Perelandra Thoughts 3: Agency

Posted by

I’m continually fascinated by the continuing insights in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra. I hope you’ll indulge me as I continue to share fascinating passages and thoughts. Although, I much prefer you read the book itself, I’m sharing them here in case these insights, in isolation, are helpful in anyway.

In the story so far, Ransom has traveled to Venus and met a Venusian woman, who describes herself as having lived only a few days, being one of only two members of her race, and being in communication with the great Maleldil Himself (their version of God, much like Aslan is Narnia’s version of God), and being in communication with all the animals. In short, she’s the “Eve” of their world. She is living in innocence, growing in understanding each day. In the following exchange, Ransom teaches the Venusian woman about disappointment—and instead of learning about disappointment, the Venusian woman learns about agency.

“You could never understand, Lady,” he replied. “But in our world not all events are pleasing or welcome. There may be such a thing that you could cut off both your arms and your legs to prevent it happening—and yet it happens with us”

“But how can one wish any of those waves not to reach us which Maleldil is rolling towards us?”

Against his better judgment Ransom found himself goaded into argument. “But even you,” he said, “when you first saw me, I know now you were expecting and hoping that I was the King. When you found I was not, your face changed. Was that event not unwelcome? Did you not wish it to be otherwise?”

“Oh,” said the Lady. She turned aside with her head bowed and her hands clasped in an intensity of thought. She looked up and said, “You make me grow older more quickly than I can bear,” and walked a little farther off. Ransom wondered what he had done. It was suddenly borne in upon him that her purity and peace were not, as they had seemed, things settled and inevitable like the purity and peace of an animal that they were alive and therefore breakable, a balance maintained by a mind and therefore, at least in theory, able to be lost. There is no reason why a man on a smooth road should lose his balance on a bicycle; but he could. There was no reason why she should step out of her happiness into the psychology of our own race; but neither was there any wall between to prevent her doing so. The sense of precariousness terrified him: but when she looked at him again he changed that word to Adventure, and then all words died out of his mind. Once more he could not look steadily at her. He knew now what the old painters were trying to represent when they invented the halo. Gaiety and gravity together, a splendour as of martyrdom yet with no pain in it at all, seemed to pour from her countenance. Yet when she spoke her words were a disappointment.

“I have been so young till this moment that all my life now seems to have been a kind of sleep. I have thought that I was being carried, and behold, I was walking.”

Ransom asked what she meant.

“What you have made me see,” answered the Lady, “is as plain as the sky, but I never saw it before. Yet it has happened every day. One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy was expected and another is given. But this I had never noticed before—that at the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back, or a setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished—if it were possible to wish—you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.”

Ransom interrupted: “That is hardly the same thing as finding a stranger when you wanted your husband.”

“Oh, that is how I came to understand the whole thing. You and the King differ more than two kinds of fruit. The joy of finding him again and the joy of all the new knowledge I have had from you are more unlike than two tastes, and when the difference is as great as that, and each of the two things so great, then the first picture does stay in the mind quite a long time many beats of the heart—after the other good has come. And this, O Piebald, is the glory and wonder you have made me see; that it is I, I myself, who turn from the good expected to the given good. Out of my own heart I do it. One can conceive a heart which did not: which clung to the good it had first thought of and turned the good which was given it into no good. …”

[She continued,] “I thought … that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk with it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms, as when we go swimming. I feel as if I were living in that roofless world of yours when men walk undefended beneath naked heaven. It is delight with terror in it. One’s own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands. How has He made me so separate from Himself? How did it enter His mind to conceive such a thing? The world is so much larger than I thought. I thought we went along paths—but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path.”

There are two fascinating parts to this conversation. The Lady (as Ransom calls her) thought of all the things that happen to her as “waves” that the great Maleldil sends (they live on a floating island, which why the metaphor of waves is used), and she embraced each wave, expected or unexpected, as a gift from God. Up until that moment, she thought that every wave sent to her by Maleldil just carried her along with it—that she was just carried from one good to another by just being swept along. Until this moment, she perceived herself as simply following a path laid out for her by God.

But her conversation with Ransom helped her realize that there was the possibility of doing otherwise. Her description of disappointment is profound: we keep the image of what we expected in our minds, and attend to it, rather than to what is given, and in so doing we make what is given sour. She said, “It is I, I myself, who turn from the good expected to the given good. Out of my own heart I do it. One can conceive a heart which did not: which clung to the good it had first thought of and turned the good which was given it into no good.”

That is the crucial component of agency: the possibility of doing otherwise. Without that possibility, there is no agency. Without some choice in our hearts, by which we can refuse to accept the good offered to us by God, there is no agency. But when we do have such a choice—where there is a possibility of doing otherwise, we become active participants with God in our happiness and salvation. We are no longer being “carried” from good to good—we walk from good to good. And we could not walk. We could sit down and refuse the good offered, making it seem bitter in our eyes.

The Lady discovered this, and interpreted this as being “separate” from God—in the same way a child begins to feel more separate from her parents as she learns to walk and talk and do things on her own. A child growing this way discovers that she could refuse to eat dinner—and suddenly, the satisfaction of her hunger becomes more than just a filling of her stomach by her parents, and becomes a cooperative exercise by two parties. There is agency involved.

I find it fascinating that in learning about disappointment, the Lady simultaneously learns about agency, that should couldn’t understand disappoint—or the act of wishing for the expected good instead of accepting the good given—without first discovering that one could do otherwise than joyfully embrace the given.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *