Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Great Divorce Review

 I'm doubtful of literal supernatural truth to a Christian afterlife, but I thought that The Great Divorce was a thought-provoking exploration of the limits and traps of human nature, behavior and cognition.  In the same way that from a cosmic perspective, we live in a vast, profound,ancient and wonder-rich universe, but we spend much of our time bound in small human struggles and to tied to earthly pursuits and possessions, the shades in The Great Divorce each had their own ball & chain binding them to their condemned state; their own attachments preventing them from realizing salvation, each one a cautionary tale about cognitive, social and behavioral traps that keep us from realizing the greatness of the universe, and our belonging to it.
    I found the narrative structure of the story effective.  The structural similarity to Dante's Inferno, with the narrator finding himself without explanation in this strange land with his mentor, is a natural choice.  The manner in which the world around him has no immediate explanation, but all the people speculate about it to each other.  This evoked for me how we all find ourselves on earth, in a vast and complicated social and natural world with no obvious meaning, but we all search for such meaning and understanding together over our lives.  Their abrupt, contextualizing openings are similar as well:.  The Great Divorce starts  "I seemed to be standing in a busy queue by the side of a long, mean street"; Dante's Inferno "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost."  These both are apt ways to begin dream-parables (what were you doing before you find yourself in a dream-world?) The contrast is that this is a tale based off a modern world much like our own.
    I found the  strange behavior of changing scales, time & dimensions in The Great Divorce evocative.  Hell/Purgatory is present but seems immaterial, and new streets and houses can be simply wished into existence.  There are few social ties or bonds of affection to hold people together and souls seem bitter and unpleasant, so the city sprawls and the world stretches on millions of miles almost empty, and curves in some odd way.  One of the residents uses a telescope to look across it, like the city itself is a cosmic sphere.
    Yet when the bus departs out of Hell/Purgatory, looking back what seemed to have been a vast chasm looks in retrospect to be a miniscule crack.  I thought (somewhat ironically) about Richard Dawkin's Middle World idea ; that we experience the universe as we do because our brain's are tuned for existence at certain scale, timespans, and energy levels, and we perceive time, scales, and energy levels with respect to that.  We can reason abstractly about behavior at other scales (especially using science and mathematics, tools that do not rely so heavily on our intuitions) but the conclusions about the universe we arrive at may "do violence to our common sense".  We might imagine that from an alien perspective, rather than "in the trenches", our own moral trajectory as individuals or a species might appear very differently.
    At the end of the story, before the narrator awakens, he has a flash of an illusion that what he is seeing is another perspective of mighty and vast immortal souls and ideals interacting with the finite and temporal chessboard of existence we inhabit; another slice of the intersection between the eternal and the everyday.  I feel a similar perplexity (that almost interferes with  my work and projects) when I try to understand how mathematical truths are derived from reality.  It's hard to imagine Platonic ideals existing beyond physical reality, but The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences begs explanation to our minds.  This similarity may not have be foreign to Lewis's mind; in the Screwtape Letters he writes:
Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see
   Another idea I found evocative from The Great Divorce was that salvation or damnation were retrospective; if a soul arrived in heaven, time in Hell retrospectively became Purgatory, and earthly agony became glorious trials.  However, for souls stuck in Hell, even their prior pleasures or triumphs were poisoned and soured into their downfall.  I found traces of how happy older people have described earlier times of struggle in this metaphor.  The other secular idea it reminded me of is that selfish concerns that give us immediate temporal pleasure are ultimately shortsighted and unsatisfying.  In a glorious, mysterious universe without obvious anthropomorphic divinity and great doubt about the existence of individual immortal souls, a high aim we can hope for is to understand our own place and belonging to the cosmos and work to bring about a joyful future for other people, life-forms and intelligence who come after us and share the world with us, and savor our own brief time on the planet.  Even if immortal ideals don't independently exist in a Platonic sense, we can still strive towards them.  It's not a traditional after-life but it may be the best we got.

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