Anthropocentrism in Out of the Silent Planet

February 13, 2015

Abstract: Anthropocentric Views of C. S. Lewis’s Silent Planet

C. S. Lewis begins his space trilogy with the character Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet, journeying to a planet called Malacandra. It has long been noted that in The Chronicles of Narinia, Lewis himself demonstrated “his appreciation of the beauty of nature and his concern for the transience of nature—and often for humanity’s part in nature’s demise” (DuPlessis 115). However, his space trilogy provides a perplexing viewpoint of the human race in relation to nature and anthropocentrism. During the main character’s walking tour of England, Ransom’s is abducted by two men and taken into deep space for the purpose of being ransomed off to non-human life forms. The view that Ransom gathers while on the ship looking back at Earth reflects the “Spaceship Earth” description coined in 1969 and described by Greg Gerrard, who analyzes these images first images of earth from an ecocritical lens which showed an isolated planet hanging suspended in space. These two images define anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are the center of creation or that the hierarchy of creation relies on humans being at the top. Ransom’s journey begins with him viewing the universe from an anthropocentric perspective and after leaving earth he transitions through differing degrees of anthropocentrism. Ransom describes space as empty, cold, lifeless, and inanimate showing the anthropocentric perspective and he reflects “He had read of “Space’ : at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds” (Lewis 34). The word “void” Ransom uses to describe the area around earth, creates as feeling of individuality, isolation, and singularity that recreates this space for us into a place of emptiness where humans are the center of it.While on the planet Malacandra, he integrates with the non-human life forms by learning their language, culture, and habits. This gives him a new perspective of creation and his shift in perspective leads to a point of dehumanization when he sees these creatures possess a level of wisdom higher than those of his own people. He himself becomes dehumanized into a “savage,” which he labels himself when he begins to understand the wisdom of these creatures. When he returns to earth, he sees his home planet as a living Gaia where even deep space is alive—ultimately reflecting a biocentric viewpoint. Biocentrism ascribes value to all living creatures similar to the Gaia view that “The Earth could be described as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism.” Ransom describes this when he views the universe from the spacecraft in a passage as “the abyss was full of life in the most literal sense, full of living creatures” (145). By Ransom’s return to earth, he has adopted the biocentric viewpoint of creation with a measure of anthropocentrism because he still longs for the “wild, animal thirst for life, mixed with homesick longing for the free airs and the sights and smells of earth—for grass and meat and beer and tea and the human voice” which essentially is the human experience and exists as anthropocentrism (147).

 


Anthropocentric Views of C. S. Lewis’s Silent Planet

C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet presents reductive notions that humankind possesses of non-human creation and nature. The main character, Ransom, while on a walking tour in England, is abducted by two men and taken to another planet called Malacandra. These men need a human to barter with the creatures on the other planet. Ransom escapes and soon discovers three different life forms on this planet. He lives amongst these non-human creatures and learns their language. His relationship to both the planet and the creatures on it changes during the period of time he stays on Malacandra. Since the majority of the novel takes place on another planet where Ransom is surrounded by non-human creatures and the planet life that is mostly terrestrial, for the sake of this argument all non-human creation, although hypothetical in science fiction, will be considered natural, because it is being described by Lewis with the same language used for nature and more importantly because the novel is a philosophical message about how Earth is treated by humans. It has long been noted that in The Chronicles of Narinia, Lewis himself demonstrated “his appreciation of the beauty of nature and his concern for the transience of nature—and often for humanity’s part in nature’s demise” (DuPlessis 115). However, Out of the Silent Planet provides compelling images of creation that show a shift in Ransom’s perspective from the anthropocentric “Spaceship Earth” image to the biocentric Gaia, through a process of varying degrees of anthropocentrism while he lives amongst the creatures of Malacandra.

Departure from Anthropocentrism

C. S. Lewis shows the anthropocentric viewpoint of Ransom in a passage that details his thoughts after leaving earth. He contemplates the image of earth in the following passage:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space’ : at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. (Lewis 34)

Ransom describes the space around earth as empty, cold, lifeless, and inanimate. This image compares to the first image taken of the earth in 1969 described in Ecocriticism by Greg Gerrard. He discusses the significance of simulations of earth presented by ecologists in imagery and the concept of Gaia. In an introduction to the importance of images of nature he describes the image created,

The photographic portrayal of the globe viewed from an orbiting spacecraft…used repeatedly to evoke the Earth’s isolation in space, its fragility and wonder, and the sense that the beings on it share a restricted living space surrounded by an unwelcoming void. (Gerrard 160)

The key here is the word “void” which echoes a similar notion of individuality, isolation, and singularity in the passage where Ransom describes space. He recreates this space for us in a way that implies the emptiness of space and forces humans to believe they are the center of that nothingness. He also points out that the viewpoint that humans have from earth is limiting in that the sky looks like “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” (33). There is potentially a harmful viewpoint about nature and creation here that can be compared to what ecocriticist Rebecca Raglon and Marian Scholtmeijer discuss in “Heading off the Trail: Language, Literature, and Natures Resistance to Nature” where she presents the idea that language and nature are a category that can be abused by imprisoning the reader in a static viewpoint (249). However, she proposes that literature allows for agents of change and adjustments to harmful conceptions of nature.

