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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Apropos of nothing: the Problem of Susan

Have I already blogged this, or mentioned it somewhere in the blogosphere? Probably. But anyway, I was just looking at old email, and recalled this fan video of Susan Pevensie in "The Last Battle" (played by an unsuspecting Liv Tyler) reacting to being told of the deaths of her siblings.

It's a piece of folk art -- that's what fan art is, you know -- which surpasses the commercial art it uses as its materials, taking the well-acted, but deeply reactionary and triumphalist scenes from the Narnia movies -- bowing to the lion, gleefully occupying one's new throne -- and putting them into a fresh and heartbreaking context, turning them, message-wise, on their heads.

(I also really liked Gaiman's story "The Problem of Susan".)

What I'm bitter about, you know, about the whole Susan thing, is not the Act of God that renders her a brotherless, sisterless, abandoned orphan, nor even the pretense that this is a Righteous Thing. I'm comfortable with divine brutality -- the Bible, after all, is full of God doing things which are unforgivably appalling if judged by human standards, and this seems if anything to me to be a strength of the text. The world is in fact full of horrors, after all, and therefore a Sunday-school Bible Stories redaction in which God doesn't go around doing awful things, simply severs the connection of the text to the world -- or ramps down its monotheism. If you are going to attempt monotheism at all, you are going to have to come up with some theodicy in which your God is the source of at least apparent evil.

Thus God, or Aslan, smashing the trains up and leaving Susan all alone, is entirely in character. I can imagine Lewis's thought being, that Susan requires this tragedy in order to learn what she needs to learn, and thus that from a God's-eye view it's part of the necessary pattern of her life.

What won't fly, though, is her siblings' dismissive reactions, their lack of anguish at her plight, their writing her off. They are human, and to be judged by human standards. They don't let the loss of their sister ruin their party in paradise, they don't rebel against it. When I first read that (I must have been not much older than Aviva is now) they lost any claim on my affections.

(Did you know there are no Google hits for the phrase "triumphalist theodicy"? Or not before now, anyway. Welcome, future readers who arrive searching for that phrase!)

Posted by benrosen at April 25, 2009 03:50 PM | Up to blog

Ben, do you know where one can obtain a copy of "The Problem of Susan"?

Posted by: Jackie M. at April 25, 2009 05:09 PM

Hey Jackie,
"The Problem of Susan" is available in Gaiman's collection Fragile Things. It was originally published in an anthology called Flights: Visions of Extreme Fantasy (or somesuch) which, well, kinda didn't live up to its intentions. But the Gaiman story is really beautiful!

Posted by: Peter Hollo at April 25, 2009 06:01 PM

I will never forgive Lewis what he did with Susan -- not the literal plot of it, not the reactions of her siblings. Never.

Posted by: Haddayr at April 26, 2009 01:46 AM

Ha. So, I just sent this in email to Ben, and he said to go ahead and post it:

I've had a question bouncing around in my head and bugging me lately, and it is quite definitely apropos of your note about the Problem of Susan. However, I think it might be a huge thread-derail if I posted it in comments, so I thought I'd email you instead.

In unpolished form, the question is this: what does contemporary Judaism have to say about the Problem of Jericho? Because, as far as I can tell, contemporary Christianity chooses to regard it as Not a Problem, and that fact lies fairly near to the core of why I stopped participating in that religion. From following you and Vardibidian, I've gathered that there's an entirely different way of interacting with the sacred texts than the ones I grew up with or studied later, and so I've been wondering for a long time about the Jewish perspective on this while lacking an opening to ask -- which, sadly for you, came in the form of this quote: "I'm comfortable with divine brutality -- the Bible, after all, is full of God doing things which are unforgivably appalling if judged by human standards, and this seems if anything to me to be a strength of the text."

To clarify, the Problem of Jericho, much like the Problem of Susan, is not precisely that the Lord caused entire cities (Jericho, Ai, and on) full of people to be wiped out. [I add at posting time: that's a different problem, the Canaanite Genocide.] To me, the Problem of Jericho is that the people of the Lord are directed to commit unforgivably appalling sin and call it righteousness. This is after the Commandments have been given, and while it is useful to clarify that the 6th forbids murder and not killing in general, it makes the slaughter of children that much more specifically forbidden. And the reaction? One man keeps a bolt of cloth [I misremembered: a garment and some gold and silver]. The one soldier who fails to follow orders does so not out of conscience or pity but avarice.

Posted by: Dan P at April 27, 2009 07:22 PM

Dan, after telling you to go ahead and post, I've been trying to put together a response, but it got out of hand. Maybe the simplest answer I have is that, frankly, Joshua never had much as claim on my affections as the Pevensie kids. He reads to me as a barbarian, a cold-blooded military man who has grown up in a series of total wars in the desert and brutal divine wrath against minor transgressions, and he has the choice between to leading his people from constant hunger and privation and landlessness to plenty and wealth if he obeys this obscene and horrifying divine command, or, judging based on his life experience, of being swallowed by a big crack in the ground if he deviates in the least detail.

