Love That Is Not Love: The Character of Pam in The Great Divorce

based on Great Divorce LewisThe Great Divorce begins not with characters but with caricatures. We begin with cartoons of a short man with a superiority complex, a cheated hysterical woman, a vacant liberal clergyman, a unisex couple–“both so trousered , slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither”–and “the Big Man,” a bully who turns to violence because “I gotta have my own rights, see.” Some sad, some humorous, these modern fairy tale-like tropes dominate the first chapters of The Great Divorce.

Soon, though, the caricatures turn to significant characters whose personality and struggles with self is not only true to the character, but often prophetic of the reader’s personal journey.

There is no more deeply painful character than that of “Pam.” We have very few names, but we know Pam (the Ghost), the late Reginald (the Spirit), and her son Michael. Michael died when he was still a boy, and it is clear in the story that Pam never recovered. When Reginald meets her, Pam is clearly disappointed:

“Oh … Reginald! It’s you, is it?”
“Yes, dear,” said the Spirit. “I know you expected someone else. Can you … I hope you can be a little glad to see even me; for the present.”
“I did think Michael would have come,” said the Ghost; and then, almost fiercely, “He is here, of course?” “He’s there-far up in the mountains.”
“Why hasn’t he come to meet me? Didn’t he know?”
“My dear (don’t worry, it will all come right presently) it wouldn’t have done. Not yet. He wouldn’t be able to see or hear you as you are at present. You’d be totally invisible to Michael. But we’ll soon build you up.”

the great divorce usIn the logic of C.S. Lewis’ heaven in The Great Divorce, it is not that people are disallowed into heaven, but not all are strong enough to be there. For most, heaven is too bright because it is full of light, the terrain too hard because it is built with truth, and the atmosphere overwhelming because it is shot through with love. The only way to become strong enough is to surrender the self–to be supported by one of heaven’s inhabitants.

To all who have died in the body, heaven is eternally open to them. But they must also die to the self.

It is this second death that is all the more difficult. The first one is natural: one days our cells will stop dividing with efficiency, our neuro-chemical processes will slow, and our hearts will stop patterning identity to the world. But the second death is so very hard–harder still if one has refused to do this in life. The death to self is the unbending of all that is inwardly bent, the resistance of all the self-preservation patterns we have developed throughout life.

great divorceBut Pam should be okay, right? She is a grieving mother who has kept her son’s room the same as when he died. She has lived her life not for herself, but to Michael’s memory. What can be more like God’s love than motherly love?

It is true that true love is as quite like God’s love as anything we can experience. And there is an element of motherly love that haunts of the eternal.

But look at Pam’s response to heaven:

“Well. When am I going to be allowed to see him?” [she asked].
“There’s no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it’s possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up a bit.”
“How?” said the Ghost [Pam]. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.
“I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,” said the Spirit [Reginald]. “But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want someone else besides Michael. I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.”

Pam’s response is chilling:

Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing? This is hardly the moment… and from you, of all people. Well, never mind. I’ll do whatever’s necessary. What do you want me to do? Come on. The sooner I begin it, the sooner they’ll let me see my boy. I’m quite ready.”

Pam still doesn’t get the physics of heaven. Reginald tries to explain:

“But, Pam, do think! Don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind? You’re treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.”

Nov 3 1st GD ad croppedYou perhaps feel frustration on Pam’s part here. She responds, “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a Mother.” We can identify with that, I think. She is a mother, who lost a son. Is there anything more harrowing? Her frustration is palpable with a complaint that I have heard in various contexts so very often:

“If [God] loved me He’d let me see my boy. If He loved me why did He take away Michael from me? I wasn’t going to say anything about that. But it’s pretty hard to forgive, you know.”

When we are six inches from grief, I don’t know any other way to feel.

But as the story goes on, we discover there are deeper levels. It becomes clear what life was like after Michael died:

“All that ten years’ ritual of grief. Keeping his room exactly as he’d left it: keeping anniversaries: refusing to leave that house though Dick [her husband, Michael’s father] and Muriel [Michael’s sister] were both wretched there.”
“Of course they didn’t care. I know that. I soon learned to expect no real sympathy from them.”
“You’re wrong. No man ever felt his son’s death more than Dick. Not many girls loved their brothers better than Muriel. It wasn’t against Michael they revolted: it was against you-against having their whole life dominated by the tyranny of the past: and not really even Michael’s past, but your past.”
“You are heartless. Everyone is heartless. The past was all I had.”
“It was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with a sorrow. It was Egyptian-like embalming a dead body.”

the great divorce cs lewis signaturePam’s response is not motherly love for her daughter who lived, or a partner’s response to a grieving father. Her pain and grief is at the centre of all things. She screams her response back to the universe:

“…Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about all your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of Love. No one has a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.”

What does love mean? Doubtless Pam had love for Michael as a child. But in his death, loss was paramount. Who was she loving when he was gone?

The only answer is her self. She was feeding her self, feeding her hurt and rage and grief with the memory of the past. Refusing the march of the present into the future by rooting herself in history.

Love cannot grow in that environment. Humans cannot breathe with so little oxygen.

Lewis does not tell us the end of the story. Nor does he tell us the story of the grieving sister or father. In The Great Divorce we hear that some mothers chose to keep their children in hell with them because they loved them so much. I have seen mothers and fathers and lovers “love” like this on earth.

Though he was not a stranger to grief, perhaps Lewis would have re-written this character’s story after he lost his wife, Joy. His journal, A Grief Observed, shows a weightier handling of loss and love.

But the passage isn’t really about motherly love. The lesson is broader: all natural feelings and affections, no matter how beautiful and true in and of themselves–as motherly love certainly is–all of these “go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”

Love is never love if love itself is the object. Love is always about the other.

This post is part of a loose series on The Great Divorce, published in The Guardian in 1944-45. 70 years later we are echoing the publishing dates. The story of Pam concluded on this date in 1945. Other posts on the Great Divorce include:

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What I’m Reading Wednesday

whatimereadingheaderMy ten year old mocked me the other day. “Dad, how many books are you reading at one time?” I mocked him back, asking how many he was reading. He had to admit that he had a few on the go, including a couple of graphic novels, a Hardy Boys mystery, a book on code-cracking, Simon Armitage’s adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, a book at school on spies, the new Unwanted, as well as the ones his parents are reading to him.

