Last night I watched Shadowlands for the umpteenth time. It is a terrific film though last night I noticed for the first time just how much I dislike Debra Winger’s character, Joy Gresham. She comes uninvited into C.S. Lewis’ life and immediately starts to criticise him for practically everything he is and does. She thinks he is a phoney, a hypocrite; a man who lectures groups of old, devoted Christian women on how pain is God’s way of making us better people while all the time taking care to protect his own feelings and intellectual pride from injury.
Lewis learns from these criticisms and sees that since his mother’s death when he was a child he has guarded his feelings and surrounded himself with people who are intellectually no match for him. Joy’s criticisms teach him to stop playing safe and to learn to love again. He also opens himself to doubt and starts to ask real questions rather than ones he already has pat answers for. Yet despite Joy’s good influence on Lewis’s character, I somehow ended the film disliking her. If she was so convinced Lewis was coward and a hypocrite then perhaps she should have looked elsewhere for a friend.
Whatever. In the end Joy dies and Lewis is left feeling both devastated and enriched by the experience of having loved and lost. I suppose the title of the film, which comes from the title of one of Lewis’s short stories, suggests that he was living in a land devoid of feeling until Joy, coincidentally named, came along. (In reflection it’s not much of a coincidence. After all, no parent names their daughter Melancholy or Infelicity). Anyway, you could say that Lewis was Standing in the Shadows of Love, as the great Four Tops sang.
All this got me thinking about my own views on life and death. Horace Walpole once said,
‘The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel’.
I disagree. After all, I myself think quite a lot but still I find life tragic. It upsets me that one minute you can be making a video of yourself climbing a ladder ready to dive into your swimming pool and the next you have slipped, fallen and smashed your head on the side of the pool, finally downing in the water with only the camera as a silent witness. And some person thought this was funny enough to post on Youtube as a ‘fail’. That such callous people exist is a tragedy in itself. That I live amongst such hyenas strike me as at all comic.
Also tragic is that all the knowledge, experience, books and wealth we accumulate in life ultimately comes to nothing. Your clothes get stuffed into bin liners and taken to charity shops while your books are thrown into a skip. After all, who wants to read I am a Strange Loop? For me, reflecting on this this makes life more rather than less tragic.
To be fair to Walpole he might have been talking of a certain quality of thinking that allows you to laugh rather than bawl your eyes out at life’s rich tapestry. Maybe such thoughts have to be of the distancing kind wherein you see everything in terms of the grand sweep of history or geological time. ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’, as Darwin said. But this is surely a split between two kinds of thinking, not between thinking and feeling. The split is between ‘distant’ versus ‘close-up’ thinking, objective versus subjective thinking, scientific versus personal thinking. Maybe my mistake is to think too personally.
Still, there is little I can do about this. I don’t think you can choose your preferred perspective. In the end your innate temperament, modulated by experience, pushes you naturally towards either a comic or tragic view of life. Or somewhere boringly in between. Consciously choosing which view seems more sensible and more likely to bring good results is not really an option, at least for me. I am stuck with what I am. Tragically.