Examining the Particularity of World World II Whiteness
““But the fellah, the unemployed and the starving do not lay claim to truth. They do not say they represent the truth because they are the truth in their very being.”-Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, page 13
For many, the mention of Clive Staples Lewis and racial justice may be an odd pairing, especially given Lewis’ place among white conservative evangelicals who cling to his every word on mostly every issue, I mean, except inerrancy and evolution, no doubt. However, I like to think outside the box, and outside the norm when it comes to resources for the cause of racial justice, and it is in my limited interpretation of Lewis’ Space Trilogy that I now turn, in particular, the second of the series, Perelandra.
Our story begins in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, where our hero Ransom (uh oh, spaghetti theology-O’s!) is kidnapped by Devine and Weston. Devine and Weston (our unassuming antagonists) just so happen to be racist bigots against colonized subjects in Great Britain’s territories. Devine has a paternalistic attitude for an Indian colleague of his, and even though a relative of his may have married one of them, their culture, their existence is inferior in comparison to W’s and D’s progressive society. As Devine tries to seduce Ransom into his and W’s greedy ambition, D names everything from “Dear Old Place and to Playing the Game, to the White Man’s Burden and a Straight Bat.” Of course, Lewis is mimicking the logic of liberal imperialism, empire in the name of scientific and technological progress.
Ransom lands on a mysterious planet, Malacandra, and it is there that he meets some strange black beasts with amber-tinged eyes (the colored-Other we shall say). “Unconsciously he raised himself on his elbow and stared at the black beast.” It is in this encounter that Ransom feels the urge to fellowship in communion with this strange sentient being. “It was like a courtship – like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that; so natural is the contact of sexes, so limited. the strangeness, so shallow the reticence, so mild the repugnance to be overcome, compared with the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational, species.” Going back to my posts on Willie Jennings book on theology and race , The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, the idea that we are created in the imago Trinitas, image of the Trinity, made for a God who lives in community and for other planetary creatures to love and live in fellowship with as well, goes hand and hand with anti-racist theologies. Unlike the movie Avatar (2009) where the monstrous animalist culture Other remains a colonized subject to remain on the margins, the hrossa and the other sorn (sentient beings) that Ransom encounters are persons with a subjectivity of their own making and have no need of being liberated by the colonial whites.
Ransom informs the sorn of humanity’s colonial failures:
They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history – of war, slavery and prostitution. “It is because they have no Oyarsa,” said one of the pupils. “It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,” said Augray. “They cannot help it,” said the old sorn. “There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair – or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it – like a female trying to beget young on herself.”
In Lewis’ hierarchy, God rules over humanity, and then governments rule as a mediator. Democrats (the small d for democratic philosophy) is not looked upon as something worth promoting, but as a form of anarchy itself. In the text Perelandra, Lewis shows the most of what Brian McLaren called in his Generous Orthodoxy, a postcolonial embarassment, in the description of Ransom’s encounter with the Green Lady:
Embarrassment and desire were both a thousand miles away from his experience: and if he was a little ashamed of his own body, that was a shame which had nothing to do with difference of sex and turned only on the fact that he knew his body to be a little ugly and a little ridiculous. Still less was her colour a source of horror to him. In her own world that green was beautiful and fitting; it was his pasty white and angry sunburn which were the monstrosity
She is dark and beautiful, he is ugly, “a little ridiculous,” and pasty at that! Melatonin as a signifier of beauty in this instance remains a reminder for Ransom (and for Lewis) the sins of European empire. Ransom’s struggle is with Weston who becomes the Un-Man whose goal it is to “To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race.” From a historical context, Lewis is criticizing one of his contemporaries, Olaf Stapledon, who I shall feature in this series. Lewis even rejects this theory, is this spirituality is not grounded in a Christian spirituality like that of the Middle Ages. His suspicion recognizes that the thrones of empires change seats, like in one instance, the throne may be religion, and in another science, and today, for example, the CEO’s chair. Humanity’s thrones are fluid and elusive, and it is up to the Christian to discern where injustice lies. Ransom argues (for Lewis) that the evidence of the Un-Man’s inhumanity is found in the lives of the oppressed.
“Well, the blacks know more about the universe than the white people. Dirty priests in back streets in Dublin frightening half-witted children to death with stories about it. You’d say they are unenlightened. They’re not: except that they think there is a way of escape. There isn’t. That is the real universe, always has been, always will be. That’s what it all means”
Lewis makes plain the imperial struggle in which he is waging with his pen by taking this interplanetary war and making it a very terrestrial one here on earth, on a college campus no less in the third piece of the Ransom Trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Ransom calls upon Merlin to help him in his struggle against the National Institute of Coordinate Experiments (NICE), who recognizes the Nimrodian nature of these science-worshipping beasts:
For the Hideous Strength confronts us, and it is as in the days when Nimrod built a tower to reach heaven.” “Hidden it may be,” said Merlinus, “ but not changed. Leave me to work, Lord. I will wake it
The question for Lewis is not whether or not Christians should work for a better world, that’s obviously a yes. God has given the faithful that responsibility. The question is “What do we want that better world to look like?”
And I would say, it should look a little bit like racial reconciliation and justice.
- Racial Justice And Science Fiction: Introduction (politicaljesus.com)
- Racial Justice and Science Fiction: Joss Whedon as Prison Abolitionist (politicaljesus.com)
- Upcoming Panel Presentation for Regional AAR 2012 (politicaljesus.com)
- The Shape of Things To Come: Blogging for Black History Month (politicaljesus.com)