Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Perelandra (II): The Devil's Argument

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here.)

Having arrived on Venus shortly after Ransom, the devil (inside a man named Weston) tries persuading the Green Lady to sleep on the Fixed Land, just as he once seduced Eve into eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The earlier event is recounted in the space of five short verses in Genesis (3:1-5):

Serpent: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

Eve: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden. But God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

Serpent: "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."

The devil's strategy on Earth was simply to call God a liar [which he was, and I suppose it's no surprise that Lewis took a different approach in this story] and entice Eve with the promise of godly knowledge. On Venus his strategy becomes more complex. For whatever reason, it gets increasingly difficult for the devil to seduce the unfallen. The Green Lady is more resilient than Eve: she argues and resists to the end, is quite shrewd despite her purity of innocence, and calls forth every bit of the devil's resources. So he attacks with penetrating arguments, in a relentless verbal onslaught that leaves us reeling as much as Ransom.

The devil begins with the "innocent" suggestion that

• The Lady should consider what it would be like to dwell on the Fixed land. "This forbidding is such a strange one," he says. And God has not forbidden her to think about dwelling on the Fixed Land. (89)

But why, asks the Lady, bewildered, should one think about something which cannot happen? (89) Stepping outside of God's will is, to her, an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

• Thinking about things which do not happen, but could conceivably happen, is like making stories or poetry, and to shrink back from such artistry is like drawing back from new fruit being offered. (89, 97)

The devil thus begins to use her own logic against her. As we saw in the last post, if one had to define "evil" from an unfallen perspective, it would be "to refuse something offered for the sake of something expected".

• Indeed, shrinking back from this idea is what makes Ransom such a Bad man, because he is causing her to reject fruit she is now being offered for the sake of the fruit she is used to. (98)

The word "bad" (= evil) is used for the first time in Perelandra, by the devil himself.

• She should contemplate more daring ideas than before, because God wants her to start growing up and walking by herself, without him holding her by the hand. (99)

The seed is planted: an idea that God wants her to mature on her own, and to try things out on her own.

• Indeed, to wait for God's voice when he wants her to walk on her own is a kind of disobedience. "The wrong kind of obeying can be a disobeying," like when someone loses on purpose playing a game. (99)

The devil now uses doublespeak, by claiming that in some cases obedience can actually be disobedience.

• Furthermore, walking on her own could never be perfect unless she, at least once, seemed to disobey God by doing what he only seemed to forbid. God secretly longs for one act of disobedience, so that his creatures may grow up and stand on their own. He has thus given one commandment "for the mere sake of forbidding," precisely so that it may be broken. (100)

There must, according to the devil, be a specific reason why God gave a commandment so different from his other commandments. In all other matters, obedience to God amounts to doing what seems good in one's own eyes (such as loving and not killing). But one cannot see the goodness in a prohibition against dwelling on the Fixed Land. The reason, he suggests, is that it is a commandment given for no other reason than to be broken -- to empower God's creatures to think and act for themselves.

Stepping back for a moment: It's striking not how wrong the devil is, but how right. From our perspective, how can we possibly object to what he's saying? Lewis' devil would make a fine exit counseler. The Lady behaves as one brainwashed, he as one deprogramming her to health and reality. God's inexplicable command to avoid the Fixed Land demands what we call blind obedience. Yet we identify with the Lady anyway and want her to resist. Lewis accomplishes what novelists do rarely: making the reader identify with something alien -- making the repulsive seem appealing -- and demonizing the norm. Clavell did this splendidly in Shogun, where we come to think of remorseless samurai and suiciding fanatics as our own family. Donaldson did it in the Thomas Covenant chronicles, by making us cheer for an unpleasant rapist. In Perelandra we come, despite ourselves, to identify with naivete, innocence, and obedience in their purest forms.

In short, the devil is able to make the Lady entertain the impossible -- stepping outside God's will -- by employing her own logic against her and by arguing that God's will is not, in fact, what it seems to be. Stay tuned for the next post: Ransom's counter.


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