It seems like bedside tables tumbling over with books is a family trait!

I thought I would use the opportunity of my son’s mockery to tag in on the “What I’m Reading Wednesday” meme. If you’ve posted your own reading list, make sure you tag it in the comments below.

reaper man pratchettTerry Pratchett, Reaper Man (1990)

I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. I have read a dozen or so of the books, and I decided last year to go through them as Pratchett wrote them. This is the 10th Discworld book. In this little comedy, Death goes into retirement and havoc ensues. This a reread of one of my first Pratchett experiences. It’s also a great book after these very busy days. Not much intelligence required.

sorina higgins chapel of the thorn charles williamsSørina Higgins, ed, Charles Williams’ Chapel of the Thorn (1912; 2015)

A thrill to get in the mail, this edited volume contains Charles Williams’ earliest (or almost earliest) play. It is in poetic form, a completely engaging story about three competing communities vying for the same sacred item–a thorn from Christ’s crown. I had the pleasure of reading from the original manuscript at the Wade Centre. I’ll review this fully when I’m done, but I’m also pleased with Higgins’ introduction, and some extra goodies by Williams scholars.

tom clancy executive ordersTom Clancy, Executive Orders (1996)

I know, I know. I almost didn’t tell anyone about this. But this is my junk food mid-winter cheat. I made fun of myself for reading the Jack Ryan books last year with my post, “I’m a Spy! Woot! Woot!” I also made fun of Canada. I’m sorry, but I love American Ra! Ra! self-congratulatory spy novels, and Clancy is the best of this worst category. It is a stinking’ long book, so I cut the 50cent paperback into four chunks–literally ripping the book apart. I’ve just begun the second quarter, so will probably finish in March or April.

Joel D. Heck, ed, The Socratic DigestJoel D. Heck, ed, The Socratic Digest (1942-52; 2012)

In my “Different Kinds of Reading, Different Kinds of Books” blog, I talk about occasional books. One of these for me is this great edited volume by Joel Heck–a book I’m reading on the exercise bike. Heck has a genius for being able to collate the minutia of C.S. Lewis’ biography–and a university that will give him the time to do it. This volume collects the essays and abstracts from the famous “Socratic Club” at Oxford in the 40s and 50s. It doesn’t have everything in the 15 years the club lasted, but has dozens of essays, talks, and conversations. It is a unique resource for someone interested in apologetics or early forms of some of C.S. Lewis’ essays.

Shakespeare, The TempestWilliam Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611)

I am taking an online class on Western lit and the professor is doing The Tempest in a couple of weeks. Picking it up, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really read this great Shakespeare play. I recently read Brave New World by Huxley, and The Tempest sits at the back of that dystopia, so I’m really interested about digging in. I’ve just begun, really, and started by reading the opening to my son. They I reread it, using a pirate’s voice. Very cool way to start one of the essential books of our language.

the-two-towers tolkienJ.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (1955)

This is one of myread-aloud books. Nicolas and I read The Hobbit and have then begun the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We took a break after The Fellowship of the Ring to read Roger Lancelyn Green’s adaptation of Arthur stories. But we are back at The Two Towers. The first 100 pages or so is just running, so we were pretty tired. But now we are at the point where Gandalf casts Wormtongue out of the court of Rohan and helps the King find his strength again. Wonderful.

george sayer jackGeorge Sayer, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis (1988; 1996)

I am simultaneously reading two biographies of Lewis: one by his friend and student George Sayer, and one by American English professor Alan Jacobs. George Sayer’s book is an “insider” biography. Some of the information he gives is made up of stories and facts that only he can know. While this makes it difficult for the historian, for the fan of Lewis or the lover of biographies, it makes for a delightful read. The first chapter delves into Lewis’ family history in a way that many never do. It also talks about some of the naughty bits that Lewis devotees sometimes leave out.

alan jacobs narnianAlan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (2005)

By contrast, Jacobs approaches his subject not as a life historian, but as a historian of literature. He shapes the story of Lewis’ life as a story, not simply in the chronology we might expect from stock biographies. From one angle, as a later generation of scholar, Jacobs’ book is entirely verifiable–and thus falsifiable. It is a good first step for the historian and next step for Lewis fan. From another angle, it is by far the most readable of the Lewis biographies at this 300 page+ depth (there are some catchy shorter books that are fun). The Narnian is far and away my favourite biography. And it shows: I’m only on ch. 4 of Jack, but nearly finished The Narnian.

cooper song of metamythosC.F. Cooper, Songs of the Metamythos (2014)

This falls under the category of occasional book. Cooper’s 21st century neopagan myth collection is absolutely brilliant. I purchased it on Amazon for $1 and am reading it using my kindle app on my phone. I am slowly going through the stories, but they are quite thrilling. Sometimes shocking, often unsettling, these myths are not ancient retellings, but a new tapestry of a number of various threads. If you like myth, drop the dollar and dig in.

Saturday Evening Post screwtape cover-december-19-1959C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (1959)

This is a re-read, and I will be reading it three times over this couple of week period. I am preparing for one of William O’Flaherty’s famed essay chats–a real honour. He has recently posted a talk I gave on teaching Screwtape, and we are preparing to look at Lewis’ only Screwtape sequel: the longer essay he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. I listened to John Cleese read it last week, will sit down with a pencil and book this week, and then will re-listen to it again just before the essay chat. Watch for that link!

george-macdonald-by-cs-lewis sC.S. Lewis, ed, George MacDonald: An Anthology (1945)

Under my category of “occasional books” is one that many of us share but we rarely talk about: the toilet book. For those that indulge in this vice and use the porcelain throne as a place of meditation, this anthology is a good idea. Although a number of Lewis’ selection from George MacDonald‘s large corpus are pretty obscure, there is something on every page that will make you think. Some of them have even shaped my mental or spiritual habit for the entire day. My real struggle is what will happen when I soon finish this book!

seven vii anglo-american literary journalCharlie Starr, ed, “Two Pieces from C.S. Lewis’s ‘Moral Good’ Manuscript: A First Publication” (1920s; 2015)

Though not a long piece, I am halfway through the first of these discovered gems. Charlie Starr, certainly becoming an expert in C.S. Lewis’ handwriting, has unearthed and published two of Lewis’ essays/lectures that have never been published. I am reading first Lewis’ lecture on Leninism, probably written as part of his year of teaching philosophy at Oxford. It is a surprisingly clear essay for his age, but lacks the humour and behind-the-veil upside-down thinking that we come to know from Lewis later. We’ll see, I’m only partway in. Props to Starr for this.

