaven. That’s great and all, but I am of course still freaking out, even more so because I feel like I am that guy making excuses and what not for why I am choosing to stay in Hell.
So, what am I supposed to do when I feel like I am in the gutter? What answers does this book offer? Well, it basically says that all of our times, no matter how bad, will be looked at as part of the whole process when we experience the eternal bliss of God. Great, this is starting to sound more like “Mind Cure” or worse yet the kind of religion Marx talked about rather than Dante. But then I got to thinking about it and I no longer think about it that way. I guess now I try and see it as more of a parent consoling you when you don’t make the team or something. While they are raising you, assuming you had as wonderful a childhood as I did I guess, your parents disciplined you and also made you feel better when you were down in the dumps. What you end up remembering about your development and upbringing then is of warmth and love and protection and so on and so forth rather than those times when things were tough.
I also like the stuff Lewis writes that deals with the forms of “false religion” that end up making people feel hollow and ultimately let them down. Thankfully, by this he doesn’t mean something like Buddhism or anything, but refers to things like philosophy or literature or family or grief or country etc. In what I find to be one of the most moving passages, even though I am someone who has pretty much lost all faith, and makes me reconsider the halt I called to my spiritual studies/quest, Lewis writes, “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion,” (106). This is the sort of thing I have often struggled with, like when I was studying theology, I was getting lost in my own mind and felt no connection with what I was studying whatsoever. I also see the dangers in loving something or someone one in this transient world more than anything else since we always lose it in the end. This is one of the things I like about Zen so much since it focuses on how there is something that isn’t right about this world—i.e. All is Dukkha—and those things that we cling to are what causes our suffering in the end.
So, in this “review” I am clearly, uh, working through some issues here. But I guess what The Great Divorce has sort of done is make me see this as an opportunity to make a change and dedicate myself to bettering my lot. And if it turns out I am stuck here for a while, I guess I will just have to stay positive and make the most of what I can. I am trying to change my attitude about the whole thing because if it doesn’t get any better for a while, then I have to learn to deal.