According to C.S. Lewis scholar, Dr. Michael Ward, when it came to language, C.S. Lewis had “the highest possible view: language is a metaphysical reality with a transcendent origin.” (Planet Narnia, pg. 151) After Babel, and given the constraints of this world’s fallenness, Lewis understood that language was something that was continually under attack. The attack is most pronounced in our modern, scientific age when “precision” is valued above all else – even to the point of destroying meaning.
George Orwell understood this to a degree (though he did not “have eyes to see” the attack’s spiritual origins) when he wrote of Newspeak, his satirical rendering of linguistic reductionism: “Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined, and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”
Lewis wrote this in a letter in 1949:
“In a sense, one can hardly put it into words: only the simplest colours have names, and hardly any of the smells. The simple physical pains and (still more) the pleasures can’t be expressed in language. I labour the point lest the devil shd. hereafter try to make you believe that what was wordless was therefore vague and nebulous. But in reality it is just the clearest, the most concrete, and the most indubitable realities which escape language: not because they are vague but because language is … Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual.”
Ward notes that for Lewis, “the actual” represents “concrete but wordless realities.” (Planet Narnia, pg. 151)
Lewis wrote of this destruction of language in his sonnet “Re-Adjustment” where he reflects on the reality that many today cannot go beyond comprehending a simple “linear chain of events,” as Ward writes, having lost “the ability to discern a story’s hidden meaning, ‘something that has no sequence in it.'” (Planet Narnia, pg. 149)
Perhaps, this is why so much of our modern writing seems thin in comparison to the past. The modern language with which we work is limited, therefore our capacity to communicate and understand a richness of meaning is reduced.
Language and as a result, meaning in all of its variegated and multi-faceted complexity, are casualties of the scientism of the modern age. Perhaps that is another reason we moderns are more confounded by what appears to be Christianity’s many paradoxes. Our ancestors, especially our medieval ancestors, were able to comprehend complexity better than we are today.
I thought there would be a grave beauty, a sunset splendour
In being the last of one’s kind: a topmost moment as one watched
The huge wave curving over Atlantis, the shrouded barge
Turning away with wounded Arthur, or Ilium burning.
Now I see that, all along, I was assuming a posterity
Of gentle hearts: someone, however distant in the depths of time,
Who could pick up our signal, who could understand a story. There won’t be.
Between the new Hembidae and us who are dying, already
There rises a barrier across which no voice can ever carry,
For devils are unmaking language. We must let that alone forever.
Uproot your loves, one by one, with care, from the future,
And trusting to no future, receive the massive thrust
And surge of the many-dimensional timeless rays converging
On this small, significant dew drop, the present that mirrors all.
Sources: Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)