I am also slowly annotating C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, but I’ve set that aside for now. I also set aside some of Ray Bradbury and James Thurber’s stories, which I’ll pick at over the Spring. I am looking forward to reading Armitage’s Odyssey and digging more into Chaucer and another book I got for Christmas. A friend loaned me the full version of J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst’s S.  I can’t wait to get into that one! I also have a friend’s manuscript on my bedside table, and more books than I can read in a year! I think it’s time for a reading binge. Anyone?

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Choosing Heaven: A Choice You Can Watch in the Making”: A Guest Sermon by Doug Jackson

As part of our ongoing occasional series on The Great Divorce, I have invited Doug Jackson to share a devotional reflection on this classic C.S. Lewis book. It takes the form of a homily, a sermon on the idea of heaven based on the text Mark 12:38-44. 

This is a sermon I had the privilege of preaching for the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Fall Retreat at Camp Allen, Texas, in 2012. The message follows a triptych pattern. In ikonography, the triptych’s three panels often work as follows: The central panel portrays a biblical moment, often in the life of Christ, that holds universal significance. The flanking panels locate this universal truth in our own world. One will often contain images of great saints, some from vastly different eras than the historical scene. The other might very well portray the ikonographer herself wearing clothing of her own time. I have modified this structure to present the text, an insight from C. S. Lewis, whom I consider a great saint, and a point of entry for the preacher and congregation.


Eternal God, You sent Your Son to sit patiently as we stand between cross and apocalypse and choose. Grant us wisdom now to act in things small and great with an eye to the greatness, not of our own deeds, but of the One who sees them, that we may “See a world in a grain of sand /And heaven in a wild flower /Hold infinity in the palm of our hand /And eternity in an hour.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Central Panel: Christ at the Treasury

Our text for today finds Jesus curiously passive. He sat down opposite the treasury and began observing. Sitting and looking: And this story falls between Our Lord’s ritual destruction of the Temple the day before (Mk 11.15-18) and his sermon predicting its destruction later in the afternoon (13.1ff). Now he parks himself in a pew and watches them pass the offering plates!

Yet Jesus is not so passive as it may seem. The verb used here denotes careful attention – the way a general watches when he inspects his troops. And the verb-tense indicates repetitive action: Jesus kept this up for a while.

            The story is a simple one: many rich people were putting in large sums: Again, the verb hints at repeated activity – there were lot of them and they had a lot to give so it took a while. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins: The word for “poor” here denotes the greatest extreme of poverty, the ninety-ninth percent of the ninety-nine percent. The term for “coins” comes from the verb meaning “to peal”: She put in the thin skin of a shaved currency. Her total gift amounted to one thirty-second of a day’s wage for an undocumented day laborer. The verb now denotes point-action because, let’s face it, it doesn’t take long to toss two pennies into the plate!

And here’s the real irony: I said “offering plates” before but it wasn’t really like that. These were thirteen trumpet-shaped bronze chests set up in a courtyard. Each one had a label so you could designate how your gift was used. According to the law, an offering so small could only go to one thing: the Temple building fund! So she threw her money away – literally – on a building Jesus had already condemned and would condemn again on his way home, a building that the Romans would trash a mere three decades later!

So Jesus, who so far has only sat and watched, now declares: This poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury. She out-gave everybody, not because of how much she gave, or because of where she gave it, but because of the fact that she gave it sacrificially out of her love for God.


great divorceLeft Panel: C. S. Lewis’ Great Divorce

            Consider for a moment a scene from C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis-the-Narrator has just asked his celestial cicerone, George MacDonald, the age-old theological puzzler about free will and predestination. MacDonald replies,


“Do not fash yourself with such questions. Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till you are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself: and that ye can watch them making.” (emphasis added)


And page after page, we watch them; like Our Lord at the Temple treasury, we watch them decide where to invest their souls. And like the widow, they tend to choose what they will do with very small things: an addiction to pornography, blue-collar pride, professional reputation, marital spats. As MacDonald explains, quoting Milton, “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, ‘Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.” They don’t have to give much – indeed, they don’t have much to give – but whatever it is, they have to give it all. Two copper coins’ worth of self amount to less than a sliver peeled from the skin of an eternal soul yet they suffice to weigh one down to Hell.

And we watch; and Lewis watches; and MacDonald watches; and the Shining Ones watch; and all Heaven watches – and they stand between Hell below and Heaven ahead, and choose.


Right Panel: The Preacher & the Congregation

In weeping for the superficiality of our modern materialistic culture, poet Malcolm Guite laments that, “We choose, not between eternal destinies but between life-style options.” Ironically, we have believed one-half of Jesus’ warning: All the temples of this terrestrial world are temporary. But we have lost faith in the other half: An eternal world, the Kingdom of Heaven, breaks in on this world at every moment, making every decision an eternal one, and every moment an everlasting one.

And the question comes: What will you choose? In the instant where you can rejoice in the good fortune of a friend, or envy it; it the split-second of secondless forever when you can make a small sacrifice toward a temporary relief of a moment’s need and you either give or withhold; on the tiny Calvary of putting another’s need before your own will, when you can open your palms to receive the nail, or grasp a hammer to impale the flesh of a friend; what will you choose? In the instant when, perhaps riding on top of a bus up Headington Hill, you can buckle down the lobster-like armor the guards the self or shed it like an uncomfortable corset that closes up the entrance of Christ’s saving blood: What will you choose?


