excess, c.s. lewis, and coincidence

At college, I once had a (rather drunk) acquaintance of mine explain, very carefully and in great detail, why there were no coincidences in life. It was a lengthy monologue, but the basic gist was that the human mind creates connections in order to comfort itself in the vast, random, emptiness that is life. (He was more cheerful when not at a party). If he had asked, I would have told him that I did not see coincidences as some magical sign from above, but I did know that I was impressed by the human mind's ability to find connections between actions, events, and objects that seemed both disparate and completely distinct. My own mind, especially, seems to enjoy seeking out the smallest connection and coincidences and musing on them (as my beleaguered high school writing teacher realized when I turned in an essay comparing Macbeth to Michael Milkin and the S&L scandal). Recently, while reading C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy" (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), my mind became busy making connections with a speaker I had recently heard, the psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips.

Not only did the talk I attended speak to the idea, and place, of science and its relationship with the world and literature (a major theme/concern in the series), but a series of short essays that Phillips presented on BBC 3 last week discussed the human inclination to excess (a topic lengthily discussed in Perelandra). It fascinates me to be able to, in effect, listen to a conversation between two very intelligent men who are separated by decades. Their goals are quite different. Lewis, unabashedly, seeks to convert his readers to his beliefs (in God, in the importance of good in the world, in humankind's ability to work for the betterment of all) while Phillips desires, I think, to understand what is going on, to get to the why of humanities' actions.

They ask similar questions, though. Why does man feel this need to eat/sleep/work/exercise to excess? Lewis seems to suggest that man is trying to hold on to pleasure--that the eating over and over again of food is an attempt to re-create the pleasure of the first encounter with the food. That mankind always wants too much of a good thing because of a desire to have the same experience of pleasure over and over again. An attempt to re-create the very first source of pleasure, Eden, in fact. This goal is of course doomed, as Adam was doomed. Lewis' answer to excess is the realization that the only true place perfection (and re-creation) can be found is with God and the church. That mankind can never find solace and salvation through striving for more and must look to God instead.

Phillips seems to look for a concrete and "modern" why and suggests that mankind does to excess to fill some sort of lack. That eating to excess demonstrates an anxiety that food will not always be available. The idea that excess is a fun-house mirror reflection of a lack is satisfying because it implies that once that lack is filled, the excess will disappear. Oddly, this theory leaves me , at least, less satisfied than Lewis' lost Eden. As far as I am from Lewis' point of view, his certainty that Eden once existed (and that it can be found again only through God and not the efforts of man) is like a clear shining light in his writing. The very certainty that God will create a second Eden makes poetry of his arguments. Phillips, although intellectually satisfying, feels modern, Freudian, and ambiguous. The idea of the source of the excess, the void, somehow being resolved seems obvious, but it does not seem possible. What is the lack to be filled with in this day and age? And is it this struggle that has driven mankind to success in medicine and technology as well as its failures in wars and the poisoning of the environment? To recognize the void is not enough and indeed, without Lewis' certainty that mankind will somehow be saved, seems frightening.