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An alien understanding of pleasure

The inhabitants of C. S. Lewis’s OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET teach a human the true meaning of pleasure.

Illustration by Kinuko Craft

Imagine a world inhabited with sentient beings whose appreciation for life is driven by a complete understanding of pleasure rather than the selfish focus of personal pain. A conversation among creatures who inhabit Malacandra in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet seems to be a product of such thought. In the narrative of this first entry into the Space Trilogy, Dr. Elwin Ransom is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra against his will. After escaping his human captors, Ransom meets and befriends such creatures and uses his knowledge of philology to learn how to speak with the hrossa, bipedal animals who enjoy creative arts like poetry and dance.

The language of the hrossa is the primary Old Solar tongue. Ransom becomes adept at communicating in the language after spending time among its native speakers. While learning how to communicate, Ransom takes particular note of how the hrossa live with each other. They love poetry and prose but do not write anything down, and the reason why is compelling.

In a conversation with Hyoi, the first hrossa Ransom meets, he first tries to discover what war is like on the strange planet. Knowing no words for ‘war,’ he asks if the neighboring alien species, the séroni and the pfifltriggi, ever used weapons against the hrossa. Hyoi does not understand what purpose that would serve. So, Ransom continues his inquiry by asking what would happen if there were two who wanted one thing but neither would give it, “would the other at last come with force? Would they say, give it or we kill you?”

Hyoi wants an example. Ransom suggests food.

Here is where the divergence in Ransom’s selfish understanding of the world comes in sharp contrast with Hyoi’s, who responds, “If the other hnau wanted food, why should we not give it to them? We often do.” Undeterred, Ransom continues his line of questioning, apparently certain that there must be some conflict which leads to killing. But Hyoi responds with equally certain reasoning: there will always be enough food because Maleldil will not stop the plants growing.

In an effort to broaden the scope of the question, Ransom asks what would happen if a hross had more and more young. The conversation shifts here to the pleasure of life. The hrossa consider the begetting of young a pleasure, indeed a very great one. Hyoi notes that it is what Ransom calls love. Confused by the similarity of understanding but the difference in culture, Ransom tells Hyoi that when a human finds pleasure, he wants it again. He may want the pleasure “more often than the number of young that could be fed.”

Now Hyoi is the bemused one: “But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand.”

The conversation between two species illuminates their cultural perspectives more than it investigates these two individuals. Ransom learns that the hrossa do not consider the moment of a pleasure to be its end, but only the beginning. In this way, each moment has its place in the life of a hross and reveals something that humans do not apparently believe: a pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.

So, the hrossa do not separate the moment from the memory: they consider it all one part. Hyoi gives his friendship with Ransom as an example: when the two met, their meeting was nothing, but as it grows it becomes something. “What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then — that is the real meeting,” Hyoi concludes.

The hrossa live outwardly-oriented lives, devoted to their communities and their poetry. Hyoi even remarks that Ransom should have been taught the truth of pleasure by poets, which finally shifts the conversation to the pleasure of the remembered word. The hrossa believe that the full splendor of the first line of a poem is only realized in all the verses that follow. Going back to hear a single line in an attempt to relive its pleasure only disappoints, it would be less splendid than one thought. Because they believe it will ruin the words the hrossa do not commit their history and poems to paper or books. They believe so much in the power of remembered pleasure that it precludes being recorded.

It inspires me to think of being so full of a pleasure that the memory of it is enough to satisfy. To be capable of such a thing requires a pure imagination, untainted by the selfishness I habitually find in myself.