By Lauren Bobbitt
A few nights ago I joined with most of America to watch President Obama’s State of the Union address. Politics and economics aside, I was struck by a trend throughout his speech – how frequently he referred to stories about us, about Americans. Though we could (and probably should) have many discussions about the efficacy and integrity of this approach as a rhetorical device or as justification for particular actions, I was especially interested in what this reveals about the inherent human attraction to stories. Whether anecdotal or epic, they captivate the human mind with a speed and intensity that few other methods can. Though we encounter stories everywhere, from news blurbs to books to attention-getters in speeches, I think that perhaps our most unacknowledged but everpresent encounter with Story is the reading of our own.
The Waning Clarity of Memories
The primary way that we confront our personal life story, whether consciously or not, is through memory and remembering. Working through memories, reflecting on past experiences and conversations, remembering words of advice or warning in times of need –these are among the ways that we come to understand ourselves and make sense of the world and our place in it. Coupled with the imagination, memories permit us to be transported outside our immediate circumstances and, to a certain extent, to view our lives from a more objective position than is often possible in the midst of a situation. The beauty of a divine Author for our lives is that we can perceive and understand, though dimly at times, the narrative played out on our small stage; the inevitable frustration, of course, is that we cannot read the whole book at once nor do we ultimately hold the pen.
Having just completed my residency as a Fellow at the John Jay Institute, I have been pondering memory (a labyrinthine endeavor, to be sure!) over the last few weeks as I have been in the transitional phase before the next step in my life. Missing my fellow fellows and the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, and continuing to process the ideas of our study and conversations, I often find myself encountering or resurrecting memories from that four month period. This experience –sometimes an unavoidable response and sometimes a discipline –variously guides me to joy, comfort, thoughtfulness, clarity, gratefulness, and growth. I order my life and create categories for reality as I engage in this process.
But, my remembering –anyone’s remembering – cannot long sustain such a pure and healthy function. The line between productive reflection and crippling nostalgia easily blurs, and the lapse into self-indulgent discontentment and egocentrism seems inevitable. We all have in us a bit of the elderly widow who still lives in the year that her husband died; the past, as it exists in our minds, can be a welcome place to reside. The temptation to idealize and modify our memory’s “Past” is felt by all and is, to a certain degree, not altogether bad. But how quickly I forget the mounds of reading, the late nights and early mornings, and the refining fires of my John Jay experience in the midst of my (I must admit) sometimes idyllic recollections of it. When we find ourselves desperately grasping at the waning clarity of memories or when the centripetal, internalizing effects of remembering overshadow its centrifugal ones, the memory has become detrimental. In discussing the nature of contemporary memoir writing –perhaps our culture’s most obvious manifestation of memory –Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, says, “If what we want is to make the past meaningful, then memoirs –in either their sentimental or their anti-sentimental form –may not be the solution to the modern writer’s peculiar situation.”
The Knowledge and Vision of Times Long Past
Making the past meaningful, then, requires another kind of memory –a historical and collective one. Such a memory places the self within the community and individual experience in the context of history and objective reality. The result is a grounding in permanence and truth with an awareness of the real and sobering nature of human existence –both antidotes to isolated romanticism and nostalgia. C.S. Lewis deals with this idea in Prince Caspian, one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia books, which I have recently re-read. Following on the heels of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian presents a Narnia hundreds of years removed from the reign of Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy. A usurper harshly rules while young Caspian, the rightful heir, must flee for his life. He takes with him only the memories of and longing for the Old Narnia –a world in which goodness and justice reigned in the land, the talking beasts reigned in the forests, and faith and hope in Aslan reigned in the hearts of all. Though these realities have been nearly annihilated in Narnia, a remnant remains, preserving the knowledge and vision of times long past. One such individual is Dr. Cornelius, Caspian’s tutor, who taught him to know and love this history.
On his personal exodus, Caspian soon encounters the vibrant, though much reduced, group of Old Narnians –mostly talking beasts, giants, centaurs, and the like. With his hopes of Old Narnia’s existence realized, Caspian bands together with these creatures to take back the kingdom from the usurper. But this task is impossible without outside help, which comes in the form of the four Pevensie children, who have been magically drawn into Narnia from their train platform in England.
These former kings and queens undergo a remembering process of their own when, upon their arrival in Narnia, they find themselves in the ruins of their former castle, finally realizing that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years have passed since the time they reigned. The scene in which they discover this is a beautiful process of remembering, almost liturgical in its repetitiveness:
“Then, of course, they began walking about and picking things up to look at. It was like meeting very old friends. If you had been there you would have heard them saying things like, ‘Do you remember first wearing this?…do you remember the dwarf making that for me? –do you remember drinking out of that horn? –do you remember, do you remember?’”
In this stirring to life of memories from their Narnian past, the children are not only situating themselves in place and time, they are in fact becoming, more and more, the kings and queens they once were and, to a greater degree, will be.
The Memory of Days to Come
Yet this leaves to be achieved any kind of influence on the present Narnia, which requires joining with those faithful Narnians who have preserved a living historical memory. The children must come to understand Narnia as it was (after their time), as it is now, and, thus, as it might be. Of the old-world Narnians, not all still believe the knowledge, the remembrances, that they have guarded and nurtured.
Some, like Nickabrick the dwarf, turn to black magic as a solution to their tiny army’s almost certain defeat at the hands of the evil king. Even the faithful Trumpkin, another dwarf, doubts whether Aslan really exists and if he would help them even if he did. They have lost their religious memory, which, as Vigen Guroian points out in Tending the Heart of Virtue, illuminates faith as well as the mind. Many Narnians, like the badgers who “never forget,” have maintained this religious memory and still confidently fix their hearts and hope on what they have heard of the supernatural, the Good, and the True, embodied in Aslan.
Finally, breaking the Narnian version of the 400 Years of Silence, this powerfully good and fiercely loving lion arrives. As the final word on all that the True Narnians have remembered and passed on and hoped for centuries, Aslan brings life and enables victory. The Narnians ultimately defeat King Miraz, and Caspian ascends to his rightful place on the throne.
The spirit of the real Narnia had always existed, even under oppressive foreign kings and the absence of Aslan, but its intangibility was made more accessible and desirable in the minds and hearts of successive generations by the sharing of stories, the legacy of faith, and the grounded longing of those who remembered without idealizing, hoped without neglecting personal responsibility, sacrificed without counting the cost, and desired without becoming selfish. I imagine a number of the Narnian creatures would have found it much easier, much more comforting, to remain in the shelter of their forest hideouts, shored up with their memories of the past and firm, but untried, hope for the future. But this is no way to live a full life nor to build a civilization and culture. For the best and greatest of them, the remembrance of the past –the historical and “religious” memory –pushed them over the cliff of comfort and discontentment with the world into the dangerous, exhilarating battle against the forces that threatened the understanding with which their memories and hearts fairly burst.
It was tempting to cling to the memories rather than the reality behind them and the goal in front of them, just as it was tempting for Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy to remain in Narnia after the victory rather than to return to England. But they had to go back, and let us note how Lewis closes the book, describing the children as they find themselves once again on
“the gray, gravelly surface of a platform in a country station, and a seat with luggage round it, where they were all sitting as if they had never moved from it –a little flat and dreary for a moment after all they had been through, but also, unexpectedly, nice in its own way, what with the familiar railway smell and the English sky and the summer [school] term before them.”
Isn’t it good, after all, to know that –even with both the reassuring joy and the seductive siren-call of memories –that the term is beginning and the work is ahead of us?