Preliminary Notes on the Riddle of Self in Lilith, Part VI

It seems strange that it is even possible to use the same word for the death that is the progress of eternal Life in the human spirit, and for the death that is eternal misery, the death of despair. Those who refuse to die in the first way, die in the second. Rather than losing themselves voluntarily, and so gaining themselves, they cling tightly to themselves, to lose themselves in gnawing, impotent rage. This is, is of course, nothing more nor less than exactly what Jesus plainly said: “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

The parallel, of course, is that both kinds of death are a loss of self, loss of the self-life. That is both why they can be called death at all. But, as we have seen, the former is only a loss in terms of control: it is the self’s own eternal No to the possibility of knowing itself outside of its Source. It is this very act by which the human self springs into life. The latter, however, the “second death”, as it can very fitly be named, is a horrifying loss. Kierkegaard describes it incisively in The Sickness unto Death:

“It is in this latter sense, then, that despair is the sickness unto death, this tormenting contradiction, this sickness in the self; eternally to die, to die and yet not to die, to die death itself. For to die means that it is all over, while to die death itself means to live to experience dying. And if one can live to experience this for a single moment, then one lives to experience it for ever….

“The despairer cannot die; no more than ‘the dagger can kill thoughts’ can despair consume the eternal, the self that is the source of despair, whose worm dieth not and whose fire is not quenched. Yet despair is exactly a consumption of the self, but an impotent self-consumption not capable of doing what it wants. But what it wants is to consume itself, which it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consumption, but in which despair is once again incapable of doing what it wants, to consume itself.”

By grounding his language so completely in the relating of self to itself, Kierkegaard makes it transparently clear that the “second death” is not an arbitrary punishment awaiting in the after life: it is a self-confinement in a state of hell that is ubiquitous in life on earth; it is present in some degree wherever the self is not grounded transparently in the power that established it. Notice in what similar language MacDonald expresses the same idea in Lilith:

“She stood rigid. Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must death it for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must be! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest.” (Chapter XXXIX, “That Night”)

The passage above represents an extreme state. In it, Lilith is being forced to be aware of her live death in a way that is normally hidden from the self in earthly life. MacDonald says that we can insulate ourselves from this “miserific vision” only because we continuously experience in life the influx of the good gifts of God, whether we acknowledge the giver or not:

“But no liveliest human imagination could supply adequate representation of what it would be to be left without a shadow of the presence of God. If God gave it, man could not understand it: he knows neither God nor himself in the way of the understanding. For not he who cares least about God was in this world ever left as God could leave him. I doubt if any man could continue following his wickedness from whom God had withdrawn.” (“The Last Farthing”)

It is in fact this experience of utter horror that Lilith cannot withstand:

Without change of look, without sign of purpose, Lilith walked toward Mara. She felt her coming, and rose to meet her.

“I yield,” said the princess. “I cannot hold out. I am defeated.—Not the less, I cannot open my hand.”

As Kierkegaard clearly sees, the problem of despair is that it is disease that can operate hiddenly. To be ignorant that one has the disease is only to be farther from deliverance:

“Yet ignorance is so far from expunging the despair, or turning it into non-despair, that on the contrary it can be the most dangerous form of despair. In his ignorance the despairer is, though in a way to his own undoing, made safe against becoming aware–which means he is safely in the hands of despair.” (The Sickness unto Death)

As long as this despair consists mostly in the avoidance of the problem of being a self, it can be largely hidden by “staying busy”, by seeking entertainment, by never allowing inward silence in which the self can emerge. To the degree, however, by which the self becomes “hooked” on the enjoyment of its positive self-regard, the disease of self becomes more of a conscious problem, and the knowledge of it must be consciously suppressed for the maintenance of appearances, so that the self can continue to know itself in the way that it wishes to.

