whitefly.com Rotating Header Image

Look Away Part Deux

Okay, so I was a bit premature in my posting.  I’d not quite finished the last chapter.  I was literally four pages away from the following:

How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!  She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontanta.

It is not clear to me that those are her words, but at a minimum they are C.S. Lewis’ words.  The quote means, roughly:

Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.

It is, of course, a quote from Canto 31 of Dante’s Paradiso.  In context, Dante is asking Beatrice to use whatever means she may employ to ensure that the soul she has helped to save (his) will not be lost somehow after this visit.  Beatrice’s response, in full:

So did I pray.  And she, however far away she seemed, smiled, and looked at me.  Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.

If it is not clear, the “eternal fountain” is, of course, God.  Throughout Paradiso, Dante continues to look upon Beatrice while she continues to gaze upon God.  There is a great deal of imagery surrounding “vision” and “looking upward” and light in Paradiso.  In any event, Beatrice’s momentary gaze with a smile upon Dante is essentially all she could do.  The beauty that is God does not allow one to look away when faced with it in purest form (when you are transformed into that purest of forms).  The only reason, presumably, that she can look away at all is the purity of his request to her and its relation to God.  Her looking away is such a small thing but, simultaneously, such an amazing demonstration of her love because it requires that she look away from the Perfect Love for even a moment.

Anyway, C.S. Lewis is obviously and intentionally calling upon the imagery of Dante and Beatrice in his work A Grief Observed.  In context, it is really quite a wonderful image.  I am happy to have noticed it before being slapped in the face with it several pages later.

C.S. Lewis is also concerned about another potential problem that he notes in A Grief Observed. He points out that it is a distinct possibility that he may deify or simplify his lost wife in his mind.  Somehow, this will make the process of getting over her easier, but in some way to violence to her actuality.  He uses the phrase, we always have another card in our deck (or something like that) to describe the ability of any person, even those most dear and known to you to surprise you at any moment.  This is a repeated concern for C.S. Lewis in his book.  C.S. wishes to avoid making the memory of his wife into anything.  In reality, he simply misses her, all of her, actuality.

Dante on the other hand goes out of his way to deify and simplify his affection for Beatrice.  In fact, that is in part his goal or at least his vision for his work.  Whether or not he really had the feelings he describes in himself regarding Beatrice, he uses it as an artifice to build her up as this divine being.  So far as I recall, not having read through to that point yet, Beatrice’s home is in the same Heavenly sphere as Mary the mother of Christ.  That is quite a claim!

In actuality, Beatrice was apparently quite a bit older than Dante and died when he was 25 or so (from what I read).  In any event, they never had a real relationship in any sense of the word.  To history’s knowledge they may have met a grand total of two times.  I’m sure we don’t know this, exactly, and he may have seen her numerous times on the street or whatever the 15th century version of stalking was, it may have taken place.

I think it all the more interesting that in the grieving process, C.S. Lewis clings to reality (which is precisely what I do) and shuns any fictional characterization (more likely mischaracterization) of those lost.  Dante’s work, in contrast, required just this.  It would have been terribly boring if he hadn’t made her so worthy of his adoration.  And, for purposes of his imagery of directing his “eyes” to God, both in the real world (apparently, she was the motivation for his interest in matters of faith) and in the next, Beatrice served as an excellent metaphor.

Both works are beautiful, one for being so “raw” and “real” and painful, the other for being so lofty and full of lovely imagery.  I’m glad for the happenstance of reading them so near in proximity to one another.


  1. Soup says:

    I’m a big CS Lewis fan, I never read A Grief because I never felt I had the experiences to appropriately appreciate it. Maybe I’ll read it anyway now, besides being interesting it might be the kind of thing that’s worthwhile to have in your head before you go through something. On a separate note, if you continue to have span issues with comments, I strongly suggest Akismet, free and it blocks pretty much all my spam after the first month.

  2. When I was a bereavement coordinator for hospice, A Grief Observed was one of the most frequently recommended books. People who are grieving find great comfort here.

Leave a Reply