Poems by C. S. LewisConclusion


As he so often does, C. S. Lewis expresses the choice for us in his beautiful little poem, “Nearly They Stood”:

Nearly they stood who fall.
Themselves, when they look back
See always in the track
One torturing spot where all
By a possible quick swerve
Of will yet unenslaved –
By the infinitesimal twitching of a nerve –
Might have been saved.
Nearly they fell who stand.
These with cold after-fear
Look back and note how near
They grazed the Siren’s land
Wondering to think that fate
By threads so spider-fine
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.
Therefore I sometimes fear
Lest oldest fears prove true
Lest, when no bugle blew
My mort, when skies looked clear
I may have stepped one hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth bourn
Which, being once crossed forever unawares
Forbids return.


Jesus is watching. And while he will at a word empower, he will not for all the world interfere, for love must be free: Choose well.

Doug Jackson’s love of C. S. Lewis came in two stages. At Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, Arizona, he discovered Lewis’ non-fiction. After he graduated in 1985 from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, and married his wife Becky he began reading the Chronicles of Narnia to his son and discovered Lewis’ fiction. Lewis’ writing sustained and informed his preaching in various Baptist churches in Arizona and Texas. Since 2006, Doug has taught spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for Logsdon Seminary at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi, where Lewis makes regular appearances in his lectures.




Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Stories behind Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

austen pride-and-prejudice1946I think that Pride & Prejudice is the best English novel, ever. Is that too much? Perhaps it is, but I’m a fan, and in the world of non-fantasy prose storytelling it is about as good as it gets for me.

One of the things that make Pride & Prejudice so rich—besides its irresistible story and ever-present wit—is that it is a story that has been written in a tradition. As much as it is vibrant and original and the emerging of something new, it is also in conversation with many great stories of the past.

Let’s look at a few of them.

Often titles have hints of what’s in the background. Brave New World is Aldous Huxley’s way of tugging back to Shakespeare, the glossy Vanity Fair goes back to Thackeray who goes back to Bunyan, and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is taken from a David Lindsay poem about the Tower Of Babel story—a subtle key to reading the book.

Penquin Pride and PrejudiceBecause of this trend, I am tempted to think about the perfectly chosen title. While drawn from the subject matter and Eliza’s own speeches and letters, it may also go back to Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia (1872). Reading that book might give us a hint, but the title quotation might be enough to entice us further:

“The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! and as if he had power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct (Cecilia).

Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1776) is one of the key triggers of the Romantic movement, and we can see how the epistolary style of Werther is echoed in the letters and diaries of Pride & Prejudice. The story strikes me as quite different, but I can see aspects of Elizabeth’s (Eliza) character in Werther’s romanticized view of Charlotte (Lotte).

I have been reading more and more of the 18th century epistolary writers like Goethe and Burney. When I was reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1733) last summer I came to realize that behind the character of Eliza was the figure of Pamela.

Richardson_pamela_1741Pamela is the story of a young housemaid whose middle class family had lost their living. As a teenager she goes to a Lady’s house to serve her and she is favoured the Lady. Her own good upbringing and excellent education were augment by the lessons in estate management and personal service she learned there.

When the Lady died, Pamela was devastated and assumed her living was lost. Instead, the Lady’s son took a liking to her, and asked her to stay—even giving her some gold from the estate. As time goes on, the new young master falls in love with Pamela and attempts to make her his mistress. As a true, virtuous (Methodist) young woman, she rejects his advances and maintains her integrity.

The Master is not put off, however. He pursues her again and again, using enticements and punishments to either attract or coerce her into an affair. She resists, even to the point of holding herself against his various attempts to rape her. Her rigorous piety only increases her attractiveness to him, and solidifies her reputation as a strength among the servants.
Eventually the Master kidnaps her, hoping to create a context for to fall in love with him. But she holds to her integrity, arguing that if he truly loved her he would make her an honourable offer of marriage. Even as that temptation to marrying the peasant occurs to him, social pressures increase against the idea. The Master’s remaining family see such a match as a betrayal of his name and rank—really as an impious and dishonourable choice.

Pamela 1742 plateAs the Master flounders and Pamela’s heart softens, the Master does eventually propose marriage. Pamela discovers, quite to her own surprise, that she is in love with the gentleman. After a comedy of miscommunications and small problems that would prevent a match, eventually Pamela is able to marry the young Master and make her home in love, forgiveness, and honour.

I think the parallels are pretty clear between Pamela and Pride & Prejudice, even if the plotline is quite different. I think, however, that the connection is deeper.

Pamela was a runaway bestseller in its time. When Pamela says “yes” to the master, it is reputed that people listening to the story ran into the street and rang the church bells in celebration. It was a viral movement of story and piety combined in the character of Pamela—a girl who went on to inspire art, fan fiction, poetry, and parodies.

I think Pride & Prejudice is one of those parodies.

Really, I think that Jane Austen hated the Pamela character.

I could be wrong. I don’t have any evidence. But Eliza, the real hero of P&P, is a character full of life, independent thought, social acumen, and an incontrovertible sense of humour. “Wit” is the key word among Austen’s best characters. Like Pamela, Elizabeth is quite beautiful and well read. They both suffer from station and struggle against social explanations. And they both find themselves accidentally in love.

pride and prejudice Keira Knightley reading a bookBut Eliza is everything that Pamela is not. Pamela has virtue, but it is pancake flat, a solid wall of embarrassment and shame. It is good shame—shame that Austen would appreciate. But the idea of falling in love with a rapist would have been grit in Eliza’s teeth. Pamela lacks any sense of humour at all. All she really is is a pretty face and a Bible pinned against her chest by crossed arms.

While a third party reader (like me) would recognize that Eliza could have used some of Pamela’s ability to forgive, almost none of us prefer Pamela to Eliza. All of the adventure and winsomeness of Eliza makes us root for her when her pride clouds her reason.

With Pamela, I really wanted her story to end.

So I think that Pride & Prejudice is a response to Richardson’s Pamela.

William_Shakespeare_1609But I don’t think it is the only one. We cannot think of Lizzie and Darcy without seeing the unlikely-in-love narrative. They are “star-cross’d lovers,” and when we think of forbidden love, it is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Beyond love that goes against fate’s grain, I don’t know that there is much more there. But the P&P-forbidden love connection is intriguing enough to peak backwards.