An alternative viewpoint of anthropocentrism is that naturally humans view humanity as central to the world and superior because humans only know human experience. On the opposing side of the argument anthropocentrism can also be seen as the source of ecological problems on the Earth because of industrialization and commercialization. The perceived problem behind anthropocentric views is the importance of natural ecological processes on earth are diminished. The three men in Out of the Silent Planet show the juxtaposition of differing viewpoints is set up when the two men that abduct Ransom discuss using him as a sacrifice to be handed over to the creatures on Malacandra. They reason “At least it wouldn’t be human from their point of view;” (Lewis 36). Similarly, Ransom encounters the first living creature on Malacandra and comments “Here was a very presentable sort of animal, an animal which man could probably tame, and whose food man could possibly share” (53). These passages show a utilitarian view in the idea of “taming” or “sharing” these creatures food. Emphasis is placed on what purpose humans can find for these creatures. This can be defined as humanistic anthropocentrism and although it is beyond the scope of this argument to fully address a post-colonial reading of Out of the Silent Planet, the potential for one has been acknowledged by ecocritical scholars of Lewis’s work such as DuPlessis.

Another important degree of anthropocentrism revealed in Out of the Silent Planet is Humanistic anthropocentrism which “starts from the conviction that non-human entities can have value if and only if they are valuable (useful or pleasant) for humans, other (traditional or post-scientific) forms of anthropocentrism exist (‘metaphysical anthropocentrism’) that start from the idea that humans are not in the center of the world” (Drenthen 153). If this kind of anthropocentrism focuses on ascribing a purpose or value to other non-human entities, then it is still centered on humans. One critic of Out of the Silent Planet, Sarah Keefer, focuses on the Houyhnhnms on Malacandra and compares them to humans. If her argument worked, then the ecocritical view of Lewis’s novel would fall apart, because Ransom would do what DuPlessis mentioned in her argument, that “making animals like humans…may effectively diminish their affinity with the natural world, promoting an anthropocentric rather than biocentric view of existence” (DuPlessis 116). Instead, Lewis’s main character views them as animals for human use, which DuPlessis also mentions this attitude as capitalist desire in the Narnia series. The first novel in Lewis’s space trilogy is not overwhelmingly dealing with capitalist notions, but it does touch on the idea briefly with the example of Devine, the scientist that abducts Ransom (120). Toward the end of the novel Ransom shifts to calling the non-humans on Malacandra to creatures. This also shows a shift in perspective of what he originally defined as animals. He even goes so far as to call them “natives” in one passage where he reflects on his discovery that they had “an alcoholic drink” (Lewis 142). The humanization of the hross shows a movement away from the anthropocentric viewpoint of Ransom.

Integration with Hrossa: Degrees of Anthropocentrism

Ransom displays a dissatisfaction with Malacandra as he begins to view the planet in opposition to his experience on earth. He states that “Malacandra was less like earth than he had been beginning to suppose” (Lewis 64). He also describes the Hross’s walking “if the swinging movement of the hross’s short legs from its flexible hips could be called walking,” in a way that shows he is comparing these creatures to humans, and his perspective still results from an anthropocentric viewpoint where human experience is the starting point for comparison and differentiation.

After encountering the Hross and living with them for a period of time he reflects that the Hross “were delightful” and

You could forget all about the rationality of hrossa in dealing with them. Too young to trouble him with the baffling enigma of reason in an inhuman form, they solaced his loneliness, as if he had been allowed to bring a few dogs with him from the Earth. (66)

This passage disturbingly reflects on the perspective of humans to look down on other creatures, by labeling them as “inhuman” forms and comparing them to “dogs.” Ransom’s perspective has, however, shifted to one where these creatures are not just otherworldly, but take the form of a companion and intelligible creature, even to the point of recognizing the males from females (66). At this point he begins to learn their language. This seems to be a critical point in Ransom’s development away from a strictly anthropocentric viewpoint, because language becomes the catalyst to him viewing these creatures as civilized. He refers to them living in a “community” (67). Language can act as a barrier for humankind to view animals as animals, and animals could be considered synonymous with creatures, but it seems that this barrier is disintegrated when Ransom learns these creatures language. He describes their language and behaviors as mysterious “occupations of the tribe or family” (67). Here he completely humanizes the hrossa and begins to understand their culture’s social ecosystem.

After learning a sufficient amount of their language he begins to answer questions that the hross have about where he came from and his own existence and Ransom thinks, “he found himself being treated as if he were the savage and being given a first sketch of civilized religion” (69). In this passage he begins to learn of a spiritual connection that these creatures possess to everything in their world, and he becomes dehumanized into a “savage,” as he labels himself. The wisdom of creation is revealed to him through language with other creatures, and his perspective of the spiritual and living becomes expanded in these passages.