Lilith is a case study in extreme despair. At one point in the story, Mr. Raven summarizes her history for Mr. Vane:

“Mr. Vane, when God created me,—not out of Nothing, as say the unwise, but out of His own endless glory—He brought me an angelic splendour to be my wife: there she lies! For her first thought was power; she counted it slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being. One child, indeed, she bore; then, puffed with the fancy that she had created her, would have me fall down and worship her! Finding, however, that I would but love and honour, never obey and worship her, she poured out her blood to escape me, fled to the army of the aliens, and soon had so ensnared the heart of the great Shadow, that he became her slave, wrought her will, and made her queen of Hell. How it is with her now, she best knows, but I know also. The one child of her body she fears and hates, and would kill, asserting a right, which is a lie, over what God sent through her into His new world. Of creating, she knows no more than the crystal that takes its allotted shape, or the worm that makes two worms when it is cloven asunder. Vilest of God’s creatures, she lives by the blood and lives and souls of men. She consumes and slays, but is powerless to destroy as to create.” (Chapter XXIX, “The Persian Cat”)

In this description, we can see together Kierkegaard’s two primary forms of despair: in despair not wanting to be oneself, and wanting in despair to be oneself; indeed, Kierkegaard recognizes that the two shade into each other. If we live by the choice of our own nature, then we die by the refusal of our own nature. Lilith refuses to be herself, to be a mother: that is, a conduit, not originator, of life. In the godlike potentiality of our being, we are indeed creative in the highest sense possible to a derived being. Lilith chooses this godlike potentiality, but wishes to actualize it through herself, and not through the power that established herself. She wishes to enjoy the knowledge of herself as godlike.

It is not as if the enjoyment of the knowledge of ourselves as good is something of which we were meant to be deprived. It is, in fact, essential to our being. That is the terrible enforcement of the riddle of self. The primary reality of our being, however, is relationship to the Other. We were meant to live in union, in exchange of self-knowledge. We turn our unreserved, complete regard to the Other, not reserving any self-knowledge in the process. We will, not to enjoy ourselves, but to be enjoyed by the Other. We therefore receive, both the enjoyment of the Other–which is eternal life–and the knowledge of ourselves as being enjoyed by the Other, that is, being enjoyable. Within this intimacy with the Other, the self is functioning healthily: relating itself to itself through the Other. It is not in any way motivated, or activated by the end of knowing itself, but by they end of giving itself–returning itself in gratitude to the One to whom it owes itself. It gains itself “on the strength of the absurd”, as Kierkegaard would have it, by faith. Yet there is nothing absurd here. It is the natural order of being, and so the highest reason, which the self obeys. To seek the same enjoyment of intimacy, but to seek it with oneself alone, is on the other hand an unnatural perversion of the order of being:

“For nothing can come so close as that which creates; the nearest, strongest, dearest relation possible is between creator and created. Where this is denied, the schism is the widest; where it is acknowledged and fulfilled, the closeness is unspeakable. But ever remains what cannot be said, and I sink defeated. The very protest of the rebel against slavery, comes at once of the truth of God in him, which he cannot all cast from him, and of a slavery too low to love truth—a meanness that will take all and acknowledge nothing, as if his very being was a disgrace to him. The liberty of the God that would have his creature free, is in contest with the slavery of the creature who would cut his own stem from his root that he might call it his own and love it; who rejoices in his own consciousness, instead of the life of that consciousness; who poises himself on the tottering wall of his own being, instead of the rock on which that being is built. Such a one regards his own dominion over himself—the rule of the greater by the less, inasmuch as the conscious self is less than the self—as a freedom infinitely greater than the range of the universe of God’s being.” (“Freedom”, George MacDonald)

This is exactly what Lilith, over thousands of years, has carried to its bitterest development. She lives by the principle of Hell:

“For the one principle of hell is—’I am my own. I am my own king and my own subject. I am the centre from which go out my thoughts; I am the object and end of my thoughts; back upon me as the alpha and omega of life, my thoughts return. My own glory is, and ought to be, my chief care; my ambition, to gather the regards of men to the one centre, myself. My pleasure is my pleasure. My kingdom is—as many as I can bring to acknowledge my greatness over them. My judgment is the faultless rule of things. My right is—what I desire. The more I am all in all to myself, the greater I am. The less I acknowledge debt or obligation to another; the more I close my eyes to the fact that I did not make myself; the more self-sufficing I feel or imagine myself—the greater I am. I will be free with the freedom that consists in doing whatever I am inclined to do, from whatever quarter may come the inclination. To do my own will so long as I feel anything to be my will, is to be free, is to live.” (“Kingship”)

