Mutilated Frogs

Sunday, May 29, 2011

There is this incredible moment in C.S. Lewis' Perelandra in which the horror of sin and evil nearly causes me to stop reading. I cringe at any rate, scrunch up my nose and close one eye so that it's harder to read the words on the page. The moment? Ransom is on Perelandra (the planet Venus), a pre-fall world, and has recently been joined by Weston, a man who we soon discover has been possessed by a demon or the devil himself with the intent of deceiving and felling the Green Lady. Not yet convinced that Weston isn't merely a mad meglomaniac, Ransom awakes, and here follows:

"Neither Weston nor the Lady was in sight, and he bagan walking in a leisruely fashion beside the sea. His bare feet sank a little into a carpet of saffron-coloured vegetation, which covered them with an aromatic dust. As he was looking down at this he suddenly noticed something else. At first he thought it was a creature of more fantastic shape than he had yet seen on Perelandra. Its shape was not only fantastic but hideous. Then he dropped on one knee to examine it. Finally he touched it, with reluctance. A moment later he drew bvack his hands like a man who has touched a snake.
It was a damaged animal. It was, or had been, one of the brightly coloured frogs. But some accident had happened to it. The whole back had been ripped open in a sort of V-shaped gash, the point of the V being a little behind the head. Something had torn a widening wound backward - as we do in opening an envelope - along the trunk and pulled it out so far behind the animal that the hoppers or hind legs had almost torn off with it. They were so damaged that the frog could not leap. On earth it would have been merely a nasty sight, but up to this moment Ransom had as yet seen nothing dead or spoiled in Perelandra, and it was like a blow in the face. It was like the first spasm of well-remembered pain warning a man who had thought he was cured that his family have deceived him and he is dying after all. It was like the first lie from the mouth of a friend on whose truth one was willing to stake a thousand pounds. It was irrevocable. The milk-wamr wind blowing over the golden sea, the blues and silvers and greens of the floating garden, the sky itself - all these had become, in one instant, merely the illuminated margin of a book whose text was the struggling little horror at his feet, and he himself, in that same instant, had passed into a state of emotion which he could neither control nor understand. He told himself that a creature of that kind probably had very little sensation. But it did not much mend matters. It was not merely pity for pain that had suddenly changed the rhythm of his heart-beats. The thing was an intolerable obscenity which afflicted him with shame. It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened.
Then he decided, in spite of this theoretical belief that it was an organism too low for much pain, that it had better be killed. He had neither boots nor stone nor stick. The frog proved remarkably hard to kill. When it was far too late to desist he saw clearly that he had been a fool to make the attempt. Whatever its sufferings might be he had certainly increased and not diminished them. But he had to go through with it. The job seemed to take nearly an hour. And when at last the mangle result was quite still and he went down to the water's edge to wash, he was sick and shaken. It seems odd to say this of man who had been on the Somme; but the architects tell us that nothing is great or small save by position.
At last he got up and resumed his walk. Next moment he started and looked at the ground again. He quickened his pace, and then once more stopped and looked. He stood stock-still and covered his face. He called aloud upon heaven to break the nightmare or to let him understand what was happening. A trail of mutilated frogs lay along the edge of the island. Picking his footsteps with care, he followed it. He counted ten, fifteen, twenty: and the twenty-first brought him to a place where the wood came down to the water's edge. He went into the wood and came out on the other side. There he stopped dead and stared. Weston, still clothed but without his pith helmet, was standing about thirty feet away: and as Ransom watched he was tearing a frog - quietly and almost surgically inserting his forefinger, with its long sharp nail, under the skin behind the creature's head and ripping it open. Ransom had not noticed before that Weston had such remarkable nails. Then he finished the operation, threw the bleeding ruin away, and looked up. Their eyes met."

(Lewis, C.S. Perelandra. Scribner Paperback Fiction. New York: 1996. p108 - 110)

Two brief points I would make in regards to this.

