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The Siege Perilous in the human soul


Most of yesterday I was in transit coming back from Melbourne. Why it took so long you might ask. I wrote the story then decided it was boring reading, but in short I’d timed my return trip with my sister and family flying out of Melbourne to Brisbane, so I could go to the airport with them, but my sister mistakenly gave me the wrong time initially (and I feel like I can tell you that because she never usually makes those sort of mistakes! – and everyone gets a few) so then I changed my flight when the mistake was discovered such that my flight then left five and a half hours after theirs and I then had time to kill. So for part of the day I was reading The Pilgrim’s Regress by CS Lewis, which is an allegorical story of the elusive experience of Sehnsucht or desire, and the role it played in his journey towards conversion.

You need a classical education just to fully grasp Lewis’s preface to, and thus his foundations for, this book (and he always makes me wish I’d had one), and if you are my friend on facebook and take any notice of facebook feeds you might have seen a reference to the preface a couple of days earlier after I read it one evening. At one point he writes:

When they called Romanticism ‘nostalgia’ I, who had rejected long ago the illusion that the desired object was in the past, felt that they had not even crossed the Pons Asinorum.

I had to look up Pons Asinorum on Wikipedia and then laugh at myself in the amusing irony that it means ‘But the more popular explanation is that it is the first real test … of the intelligence of the reader and as a bridge to the harder propositions that follow’ and I’d looked it up to read the preface.

Then throughout the book there are sections containing a frustrating amount of Latin, Greek and French, without translation footnotes, assumed knowledge of philosophical ideas, plus reference to philosophers by their first name only to represent their school of thought, which it would be useful to have on hand. This makes it a difficult, but not impossible, book to read yet I found it strangely compelling regardless, such that I am near the end (and haven’t yet picked it up today).

But the idea that I more particularly liked in the preface was that of the Siege Perilous, which I also looked up on wikipedia because I wanted to know more. It comes in this context:

This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle – the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective to all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the merely argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defence of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity.

I have a love of literary allusions and metaphors so I was taken with the Siege Perilous idea, but it really comes back to the ‘God-shaped hole’ notion and on to idolatry and is simply the old idea that there is a place in the human heart that only God is meant to, and can, fill.

This might sound all very abstract, but if so here is an excellently apt post describing one of the false objects of longing (which my church conveniently just linked on their facebook site), titled How can I long to be married without obsessing about it?, which is perhaps more common to women. I don’t by any means think anyone who’d like to be married has fallen into “marriolatry” (which, personally, I think is a silly word) or obsession, but it’s worth checking every so often. And what I appreciate about that article is that it moves quickly on to talk about desire and obsession in general, because there are a good many other possibilities. The problem for those still longing to be married (or still holding some other specific desire) is that, not yet being married, you don’t yet have the ontological proof that it is a false object for Desire with a capital D, so that is to be taken on trust (and it is here that I think many struggle – to believe it’s not what will bring them ultimate satisfaction). Meanwhile the challenge for us all is to channel all desires God-wards.

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