Lessons Taught by Onions

May 2, 2012 — 11 Comments

This column has been written backwards. Not sdrawkcab literally, but in the opposite direction of its natural order. Usually I find something illuminating (most commonly in C.S. Lewis’ work), and then I offer some reflections on that insight. Occasionally, the post’s subject arises from a different source, and in my subsequent thoughts, I consciously consider what Lewis might have thought about the matter.

This is the first time when something utterly bizarre struck me as a valid starting point. And, only later did I find a suitable “proof text” or two from Lewis to validate discussing the odiferous subject at hand.

There’s a show I’ve been enjoying called “Parks and Recreation.” While I can’t recommend it to others, due to the casual portrayal of promiscuity which is endemic to American “entertainment.” Nevertheless, they often have quite witty writing that satirizes the crazy nature of life in our world today. This episode features a political debate between candidates for mayor of a small town.

One of the candidates responds to a question with, “No, I’m not a Vegan. I’m an Onionarian. I only eat onions and onion-based juices.”

I wonder how many other cultures can garb their dietary preferences in the robes of religious faith and devotion? Now, I love an onion more than the average person, but the notion of narrowing our diet down from God’s vast table to a single item just strikes me as a bit humorous (see Acts 10:9f).

As I enjoyed a chuckle, the thought flashed that I might relate this dialog for others who share my peculiar sense of humor . . . and I immediately wondered whether or not a Lewisian connection would be possible. Oh me of little faith. Lewis was so prolific that it doesn’t even require me to stretch.

You see, onions can teach us many lessons.

For example, look at this demonic advice offered by Screwtape to his protégé Wormword. He says Tempters should persuade human beings to care overly about what others think of them. The entire advertising world seems to be established on this principle. And how terribly vulnerable we are to this whisper. But, by the grace of God, it appears some are immune.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favor of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters)

Thus we see that onions can, in some contexts, possess salvific influences. (Well, that might be pushing the lesson just a wee bit . . . but there is an important truth to be found in this epistle.)

Lewis’ arguably most famous discussion of onions is found in his discussion of concentric rings of secrecy, power, intimacy and knowledge described in his 1944 address entitled “The Inner Ring.” Rather than paraphrase his fine argument, I shall allow the following portions of his talk to speak eloquently for themselves.

Badly as I may have described it, I hope you will all have recognized the thing I am describing. Not, of course, that you have been in the Russian Army or perhaps in any army. But you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring. You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion. And here, too, at your university-shall I be wrong in assuming that at this very moment, invisible to me, there are several rings-independent systems or concentric rings-present in this room? And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems. . . .

Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. My second reason is this. The torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the symbol not of one vice but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain. . . .

I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organization should quite coincide with its actual workings. If the wisest and most energetic people invariably held the highest posts, it might coincide; since they often do not, there must be people in high positions who are really deadweights and people in lower positions who are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to suppose. In that way the second, unwritten system is bound to grow up. It is necessary; and perhaps it is not a necessary evil. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.

While I have no doubt a number of other worthwhile onion-lessons are waiting to be found in the Inklings corpus, I would like to close now with my personal favorite. In the following passage, Lewis reverses the analogy, with each peeling away of a layer revealing ever more of reality.

In the closing paragraphs of the final Narnia Chronicle, The Last Battle, Lewis transforms the savory bulb into a metaphor for never ending epiphany.

[Lucy said:] “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see . . . world within world, Narnia within Narnia. . . .”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

What a glorious description. And, like our Lord who elevated the humble mustard seed to literary immortality, Lewis has lifted the modest genus Allium, and secured for it a lasting place in English literature.

11 responses to Lessons Taught by Onions

  1. 

    Well done! Plus fun!

  2. 
    Andrew Mills May 3, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Great post – I love Parks and Rec too, and the fact you quoted them, Lewis, and some Narnia in one post is great!

  3. 

    Parks and Rec, Onions and Lewis! Now that is a fantastic combination. The image of peeling an onion only to have nothing left really struck me, though the final onion-imagery is the most beautiful to me.

  4. 

    I love onions! The Christian life can be likened as well, in that through the renewing of the mind as we peel away the “old man” and put on the “new man”, we peel away each layer of the onion until we reach the heart, which is said to be the best part of the onion.

  5. 

    Great post – and onion in itself ( in all the best ways)
    In another direction, this phrase ” persuade human beings to care overly about what others think of them. ” is an important statement. Overly sensitive people seem to lose common sense, tolerance, and their sense of humor. So easy to manipulate. Divide and conquer.

  6. 

    You left out the reference to C. T. Onions in Surprised by Joy! One of five great Magdalen men that enlarged his very idea of what a learned life should be.

    • 

      An inexcusable lapse on my part. Charles Talbut Onions was the fourth editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was also a fellow and librarian of Magdalen College.

  7. 

    Another fine, thoughtful post, Rob! The “I’m an Onionarian” line had me laughing out loud. The rest had me reflecting quietly. Very well done. Only drawback—I’m hungry and we’re out of onions.

  8. 

    Good post; it must have been a Vidalia, it sweetened the soul.

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  1. Annual Encouragement « Mere Inkling - January 2, 2014

    […] the report identifies particularly successful posts. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote “Lessons Taught by Onions,” and for some peculiar reason it continues to draw visitors every single […]

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