Behind Romeo and Juliet is the Arthurian Tristan and Isolde, or in the love triangle version, Launcelot and Guinevere. There is the faint aroma of the Arthurian left in Austen’s world. There is the court and the status of the gentry—now no longer a fellowship but still important to the economy of everyday life in Britain. There is also the danger that Eliza’s aging father will duel with the philandering Wickham, as well as the evolved social system that was once chivalry and courtesy. I had a fuller experience reading Pride and Prejudice this time after spending a couple of years reading the Arthuriad in the background.

I would like to draw out one more story—perhaps an unlikely one for most readers. I think that P&P is in its own way a complex and beautiful retelling of the Prodigal Son story in Luke.

If you think about it for a moment, you can perhaps see the connection. Darcy and Wickham grow up together in the same house, almost as brothers. The younger brother, Wickham, takes his fortune and goes into town, blowing it on gambling and women, leaving a string of bad debts behind him. We see in Darcy—now the “Father” of the house—the difficulties of dealing with the prodigal son in a way we don’t see in the Jewish story. The prodigal takes not just the inheritance, but also takes Darcy’s sister, and then Eliza’s sister. It adds a layer of complexity.

keira knightley  Pride-and-Prejudice sarcasmAnd, there are not just two brothers, but two sisters (or several sisters!). Austen retells the folkloric parable in the rich context of early 19th century England.

The lessons are different than St. Luke’s. But there are lessons. The last chapter—which I sort of wish wasn’t included—shows us that love that overcomes pride can grow and deepen, but that impetuous romance fades to distaste. We see that brotherly-sisterly love has great value, but not every broken bond can be mended. Jane Austen has her own parable-like lessons for us.

Stories are like cathedrals, C.S. Lewis once said. They grow over the centuries through the work of architects and builders, but they are still made up of the cathedrals of past ages. From this angle, we can see the rich book that Pride & Prejudice really is.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Superior Equality in Love: A Thought from “Pride & Prejudice”

pride and prejudice Keira Knightley reading a bookI have just had the great coincidence of finishing Jane Austen’s great romantic novel Pride & Prejudice in the season of Valentine’s Day. It is a story so well told in its original context, and yet so universally enticing and relevant.

We have, for the most part, shed off many of the structures and expectations that existed in Jane Austen’s day. We have begun crashing down the class barriers that separated Darcy and Elizabeth in the first place. Women can move in culture, think freely, choose partners—or no partners at all—and are less and less dependent upon the patriarchal economics behind Pride & Prejudice.

Yet the story endures. Keira Knightley in the 2005 film doesn’t hurt.

Though we still struggle with prejudicial systems in culture, we have shifted in how we view our marriage partners. Indeed, we view them as partners. My wife and have at the centre of our relationship a kind of equality that breeds mutual respect and love.

Yet, what kind of equality do I mean?

Penquin Pride and PrejudiceThere are times she has made more than me, and less often the reverse. My social status has often been higher than hers in certain ways, but her social graces are far greater than mine. I wash dishes and chop wood; she cooks and tells me where stuff goes. I know money better and she knows kids better. I have more education, and work in a world of words and ideas. She is an educator, and works in a world of crayons, untied shoelaces, and lessons on pencil grip.

When we talk about equality, then, we don’t mean sameness. We are each greater and lesser than the other in a hundred different ways. I have often said that I wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone who wasn’t greater than me. Most of our friends agree that has happened!

I am struck in reading Pride & Prejudice in this season about how Elizabeth, the protagonist, would view this idea of equality. She is an independent mind, a sharp wit who can think critically in any situation. Indeed, one suspects and one goes through the novel that she is almost beyond any man’s means. She is smarter than most everyone, cleverer than most everyone, faithful to a fault, able to read most any face, and one of the more beautiful women around. She, alas, can only play the piano forte tolerably well.

So we are left with the question: Who is good enough for Elizabeth?

Her father thinks that no one is.

I would warn anyone who has not read the book to stop here and leave this blog unread. You can even hit the “unlike” button if you like. Or, better yet, read the book and come back to this climax chapter.

keira knightley  Pride-and-Prejudice sarcasmBut for those who do know the story, here is the brilliant scene where Elizabeth admits to her father that she really is in love. His concern is, of course, that Mr. Darcy isn’t good enough for her.

In the evening, soon after Mr. Bennet withdrew to the library, she saw Mr. Darcy rise also and follow him, and her agitation on seeing it was extreme. She did not fear her father’s opposition, but he was going to be made unhappy; and that it should be through her means—that she, his favourite child, should be distressing him by her choice, should be filling him with fears and regrets in disposing of her—was a wretched reflection, and she sat in misery till Mr. Darcy appeared again, when, looking at him, she was a little relieved by his smile. In a few minutes he approached the table where she was sitting with Kitty; and, while pretending to admire her work said in a whisper, “Go to your father, he wants you in the library.” She was gone directly.

Her father was walking about the room, looking grave and anxious. “Lizzy,” said he, “what are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man? Have not you always hated him?”

How earnestly did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate! It would have spared her from explanations and professions which it was exceedingly awkward to give; but they were now necessary, and she assured him, with some confusion, of her attachment to Mr. Darcy.

“Or, in other words, you are determined to have him. He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?”

“Have you any other objection,” said Elizabeth, “than your belief of my indifference?”

“None at all. We all know him to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him.”

keira knightley pride & prejudice holding darcy's handI do, I do like him,” she replied, with tears in her eyes, “I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable. You do not know what he really is; then pray do not pain me by speaking of him in such terms.”

“Lizzy,” said her father, “I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything, which he condescended to ask. I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.”

Elizabeth, still more affected, was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice, by explaining the gradual change which her estimation of him had undergone, relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months’ suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, she did conquer her father’s incredulity, and reconcile him to the match.

“Well, my dear,” said he, when she ceased speaking, “I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy.”

To complete the favourable impression, she then told him what Mr. Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia. He heard her with astonishment.

“This is an evening of wonders, indeed! And so, Darcy did every thing; made up the match, gave the money, paid the fellow’s debts, and got him his commission! So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle’s doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry every thing their own way. I shall offer to pay him to-morrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.”

He then recollected her embarrassment a few days before, on his reading Mr. Collins’s letter; and after laughing at her some time, allowed her at last to go—saying, as she quitted the room, “If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.”

keira knightley swingLook at the intriguing connection between–from her father’s perspective–the respect and “looking up” to a potential partner, the inequality, and the danger on the other side of the unequal marriage. Though it is masked in the 2005 film, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet do not have an equal marriage. The one is witty and intelligent, the other witless and flighty and given to nerves. Mr. Bennet deeply wants for his daughter a marriage of mutual respect.

