I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I call “Pilgrim’s Providence.” This is when we as travelers embrace the challenges and opportunities that come along our pathway as a kind of opportunity provided for us. It is a perspective that has served me well in my times of travel, leading to not a few new adventures.
Extending the principle, I have been thinking about the “Reader’s Providence.” Is there a link, a happenstance, an unseen connection in our literary moments? As I ask the question I realize that I have been presuming that there is. Quite a number of the blogs on A Pilgrim in Narnia–and not a few of the comments–are about the unusual links I find between authors, books, and readers.
Here is another one of those links.
Right now it is early evening in the northwest of England. A cold rain is falling, so I have commandeered a table in the common room of the hostel. I have just finished rereading Mary Shelley’s incredible book, Frankenstein (1818) as background reading for a course on Folkloric Transformations at Signum University this fall.* I know that Frankenstein fits well within our pop culture Bible, but the original book is a far more sophisticated piece of work than you might imagine. I am always moved by its complex treatment of the relationship between God and humanity, and its rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost. If you have not read it, queue it up.
I listened to the audio this time—a decent job by Ralph Cosham—and just finished the last, mournful chapter as I sat down to work for the evening. I loaded the Lumineers, then checked email and facebook. Almost the next words I read were of C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism as he is thinking about “bad taste in art” (21). He speaks here of the immature “use of pictures”—enjoying a painting or work of art to be moved by it.
The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures [in this way] is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world. Zum Eckel find’ ich immer nur mich (21-22).
If interpretation of art remains only in the chest of the art lover, it limits the lover’s experience.
Then the German phrase. Despite having two semesters of German, I decided I had to look up the phrase. Instead of using Google Translate, I searched my C.S. Lewis files. Lo and behold, I found the phrase translated in the draft a paper by Dordt College musicologist, John MacInnis: “With disgust I find only ever myself.” According to MacInnis, Lewis is paraphrasing Wotan (Odin) in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, The Valkyrie II.2. Wotan is calling out for a free agent to do a task for him that he cannot do for himself. The god laments:
How can I create a free agent whom I have never protected, who by defying me will be most dear to me? How can I make that other, no longer part of me, who of his own accord will do what I alone desire? What a predicament for a god, a grievous disgrace! With disgust I find only myself, every time, in everything I create. The other man for whom I long, that other I can never find: for the free man has to create himself; I can only create subjects to myself (“Libretti Die Walküre“).**
MacInnis’ connection provides an important background to the passage in An Experiment in Criticism. What struck me—fresh off having heard the entire book—was how profoundly this one paragraph from an English translation of The Valkyrie describes Frankenstein at its deepest levels. In fact, you could say that in Frankenstein Mary Shelley uses the first two questions to show the kind of conversation Milton never addresses, while the rest of the paragraph captures the “Creator’s Dilemma” in this gothic masterpiece. It is a stunningly beautiful and precise description of Frankenstein buried within a German opera from a generation later.
How do we account for this stunning connection?
I don’t know that Wagner read Frankenstein—it was a critical failure and grew in status only because hacks like me read it. And I don’t think that Lewis really knew the book, any more than the story and the figure of the monster itself. I can’t establish a line of influence.
And I’m not sure that we can make the connection by looking at the mythologies behind the stories. Frankenstein is subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus.” We don’t know, though, whether Dr. Frankenstein or his monster are the Prometheus figures. Frankenstein the creator refuses to break ethics to care for his creation, as Prometheus does, but his work is a hubristic snatching at the fire of the gods. The monster goes through a process of discovery and cursing that is both like the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 and like the Promethean grasping for the fire of the gods. The subtitle could take us either way.
Even if we could nail down the subtitle, there is not a lot of overlap between Odin and Prometheus. Both gods undergo a crucifixion—Odin for literary knowledge and Prometheus for technical knowledge. Otherwise, they are not a match one for the other.
In the end, both the Cycle and Frankenstein ask questions of the gods and humanity, by rooting themselves in the great mythologies and religious stories of Europe. Odin and Prometheus, because of their mythologies, make for rich soil in which to plant a Christian or post-Christian European rethinking of what it means to be human.
That’s it, the only link I can find. In the end, then, what we have is a literary accident. I just happened to have stumbled upon an incredibly precise description of a complex book with almost no literary link within 10 minutes of finishing the original.
An accident, maybe. Or, if I am right, it is Reader’s Providence.
If so, there could be adventures ahead!
*You can still sign up. The first lecture is amazing. Click here.
**You can read John MacInnis’ full paper here, where he explores the connects of C.S. Lews and Wagner’s Cycle, which he loved.