The first is the sense of sheer horror at the sight of an initially small mutilation. An abberation. A point of destruction in an as of yet, wholesom, whole and perfect line. Lewis is so skilled at writing, that the reader becomes absorbed in the world - it almost feels for those first few chapters on Perelandra that evil has been subdued even for the reader. That is, meditating upon such a surprisingly delightful and joy-filled world causes me to almost forget the injustice and sadness of ours. And this is exactly where the punch comes in. I stand shocked and horrified with Ransom when he sees that first mutilated frog. It even takes him a few minutes to decipher what it is - so accustomed has he grown to the lack of death's presence. It is a foreign thing.

And this is where for a brief instant I am able to recover the horror of evil, the ugliness of sin, the disgustingness of death. It is so easy to be de-sensitized when it is all around us. Our own sin becomes less important and offensive. "It's just a lie. Just a bad attitude. Just a grumpy word first thing in the morning." Ransom shouts at me: NO! It is a mutilation, an act of destruction that is far uglier and serious than you can ever fathom. It is as if I have taken my sharp fingernail and gouged at the soul's skin of the person I have hurt. It is as if I have arrived on the beautiful and perfect planet, expertly and lovingly crafted by the Living God, and stomped around on His frogs, twisting them into a wreck so far removed from their created form that they are barely recognizable. For a brief instant I can actually rise about the pity I feel when the reality of injustice hits me, and feel with Ransom the actual existential travesty that all evil is - from the 'smallest' cutting word to the grossest act of violence. "It was not merely pity for pain that had suddenly changed the rhythm of his heart-beats. The thing was an intolerable obscenity which afflicted him with shame. It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened" (109).

Taking this to a slight but still related side-note, experiencing this moment of realization of the ugliness and horror of sin (my own sin!) saves me from a pit I often fall into when thinking of injustice in the world. I can so easily start to blame God for the pain. I cry out to Him, "You can stop this! Why don't you? How dare you not? Don't you have any pity and mercy?!" If only I could see that the sheer awfulness of sin, death and mutilation is not only in the pain (thus invoking pity), but in its existence as everything in opposition to the good, holy Living God? Pity and mercy and compassion are gifts from God - unfoldings of His character! But how often I turn them against Him, as if I had more pity and compassion than He. How often I forget that even more than this pain offends the one being hurt, or myself watching, it violates the very person of God, it stomps around on His good, it claws with its fingernail at His holiness. It utterly rejects and pits itself against Him and all the joy in Him we were ever designed to experience. O may I not forget these things!

The second point I want to take from Lewis' passage is yet another feeling or sensation: that of being overwhelmed at the mutilation. Ransom goes to great lengths to kill the first mutilated frog and put it out of its misery (perhaps a foolish action), only to find - oh the sinking feeling - that a trail of mutilated frogs awaits him! This too relates. How often does the sheer thought of exposing oneself to the reality of pain, death and injustice in the world stop me from doing so. As quoted from Ever After, "I used to think that if I was to care about anything, I would have to care about everything." How can anyone of us bear that weight? How are we to expose ourself to injustice in order to engage with it, against it? Wont the extravagent weight of it all boll us over like a huge wave and crush us into tiny particles of sand?

Perhaps that is a question that cannot be answered on paper. There is good possibility that yes, the weight of it all will crush us and we will be crushed. Not ultimately, but here, on earth. Or maybe there is just as good possibility that we will share Ransom's later sentiment: "It surprised him that he could experience so extreme a terror and yet be walking and thinking - as men in war or sickness are surprised to find how much can be borne: 'it will drive us mad', 'it will kill us outright' we say; and then it happens and we find ourselves neither mad nor dead, still held to the task" (112). Maybe we will be crushed; maybe we will be sustained.

I take great hope in the fact that Lewis, the author of Ransom's world, does not leave his character alone. From the very beginning, Ransom was sent by Maleldil (...He has a different name here on earth), and in the end, he carries out what he was sent to do. How much more compassionate and gracious is the Living God: He has sent us and He will sustain us right through to the moment that He decides to bring us home. And again, how much more good and holy is the Living God: He will not let evil triumph forever, and injustice will not stomp around on His purpose for goodness and holiness to thrive - He will be seen and known. He will be glorified.

And we know that if He is glorified, all injustice will be rendered nothing.


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