And, yet, that mutual respect, that inherent equality, requires inequality. Lizzie would never be satisfied with a man who was not her better, who could not spar with her in the duels she loves the most. It is true, Darcy’s humour is not up to hers. And he radically out-classes her. But he is greater than her in such a way to intrigue her, to draw her in.

The feeling is mutual, of course. For what is love without a bit of wonder, a hint of intrigue to fill in the decades to come.

I couldn’t find a youtube clip of the marvelous scene where Keira Knightley as Elizabeth confesses to her father, played by Donald Sutherland, that she is quite in love. But this clip gives you a sense of both characters:

Posted in Reflections, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Fifty Shades of Bad Writing

Dakota Johnson Fifty Shades of Grey nudeThis odd post will strike regular readers as a bit of a departure. A Pilgrim in Narnia covers a lot of areas, like children’s writing, myth, theology and philosophy, and fantasy literature–though not that kind. Fifty Shades of Grey is none of those.

Not even close.

And no, I haven’t read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, for reasons that will become evident. As a writer and writing teacher, though, I try to keep my eyes open to what is happening in the book world. It is hard not to notice one of the biggest bestsellers of history: an erotic novel loosely conceived around the Twilight series that found a voice of its own in the midst of the writing. According to statistics, every woman on Earth has two copies. I’ve heard that five or six men have read it too. These true facts, combined with the release of the blockbuster film, means that 50 Shades is worth at least a little attention.

I got my copy because one of these Earth women felt that a single copy was one too many. She bought the book knowing little about it and decided to give it a read. Within a few pages this excellent reader knew it was not her kind of book, so she threw it away—too embarrassed to sell it or return it. I convinced her to give me the book, and now I own a copy of the fastest selling softcover book. Ever.

The reason my friend was too embarrassed to return the book, though, was not because of its erotic content and its profound confusion of intimacy. No, it was the bad writing. As an example, she sent me this excerpt which she chose at random:

Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, unshowered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing, and what’s more, he’s here in my bedroom….
Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose. I breathe….” (189).

That’s lots of contractions, isn’t it? The awkward string of infantile descriptions made my own medulla oblongata cease to function for a while. My friend suggested the book was filled with this kind of bad writing.

Apparently others agree. One edgy reviewer took the time to count the repetitive, mind-numbing phrases, and I’ve added some of my own. “Oh My!” is popular with 79 occurrences, not surprising given the content, I suppose. “Crap” (101),“Holy [expletive/fake swear]” (172), or “Jeez” (82) are the most popular curse words,  and “Gasp(s)” (45), “Whoa” (13), or “Sharp Intake of Breath” (4) are key to the characters’ respiratory regimes. On every second page the character murmurs (207) or whispers (199), and they occasionally mutter (51). In an erotic novel it isn’t astounding that “lips” is popular (71 times), but “Inner goddess” is surprisingly common (58)—betraying what must be a deep , feminist book. We see this depth also from the frequent use of “Subconscious” (82 occurrences). Fortunately, “medulla oblongata” and “yucky” are only used once, but the tall, dark, handsome stranger is thrice described as “yummy” (or “delicious” another three times).

This is high-end writing folks.

In the spirit of my intelligent and embarassed book-giver—I’ve kept her anonymous so she doesn’t lose all literary credibility—and the sarcasta-reviewer quoted above, I thought I would do my own open book experiment. So here are a few quotations I pulled almost at random.

I literally opened the book up at spots, put my finger to the page, and watched the flesh melt from the bone. When something struck me as exceptionally done, I did a quick digital search. I’ve decided to leave out the naughty bits—you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want more description about things that might be described in an erotic novel (by the way, “Wikipedia” occurs twice in 50 Shades).

Here is my “random inspiration” list.

I’m afraid the experiment doesn’t start well. This is what I saw when my eye first fell on the page.

He blows gently up the length of my sex (141).

I’m not a medical doctor, but I’m pretty sure “sex” isn’t a body part. I looked it up on Google (occurs 6 times in 50 Shades), and I’m right. Assuming I’ve simply begun with a typo I begin again:

In his bedroom, I hunt through a chest of drawers and find the hair dryer. Using my fingers, I dry my hair the best I can. When I’ve finished, I head into the bathroom.
I want to clean my teeth. I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth. Hmm… Glancing guiltily over my shoulder at the door, I feel the bristles on the toothbrush. They are damp. He must have used it already. Grabbing it quickly, I squirt toothpaste on it and brush my teeth in double quick time. I feel so naughty. It’s such a thrill (76-77).

Does anyone else find that more creepy than sexy? Sure, the character is creepy, but I mean the writing: these clipped inner thought phrases that move from minutia to the thrilling aspects of drying saliva on nylon bristles, and all in the context of a strange set of consequences. And if she found the hair dryer, why does she dry her hair the best she can with her fingers? Why not do it perfectly, with the hair dryer she found? Perhaps I misunderstand what a hair dryer is for. And why does the guy have a hair dryer in his drawer-chest? And how did she know it was there?

I think the real problem is this inner conversation. It is very confusing. Here is an example:

I KNOW WHAT HE’S REALLY LIKE – YOU DON’T! – I scream at her in my head. I’m fully aware that her actions come from a good place, but sometimes she just oversteps the mark, and right now so far that she’s into the neighboring state. I scowl at her, and she pokes her tongue out at me… (352).

Wow, step away from the crazy lady. That inner screaming happens a lot, by the way. 16 times by my count. And when she is really series she SCREAMS IN ALL CAPS. WE ALL LOVE ALL CAPS DON’T WE?

Here’s another, mercifully allowing her elegant description to do the talking rather than the typescript:

Do I want to say goodbye to that? No! Screams my subconscious… my inner goddess nods in silent zen-like agreement with her.

The real problem is her subconscious, with whom the main character consistently disagrees and relegates it (her?) to a position inferior to her inner goddess. These are different voices she hears, you see:

My subconscious is furious, medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch’s Scream.