There is a tendency, in popular Christian theology, to treat all sin as if it were a direct, Satanic revolt against God in full knowledge of what we are doing. MacDonald does not fall into this misconception. Nevertheless, both MacDonald and Kierkegaard are acutely aware that as long as there is any presence of disease in the self, one is not free from the danger of this development (because it is its natural development), and that many people are far nearer this state than they could possibly be aware. Unless we are able open-heartedly to embrace our nature, we will be forced to settle for seeming in the place of being, involving ourselves in a web of deceptions, in which we deceive others in order to deceive ourselves, and deceive ourselves in order to deceive others.

Lilith’s absolute commitment to the worship of her own beauty demands the worship of others. This precludes the admission of any defect–the thought must truly perish! Yet she is not able to conceal from herself the knowledge of what is taking place inside herself–the corruption that is eating her from within. At present, she is still able to limit its outward manifestation to a small, dark spot on her side:

The leopardess reared; the flickering and fleeing of her spots began; the princess at length stood radiant in her perfect shape.

“I am beautiful—and immortal!” she said—and she looked the goddess she would be.

“As a bush that burns, and is consumed,” answered he who had been her husband. “—What is that under thy right hand?”

For her arm lay across her bosom, and her hand was pressed to her side.

A swift pang contorted her beautiful face, and passed.

“It is but a leopard-spot that lingers! it will quickly follow those I have dismissed,” she answered.

“Thou art beautiful because God created thee, but thou art the slave of sin: take thy hand from thy side.”

Her hand sank away, and as it dropt she looked him in the eyes with a quailing fierceness that had in it no surrender.

He gazed a moment at the spot.

“It is not on the leopard; it is in the woman!” he said. “Nor will it leave thee until it hath eaten to thy heart, and thy beauty hath flowed from thee through the open wound!”

She gave a glance downward, and shivered.

“Lilith,” said Adam, and his tone had changed to a tender beseeching, “hear me, and repent, and He who made thee will cleanse thee!”

Her hand returned quivering to her side. Her face grew dark. She gave the cry of one from whom hope is vanishing. The cry passed into a howl. She lay writhing on the floor, a leopardess covered with spots. (Chapter XXIX, “The Persian Cat”)

This is what Kierkegaard calls the intensification of despair: the self is assured of the failure of its project, and yet cannot give it up. All that remains is defiance.

It is no surprise, then, that she is forced to witness the spread of her disease, like a cancer:

“The princess sat waiting the sun to give her the joy of her own presence. The tide of the light was creeping up the shore of the sky, but until the sun stood overhead, not a ray could enter the black hall.

He rose to our eyes, and swiftly ascended. As we climbed the steep way to the palace, he climbed the dome of its great hall. He looked in at the eye of it—and with sudden radiance the princess flashed upon her own sight. But she sprang to her feet with a cry of despair: alas her whiteness! the spot covered half her side, and was black as the marble around her! She clutched her robe, and fell back in her chair. The Shadow glided out, and she saw him go.” (Chapter XXXVI, “Mother and Daughter”)

The ravenous aspect of insatiable self in Lilith is represented by the leopard-shape that she often assumes. This shape-shifting is not arbitrary: MacDonald firmly believed that all living things are either in a condition of evolution or devolution–that nothing is standing still on the great scale of being, and that the outer form is driven by the inward tendencies. This is how Mr. Raven explains his own shape-shifting to Mr. Vane:

“Upon occasion,” said the sexton at length, “it is more convenient to put one’s bird-self in front. Every one, as you ought to know, has a beast-self—and a bird-self, and a stupid fish-self, ay, and a creeping serpent-self too—which it takes a deal of crushing to kill! In truth he has also a tree-self and a crystal-self, and I don’t know how many selves more—all to get into harmony. You can tell what sort a man is by his creature that comes oftenest to the front.” (Chapter VI, “The Sexton’s Cottage”)

