Youth and age touch only the surface of our lives. – C.S. Lewis, in Thulcandra

Life is full of variations. It undulates as well as oscillates in unanticipated ways. For example, I remember reading and rereading the Ransom trilogy five or six years ago and thinking I’d exhausted them. I tried to re-read them and they fell flat. That was before I read the three volumes of Lewis’s letters and drifted a few years down the stream of life. Now I’m back to the trilogy, and I’m overwhelmed. How can one finish reading them? I don’t say they’re The Divine Comedy, but they’re enough for me to swim and dive into, and to learn from. If they’re a smaller pool beside that sea, they’re sea enough for my small organism.

It has brought me to a standstill on my own Falcon Lord because I read what I’m doing and I’m dissatisfied. It doesn’t flow like Lewis does; the sentences are not made rightly; I don’t understand basic things about storytelling; the structure of the whole is a great random mess of a small puddle. It is prodigious for being so colossally wrong on such a minute scale. At last this morning I come to a halt before the dawning consideration that after having started it all again in July, I ought to start it all again again.

I can only conclude that the undulations of life cause one abruptly to face mountains which earlier were not even apparent. I’ve been brought up short by Paul Fussell who has cut off all my poetic endeavor, raising the standard of criticism with relentless clarity so shinning high that everything I’ve written is cast into and abyss of murk and shadow. I have been crouching in my shadows, from time to time attempting, but with no real sense of how to proceed. Now Lewis seems to have done the same to my stories.

It is good to be critical because you learn to see what will do and what will not do. What is defeating is when you see nothing that you’ve done will do, and because you have begun to understand why what will do, does, you begin to realize your modest ambition to something lesser never will. You see the mountain and you say, I’m not made for surmounting that.

I do have the joy of understanding better, and that’s a real joy. I am richer because those books I’ve possessed all along suddenly contain more. Now I can regard the Ransom trilogy with new satisfaction, satisfaction that I thought before I’d never have. It took time: time just passing, time reading with enjoyment through the letters, time regarding other seemingly unrelated things, time of unenjoyable growing–but great things became smaller as I increased. What had oscillated away has oscillated back, and I am glad these books are more than at one time they seemed, even though now my stuff is less. And perhaps one day I’ll even have the same experience with Dante’s trilogy, who knows (Oh, that would be a boon!).

Shall I be glad my problems with writing are more today than at one time they seemed? Let me be wary: life brings surprises, some welcome and some unwelcome. One is oneself before these surprises. I am fully and steadily myself, with whom I have been since the early dawn of consciousness, living secretly with what is only my own. “Youth and age touch only the surface of our lives.” One is only given to be oneself all along. But the great thing is what fills life with these undulations: I am given to be, and I can only receive it. Being is a gift one somehow holds. Is that not like one of the balls on a Christmas tree in which I see what I have, only magically somehow more and richer? I want to enter the curved world reflecting what I have as if I were not there before myself already, being looked past as I attempt to see the greater wonder beyond. There is indeterminacy in that peering, and colossal ignorance, but wonder too.

And now, some of the great Rilke (which I would not of my own have sought out, but was suggested by a trusted source and has been therefore given too, and gladly received) along a parallel:

Bodily delight is a sense experience, just like pure seeing or the pure feeling with which a lovely fruit fills the tongue; it is a great boundless experience which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the splendour of all knowing. Our acceptance of it is not bad; what is bad is that almost all men misuse and squander this experience, and apply it as a stimulus to the weary places of their life, a dissipation instead of a rallying for the heights. Mankind have turned eating, too, into something else: want on the one hand, and superfluity on the other, have dulled the clarity of this need, and all those deep, simple necessities by which life renews itself have become similarly dull. But the individual can clarify them for himself and live clearly.

If I have endlessly to go, then let me be endlessly renewed by an endless succession of gifts, whatever they may be. And let me be grateful. Let these apprehensions which are paralyzing ever come to force me to regard, to stop before the mountain watching it, unable to apprehend but letting it operate as all art does on that secret self that I have been given always to be and grows only in receiving what is offered. Even as He who regards me and has given me what I have, what I am, regards my little organism, touched on the surface merely by youth and age, giving because He has no reason to hold back.


13 thoughts on “Youth and age touch only the surface of our lives. – C.S. Lewis, in Thulcandra

  1. Some pertinent Rilke:

    Love Song

    How can I contain my soul, or keep it
    from touching yours? How can I lift it
    high, beyond you, to something else?

    I would hide it, among far relics
    in some dark, silent place
    that does not shake at your trembling.

    But all that touches you and me
    takes us together as a bow draws
    from two strings one chord.

    Upon what instrument are we strung?
    What artist holds us in hand? Oh,
    sweet song.

    There’s one to memorize and murmer in the missus’s ear some opportune moment.

  2. Because he has raised the standard of criticism so shinning high nothing I do at this point seems even worth writing. And it has nothing to do with him, woman! He has been the bearer of the standard, shown me what I ignored, as Lewis has. Until I figure out how to reach the level beneath which nothing matters, I contemplate the task.

  3. If writing is part of one’s life, and if, as Rilke says, one may live into the answers to one’s questions, perhaps one could write until he had written into answering Fussell.

  4. Yes, yes, I got that part. I’m acquainted with the “level beneath which nothing matters.” Mostly from CCM and grading undergrad essays. I can’t figure out why you think you’re at that level.

    Besides which, it seems to me there’s a lot to be said for writing to please yourself and children and friends. I know you’re aiming to please and instruct a wider audience, too — that’s where the shinning high standards come in, I suppose, with the ability to craft something that will please and instruct at many levels at once, as Lewis did. But you can please and instruct in a narrower range, too. And I think matters.

  5. O my dear commonstories, you and I are–I hope–headed for a clash. I long for it. We are still remonstrating gently, scolding with unsharpened words as if we were mere acquaintances and not friends. One day we can have a good and thorough argument with swords and axes. I hope it comes to that. And you will bring greater coherence to my universe, while I shall be aiming to expand yours. Whether in this life or the next, I do not know. There is a sense in which I write the Falcon Lord for you alone, and that’s one great reason why it is not good enough–not because of the range it aims for, but because it must be worthy.

  6. Dear Unk,

    I’m terrible at clashing. But perhaps that is what will happen. Except that I’d really rather just read a good story, or good poetry, and I think yours is much farther along in becoming that than you suppose. So I shall make my point again that you should not stymie yourself with someone else’s description of unattainable heights but simply go out and climb Koshta Belorn and see what the gods will.


  7. The Rilke quote (really gorgeous) reminds me some of C. S. Lewis’ poem ‘On Being Human.’

    Feeling a bit like an eavesdropper, but… “the level beneath which nothing matters…” where in Hell did that idea come from? LOL! Surely the purpose of poetry is not to be important (to matter) but rather, to engender common imaginative experience between people – and thus to allow persons to share in one another’s substance. I suppose you could say that some things should not be included in that experience… and I agree. But that’s not because those things fail to be important. It’s because they entirely lack poetic virtue. The reckoning of poetic virtues seems to me the most helpful critical activity one can engage in.

    All the same. I know what it is to be discouraged by the conviction that one can never reach so high in virtue as that which one admires. I think at that point it helps to have a good theology of the human person. To the extent that the person gets into the poem or story, there is something irreduceable, irreplaceable, and inimitable there – something that other people value and seek for what it is, not for what it contributes to their consumption of the world.

    It is also the one thing that the poet himself can never see.

    1. I’m reading through it now; it has all his poems exept for Dymer and Spirits in Bondage, the long ones from before he re-embraced his Christianity.

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