I would respect Joshua a lot more if, like Abraham, he tried to bargain to save more of the lives of the condemned. But I don't think there has been much in his life that has prepared him to look for, or to summon from within himself, that kind of leniency and mercy. He's in a horrific situation, and he chooses obedience and life over defiance and death; we don't really know how he feels about it. There's certainly no indication that he's complacent about it.

I don't feel much affection for Joshua, but I also don't feel like my life has been hard enough to entirely judge his.

Whereas the Pevensies have had a soft life. They are not being told to sacrifice the lives of strangers or be slaughtered themselves. They are selling out their sister, pretty much unprovoked. It's not as bad as genocide, in absolute terms; but in terms of narrative and character it's more appalling.

This doesn't really answer what I think is your broader theological question, which is, how can one claim to be a believer in the God of the Tanakh, when God is clearly the villain of much of the story? I don't think I have time to answer that question here, but let me just state unequivocally: Joshua was wrong. He should not have killed the babies of Canaan. He should have defied God. Indeed the text can be read as a cautionary tale about the price of too much obedience to heavenly commands.

I'm not claiming that is how the text was originally intended to be read (if that even means anything precise). It's a counter-reading. But you can't have a contemporary religion that preserves its connection with 2500-year-old texts without a whole heap of counter-readings.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 18, 2009 03:58 PM


Sorry not to have seen your response earlier. Thank you, it gives me some interesting angles to think about this.

I realized a while after posting that I didn't quite make clear the rough parallel I draw between Susan's story and Jericho's, which is in their roles as texts that illustrate the good. I am not so much troubled by the rightness or not of the characters in the story as in the structure of the story itself.

My focus on the individual motivation of the looter at Jericho distracted from that, I think. More, though, it sounds to me that your response is coming from within the stories and within the characters' heads regardless of what I'd written. I don't think that's in any way a bad way to get at these stories, but it's not as much where my problem lies.

Thanks again for the reply!

Posted by: Dan P at May 28, 2009 02:29 AM


Insofar as I can claim to represent any kind of "contemporary Jewish" reading of the Biblical story -- as opposed to simply a highly idiosyncratic one -- it's probably precisely in my unwillingness to read the Biblical text in precisely the way you describe: as a member of a category of "texts that illustrate the good".

I think the idea of a hypostasized, infinte, all-purpose Good -- and the Sunday-school reading of the Bible which it demands -- is a Hellenistic import foreign to the spirit of the Tanakh (which, I note with amusement, puts me in a Jew/Greek cage match with Nick Mamatas's excellent essay "How to Rid the World of Good", in which he blames us for sullying up the Good-free Hellenic worldview in a precisely parallel manner. I expect we're actually both right and ethically absolutized monotheism is the Judeo-Hellenic Reese's peanut butter cup of the classical world.)

The thing about actually engaging with a 3000-year old religious text as it's written, is that the shift in values over that timespan totally undermines the attempt to read it as pure "instructions for the good". Christians have the option of deciding that the parts they don't like are the ones Paul refers to when he talked about Jesus "abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations", while the parts they like are the ones Jesus was referring to when he said "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets." The problem of Jericho is thus, for some Christians anyway, reduced to an intertrinitarian issue of a harsh Father's punitive tendencies redeemed by the mellow leniency of his Son.

Jews don't have any such option, because there's no notion of "abolishing the Law". Yet the Law of the Torah is barbaric, bizarre, impractical, and impossible to fulfill -- and was, already, in Talmudic times. Therefore the 2000 year old project of rereading and counterreading it, metaphorically, mystically, or with various strategies of resistance.

For me the issue reduces totally to the morality of the characters -- where God is one of the characters -- because for me, to read the Bible as a simplistic set of instructions for living is like reading Lolita as a manual for pedophilia.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 28, 2009 12:08 PM

I have a quibble -- you knew I'd have a quibble, right? I didn't say instructions, I said illustration, which I would think takes the air right out of the Lolita analogy. But you reject the Tanakh as illustration, too, and I think that's the interesting part.

Still, let's get back to The Last Battle. Is there any question that Lewis meant that book as an illustration of the good (clearly not instructions, but illustration)? Isn't that the foundation stone of what makes the non-Susan siblings reaction to Susan's apostasy and grief so galling -- that their attitudes get authorial approval? We could easily imagine the same story told by a different omniscient narrator in which Peter is gripped by megalomania, Lucy by delusional rejection of her approaching puberty, and Edmund by pathological solipsism. Same character reactions, no reader annoyance. But that's not the story Lewis wrote, so we have to engage with it on his terms.

Similarly, to me, with the story of Jericho. The scribes of that event are not just recording, they are illustrating a fruitful relationship between a people and their god. I take as given the concept that engaging with those scribes must involve "rereading and counterreading ... with various strategies of resistance." What I question, given that... is probably verging into an argument about religious tradition itself, and best left for a less-public occasion.

I know I've been argumentative, but I've been getting a lot out of your responses. Thank you for taking the time to write.

Posted by: Dan at July 28, 2009 06:08 PM

Hmm... I'm not sure I'm following your objection. If Lolita is an illustration, or examination (in large part by counterexample) of the moral life, then so too is the Bible. People in the Bible act (small-g) good sometimes, bad sometimes, ambiguous other times, and the trenchancy and richness of the text makes it ripe for all kinds of moral interpretation, reinterpretation, and reimagination.

As I said, my problem around Susan is the other Pevensies' reaction, not the brute fact of a divinely ordained train wreck (the first book takes place during WWII, so the moment we allow for any kind of divine interaction with history at all, the moment that any of the books implies that Aslan could have saved Susan's parents or any single other inhabitant of Earth, then we run smack dab into Aslan's apparent inattention to the ovens of Auschwitz, right? After that, one train crash is something I can swallow easily.)

Lewis has used all the tricks twentieth century literature knows to make us like and identify with Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, and up until this moment their actions have either been worthy of our approval, or swiftly repented of. They are -- in a way no character in the Hebrew Bible, I would argue, is, because the Hebrew Bible is not a modern heroic melodrama -- the good guys.

Not only that, up until now there have been no real moral costs to following Aslan. In all the battles with the White Witch and the Telmarines and so on, no one ever said to Peter, "our supply lines are stretched too thin and we're late, you're going to have to slaughter these prisoners if you want to win this one." Susan is the only thing they must jettison.

It's a reasonable guess that the original scribes "approved" of Joshua's genocide, for some value of approve -- though discomfort with it emerges pretty early in the tradition. But in the text, at least in my reading, there's no sense of complacency. There's no sense of "alas, tsk, tsk, our sister is interested in stockings, no Heaven for her."

If anything, the story of Jericho rubs the reader's nose in the unflinching horror of the massacre. It is sparely told, there are no modern tricks of reader identification, and no one in it is a good guy. The scribes (unlike me) may have thought Joshua acted rightly, but they also, I imagine, thought that the proper reaction to the fact that Joshua acted rightly was terror -- abject terror, deep unease, awe, and horror.

That means that while the scribes and I disagree in the matter of the extent of obedience, I at least feel they are playing fair with me about the costs of their point of view. I feel like we are having the same conversation. I don't feel that way about Lewis.

There is no such thing as too argumentative on this blog, and I'd be happy to argue about religious tradition -- here or anywhere! Thanks for renewing the moribund thread. :-)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 28, 2009 07:14 PM

Well, and no one is obligated to read a story the same way I do. I'm feeling a bit hapless, though, that I can't even communicate my own reading.

Let's implement the Paraphrase Test here: am I reading *you* correctly in my impression that, unlike me, you read the story of Jericho as illustrating an unwholesome relationship between a people and their Creator?

In the interest of not getting lost in a maze of twisty passages, all alike, I'd better stop there and see if I've got that right.

And I'll remember to check this page more often.

Posted by: Dan at August 1, 2009 01:07 AM

Unfortunately *I* forgot to check the page more often. :-)

Hmm... "unwholesome". I don't think that's how the original scribes would have put it. Rather, I think they would have said that a very natural reaction to coming into contact with the divine was abject terror, even horror. The divine was not a cozily convenient way of reassuring yourself of your own goodness. God was not there to make sure you made your sales quota. H. P. Lovecraft's vision of the encounter with the unknowable beyond is closer to the original Biblical sentiment than is the Hallmark-card religion of TV Christmas specials.

I think the way *I* read the Jericho story is as a cautionary tale, and a tale of moral horror. These guys cross the desert, and reach the land that they believe has been promised them, and they are told they have to take it by slaughtering all the inhabitants. I think it's shameful that they do not, like Abraham before Sodom or Moses on Sinai, try to bargain or flatter or refuse to go along. But they're scared out of their minds.

"Unwholesome". Hmm. I think that at that point the relationship has, indeed, not yet become whole.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 23, 2009 03:27 PM

As of April 2014 there are now 4 hits for "triumphalist theodicy"...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 23, 2014 09:09 PM

I re-read the books for a "The Problem of Susan" panel at the 2014 Wiscon, and while I still find The Last Battle a terrible book, one in which Lewis's dogmatism and rigidity triumphs over his goodwill and exuberance, I was intrigued to realize (when another panelist pointed it out) that I was doing the Pevensie kids a disservice. At the time of the infamous "nylons and lipstick", none of the humans knows that Susan is about to become an orphan -- they don't know they're dead. It looks like just another trip to Narnia to them. And look who speaks:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

Then Polly adds, “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

And then Peter interrupts to get them to stop talking about it.

Lucy and Edmund say nothing, and Peter is curt and troubled. It's Jill and Polly, who hardly know here, who rattle on unkindly about her makeup and nylons; and it's easy to believe that Jill, at least, who knows that statistically this is probably her last trip to Narnia, that she herself has lipstick and nylons to look forward to, is so fierce on the topic out of her own sorrow at letting go of chidlhood magic. (I don't know what's Polly's problem; I'm disappointed in her).

The Pevensies themselves (and Digory?) can easily be read as more grieving and confused, than smug and gossipy.

The problem then becomes Lewis's framing. If in fact Lucy is about to realize, just after the last page of the book, what's just happened to Susan -- and if the Lucy we love would go ballistic -- then ending the book when he does is sheer cowardice.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 3, 2014 07:40 PM
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