Self and Other in Lewis and Levinas

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. . . But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. . . . The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. (226-27; Book 4, chapter 11)

By contrast, the focus on self is damning. The characters in The Great Divorce who return to hell are those who choose pride, dignity, their “rights,” self-pity-in a word, “self”-over the joy and reality of heaven. That focus on self leads to a diminishment, a shriveling up of the self. As the fictional George Macdonald explains to Lewis in that book: “[A] damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see” (139).

To enable them to avoid this fate, the visitors in the foothills of heaven are invited to let go of their focus on self, to have “a good laugh at [themselves]” and become like little children (73). By letting go of themselves, the saved become true selves, as they acknowledge in these words of a song addressed to God: “Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves” (113). The way to salvation, which includes true selfhood, is summed up in a poignant moment when a bright Spirit says to a frightfully self-conscious woman: “Friend. . . . Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?” (62).

God’s very nature-and the nature we are promised will be ours as we submit ourselves to God-is the opposite of selfish and self-centered. In The Screwtape Letters, we learn that, while the devils “want to suck in,” God “wants to give out. . . . He is full and flows over.” For the devils, every self is in competition with every other and sees the others as obstacles, tools for self-advancement, or entities to be consumed. What that ultimately means is that the devils are seeking to reduce all selves to a single self-a condition in which Satan “has drawn all other beings into himself.” This process corresponds to what Levinas calls “totalizing.” By contrast, the unity God desires does not annihilate the otherness of others. God, according to Lewis, would have every self connected to him and each other with freely chosen bonds of love. He “wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct”-still, that is, other than himself (39). What God contemplates when he invites us to give up ourselves is not, in other words, a submerging of our identity into his. “When he talks of [humans’] losing their selves,” Screwtape affirms, “He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts . . . that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever” (65).

Lewis applies the same principle to art and literature. Reading itself, by being both “an enlargement” and “a temporary annihilation of the self,” partakes of the “paradox: ‘he that loseth his life shall save it.'” “We want to see with other eyes,” Lewis says, “to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” “[I]n the reading of great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism 137, 138, 141).

Levinas would not in fact go quite this far, arguing as he does that aesthetic and intellectual transcendence is never complete. What we merely know or appreciate as an object is essentially integrated into our own being; such knowledge or appreciation, though it may remind us of the otherness of others, does not allow a genuine escape from bondage to self. Yet Levinas would agree that the other avenues Lewis writes of-worship, love, and moral action, all closely linked, as Levinas sees it-do in fact allow for genuine transcendence. In the end, Lewis too gives precedence to such avenues, for his most engaging discussions of self-transcendence involve religious and ethical experience, not merely intellectual or aesthetic cognition. Furthermore, Lewis and Levinas agree that genuine transcendence involves self-fulfillment rather than self-annihilation-that our existence as genuinely distinct beings is in fact a prerequisite for ethical and spiritual transcendence of self.