Made for Another World?

While travelling this weekend, I finally got around to reading Freud’s Last Session – a play that imagines a dialogue between Sigmund Freud (shortly before his death) and C.S. Lewis (not long after his conversion).  The show played recently off-Broadway, but I still haven’t seen it.

I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed by the script.  The arguments Lewis presents are a lot more complex and compelling in the books he’s written (and I assume the same goes for Freud as well).  I did think Lewis came off better in the debate, but that’s largely because the arguments Freud musters are more of the angry-at-God type, and I think I’ve got a better one to offer.

In the script, Play!Lewis expresses a though I’ve seen elsewhere in Real!Lewis’s writings:

None of us are born with desires unless satisfaction for them exists… A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim, water exists to do it.  So if I find within myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most likely explanation is that I was made for another world

First, to give Lewis his due, I do experience some of the passionate desires for unworldly things that led him to become a Christian.  But I don’t believe that Christianity sates them or that powerful desires necessitate a satisfaction.

So let me cop to part of the reason I’m taking ASL lessons.  A large part is that I like learning a new language to keep my mind sharp and that (as a total math/topology geek) I’m thrilled to learn one that’s so visual spatial.  But a not insignificant proportion of my reasoning was “maybe this is the closest I can get to being a wizard.”

Let me explain.  Whether it’s the difficult hand positions of Lev Grossman’s castings in The Magicians or the forged-in-muscle magic of Spellbound, fantasy novels have taught me that doing magic is all about imbuing your words with meaning (possibly physically).  Diane Duane writes in her Young Wizards series:

Wizards love words. Most of them read a good deal, and indeed one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first. But their love for and fluency with words is what makes wizards a force to be reckoned with. Their ability to convince a piece of the world – a tree, say, or a stone – that it’s not what it thinks it is, that it’s something else, is the very heart of wizardry.

So learning ASL felt like getting closer to wizardly language, where words don’t just express ideas, they embody them.  My desire for language-magic is a pretty passionate one, and it’s attraction isn’t just wish-fullfilment.  When I read the paragraph above in So You Want to be a Wizard, it felt true, it felt like a glimpse of the hidden order under the world.  It felt exactly like a longed for desire finally finding it’s object.  And clearly I’m not the only one with this intuition, or it wouldn’t pop up in so many novels.

But, although I made a leap of faith and took the Wizard’s Oath that night, I haven’t gotten any more adept at pulling whatever levers I imagine underlie reality.  I’d like anyone who accepts Lewis’s assertions as valid to explain why his Christ-seeking desires do logically require a source of fulfillment and my language-magic yearning does not.  And try not to do it by no-true-Scotsmanning my desires as not passionately felt enough.

P.S: If you’re looking for a play that deals with philosophy and religion at a high level without sacrificing plot, you should come to DC in February and see New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Theatre J. I saw last summer’s production and it was stellar. The revival is keeping the two leads: Spinoza and his rabbi.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Ben Crosby

    So, I’ll admit first of all that I haven’t read deeply in Lewis’ canon, but it seems as though he could have a pretty easy riposte: even though the object of your otherworldly desire may not be Christ-shaped, the mere fact of said desire is enough to make his case: you desire something beyond this world (in your case, the transcendental signifier, apparently). Even if this desire is in some sense untutored, immature, perverted (pick one! or all!), for him it’s nonetheless evidence that you “weren’t made for this world.” Presumably one could seek to explain non-Christian religions in a similar vein.

    However, it strikes me as an incredibly weak argument, in that it assumes a priori a sort of teleological anthropology (the word “made” here is key) which a non-theist has no compelling reason to adopt. Without some sort of creator God crafting human desires, the argument that any desire must necessarily correspond to some actual thing that can satisfy it strikes me as fairly indefensible. To be sure, he attempts to prove this using a sort of induction, but I’m skeptical of arguments from induction in general (thanks, David Hume), and this argument seems particularly bad in that hunger and religious yearnings strike me as belonging to meaningfully different orders as desires.

    To sum up: Religious desires exist, therefore God exists – what his argument ultimately boils down to – isn’t really much of an argument at all, unless supported by an anthropology which, post-Darwin, can only be grounded theologically.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com Benjamin Baxter

    But I don’t believe that Christianity sates them …

    How do you know?

