Fifty Years

Today (22 November 2013) is the fiftieth anniversary of deaths of three famous persons:

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Aldous Huxley

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John F. Kennedy

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and C. S. Lewis.

The irony of that day is that Kennedy–a star on the rise, but not yet fulfilled–is the one whose death got the attention. Of course, he was the president of the United States, and someone that visibly powerful tends to draw the eye more than those whose influence plays out over centuries. Kennedy was glamorous and youthful, and while his education showed itself in his speeches and policies, his intellect didn’t challenge people in uncomfortable ways.

By contrast, Huxley warned us of the dangers of cheerful tyranny in A Brave New World. More importantly, he reminded us of transcendence, what he referred to as the perennial philosophy. His writings convinced me that science is not the only way to see the world. I have come to think of this as the theology of narratives. We comprehend the world on multiple levels, but storytelling is our primary mode of thought.

Lewis’s influence on me is broader. He was a vigorous debater, a teacher of the classics, and a fine literary critic. His stories were of varying quality from the heavy-handed Space Trilogy to the fun of his best known Chronicles of Narnia, but some of his narratives were profound. The Screwtape Letters works, whether we see the demons as fallen angels or as marketing executives. Till We Have Faces is a study of jealousy and of how human beings interact with the divine. And, of course, as a writer myself, it’s gratifying to see a scholar who comes to public attention as he reaches middle age.

But what of Kennedy? As I said above, he was potential without fulfillment. We love to play the game of counterfactuals, speculating about the Vietnam War or civil rights. Certainly, Kennedy was more cautious than Johnson and may have preferred the free market to the Great Society. We just don’t know. Like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, we are, with Kennedy, left in anticipation. His life was a story unfinished, and so we can only spin out the ending according to what our imaginations can conceive.

And that is the point. All our lives are stories, stories that we write for ourselves and tell to each other. The meaning that we find is in the narrative. If I may play with the ideas of “The Music of the Ainur,” written by Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, it is the duty and life of each of us to sing our theme in the cosmic fugue (thanks be to Carl Sagan) and our worthiness to use that theme to add to the total music.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

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