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 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. He claims to have big intellectual battles with his students and friends when in reality neither his students nor his friends and alcoholic brother are capable of arguing with him. He is playing safe while all the time pretending to question everything. These, at least, are Joy’s accusations.
Lewis learns from these criticisms and sees that since his mother died when he was a child he has guarded his feelings and surrounded himself with people less intellectually gifted than himself. Through Joy he learns to love and to open himself up to genuine religious doubt, rather than merely pretending to search for the truth. Yet despite Joy’s good influence on Lewis’s character, I 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.
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. 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. I think quite a lot but still find life tragic. It upsets me that one minute you are making a video of yourself about to dive into a swimming pool and the next you have slipped and broken your neck.
Also tragic is that all the knowledge, the experience and even the books you accumulate in life ultimately come to nothing. You are either buried underground or burnt, your clothes get stuffed into bin liners and taken to charity shops and your books are thrown into a skip. After all, who wants to read I am a Strange Loop? Though I’d like to find all this amusing, I can’t.
To be fair to Walpole he might have been talking about a certain way of thinking that enables you to laugh at death. Maybe thoughts that distance you from your feelings and help you get things in perspective, as Darwin talked about there being ‘grandeur in this view of life’. Yet surely my inclination to grieve that everything comes down to dust is due to my way of thinking rather than to the fact that I feel. Maybe Walpole just meant that some people me take death too personally. Still, there is little I can do about that since I’m stuck with my temperament. Tragically.