    … or that powerful desires necessitate a satisfaction.

    It is one thing to powerfully want a unicorn. That is of a different kind of desire, not of the primal and universal and primary characters which characterize the sort of desire described.

    If we accept the observation that all physical desires have satisfactions — desire for sexy time, there exists sexy time — we can tentatively stretch this to the metaphysical desires, that is, for camaraderie or love or meaning or God. From reason, why would we not apply the physical to the metaphysical? Is there anything inherent about the metaphysical which disallows this reasonable assumption?

    Anticipating a response, whether these desires are felt by individuals or not is a red herring. That some men are blind does not discredit the statement that eyes are meant to see. If we participate imperfectly in the Form of Man that does not discredit the Form of Man. These desires are felt by most people, and so many that it might as well be universal.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    And just think of how many cultures have powerful and enduring beliefs in Santa Claus-type beings. :)

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com DarwinCatholic

    It seems to me that Lewis’s argument here is more a rhetorical sign post than an actual argument — suggesting or pointing rather than proving.

    That said, I think that a Lewis-ish response (and one I’d probably make to if I found myself having a conversation from that starting point) would be:

    What exactly is it that fascinates you so about the power of words and words signs? Why does it seem to you that words must have some deeper power along these lines?

    Is it not perhaps that you sense at some level that there is, under words, real meaning. That they serve not only as a medium for us to express, each to each, the passing thoughts of our own minds, but that they represent the attempt to grapple with and convey the real meaning which underlies the world? And in this sense, is the truth you feel in Duane’s work not in some small sense a reflection of the truth at in the beginning was the Word?

    I haven’t read as widely in Lewis’ nonfiction as you have, but it strikes me that this line of argument would tie with things he expresses in some of his fiction. In Till We Have Faces the main character develops a devotion of Dionysus, which in the end it is hinted is in fact a devotion to Christ — though she had not known it when she formed it. Similarly, there’s that bit at the end of The Last Battle in which Aslan says that if someone does good out of devotion to Tash, he’s actually doing it for Aslan, and if someone does evil in the name of Aslan, he is actually serving Tash.

    On the one hand, this always strikes me as a bit pat. Why shouldn’t someone be able to have an honest and improving devotion to a false God? On the other, it does tie in rather neatly with a certain Platonic view of things: If one desires something, one does so to the extent that one sees it as The Good. Thus, anything we desire we desire to the extent that it participates in the Good. If we see the Good unitary in God, then to the extent that good is one and exists in God, any following or yearning for the good is yearning for God even if unknowingly so.

    Taking this Platonic line, I assume that the response to your query as to why, in that case, you would the idea of Duane’s wizardry more conceptually satisfying of desire than Christianity would be that while whenever someone desires something, one desire the good, one’s desire’s can be misdirected either as a result of one’s own formation (you think something is good that isn’t the highest good) or else through misperception (if you really, really understood Christianity you’d find it even more satisfying that Duane’s representation of wizardry.)

  • dbp

    Leah,

    Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) does, I think, offer fulfillment for your desires; that it to say, your desires are oriented at a reality which Christianity deeply espouses. I’m a little surprised you haven’t noticed it.

    No, it doesn’t guarantee you magic words that are connected to the strings that move the universe (though it also doesn’t deny them; like astrology, it doesn’t categorically dismiss the possibility that God speaks through things like the stars, but rather it urges a humility which does not seek control through the occult, which, IF it works at all, is solely at the behest of its Creator, where we should focus our attention instead). And no, the Wizard’s Oath won’t avail you anything (I’ve read the first two or three of Duane’s Young Wizard’s series, by the way, and share your fascination with the premise).

    But neither will a hungry person get much satisfaction from trying to eat dirty dishes, however good they might still smell based on what had been on them once. Christianity is replete with imagery which exalts words and hints that they have a special significance.

    It begins in Genesis with Adam naming the creatures; one gets the sense that his names are a part of the creation of the world, things of a special significance, the product of a critical role without which the Universe couldn’t be what it needs to be. It continues with Babel, where language, in particular, is a key of power, and one which humans are not worthy to fully wield. It shines through in particular significance with the Logos, the embodied Word of God (how much more directly can your desire be expressed?). And, in Catholicism, the words of Consecration rip clear the veil between Heaven and Earth.