That MacDonald took this thought very seriously we can see from this passage from one of the sermons in The Hope of the Gospel:

“All animal forms tend to higher: why should not the individual, as well as the race, pass through stages of ascent. If I have myself gone through each of the typical forms of lower life on my way to the human—a supposition by antenatal history rendered probable—and therefore may have passed through any number of individual forms of life, I do not see why each of the lower animals should not as well pass upward through a succession of bettering embodiments. I grant that the theory requires another to complement it; namely, that those men and women, who do not even approximately fulfil the conditions of their elevated rank, who will not endeavour after the great human-divine idea, striving to ascend, are sent away back down to that stage of development, say of fish or insect or reptile, beyond which their moral nature has refused to advance. Who has not seen or known men who appeared not to have passed, or indeed in some things to have approached the development of the more human of the lower animals! Let those take care who look contemptuously upon the animals, lest, in misusing one of them, they misuse some ancestor of their own, sent back, as the one mercy for him, to reassume far past forms and conditions—far past in physical, that is, but not in moral development—and so have another opportunity of passing the self-constituted barrier. The suggestion may appear very ridiculous, and no doubt lends itself to humorous comment; but what if it should be true! what if the amused reader should himself be getting ready to follow the remanded ancestor!” (“The Hope of the Universe”)

There is a rich symbolism in the choice of a leopard for Lilith’s beast-self. Part of it may again bring us back to Dante’s Divina Commedia. The leopard is one of the three beasts that block the Pilgrim’s escape from the dark wood in the opening canto of the Inferno. Dante scholar and translator Mark Musa believes that the leopard presides over the lowest two circles of Hell: the sins of fraud. This includes treachery, arguably the sin of Lilith.

In her leopard shape, Lilith’s spots represent the spot on her side that appears in her women-form. She would gladly banish these spots, but cannot, a clear echo of Jeremiah:

“And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:22,23)

Throughout the story, Lilith is pursued by her arch-enemy, a pure white leopard sent from Marah (Sorrow), the daughter of Adam by Lilith’s replacement, Eve. This invites a somewhat different way of looking at the leopard symbolism. Lilith has an alter ego. Her ravenous hunt to destroy her children, to drink their blood, is paralleled by Sorrow’s relentless pursuit of God’s children–but for an entirely different purpose, to save, not to destroy. Thus Lilith possesses nothing original: there is a true, noble leopard-self, and she possesses only the perversion of it. Her insatiableness works only ruin, whereas insatiableness in its root is God’s gift to us, to propel us to our divine destiny. Again, no one says this better than Thomas Traherne:

“It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable. For he hath a Benefactor so prone to give, that He delighteth in us for asking. Do not your inclinations tell you that the World is yours? Do you not covet all? Do you not long to have it; to enjoy it; to overcome it? To what end do men gather riches, but to multiply more? …Thus men get one hundred pound a year that they may get another; and having two covet eight, and there is no end of all their labour; because the desire of their Soul is insatiable. Like Alexander the Great they must have all: and when they have got it all, be quiet. And may they not do all this before they begin? Nay it would be well, if they could be quiet. But if after all, they shall be like the stars, that are seated on high, but have no rest, what gain they more, but labour for their trouble? It was wittily feigned that that young man sat down and cried for more worlds to conquer. So insatiable is man, that millions will not please him. They are no more than so many tennis-balls, in comparison of the Greatness and Highness of his Soul.