Ransom, pursued by the other two men that want to kill him and all of the living creatures on Malacandra, encounters another life form called the Sorns where he again undergoes a shift in perspective about creation. The sorn refers to Ransom as an animal in conversation; this moment destroys the hierarchy of man above animal by showing the perspective of the other creatures in the novel (91). He then explains to the sorn that “the animal I am is called Man” (92). The sorn provides him with a new perspective of earth through their form of a telescope before he returns on the spaceship. He looks up at “perfect blackness” and instead of seeing the vast void around earth he recognizes “Northern Europe and a piece of North America” only to conclude after observing his home planet that this was “the bleakest moment in all his travels” (96). The reversal in the image from another planet with living creatures that possess a language, culture, and spiritual connection to their own world makes him desire to return to the familiarity of his own planet, and finally, to view it as a smaller part of the universe admits other worlds and no longer the center of creation as it appeared when he looked back from the spaceship after leaving his home planet.

Return to Earth and Biocentrism

The shift in perspective to the biocentric appreciation of non-human life is complete for Ransom on the ride back to earth. Biocentrism ascribes value to non-human life in its simplest definition. It can also be likened to the idea of Gaia, which Lovelock hypothesized that

The Earth could be described as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism. It has been known since the discovery of plant photosynthesis that living organisms produce the atmosphere they need to inhabit, but Lovelock took the argument a stage further, asserting that the planet has been so thoroughly altered physically and chemically by living things that the Earth itself has to be seen as kind of super-organism. Rather than merely being a rock in space with life clinging to it, the non-living parts of the planet are as much a part of the whole as the non-living heartwood of a living tree. (Gerrard 172)

Lovelock argues here that the whole Earth is alive and a system of living organisms. This contradicts a human centered existence that relies on a hierarchy, and recognizes that humans need nature to survive. Lewis describes this very same thing when Ransom returns to earth and stares out the portal at the universe. He says,

He could not feel that they were an island of life journeying through an abyss of death. He felt almost the opposite—that life was waiting outside the little iron egg-shell in which they rode, ready at any moment to break in, and that, if it killed them, it would kill them by excess of vitality. He hoped passionately that if they were to perish they would perish by the “unbodying” of the spaceship and not by suffocation within it. To be let out, to be free, to dissolve into the ocean of eternal noon, seemed to him at certain moments a connsumation even more desirable than to return to earth…he was convinced that the abyss was full of life in the most literal sense, full of living creatures. (145)

Even the spaceship is personified in this passage with the “unbodying” and space outside the ship is personified similar another passage where he describes space as the “womb of worlds” (34). His personal importance in the universe is diminished by Ransom admitting that he does not mind dying. The universe transforms in his viewpoint into a universal Gaia where even the inanimate is alive. This contrasts the earlier vision of the universe as empty and an unwelcoming void. The description Ransom provides of space coincides with the definition of Gaia and biocentrism in that it ascribes value to non-human creation, and it views everything as alive working together as an organism with a purpose not defined by humans. The drastic change in viewpoints shows degrees between anthropocentrism and biocentrism; It also an ecocentric world that is nature-centered.

Eventually Ransom reverts back to a “wild, animal thirst for life, mixed with homesick longing for the free airs and the sights and smells of earth—for grass and meat and beer and tea and the human voice” (147). This shows that although his viewpoint has shift through degrees of anthropocentrism, he still longs for what is familiar to him and that is the human experience. Lewis seems to show a balance on the line of anthropocentric views. He illustrates a world that is ecocentric, and characters that travel not only to another world but along a line of degrees between the anthropocentric and biocentric. The main character returns enlightened by his experience in a world that is unlike his own. He discovers the naturalness of anthropocentric viewpoints of creation but balances it with a biocentric appreciation for life and his place within the living organism he calls home, Earth.

 

Works Cited

Burbery, Timothy. “Ecocriticism and Christian literary scholarship” Christianity & Literature. 61.2 (2012) 189-214. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 10 Nov 2013.

Drenthen, Martin. “Ecocentrism as anthropocentrism.” Ethics, Policy, and Environment. 14.2 (2011) 151-154. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

DuPlessis, Nicole. “ecoLewis: Conservationism and Anticolonialism in The Chronicles of Narnia.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. 115-127. Print.

Gerrard, Greg. “Futures: The Earth” Ecocriticism. New York: New York, 2004. 137-182. Print.

Keefer, Sarah. “Houyhnhnms on Malacandra: C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Swift.” ANQ. 7.4 (1994) 210. Web. 10 Nov 2013.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.

Raglon, Rebecca. Scholtmijer, Marian. “Heading Off the Trail: Language, Literature, and Nature’s Resistance to Nature.” Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 2001. 248-262. Print.