    Furthermore, you seem to miss two things: one, that even in Duane’s world, some are wizards and some aren’t, so the fact that you don’t seem to have mastery over the connection between words and reality doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And that leads directly to the second, which is that just because you don’t have or see the power you seek now, you do not know what you might be able to do some day in the future. And, in particular, Christianity offers you that hope– though not until after you die, and then only if you make yourself ready.

    Paul says somewhere that we will have ‘life-giving‘ bodies after the resurrection. Inasmuch as the ability to give life (in more than the transitive way we already have through procreation) is a sort of creation we usually attribute only to the Creator, I think this hints at the promise that our union with God and his Word will open the door to the world you so wish to enter.

    So, if anything, I would say that the fulfillment of your desire for the hidden world where words can mold the very stuff of reality is close to the center of the Christian promise. That’s not a proof that it’s right, by any stretch of the imagination, but if you wanted an example of a strong desire that somehow conflicts logically with Christianity (such that they could not both be fulfillable), this isn’t the one to choose.

  • t e whalen

    I read Lewis’ argument as a powerful indictment of “the physicalist world picture” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/#12). If you’re committed to that metaphysical program, you’re in the position of arguing that words, meaning, beauty, poetry, morality, etc., are entirely supervenient on the physical. Further, to the extent that these are things that humans participate in, they’re either evolved doodads which make us better at propagating our genes, or they’re entirely epiphenomenal accidents, arising out of sheer chance or as some unnecessary adjunct to evolutionarily important processes. The human mind rebels against the notion that our longing for meaning or our appreciation of beautiful art is either part of some baser physical drive or a meaningless and accidentally evolved curlicue. Even if physicalism were true, wouldn’t you rather live your life as if it were not? As if words had meaning and art and beauty meant something?

    • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

      Speak for yourself, pal. My human mind is entirely comfortable with the conclusion that our appreciation for beauty is an entirely accidental side effect of our evolution, arising by a fortuitous conjunction of more basic drives. And you know what, I love to see a great painting or a beautiful sunset just the same. :)

      • t e whalen

        You realize that doesn’t make any sense right? Are you saying that some things are beautiful out there in the universe, without reference to human observation, and we’re accidentally able to appreciate it? Because that’s a weird thing for an atheist to say.

        I think what you’re trying to say is that that there’s nothing “beautiful” about the sunset; there’s no “beauty” floating around in the universe. Instead something about your brain causes you to assign the “is-beautiful” property to scenes, a property that does not correspond to any physical or natural type.

        However, I imagine you live your life as if “beauty” is a real thing in the world, and not a kind of optical illusion or trick being played by your brain.

  • Ben Crosby

    @t e whalen: I don’t find your – or Lewis’, for that matter – indictment of what you call the “physicalist worldview” particularly compelling. Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely not a physicalist myself. But that said, the mere fact that the human mind rebels against the notion that our longings for meaning/the divine/etc. have a really-existing referent need not mean that such a referent exists. Yes, it might be nice if such a referent exists, but there seems to be no reason that a non-theist would be compelled to adopt a metaphysical position of the ultimate unity of truth and goodness. Nietzsche, for example, obviously does not.

    Similarly to Benjamin Baxter: Your argument, like Lewis’, presumes a certain metaphysics which a non-theist (or even a theist, for that matter) has no particular reasons to adopt that I can see. t e whalen above at least explores that presumed metaphysics, even if s/he does so in a manner I find fairly uncompelling.

    • t e whalen

      @ben crosby:

      Conclusively rejecting, or at least seriously questioning physicalism and naturalism is a first step on a modern road to Damascus (or to Canterbury, which is where it looks like I’m headed). I agree that it doesn’t get you all the way to theism.

  • Emily

    First, I think that’s one of Lewis’s weaker arguments. That said, I also don’t think he said that Christianity sates otherworldy desires. I think he said that it tells us we absolutely can NOT have satisfaction in this world, even through Christianity, but through Christ we can hope for their eventual fulfillment. There’s a big difference there.

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