Page 16, 10th July 2009

10th July 2009
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Page 16, 10th July 2009 — Hell: the most boring place imaginable
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Hell: the most boring place imaginable

CLASSIC CATHOLIC BOOK

The Great Divorce

BY C S LEWIS

CS Lewis has fallen out of fashion these days; Philip Pullman cannot stand the sight of him and it is a safe bet that his books will not be on the syllabus – of errors? – purveyed by Professor Dawkins at his forthcoming atheist summer school. This is a pity as his clarity both of thought and style remains undiminished.

I like his excursions into fantasy best; if I had not chosen this work I would have selected his space trilogy, which can be read and re-read – always the mark of a classic.

Here, Lewis elaborates the fanciful idea that it might be possible for those in hell to have a change of heart and thereby enter heaven. Just now they are ghosts, stumbling in the foothills of paradise, and encouraged by the joyful spirits of those dwelling there to throw off their shackles and join them.

Lewis is masterly in his description of the petty, prosaic, selfish attitudes that people will cling to, in order to reign joylessly over the desolate kingdom of the self; the loving service of others, which they recognise in the spirits, is hateful to them. A very few are prepared to suffer the brief, painful purgation that will lead to bliss. Most choose to keep parroting the refrains that fed their false selves during their earthly existence: “I’m asking for nothing but my rights”, “there’s no such thing as a final answer”, “I have always done my duty” (surely that’s not Gordon Brown talking?) Lewis reminds us that hell is the most boring place imaginable, because its inhabitants are entirely wrapped up in themselves.

He also indicates that it is on earth that hell – or heaven – is born.

He resists the temptation to paint the glamour of evil – a temptation J K Huysmans was not immune to in his novel about hell, La-Bas.

Instead, we see ourselves in our worst mode of selfpity, endlessly preferring to blame others than take a scalpel to the heart. Dante was led by Virgil to the nether regions. Here, Lewis pays tribute to his mentor, George MacDonald, for it was the chance discovery of MacDonald’s Phantastes at a railway station that altered for ever his own imaginative landscape.

Jack Scarisbrick recently wrote that he wanted a sermon on heaven. This slim volume wittily explains how not to get there.

Francis Phillips




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