Beauty Will Save the World – But Which Beauty?

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Fortunately, Lewis holds tightly to his paradox of beauty and terror. The decay he notices is only an affirmation of one side of the paradox to the omission of supernatural terror, and, as Pascal says about a true paradox, geniuses touch both extremes at once. Thus when Orual is “touched by an angel” in Till We Have Faces, the touch burns-but with a fire that does not incinerate (one thinks here of the burning bush in Exodus Chapter 3). “[Cupid] took me,” says Psyche, “in his beautiful arms which seemed to burn me (though the burning did not hurt)”.[16] In fact, no book of Lewis is so redolent with paradoxes of this dual nature than Till We Have Faces. Hence one reads about an insupportably beautiful Cupid who for the very force of his beauty insists on veiling his face from Psyche, his bride; hence that same God of Love is named the “Shadowbrute” by the Glomians and the Priest of Glome declares that, with respect to the gods, “the loving and the devouring are all the same thing”.[17] Burnless fire, brutish beauty, and devouring love-seen in this light, it is not anomalous for Lewis to combine beauty with terror. Orual herself maintains both the beauty and the terror of Cupid when she hears his voice: “It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things”.[18] Lewis, via Orual, has here made an ontological claim: it is in the nature of mortal things to feel both alarm and admiration at those beings higher than us in the great chain. Mortality is frightened by immortality, transient beauty by permanent beauty, those subject to death by the deathless.

Till We Have Faces affords one further crucial point. Because its protagonist is congenitally ugly, the book makes beauty (of both soul and body) a central theme. Adapting Apuleius’s original depiction of Venus, Lewis makes the goddess-who anyone might expect to be ravishing-into the mottled boulder Ungit: an ugly name for an ugly idolized goddess. But this is merely superficial; Ungit’s features are a distortion by the Glomians (Venus is in fact beautiful) while Orual is ugly both inside and out. More importantly, it is easy to lose sight of the third and final task Psyche performs in the underworld on Orual’s behalf. For all the aid that Psyche gives Orual, her most important task is “bringing the casket of beauty from the Queen of the Shadows”.[19] As Psyche puts it, “I went on a long journey to fetch the beauty that will make Ungit beautiful,” and Ungit here refers to Orual’s disfigured soul. Readers of the story remember that Orual is made beautiful, of course, just before the arrival of Cupid himself; she is now capable of being in his presence, reflecting a beauty yet more powerful than her own. Again Lewis’s description of Cupid combines (by now) two familiar elements: “And [Cupid] was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming”.[20] It may be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, but Orual wants nothing else.

In closing, Lewis has articulated both our insatiable appetite for beauty and the quality of that beauty itself. With respect to the appetite, few passages more potently express the eros for beauty than a section from “The Weight of Glory”. Lewis declares: “We do not want merely to see beauty….We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it…to bathe in it”.[21] This is perhaps why even a phrase like the “Beatific Vision” is too weak (we do not merely want to see beauty). Dostoevsky comes closer with “the Holy Spirit is the direct seizure, the grasping of Beauty”.[22] Our appetite for beauty wants to be satisfied, yes, but more fully than that, it wants to be saturated with the Holy Spirit.

Readers of Plato’s Symposium will here again remember the ascent of the philosopher which Diotima describes to Socrates, an ascent from ephemeral beauties to the Form of Beauty. A true lover of beauty, says Diotima, must ascend from a particular person, however beautiful, to all beautiful people: from beautiful physical bodies to beautiful activities, from activities to beautiful reasonings (for thoughts endure longer than bodies and actions): from beautiful reasonings the philosopher may then, just possibly, see Beauty itself-unchanging, eternal, and ageless. Crucially for Plato as for Lewis, the appetite for a dreadful Beauty never ends: one wants to be united with beauty not just for a space, but forever. Beauty will save the world, but He will not stop there. With this in mind, I offer the final passage from The Last Battle:

And as [Aslan] spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.[23]

Andrew P. Cuneo
Hillsdale College

[1] This is, in fact, a statement attributed to the prince by Ippolit. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Bantam, 1981), 370.

[2] John Keats, Selected Poetry, ed. Elizabeth Cook (New York: Oxford, 1998), 178.

[3] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford, 1991), 201.

[4] See Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: a Theology of Beauty, trans. Steven Bigham (Redondo Beach: Oakwood Publications, 1990), 2. Importantly, unlike most English translations which give the translation “good,” the Septuagint version chooses to give the Greek for “beautiful” (kalon) instead of “good” (agathon).

[5] Evdokimov, Art of the Icon, 1.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Plato, Symposium, trans. Robin Waterfield, (New York: Oxford, 1994), 54-55.

[8] “On Fairy Stories” in J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 59.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 24.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 55.

[11] Ibid., 61.

[12] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1984), 32.

[13] C.S. Lewis, They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Collins, 1979), 97.

[14] Ibid., 219.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1982), ix.

[16] Lewis, Faces, 112.

[17] Ibid., 49.

[18] Ibid., 171.

[19] Ibid., 305.

[20] Ibid., 307.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 16.

[22] Evdokimov, Art of the Icon, 2.

[23] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 173.