“The noble inclination whereby man thirsteth after riches and dominion, is his highest virtue, when rightly guided; and carries him as in a triumphant chariot, to his sovereign happiness. Men are made miserable only by abusing it. Taking a false way to satisfy it, they pursue the wind: nay, labour in the very fire, and after all reap but vanity. Whereas, as God’s love, which is the fountain of all, did cost us nothing: so were all other things prepared by it to satisfy our inclinations in the best of manners, freely, without any cost of ours. Seeing therefore all satisfactions are near at hand, by going further we do but leave them; and wearying ourselves in a long way round about, like a blind man, forsake them. They are immediately near to the very gates of our senses. It becometh the bounty of God to prepare them freely: to make them glorious, and their enjoyment easy. For because His love is free, so are His treasures.” (Centuries of Meditations, I:22,23)

Even more boldly, Traherne says:

“You must want like a God that you may be satisfied like God. Were you not made in His Image? He is infinitely Glorious, because all His wants and supplies are at the same time in his nature, from Eternity. He had, and from Eternity He was without all His Treasures. From Eternity He needed them, and from Eternity He enjoyed them….

“This is a lesson long enough: which you may be all your life in learning, and to all Eternity in practising. Be sensible of your wants, that you may be sensible of your treasures. He is most like God that is sensible of everything. Did you not from all Eternity want some one to give you a Being? Did you not want one to give you a Glorious Being? Did you not from all Eternity want some one to give you infinite Treasures? And some one to give you Spectators, Companions, Enjoyers? Did you not want a Deity to make them sweet and honourable by His infinite Wisdom? What you wanted from all Eternity, be sensible of to all Eternity. Let your wants be present from everlasting. Is not this a strange life to which I call you? Wherein you are to be present with things that were before the world was made? And at once present even like God with infinite wants and infinite Treasures: Be present with your want of a Deity, and you shall be present with the Deity. You shall adore and admire Him, enjoy and prize Him; believe in Him, and Delight in Him, see him to be the Fountain of all your joys, and the Head of all your Treasures.” (Centuries, I:44,45)

The ravenous hunger that is driving Lilith to ruin, causing her to consume herself in impotent rage, the drive to know herself as a god, is simply the attractive force, that ought to make her the god that she was made to be–only attached to the wrong end of her being, like a vacuum hose that it is attached to its own cylinder, instead of to that which it ought to draw to itself.

The other figure that represents the perversion of will in Lilith is obviously her clenched hand. For a long time, I did not read the story carefully enough to consider what Lilith holds in that hand. The clenched hand seemed like a potent enough symbol to me, and I thought of it as representing the self that Lilith owes to her Maker and is withholding from him. I am greatly indebted to Ayumi Kumabe’s excellent easy on this subject (published here: Lilith’s Closed Hand Becomes the Seed of Life) for enlightening me as to the importance of paying close attention to what the story actually indicates:

“The name of the country at that time was The Land of Waters; for the dry channels, of which you have crossed so many, were then overflowing with live torrents; and the valley, where now the Bags and the Lovers have their fruit-trees, was a lake that received a great part of them. But the wicked princess gathered up in her lap what she could of the water over the whole country, closed it in an egg, and carried it away. Her lap, however, would not hold more than half of it; and the instant she was gone, what she had not yet taken fled away underground, leaving the country as dry and dusty as her own heart.” (Chapter XV, “A Strange Hostess”)

It is only after Mr. Vane buries Lilith’s severed hand in the ground that water returns to the country. The symbolism here is potent and many-layered, and Kumabe explores it admirably in her essay. Lilith’s hoarding of the country’s water in the egg which she clutches in her hand seems to go together with her ruthless enforcement of sterility on all the women in her dominion, and her desire to kill her own child. As Kumabe observes, she refuses to give life to others–though that is her natural potency as a woman–but would, if she could, hoard it all for herself.

An important consequence of the country’s lack of water is that the Little Ones, although innocent, are incapable of maturing, because they have no tears to cry with. MacDonald firmly believes that sorrow is essential to human development:

“There is no evil in sorrow. True, it is not an essential good, a good in itself, like love; but it will mingle with any good thing, and is even so allied to good that it will open the door of the heart for any good. More of sorrowful than of joyful men are always standing about the everlasting doors that open into the presence of the Most High. It is true also that joy is in its nature more divine than sorrow; for, although man must sorrow, and God share in his sorrow, yet in himself God is not sorrowful, and the ‘glad creator’ never made man for sorrow: it is but a stormy strait through which he must pass to his ocean of peace. He ‘makes the joy the last in every song.’ Still, I repeat, a man in sorrow is in general far nearer God than a man in joy. Gladness may make a man forget his thanksgiving; misery drives him to his prayers. For we are not yet, we are only becoming. The endless day will at length dawn whose every throbbing moment will heave our hearts Godward; we shall scarce need to lift them up: now, there are two door-keepers to the house of prayer, and Sorrow is more on the alert to open than her grandson Joy.

