Jack: ‘You are the truest person I’ve ever known’; thoughts on ‘shadowlands’

From Imdb, the storyline:

‘C.S. Lewis, a world-renowned Christian theologian, writer, and professor, leads a passionless life until he meets a spirited poet from the U.S.

C.S. Lewis is the author of the “Chronicles of Narnia” books. Known as Jack, he teaches at Oxford during the 1950s. An American fan, Joy Gresham, arrives to meet him for tea in Oxford. It is the beginning of a love affair. Tragically, Joy becomes terminally ill and their lives become complicated.’

On a wall in Jack’s house is a surrealistic (as I could make out) painting of an emerald green valley in front of low mountains, with billowing peach-edged white clouds behind them that had hung in his bedroom as a child. When Joy had asked him about it, he said he’d always imagined that it was the place where Magic lived, as he’d said about Narnia earlier to some poncy Oxford dons who’d mocked his books.

Now the line from the title was one that Jack had said to Joy, and one would think that by ‘truest’ he’d meant most honest, authentic, and straightforward.  Nothing insincere came out of her mouth, and while he’d long surrounded himself with people he was able to best in arguments, he grew to admire the many challenges Joy threw his way.  He seemed awed as well by her seeming to know him better than he knew himself, and she admitted to having read everything he’d ever written.  We can also imagine that she’d read between the lines.

One of my favorite scenes was at a party for the dean of his college at Oxford he’d invited Joy to attend with him early in their friendship. A different scene starts at 5:11. In essence, for those who can’t watch or listen:

Jack: I thought you didn’t believe we have souls, Christopher.
The Don: ‘well, yes; I regard the soul as an essentially feminine accessory. Where men have intellect, women have…souls.

Joy:  As you say, Professor Riley, I’m from the United States, and different cultures have different modes of discourse. I’m looking for guidance her: are you trying to be offensive, or merely stupid?

Horrors!  An uppity woman, and from the  US to boot!  She must have known the ultimate secret of being direct, which is to not give a rap what a person  thinks of you, especially one you don’t respect.  As a side note, I wish I had that down to an art, myself, as sometimes my judgmental blurts come back to accuse me by way of my internal dialogue.  Yes, I try to shut it off, but my success with that is only temporary.

As for the title of the play and the two film versions (1993 and 1985), Jack had said of ‘the Shadowlands’: “It’s one of my stories. We live in the Shadowlands. The sun is always shining somewhere else. Round a bend in the road. Over the bough of a hill.”

Some critics’ reviews I’d read posited that what he’d meant was that Death, or perhaps the afterlife, is where the sun is always shining, perhaps the only place that it can always shine.  I’m agnostic, but in the 1985 version, it went this way:

After they were married, Joy (a Jewish, communist, atheist poet) suggested that they take a belated honeymoon to see it, as he said it was likely only a day’s drive to the north away. When at last they found it, rather by trial and error, they were both enchanted by the spot, and both seemed to feel its magical, perhaps cosmic, qualities.  Jack and Joy heard rumbles of thunder and look skyward to see that black storm clouds were gathering and moving rapidly toward them.

They ran as best they were able with Joy using a cane, and found shelter under a farmer’s lean-to, but hadn’t escaped a bit of a soaking.

Joy: We almost made it.

Jack: Now I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. Not waiting for anything new to happen. Not looking around the next corner, not the next hill. Here now. That’s enough.

Joy: That’s your kind of happy, isn’t it?

Jack: Yes. Yes it is.

Joy: It is not going to last, Jack.

Jack: We shouldn’t think about that now. Lets’ not spoil the time we have together.

Joy: It doesn’t spoil it. It makes it real. Let me just say it before this rain stops, and we go back.

Jack: What’s there to say?

Joy: That I’m going to die and I want to go with you then, too. The only way I can do that is if I’m able to talk to you about it now.

Jack: I’ll manage somehow. Don’t worry about me.

Joy: No, I think it can be better than just managing. What I am trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.

…All of which causes me to believe that Joy knew in her heart, soul, and spirit, that not only is death an integral part of life that we need not only to internalize, but  to be willing to discuss our deaths out of fear of suffering in the present.  And further, that she passionately wanted them both to jump to the final Kubler-Ross stage of grief: acceptance, or even ‘pre-grieving’, which might make the now…even sweeter.

How many doctors are totally unwilling, for instance, to tell the terminally ill that they’re going to die?  We hear of it constantly, and know them for the cowards they are for not having come to terms with their own mortalities.  Come to think of it, why isn’t it lauded in the Amerikan ‘culture’ as a major rite of passage when a child first grasps the idea of death, and celebrated?

On the subject of suffering, during Jack’s lectures he was often asked why God allows suffering.  His various comments over the film were these:

“Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

“I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. Pain is Gods megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel which hurt us so much with are what make us perfect.”

He eventually got to this evolution of the answer, perhaps due to his burgeoning recognition that he truly was beginning to allow himself to love Joy, his first love since his mama.

“Isn’t God supposed to be good? Isn’t God supposed to love us? And does God want us to suffer? What if the answer to that question is yes?  ’Cause I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up. I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering.”

But it got me to considering that even if one leaves God out of the mix, our own suffering, or the suffering of our loved ones and chosen families often causes our hearts to open in empathy.  Here I’m even including those of us who’ve lived some portions of our lives trying to be authentic, self-actualized (no, not an appealing term) after working through stifling pain, humiliation laden upon them through authoritarian bullying, guilt-tripping, domestic rape, and so forth, so that we actually are able to jettison much of the emotional baggage that blocks their hearts from sensation…as a defense…and heal.  In other words, to return to the metaphorical state of grace that many social scientists claim we are born in, and specifically, that humans are hard-wired for empathy.

I’m not sure that having watched videos of experiments featuring three-year-old children loving to ‘help’ others offered proof that  it’s so, but I’d like to believe it.

I’d also like to believe that in normal circumstances, babies are born with consciences, and that only living in abusive, soul-stealing circumstances that consciences are destroyed.  Many religious authoritarians believe the opposite, of course, and are utterly convinced that children are born as empty slates, and must be taught to know right from wrong, although my experience is that sort of ‘education’ is more often about sticks than carrots, or indeed even explaining and allowing the natural consequences of ‘unhealthy’, or counter-productive behaviors.  But that’s a longer subject, isn’t it?  And I digress.

Consider though, the many ways that our responses to witnessing our fellow human brothers’ and sisters’ suffering can take.  In Spanish, we experience corazon espinado, or pierced heart.  If we’ve ever been hungry, or even had to live on cornmeal or rice, say, for some extended period, we want to feed those who are hungry once we have enough to share.  If we’ve witnessed the suffering that war beings to the innocent, we want to end war.  If we’ve witnessed even second hand what walls and being second- or third-class citizens means, we’re in solidarity with those human beings, and care that their suffering stops.  Often our caring causes us to be angry, even furious, resulting in activism of some sort, to Occupy, to protest (and no, I’m not thinking of Pink Pussy Hat protests), to try to build toward a better future for all of us.  Yeppers, I hear Arthur Silber saying that that’s the biggest con of all, so I am smiling as I type.  But Arthur, what else are people of good conscience going to do with their lives otherwise, if not be in defense of and service to one another as we’re able?

But I suppose my larger point is that love, empathy, and our past suffering can make us ‘be brave’ on behalf of those we love, respect, and care about, if only one by one…by one.  Joy loved Jack, and somehow  feeling it, sensing it, it opened his heart.  Oddly enough, one form her love took was to respect him enough to call him on his bullshit and intellectual authoritarianism – and that provided a key that opened some closed door in him.  He watched her parent her child well, feeding his insatiable curiosity with literature, love, humor, and utter respect…and it changed Jack.

One recent form of bravery with its roots in love, as well as life suffering came from another story, this from the Game of Throne series we’re watching on DVD.  Daenerys, Mother of Dragons is missing due to her part in the wars over ending the slave Kingdoms around the Bay of Slavery.  Her key advisor Tyrion the dwarf (my favorite character) knows that she’ll need the remaining two dragons locked in the cellars of the castle.  He’d just been advised that they won’t eat, and Tyrion divines that since they’re shackled, there is no way for them to thrive.  How does he know this, he’s asked?  He answers:
“I do two things.  I drink, and I know things“.

He not only loves Daenerys, but is tuned into the dragon’s suffering, and is determined to help them, bless his heart.  Bravery isn’t about fearlessness, but acting in spite of fear, of course.

9 responses to “Jack: ‘You are the truest person I’ve ever known’; thoughts on ‘shadowlands’

  1. Lots of room for thought here, wendye, and I can’t really comment on either the film or the DVD series, so this would be just a thought about your reflections and what I might contribute on the subject with respect to your title’s – “truest person”.

    I’ll just add what was a kind of breakthrough of recognition for my favorite author, Dostoievski. He had been as a young man a member of a literary salon that attracted the notice of the authorities, to the point of being hauled out to be shot and at the last minute reprieved and sent to a Siberian prison.

    All that was suffering enough to affect him physically ( it is thought his later bouts of epilepsy stemmed from the near death experience). But the suffering in the gulag is what I want to relate to your essay.

    That suffering was not only the rigors of the camp and privations endured there, but one inflicted by his fellow prisoners, and, as he came to realize, actually being caused by his own attitude toward them. But until he realized the latter, he was in effect condemned to suffer and be terribly afraid.

    At the point of his greatest despair, when he had stumbled outside into the snow not knowing how he could go on, he remembered an incident from his childhood, when wandering away from home he got lost in the woods and terrified that a wolf would gobble him up. A rough peasant came upon him and treated him so kindly, reassuring him and comforting him, going out of his way to take him back home.

    That memory was so huge for Dostoievski that he suddenly saw his fellow prisoners in the same light – and as you put it, shed his bullshit in their company.

    Now, that example is simply to reflect on the thoughts you presented about children’s experiences influencing their empathy for others. For Dostoievski I think the childhood memory affected him the way knowing Joy and then losing her affected Lewis, causing him to take a good look at himself in a way nothing else in his life had the power to do.

    Happy ever after? No, not for Dostoievski. Life wasn’t done with him.The final suffering was to endure the death of his three year old son, Alexey (diminutive ‘Alyosha’), who had inherited, so it seemed, his father’s epilepsy. And out of that experience came his novel ” The Brothers Karamazov”, in which the villainous father is named Fyodor (his name) and the hero Alyosha (his son).

    Just thinking about this always takes my breath away.

    • beautifully recounted, and you’ve caused me once again to wish i could recall more of ‘the brothers’ after thirty, then likely twenty years or so, and come to that, ‘crime and punishment’ as well. i’d tried to write the diary more universally, as in it not being necessary to have seen the play, nor either version of the film, nor ‘game of thrones’,so i’m glad you caught on to the over-arching themes.

      but yes, that dostoyevski’s great epiphany came at the moment of his greatest despair, existential angst…is a fine and inspirational parallel. i wonder, too, if issues of class were what were at the root of his attitude toward fellow prisoners, given his educational status, thus: he remembered the kindness and munificence of the rough peasant.

      now lewis hadn’t actually lost Joy when he realized his passion for her, but my guess is that he was very present when she was in the process of letting go of this mortal coil, and in fact he and his brother raised her son (in real life there were two chirren).

      yes, how tragic that alexy died, and it is breath-taking. i’d almost included something to the effect that life is full of suffering, although to greater or lesser degrees, of course. but as with the homily of ‘the sorrow tree’, i wonder how many would actually trade whole lives with any other human being on the planet. when i think to remember that i wouldn’t, it often lessens my (comparatively insignificant) burdens. yanno what i mean?

      p.s. on edit: you may want to check out the links i’d added to ‘putin derangement syndrome, as nato is pushing preparation w/ war with russia and the EU. deadly sick stuff.

  2. a perfect example is the story told by peter yarrow (PP&M) about a son raised by an authoritarian bully of a father. the son’s suffering had caused him to be a vietnam war resister in order to make what turned out to be his final plea…to stop the war.

    if anyone can hear this story in song and not have their hearts and guts torn out of their body, weep for all of those who were murdered in the war, and all of those who were forced into the military by the draft (sure, they could have similarly resisted), i’d submit they have no consciences, no empathy. as richie says here, peter dug deep for this one, and the song made rebels of us all.

    ‘Tell the jailer not to bother
    With his meal of bread and water today.
    He is fasting ’til the killing’s over
    He’s a martyr, he thinks he’s a prophet.
    But he’s a coward, he’s just playing a game
    He can’t do it, he can’t change it
    It’s been going on for ten thousand years….

    Tell the people they are safe now
    Hunger stopped him, he lies still in his cell.
    Death has gagged his accusations
    We are free now, we can kill now,
    We can hate now, now we can end the world
    We’re not guilty, he was crazy
    And it’s been going on for ten thousand years….

    (the rest of the lyrics are here.) i know i’ve always heard my own father in this story, adding to its poignancy to the Nth degree.

    • Indeed wendye, class was a huge part of D’s problem. Though his family was at the lower end of the upper shelf and his first successful writing is “Poor Folk” so the empathy was there always, but not that face to face encounter awarded him by having to live in the midst of elements of the lower class. On the Shadowlands theme as you describe Lewis’s explanation of it, in my senior primary school year in NZ, we were given a version of a John Masefield poem to sing which stayed with me all these years. The librettist took liberties with the poem as it is given online, so with apologies to him here it is as I remember singing it when I could sing:

      Friends and loves we have none
      Nor wealth nor blessed abode
      But the hope, the burning hope
      And the road, the open road –
      Not for us are content
      Nor quiet peace of mind
      For we go seeking cities
      That we shall never find.

      • thank you for the confirmation, juliania, and i admit i’d never heard of ‘poor folk’.

        the masefield poem fits, and is almost shiver-inducing, isn’t it? i did look for a musical version, but as far as i can tell, it’s not on youtube, nor could i find one backwards-bingling. it turns out that the poem he’d titled ‘the seekers’, although i’d first thought the musical version of ‘vagabonds’ might have been it. not so.

        but yes, ‘the shadowland’:

        Not for us are content
        Nor quiet peace of mind
        For we go seeking cities
        That we shall never find.

  3. Second and third verses of the song – the melody is beautiful, if ever you come across a video version:

    We travel the dusty road
    Till the light of the day is dim
    And sunset shows its spires
    Away on the world’s rim –
    Only the road and the dawn
    The sun, the wind, and the rain
    And the watchfire under the stars
    And sleep, and the road again!

    There’s no solace on earth
    For us, for such as we
    Who search for hidden beauty
    That eyes may never see –
    Friends and loves we have none
    Nor quiet peace of mind
    But the hope, the burning hope
    And the road – the open road!

    (The original version may have had):

    Nor wealth, nor blest abode

    as the third to last line, though my version fits how the singing of it goes as I remember it.

  4. i enjoyed both of those versions of this story, the bbc (?) and the movie, but I grew up & was around people who lionized CS Lewis as the super duperest deeper thinker ever. meh. never got the appeal of even his children’s books.

    I don’t remember how the movie version ends, but in the bbc version, c.s. talks about teaching one of Joy’s two boys how to swim, to dive. after she’s died. I thought it was a nice image.

    • well, sorry you’ve missed the point of my diary, j. it really had almost nothing to do with whether or not one likes lewis or his books. i was aiming more for universal truths or…not.

      sleep well.

    • i’d forgotten to say that i knew nothing about c.s, lewis, perhaps a blessing, but then i wasn’t beaten over the head w/ christian theology, either. i’d never read his books, but did see one movie, and i did like aslan, whom the wiki says lewis did mean to be jesus christ. i liked ‘the magic’ he said it was in the film better, though. ;-)

      but given your life on the streets, your past sufferings, and your endeavors to make friends with some of the most afflicted members of this society…i’d thought of the ways you’re trying to help when i’d read this from phil rockstroh. it’s not precisely right, but close enough for me.

      “Without an imperative for a deepening of self and a commitment to communal engagement — an evincing of peripatetic empathy and radical imagination — there exists little chance of transformation, of a remaking of the present order, from its rotten roots to its noxious blossoming.”

      sorry i can’t watch the film clip; when i have enough time to dig into the control panel to enable some sound…i will. bill gates just won’t give me an icon on my taskbar…ever, now.

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