If she’s having trouble with her Medusa hair, she does have Christian’s chest-drawar hair dryer. The problem is you never know what your inner goddess might be up to:

My inner goddess has back flipped off the podium and is doing cartwheels around the stadium (447).

Wow, my inner goddess has trouble going for a run without spraining an ankle.

And how many voices do you hear in your head screaming at you or smugly nodding or managing to both cover its face and have its hair flying out all medusa-like? The Dakota Johnson character’s subconscious is very demanding, and I’m not sure where the fight with the inner goddess first began. Truthfully, at this point in the experiment, my subconscious is screaming at me to put this book down. My inner goddess agrees, nodding all zen-like and stuff.

Overall, the book is a clatter of clichés. Oh, sorry, I could have done that better: a hodgepodge of clichés, a claptrap of clichés…. A potpourri, perhaps? A mixed bag of clichés? See, can be really helpful to serious writers like me and E.L. James. Some of these overused word pictures are even confusing, like when James writes the “oversteps the mark” phrase above. Perhaps that’s just a middle age British writer trying to sound like a 24 year old Seattle ditz, but the clichés wrench my literary sense.

Here’s another cliché, again, found at random:

The roads are clear as I set off from Vancouver, WA toward Portland and the I-5…. Fortunately, Kate’s lent me her sporty Mercedes CLK. I’m not sure Wanda, my old VW Beetle, would make the journey in time. Oh, the Merc is a fun drive, and the miles slip away as I floor the pedal to the metal.

Dakota Johnson Fifty Shades of GreyIf you are going to use clichés like “floor it” or “pedal to the metal,” why not use them both at once? Notably, this entire paragraph was spelled correctly, though in the years I was in the automotive industry I never heard a Mercedes called a “Merc”–and I’m certain an American girl Ana’s age with a Beetle named “Wanda” wouldn’t have. How should one pronounce that? Mers? Merk? As in Merkedes? In any case, clichés are stock in the pages I viewed, and they are best used in families of mixed metaphors:

I whisper recklessly as desire sweeps like adrenaline through my system, waking everything in its path.

I couldn’t have written that if I tried. Exceptional.

50-shades-of-grey Jamie Dornan Dakota Johnson nudeIn the character’s strange pseudo-scientific world, adrenaline sweeps through body systems, which she likens to a path—or perhaps people fleeing from a storm—and its main function is to wake things. Wow.

It does not go better with similes. Beyond the disasters of Medusa-like and zen-like above, I find the word pictures in general to be staggeringly bad:

  • His words are like some kind of incendiary device; my blood flames (111).
  • “Are you in Portland on business?” I ask, and my voice is too high, like I’ve got my finger trapped in a door or something. Damn! Try to be cool Ana!
  • I sound like a sophomore on amphetamines, too high-pitched even for my own ears.
  • He seems to have woken up and is beaming at me like I’m the Christmas Fairy and the Easter Bunny rolled into one.
  • Leaving the cool air-conditioned confines of the arrival terminal, we step into the Georgia heat like we’re wearing it. Whoa!
  • I am quaking like a leaf (111).
  • His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.

The last one’s my favourite… or something. “Or something” is used 7 times. Honestly, though, I seldom describe dark melted chocolate fudge caramel as “husky.”

Now, I grant writing sex can be awkward. The Guardian (Britain’s version, not Prince Edward Island’s) has a contest for bad sex scenes. I’ve left out as much of the erotic material as I could. But everything I found that was the least bit intimate was awkward. I know as writers we all struggle to capture those feelings of two people connecting, but here is one example of many:

Our fingers brush very briefly, and the current is there again, zapping through me like I’ve touched an exposed wire. I gasp involuntarily as I feel it, all the way down to somewhere dark and unexplored, deep in my belly. Desperately, I scrabble around for my equilibrium.

I don’t know what to do with that. I like the idea of the current, but “zapping”—used twice in the book—seems to take all of the mystique away from the moment. And she used “current” five times, and “undercurrent” three times (probably unaware that it, too, is a metaphor). I like the dark, unexplored feelings, but why are they in the belly. She is big into bellies:

As I take Christian’s hand, there’s a mounting excitement in my belly. Wow… gliding!

Wow… bad writing!

I suppose “belly” is better than housing sexual feelings in her alimentary canal—remember the medulla oblongata above—but wouldn’t “deep in my core” be better still, or “at the centre of my being” or some such nonsense? And then the last phrase makes it fall apart: “Desperately, I scrabble around for my equilibrium”—who talks like that?

It’s time to stop.

While I would like to quip that I haven’t read this book because I believe writing this bad is immoral—I think it is—my brief experiment has demonstrated to me the deeply problematic nature of the world glorified in the text. As I was looking up how many times the author used “smolder” (only twice), I found a phrase that I think captures succinctly everything that is wrong with the book:

“I like you sore.” His eyes smolder. “Reminds you where I’ve been, and only me.”

50 Shades of Grey is not just fantasy play, and it certainly isn’t some sort of conversion against inhibition. It is a glorification of the hierarchical, the self-driven, and self-fulfilling. It is everything that love is not, and everything that breaks love.

Some might think that I’m jealous of E.L. James’ fame, or that I’m concerned no one will think I’m yummy, or delicious, or husky like a nut fudge Dairy Queen sundae… or whatever. I have some hope that neither happens.

Now, will I keep the book or throw it away? I will keep it, and tuck it to the back of my bookshelf. To me it is a kind of sign, the silk grey tie on the cover the symbol of that which threatens to stop short love’s breath. If that is too much credit given for a bad book, at the very least it is a list of 50 metaphors I’ll never use again. And at the heart of it, unlike the authors I review on this blog typically, 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t tell the truth. It is not a good book.

50 Shades of Bad Writing” was written in September 2012, at the height of the book’s popularity. The blog was shared hundreds of times on Twitter, Facebook, and even Pinterest–many thanks to readers and sharers. It was also featured as a link or reblog in dozens of other great sites. With the release of the film featuring Dakota Johnson as Ana Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey, interest in the blog has peaked.

If you have your own satire or critique, please feel free to share. Feel free to connect on Twitter @BrentonDana, on Facebook, or sign up for A Pilgrim in Narnia by email.