The gladsome child runs farther afield; the wounded child turns to go home. The weeper sits down close to the gate; the lord of life draws nigh to him from within. God loves not sorrow, yet rejoices to see a man sorrowful, for in his sorrow man leaves his heavenward door on the latch, and God can enter to help him. He loves, I say, to see him sorrowful, for then he can come near to part him from that which makes his sorrow a welcome sight. When Ephraim bemoans himself, he is a pleasant child. So good a medicine is sorrow, so powerful to slay the moths that infest and devour the human heart, that the Lord is glad to see a man weep. He congratulates him on his sadness. Grief is an ill-favoured thing, but she is Love’s own child, and her mother loves her.” (“Sorrow the Pledge of Joy”, The Hope of the Gospel)

Indeed, In Lilith, published only a few years after The Hope of the Gospel, Sorrow is represented as Love’s (Eve’s) beloved daughter. Lilith herself will not allow the work of Sorrow in her–until the very end. She will shed no tears herself, and has prevented healing sorrow from doing its work in her dominion. The person who can shed no tears is essentially sterile.

On another level, it really is Lilith’s own self that she is clutching in her hand, refusing to restore it to its Maker. Her nature, her egg, her reproductive power, is what she refuses to make his: “She counted it slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being.” The character of Lilith, at least in MacDonald’s story, is not an anti-feminist portrait, but a human portrait. We all stand in a feminine relation to God, the Giver of Life. The necessity and glory of our nature is to be one with him, and to bear him children–that is, to allow his implanted life to make us fruitful in “every good thing”. This refusal on Lilith’s part is the central wrong in the whole human existential affair. It is the self’s refusal to be itself.

The key element to Lilith’s drama is that she cannot unclench her hand. Her will is so committed that it has lost its flexibility; she cannot alter it; she cannot repent. In another essay (available here: God at the Extrema: Irrecoverable Singularities, or Surgery? ), I wrote about the implications of this, and that MacDonald has deliberately set up this scenario so that he can imagine a way out of it. Although Lilith’s will has lost the power to open her hand, she is eventually, through extreme measures, brought to the point of being made willing to be made willing, and, in the end, even of asking for help–which is given her when Adam surgically removes her hand with the sword with which the angel formerly guarded the gate of Paradise. Lilith is then able to go to sleep, and although it does not happen within the story, it is understood clearly that she will eventually wake restored.

Has the riddle of self been given a viable solution in Lilith’s case? Lilith repents under extreme duress. If God can override our free will in this way, are we left with nothing but a form of determinism? Personally, I think not. I will attempt briefly to trace some of the evidence. First, MacDonald believes, and I think this is hard to deny, that the human will is incapable of desiring evil in and for itself. It may commit the most frightful evils, but always in the attempt to secure for itself a perceived good. Though it may misperceive the true nature of that good (in the extreme case, wishing to be its own god), it is still only a hair’s breadth away from the right wish. We can only wish to be gods because God, who has purposed us for this very thing, has caused us to have that desire. Even in the realm of will, we can only pervert, not remake. This has two important corollaries. MacDonald believes that (A) it is impossible for us to refuse his life with the full understanding of what we are doing, and (B) we cannot fully eradicate the image of God from our being. This means that there will always be a “traitor in our bosom”, something within us (and the deepest part of us, at that) that sides with God against our self’s consciously willed determination. This comes out in the following two key passages from his sermons:

