One of my favorite aspects of The Great Divorce is the fact that the Writer isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, or at the very least he doesn’t let on what he does & doesn’t know as the book unfolds. This means that our point of view is parallel to his, and his discoveries become ours. The story unfolds rather nicely in this way. If you read the first chapter as if you’ve not read the rest of the book, there is no reason to know that the Queue was in hell. The Grey Town appears to be a town that is, well, grey. The bus appears normal at first, though clearly something unique begins to take place.
With this second chapter, as the Writer encounters more people, he learns more of his situation and the circumstances of the Grey Town.
For example, the Grey Town is not Earth.
“But we look on this spiritual city – for with all its faults it is spiritual – as a nursery in which the creative functions of man, now freed from the clogs of matter, begin to try their wings. A sublime thought.” (The Fat Clean-Shaven Man)
The Grey Town is a place where the irony of self-centered humanity works out on an eternal scale. People are given the apparent freedom to simply allow their situation to match their hearts’ desire. If a quarrel breaks out, another street opens up in which to live, an opportunity to cast aside the source of the problem and seek a new situation. Imagination is the engine of expansion. Eventually, though, the resulting situation is to exist alone, only to realize that the source of the problem was rooted in the sinful self all along. The outcome is eternity trapped with the source of the problem, unable to imagine a new self. The apparent freedom is, in fact, a debilitating prison.
People, though, are still people. Lewis has a wonderful knack for making the passengers so very real in my mind’s eye. I appreciate that. It would appear that each has his or her own motive for taking this particular bus ride.
The tousle-haired youth has shared more of his story. Desperate for recognition and significance, the youth is excited to be the only one who will get to stay there, the place where he will finally be appreciated for his greatness. His story is tragic, but somehow void of sympathy because of his unwavering blindness to anything and anyone but himself.
The intelligent man has no intention of staying there, instead planning to bring a taste of there to the Grey Town. His desired significance lies in bringing commodities to the masses, an entrepreneur, a profiteer. He is not at all wrong in recognizing the value of scarcity and the inherent benefits of culture and human interaction, but his desire for exploitation rather than mutual benefit is telling.
The fat clean-shaven man seems to see the Grey Town as being on the brink of revival, viewing the bleakness as matching that preceding a sunrise rather than a sunset. He is progressive, content with his place in the Town, showing no desire to return to Earth. One wonders why he has taken the bus ride.
Another irony, in light of the fat man’s view, is the cruelty of the light. Far from refreshing, the light brings despair rather than hope. There is a bold contrast brewing at a deliberate pace. An hour of darkness may (or may not?) be approaching for the Grey Town, and what is the nature of this light?
One of the tensions of humanity is that we have a simultaneous need for other people coupled with a desire for personal sovereignty. We want things to be done our way, in a way that benefits our situation, yet we cannot get there without the time, talents, efforts, and gifts of other people who struggle with the same wants. It is true, there are the ultra-enlightened few who have evolved, developing an inexplicable maturity such that they act in pure selflessness. And they’re usually the first to tell you about it.
Pride is at the root of our fallen nature. It is curious to ponder an existence with self on the throne. Such an adventure might begin with an air of excitement, but the end result is downright depressing. The Grey Town is probably a kind and generous depiction of the dark result.
Getting to the root of selfish thinking is kind of like a child repeatedly asking Why? The first why is a surface why. The answer is a surface answer. But keep asking why, and eventually you’ll really learn something. I believe there is a measure of God’s grace that unmasks pride, but like the cruel light of the bus, I don’t believe we want to go there very often. After all, our self-image is likely to be bruised more deeply with every why. Yet it is only in revealing the depths of our own depravity that we can ever hope to receive true hope, true growth, true selflessness.
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