Sent in by a reader…

Posted in Reviews, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Crash of Heart and Flesh, or Culture’s Confusion of Intimacy in 50 Shades of Grey

Behind the hazy waves of light, distilled and fragmented with reds and blues and yellows and flashes of street and skin, one of the many storied voices of the 2004 film Crash says these words:

“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”

His partner—a partner in all the ways he needs a partner except one—says to him:

“Graham, I think we got rear ended. I think we spun around twice, and somewhere in there, one of us lost our frame of reference. And I’m going to look for it.”

On the surface, writer-director Paul Haggis’ exquisite weaving together of heartbreak is about racism and violence. At its heart it is about intimacy. It is about touch.

Intimacy is hard.

crash thandie Newton Matt dillonIn Crash the characters flounder for intimacy. Husband and wife live in a circle of blame and antagonism. The rich housewife discovers the woman she is too good for is the only one who loves her. The cop who keeps everyone at a distance seeks to find his mother within her addiction-ragged shell. The victim of racism finds his hatred, the street thug meets his bullet, the producer seeks his moment of authenticity.

And as gasoline drips around a burning car, the racist abuser presses his body against the trapped woman to save her life.

Intimacy is hard.

It is hard to kindle a fire that does not either raze the person or turn cold in the hearth.

Jian Ghomeshi

In Canada, we have been struggling with the revelations that one of our most dearly loved public figures has … well, it is difficult to describe what he has done.

Perhaps I’ll begin with the connection.

Until recently, Jian Ghomeshi was the host of a daily arts and culture magazine on CBC radio called “Q.” A brilliant interviewer with a silken voice, Jian had the startling ability to disarm the guest and draw out poignant moments from the most inaccessible celebrities in the world. Perhaps most famous for his Billy Bob Thorton interview—which was amazing—it his time with Brian Wilson, Lily Allen, Joni Mitchell, and Cory Montief that still stands out to me. Jian had the incredible knack at creating intimacy with his guests.

And also with his audience. Over the decade that he was on the radio, my casual listening deepened into a ritual more like religion or relationship.

I had first heard Jian on tapes I pirated from my lid-flipping white-men-can-jump friend, Junior. The tapes were filled with these crazy acoustic sarcasta-songs by the satire troupe Moxy Früvous. When I was 16, I snuck into the campus bar—too young and $5 short—so I could see Moxy Früvous sing about Spiderman and “The King of Spain” and a dozen other goofy songs.

When Jian hit radio, he rocketed to Canadian fame and then to international note. He was someone with his finger always on the pop culture moment, massaging social media and dancing along red carpets in a bid to make a connection with his fans. To be retweeted by Jian Ghomeshi was a Canadian badge of honour. To be on his show was the height of the career for most of the indie artists he brought in.

jian ghomeshi facebookOnce, I actually had the “letter of the day.” I wrote about our shame culture, and Jian read it on the radio. I may never have more influence in my life than I did in that one moment.

And then it fell apart. Last fall, Jian was abruptly fired by the CBC. Before the public knew about CBC’s reasoning, Jian hit facebook with a pre-emptive strike. This is part of what he wrote:

“I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer.”

It would have been tempting to leave the story in the oblique. But because we on facebook are “friends and family of mine,” we “are owed the truth.” Jian went on to explain that he is interested in rough sex and forms of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). With one of his partners, he says, they “joked about our relations being like a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey.” Concerned that people may judge him, he emphasizes again and again the consensual, safe modes of intimate play:

“I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participate in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.”

This is Jian’s “private life,” even if they “may be strange, enticing, weird, normal, or outright offensive to others.”

Ijian ghomeshi charges won’t relate all that followed. As the weeks pummeled on, first one woman, then two, then 8 or 9 came forward to say that their encounters with Jian were unexpected, non-consensual, and exciting only for him. He was accused again and again of crossing lines and stepping into modes of violence that were not mutual.

At the very least, Jian confused the intimacy that he had with his various partners.

I think our culture has a similar confusion of intimacy.

I don’t think it always tends to violence, as is what is alleged against Jian. But what is the TV series Friends but a 10-season saga of 6 beautiful people groping around for true intimacy? How do we explain rape culture on campuses, self-exposure trends on youtube, the front pages of celebrity magazines, and the constant, unending flow of autobiographical streaking that is twitter, facebook, and, yes, blogging?

Any astute reader will see that I had presumed a false intimacy with a voice on the other side of the radio. I still call him by his first name, and I haven’t really listened to CBC since.

We are a culture that has confusion of intimacy.

As we crash into one another, sharing beds and bodies and broken hearts, it seems we are in desperate need of a frame of reference.

Dakota Johnson Fifty Shades of GreySo 50 Shades of Grey.

Setting aside its abysmal writing, and setting aside the morality, 50 Shades of Grey—on screen and in print—is an avatar of our culture’s pathology. Its underlying story has two main features.

First, it believes that a woman can be saved by a man’s violence. This parody of the cross, this destruction of the self-giving love that every true lover shows his or her partner, this horrifying narrative gives power to the history of violence against women in our culture. The Dakota Johnson character of Anastasia will tell us the story that she can find freedom in violence.

It is not the subjection to violence that brings us freedom. Freedom only ever comes despite the violence.

Dakota Johnson Fifty Shades of Grey nudeSecond, 50 Shades will attempt to teach us that true intimacy will grow out of the fiction of intimacy, that the brutality will somehow breed love. I have no doubt that stories of true intimacy can grow out of any circumstance. But moving from whipping to heart-sharing, from coldness to warmth between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele—the names are not unimportant—is a pornographic version of the myth that we have woven into our culture.

We believe that touch comes first and intimacy comes second.

Then we decide that a kiss with a fist is better than none.

As long as we believe this, we will never cure ourselves of this pathological confusion of intimacy.

So we live our lives behind cold steel and broken glass.

I am not a prude. I believe that bodies are beautiful, that flesh is good, that sex is life-giving, and that love can transform the world. But in our culture we have divorced touch and intimacy. 50 Shades of Grey is the extreme of that divorce, but it is also the result of it. Once we strip sex of intimacy, where else is there to go?

All of us have lost our frame of reference. Where do we go to look for it.

Posted in Reflections, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments