Or in this case, Till We Have Facials. Yes, my book club discussed the book Till We Have Faces under facial masks. (They would not let me post a picture of us!) No surprise: while tight and awkward, the masks restricted movement but not our ability to interrupt one another, talk at the same time, and laugh at each other. And they made us feel a bit like the book’s main character Orual, who wears an emotional and physical mask for most of the story. Sort of a modern Phantom of the Opera.
And our skin felt great afterward.
This month, we read C. S. Lewis’ last novel, an allegorical fantasy re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The book was un-stereotypical Lewis, told in first person narrative, from the eldest sister Orual’s perspective. Orual is the cunning, obsessive, conflicted child of an abusive king, with an ugly face and massive insecurities and control issues. She grows up with the knowledge that she is too ugly to be a woman, that she will never marry, and that her two beautiful sisters deserve admiration as much as she deserves to stay hidden.
Psyche, Orual’s youngest and favorite sister, is angelic in face, form, and personality. She garners everyone’s attention, admiration, and love. Oral is especially protective and caring of her–Psyche is almost her alter-ego, even though Orual is a character who transforms into a self-aware and charitable leader.
Not unlike us when we feel insecure, Orual spends her childhood in the shadows trying to keep out of her father’s reach and her adulthood behind a veil to mask her face. As she grows in leadership (taking over the kingdom), prowess (military skill), and cunning (trying to control her servants, advisors, and her sisters’ lives), Orual finds her identity through her accomplishments.
For most of the story, Orual believes that she loves Psyche completely. It takes Orual a lifetime to realize that her love, unlike Psyche’s, is what Lewis would call eros in his book The Four Loves–although not sexual, Orual’s eros for Psyche is passionate, illogical, and selfish. She loves Psyche best when Psyche is obediently under her control.
Consequently, Orual’s love for Psyche seems to ruin Psyche’s life (although there is redemption). Orual is then angry at the gods for not being forthcoming with the information that could have prevented her poor choices; however, the real issue is Orual’s blindness to the working of the gods in her life. She attempts to ignore them, outwit them, and control them. The symbol of the mask (her veiled face) represents her physical, emotional, and spiritual shame. Psychology is an obvious undertone in such a story, isn’t it? (Those Greeks were pretty smart.)
Our book club was split on its appreciation for the story–half liked it immensely, and the other half didn’t (two didn’t even finish it). The book provided a lively discussion, as all Lewis books do, because Lewis writes profound truth on so many levels. We also found themes (heaven, Christian journey, faith, love, self-discovery, apologetics, the church) consistent with his other writings, particularly some of the Narnia books, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and The Four Loves.
I personally enjoyed this deep and rich story, but I don’t know if you’ll like the book, even if you’re a Lewis fan. I’d love it if you’d write and tell me! I suggest doing a facial during the reading process. As we took off our masks, we–like Orual–re-itterated that our limited perspective, however well-intentioned, can be a mask that interferes with true understanding, true love, and true compliance to God. In other words, the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves is often false. Lewis said it like this:
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (294)
Here are some good blogs about this book (I suggest reading them before you read the book):