C.S. Lewis depicts Hell in “The Great Divorce” as the Grey City, a place where Pride is given enough rope and spends eternity hanging itself. The damned get everything they want by just imagining it, which seems like “heaven,” which is why they don’t desire to leave.
In last week’s essay I surveyed the manner in which three of the greatest poets – Homer, Virgil and Dante – dived and delved into the afterlife, asking and prompting probing questions about the destiny of the human soul. We looked at how Homer and Virgil both perceived the spirits of the dead as being less substantial than their mortal selves had been. In The Odyssey and The Aeneid, the dead are depicted as mere shades or shadows of their former selves and the land of the dead as the land of shadows. Dante, on the other hand, saw something more than shadow beyond the grave’s grasp. Only the souls of the damned are less than they were in mortal life, mere shades flitting across the infernal landscape, but the souls in Purgatory are becoming more solid with every act of penance, and the souls in Paradise are more solid and real than they were in their mortal lives because they are now basking in the Presence of Reality Himself.
C. S. Lewis was well-versed in all three of these poets, emulating them in two of his own works, The Great Divorce and The Last Battle, in both of which we are taken into the realm of the afterlife.
The Great Divorce moves from hell to purgatory, which is seen as a movement from egocentric illusion to a place where the ego is forced to face reality.
Hell is depicted in The Great Divorce as the Grey City, a place where Pride is given enough rope and spends eternity hanging itself. The damned get everything they want by just imagining it, which seems like “heaven,” which is why they don’t desire to leave. The problem is that the prideful imagination is corrupted by the prejudiced perspective that it projects upon reality. It is this corrupted imagination, lost in its own self-centred and self-imposed delusions, which gets what it wants. In consequence, what it wants makes it miserable.
The souls in the infernal city are living the dream which is really a nightmare. They have lived the lie for so long that they are enslaved to it. They have become addicted to their own selfishness and, as with all addictions, the addict becomes a slave to its drug of choice. They can’t escape because escape requires facing a reality that conflicts with their corroded desires. The bottom line is that escape requires the self-sacrifice that Pride refuses. Since Pride is the freedom to choose to refuse to sacrifice ourselves for others, it always results in choosing to sacrifice other to ourselves. This is why the infernal city is devoid of the love of neighbor which is essential to all community; this is why the souls in the infernal city, loathing their neighbor, live further apart from each other in self-imposed and miserable isolation. They have made their lives a living hell and wouldn’t have it any other way.
In Lewis’s story, some of the souls in the infernal city are given the opportunity to take a day-trip to the Bright Country in the knowledge that they can stay, should they wish. In this country, the spirits are mere shadows because they are in the presence of an objective reality beyond the prideful subjectivism of their imagination. They are transparent, barely visible, and the grass underfoot is as hard as diamond and painful to traverse. They are visited by bright spirits, emanating light, who are people whom they had known in the life before death. Each bright spirit has delayed its progress up the mountain, visiting the lost souls whom they had once known as an act of penance, indicating that the Bright Country is purgatory. Should any of the souls from the city choose to stay, the Grey City would not have been hell in their case but a lower part of purgatory. In the event, with one possible exception, all the souls choose to return “home” to the drabness of their own fantasy worlds, spurning reality.
As for the “home” they have chosen, it is as small and insubstantial as they are. It is to be found down a crack in the ground of the Bright Country. It is only a shadow, the absence of reality. We are told that any one of the souls in purgatory is larger than the whole of hell and all who are in it. No penitent soul could ever be swallowed by the maws of the inferno. “Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.” As for the souls of the damned, they have faded into figments of their own prideful imagination:
For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.
Having taken a cautionary day-trip from hell to purgatory, exploring with C. S. Lewis, the “great divorce” that separates one from the other, we will continue next week with a joyous trip with Lewis to the heaven that awaits the souls of those who choose to love. And then, concluding our tour of the literary afterlife, we’ll explore life after death with J. R. R. Tolkien.
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