Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Epilogue: Perelandra and Pleasantville

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here. Part IV here.)

Lewis tackles Eden in a way few Christian thinkers would dare, and succeeds in making us want paradise to last forever despite ourselves. Gary Ross takes the opposite approach in Pleasantville, a film about two well-meaning siblings sent to make a perfect town fall and wake it out of unfulfilled innocence. The following review, Pleasantville: The Garden of Eden Revisited describes the place:

"Pleasantville is a stagnant ideal of perfection —- the weather forecast is always 'high 72, low 72, another beautiful sunny day.' The high school basketball team never loses -— in fact, the players never miss a shot. They actually can't miss, even if they try! Firefighters have nothing to do but save cats, and mothers nothing but to cook, play bridge, and adore their families. But as Rabbi David Cooper writes, 'without the potential for perfecting, perfection itself would be imperfect.' Pleasantvillers have no sin, no strife, no worries. There are no achievements because there are no challenges. There is no passion, and no love has ever been tried and proven. There is no 'knowledge of good and evil' -— all books are blank, all conversations vapid, and all roads lead nowhere."

Pleasantville is just crying for fall. The brother and sister from our world have inverse roles: Jennifer is a serpent figure introducing the town to sex, knowledge, and the world of risk. She makes Pleasantville fall, clearly for its own good, and we cheer her every step of the way. David becomes a Christ figure "fighting the bigotry and violence rising in Pleasantville, and urging the citizens to use their free will for beauty and good." Jennifer and David aren't opposites, however, but complimentary, yin and yang, since one is fruitless without the other. They each have their own "fall" to experience: David, when he confronts a bully for the first time ever, and Jennifer, when she begins to read books and realize there is more to life than partying and popularity.

This all amounts to a modernizing, or Easternizing, of the felix culpa (happy blame), teaching us to be grateful for sin so there can be growth, fulfillment, pain, loss, and ultimately redemption. But we saw in the last post that Lewis was uncomfortable with the felix culpa, and no surprise. It becomes very easy to think of sin itself (and not the redemptive remedy) as the greater good. But the fact is that guilt and sin are essential. Innocence and righteousness may be good, but on their own they're impotent. That's the problem with paradise.

Yet Perelandra draws us into innocence anyway: we don't want to see Venus fall. I attribute this to the creative way Lewis handles the Green Lady. Unlike the citizens of Pleasantville, she isn't a scripted automaton. Unlike them, she has imagination. The townspeople can't conceive of anything beyond their borders; they can't even fathom different things happening or different routines. But the Lady, as we saw, is able to "step out of life into the Alongside" and look at things differently. She appreciates novelties -- "whatever waves roll towards her" -- and enjoys having her expectations overturned. Indeed, she realizes that to reject something new for the sake of something old can only be "evil"! That discovery gets used against her, but the point is that she's able to appreciate now what the citizens of Pleasantville appreciate only after they fall. Paradise isn't inherently monotonous. It doesn't need to be stagnant. It's possible to do more than act out predetermined scripts, and thus be surprised, rewarded, and fulfilled.

As a result, we buy Perelandra in all its multidimensional purity. We accept the Lady and want her to prevail against the devil. In Pleasantville we want people to fall, grow up, make real decisions, and live life. On Venus we want people to do better than grow up, and taste possibilities as yet undreamed.

UPDATE: Doug Chaplin takes Ross over Lewis: "Leaving aside the fact that Pleasantville is an enjoyable, thoughtful and undemanding film, and that Perelandra, like all Lewis' adult science fiction doesn't really work, my biggest issue is the turn against the felix culpa of both Rosson and Lewis." Clarification: as I wrote on Doug's blog, my sympathies are entirely with the "need for fall", though I identify with this in more secular terms. That's why I actually like Pleasantville so much. But I also warm to Perelandra despite myself. Here's part of what I said to Doug:

"I think both Pleasantville and Perelandra work, though differently... Pleasantville clearly needed to fall, and we cheer Jennifer every step of the way. The Fall is what allowed the town's citizens to grow up and experience real joy and loss -- and redemption -- so essential to the human experience... But I also believe that Perelandra works -- and works well -- despite our better philosophical leanings. This time the 'alien other' is developed in a way that we can buy into the Green Lady's character, and on her own terms, and even want her to prevail by remaining in that state of 'otherness' if we can't quite go there ourselves."


Blogger Doug said...

I really have to disagree. The felix culpa, (and Pleasantville) are theologically superior to Lewis on this. You've even driven me to blog at length in response.


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