“For, when we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of him is groundless? No. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more. But there is something beyond their fear,—a divine fate which they cannot withstand, because it works along with the human individuality which the divine individuality has created in them. The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear, coming out with tenfold consciousness of being, and bringing with them all that made the blessedness of the life the men tried to lead without God. They will know that now first are they fully themselves. The avaricious, weary, selfish, suspicious old man shall have passed away. The young, ever young self, will remain. That which they thought themselves shall have vanished: that which they felt themselves, though they misjudged their own feelings, shall remain— remain glorified in repentant hope. For that which cannot be shaken shall remain. That which is immortal in God shall remain in man. The death that is in them shall be consumed.” (“The Consuming Fire”)

“The only thing he will not give [his children] is—leave to stay in the dark. If a child cry, ‘I want the darkness,’ and complain that he will not give it, yet he will not give it. He gives what his child needs—often by refusing what he asks. If his child say, ‘I will not be good; I prefer to die; let me die!’ his dealing with that child will be as if he said—’No; I have the right to content you, not giving you your own will but mine, which is your one good. You shall not die; you shall live to thank me that I would not hear your prayer. You know what you ask, but not what you refuse.’” (“Light”)

This is exactly Lilith’s demand when cornered:

Mara went to her, and stood looking down upon her. Large tears fell from her eyes on the woman who had never wept, and would not weep.

“Will you change your way?” she said at length.

“Why did he make me such?” gasped Lilith. “I would have made myself—oh, so different! I am glad it was he that made me and not I myself! He alone is to blame for what I am! Never would I have made such a worthless thing! He meant me such that I might know it and be miserable! I will not be made any longer!”

“Unmake yourself, then,” said Mara.

“Alas, I cannot! You know it, and mock me! How often have I not agonised to cease, but the tyrant keeps me being! I curse him!—Now let him kill me!” (Chapter XXXIX, “That Night”)

Lilith is brought to this absolute acme of despair by the entrance into her side of an incandescent worm, which functions as God’s messenger. This is how Marah describes her inner state at this point:

“She is far away from us, afar in the hell of her self-consciousness. The central fire of the universe is radiating into her the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of what she is. She sees at last the good she is not, the evil she is. She knows that she is herself the fire in which she is burning, but she does not know that the Light of Life is the heart of that fire. Her torment is that she is what she is. Do not fear for her; she is not forsaken. No gentler way to help her was left.”

Lilith is able to hate what she is; she is even able to admit that God made her: her last refuge is to hold that against him in spite, and refuse to be remade, healed. Again, Kierkegaard describes this perceptively as the last stage of the progression of despair:

“The demonic despair is the most heightened form of the despair which in despair wants to be itself. This latter despair does not even want to be itself in Stoic self-infatuation and self-exultation, not even in that no doubt mendacious way, but one that in a certain sense conformed to its own ideal of perfection; no, it wants to be itself in hatred toward existence, to be itself according to its misery; it does not even want defiantly to be itself, but to be itself in sheer spite; it does not even want to sever itself defiantly from the power which established it; it wants in sheer spite to press itself on that power, importune it, hang onto it out of malice.”

It is hard to imagine that a self can be recalled from this black hole of being–the miracle is that MacDonald does imagine it, and, as he says elsewhere, “There are some things for which the very possibility of supposing them are an argument.” (“Man’s Difficulty Concerning Prayer”) Kierkegaard is silent on the subject. He has given clear evidence that the self’s self-damnation can be eternal. If it is not to be, then the light of God must be able to operate even in this ultimum of darkness. And as the terrible night of Lilith’s spirit unfolds, we find that God still has one final recourse: the outer darkness. We have already quoted the scene in Lilith where it appears; here is the description form MacDonald’s sermon “The Last Farthing”:

“I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe; I will endeavour to convey what I think it may be.

It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has its signs, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness— such a loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him. All is dark, dark and dumb; no motion—not the breath of a wind! never a dream of change! not a scent from far-off field! nothing to suggest being or thing besides the man himself, no sign of God anywhere. God has so far withdrawn from the man, that he is conscious only of that from which he has withdrawn. In the midst of the live world he cared for nothing but himself; now in the dead world he is in God’s prison, his own separated self….

“The most frightful idea of what could, to his own consciousness, befall a man, is that he should have to lead an existence with which God had nothing to do. The thing could not be; for being that is caused, the causation ceasing, must of necessity cease. It is always in, and never out of God, that we can live and do. But I suppose the man so left that he seems to himself utterly alone, yet, alas! with himself—smallest interchange of thought, feeblest contact of existence, dullest reflection from other being, impossible: in such evil case I believe the man would be glad to come in contact with the worst-loathed insect: it would be a shape of life, something beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being! I imagine some such feeling in the prayer of the devils for leave to go into the swine. His worst enemy, could he but be aware of him, he would be ready to worship. For the misery would be not merely the absence of all being other than his own self, but the fearful, endless, unavoidable presence of that self. Without the correction, the reflection, the support of other presences, being is not merely unsafe, it is a horror—for anyone but God, who is his own being. For him whose idea is God’s, and the image of God, his own being is far too fragmentary and imperfect to be anything like good company. It is the lovely creatures God has made all around us, in them giving us himself, that, until we know him, save us from the frenzy of aloneness—for that aloneness is Self, Self, Self. The man who minds only himself must at last go mad if God did not interfere.”

As we have seen, this final horror is too much for Lilith. And with even her slightest yielding, her smallest opening of the door, she is able to weep, the first step in her restoration, even though she cannot open her hand, or will to live. Her one thought of comfort is being allowed to die, which is corrected with the greatest gentleness:

“Ah, if he would but help me to cease! Not even that am I capable of! I have no power over myself; I am a slave! I acknowledge it. Let me die.”

“A slave thou art that shall one day be a child!” answered Mara.—“Verily, thou shalt die, but not as thou thinkest. Thou shalt die out of death into life. Now is the Life for, that never was against thee!”

God reserves the right to content us, by not giving us what we think we want, but what our deepest nature cannot help but want. Is this determinism? The drama of the universe is a relational drama. Yes, God counters our every move, but at every step, it is still our move to make. Is this the equivalent of God playing chess with himself, since he always wins? I think that our very possession of an individual consciousness argues that it is not. We are fated, in the end, to be happy–and free. You are free to object, “The freedom that you are describing is not something that I care for,” and there is no answer that can be made to this. You will be free to do whatever your heart desires–only, your heart will no longer be able to desire to do evil. Is evil such a precious commodity that there is no freedom without it? I know that many Christian theologians would prefer that I phrased the question, “Is free will such a precious commodity that the choice of evil must be allowed?” But I think the first way is more honest. Freedom of the will means that the will, as a function, is allowed a free range. If the will is allowed to range over all that is good, what restriction is placed upon it? Surely only the restriction that it not unmake itself! Surely only the restriction that God freely places upon himself! Is this restriction too much?

You could then object, “Then why allow us the possibility of choosing to do evil in the first place, if God then intends to take it away from us?” Surely for the sake of the very preciousness of the human will that you are arguing for! We must be able to will the good as God does–freely. The eternal No to evil must be developed in us organically, as an outcome of our own life. Bear in mind that Lilith at the point of yielding to the invincible pressure of the divine will is still only at the very first step toward the recovery of her own will. She still has to go through every step of regaining the strength of her own will for good, and it is understood in the story that this will take eons. But she will have help.

If this does not satisfy you, then I believe that you do not yet see it for what it is. But I trust that God himself is able to satisfy you in the long run.

If this does satisfy your sense of goodness, then we have come full circle. The riddle of our existence as individual selves is of incalculable import and seriousness, but, in every individual case, it is soluble. It is no cheap solution, either. The closest metaphor for life to me (as a math teacher) is found in differential equations over vector fields. At every point, we know the proper inclination (the derivative). What we don’t know is the continuous path that threads all those points together. In reality, there is an infinite family of solutions, each one unique to the initial conditions (our individual context). And, at least for the most important kinds of differential equations, the solutions cannot be reduced to a formula: they can only be traced, that is, lived.In the end, the opportunity still stands before each one of us: in relating to ourselves, and in wanting to be ourselves, to ground ourselves transparently in the power that established us. No one can do it for us. Will we take up the challenge?

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