The Onion, ‘America’s finest news source’, provides a satirical perspective on local, national, and international news. It was founded in 1988 as a weekly print publication and in 1996 began appearing online.
Why was it named The Onion? There are two explanations, according to Wikipedia. One version has it that the co-founders, Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, were at the time so poor that their diet consisted of raw onions on white bread. The other version claims the name is a mocking twist on a campus newsletter called The Union.
Perhaps both accounts are true. But what interests me more than the name’s origin is the aptness of the name itself. Calling a satirical newspaper The Onion is perfect. The word is short and snappy. It can be sketched easily for the masthead logo. Furthermore, an onion means precisely what it ought to mean for this particular purpose.
Onions have a strong and pervasive smell – just as the satire of The Onion is pungent, recognizable, and lingering.
Onions make you weep, but the tears are neither of joy nor sorrow – just as The Onion often leaves you unsure whether you’re laughing or crying.
Onions have multiple layers, and The Onion’s satire works on many levels at once, – mocking the self-importance of news outlets, the credulity of readers, and whatever topic is being skewered in any given article.
I submit that The Onion would not have achieved its great success if it had been called, say, The Rose. And I am moved to make this judgement by the example of C.S. Lewis who once remarked that the medieval love poem The Romance of the Rose would simply not have worked if it had been called The Romance of the Onion.
The Romance of the Rose is one of the greatest love poems of the Middle Ages. It is an allegorical dream vision, written in French, and published in the thirteenth century, – the first part authored by Guillaume de Lorris and the second part by Jean de Meun.
In his little-known academic article, ‘De Audiendis Poetis’ (published posthumously in 1966), Lewis comments that, “If roses did not smell sweet Guillaume de Lorris could never have used a rose to symbolize his heroine’s love. An onion would not do instead.”
Lewis knew that onions carry with them a number of peculiar qualities and associations, owing to their astringent odour, their flimsy, film-like, Russian-doll rings, and the ambiguous tears they provoke. Roses, on the other hand, are fragrant, soft, delicate. A lover is obviously going to compare his beloved to something tender, beautiful and gently unfolding, rather than to something acrid, plain, hard, and self-enclosed.
But though this is an obvious point, it is sometimes necessary to restate the obvious. As Dr Johnson declared: “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” The world is charged with meanings that are given by the nature of the things themselves. Onions and roses have essential or substantive qualities that inhere in the very objects that they are. We can’t make onions and roses mean whatever we like.
Lewis followed Johnson in this regard: people need reminding. Roses have certain meanings that are simply given, – meanings that are not given by onions. The scent, the fragility, the mystery of a rose as it slowly discloses its heart, – these are its data. These inescapable, ineradicable real-life qualities of a rose must be recognized and respected. They should not be treated as if they were interchangeable with the qualities of a certain strongly-flavoured vegetable of the genus Allium.
This is common sense. That roses mean something different from onions is a fact handed down to us from time immemorial; it is part of the tradition of human perception which could not have been otherwise. And authors should not be ashamed of such a “stock response” (so Lewis argues in A Preface to Paradise Lost). On the contrary, authors should acknowledge the immutable identity of onions and roses and try to discern their intrinsic meanings as fully as possible. Just as scientists must not manipulate their data to come to some pre-arranged conclusion, so poets must respect the inherent qualities of things if they are to write wisely about reality and use symbols intelligently.
And, of course, this principle is not limited to onions and roses. In The Allegory of Love, Lewis invites his readers to try replacing the shepherds and swains of the pastoral tradition with policemen and tram-conductors. It cannot be done – or not without loss. There are certain responses to things which are required by reason. A rational interaction with the world rules out wilful or arbitrary or autonomous responses, but necessitates patient and attentive and inquisitive responses. In this way, meanings are not imposed upon reality but rather perceived within reality. This is the way of love, as opposed to the way of violence and objectification. It is the “law of love” that the poet Ruth Pitter said writers should observe, in a lecture she delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, entitled ‘A Return to Poetic Law’.
“Law” sometimes implies unwelcome constraint, but the law of love is constrained by nothing save the need not to hate. As long as you don’t hate or scorn or belittle the thing you’re exploring, you can be as bold as you like in teasing out its suggestions, recognising its limits, exposing its (apparent) contradictions, following up its implications, delving into its origins, and so forth.
Take roses again. One need not only focus on the beauty and fragrance of the flower. One might also wish to observe, like George Herbert in his poem ‘Virtue’, that however lovely the bloom, the rose’s root is “ever in its grave and thou must die”. Or one might point out, like Shakespeare (in Sonnet 35), that “roses have thorns and silver fountains mud”. Roses are mortal, their thorns can draw blood. Though the lively and lovely aspects of roses tend to be most focussed upon, they are not the only aspects. Poets don’t always have to make use of the most immediate meanings.
And even where poets focus on the beautiful bloom, that meaning is limited in its range of applications. For instance, Robert Burns compares his love to “a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June”, – a powerful image of female beauty. But what if his beloved’s beauty was of a different kind? William Wordsworth uses not the rose but the violet for the beauty he wishes to communicate. Wordsworth’s beautiful woman is compared to “a violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye”.
As Lewis writes in Studies in Words, these poets force us to “imagine two (very different) women. I see the rose-like, overpowering, midsummer sweetness of the one; the reticent, elusive freshness, the beauty easily overlooked in the other”. The nature of the woman in each case is made evident through the poet’s ability to discern the distinctive qualities of the flower under consideration. Things only signify something beyond themselves by first being themselves, and only the person who properly sees the thing sees its meaning.
To see the meaning of a thing is to make a metaphor. A metaphor is, literally, a “carrying over”. The poet sees in a flower a meaning that can be carried over to explicate or illustrate or ornament something about his beloved. Readers who understand the metaphor find their minds rewarded or enlarged; their responses to the world become more integrated, textured, pleasing. It is akin to getting the point of a joke.
Those poets with the greatest metaphor-making capacity are “the masters of meaning”, as Lewis writes in his essay ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’. One such poet was Dante (1265-1321), whose masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, moved and fascinated Lewis for years, prompting him to pen some of his most detailed and illuminating literary criticism. In ‘Dante’s Similes’, for example, he confesses:
I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. There is a curious feeling that the great poem is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions which make up the Comedy.
The greatest part of this greatest poem was its third canticle, the Paradiso. This section Lewis regarded as “the highest point that poetry has ever reached” (see his essay ‘Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot’). As Dante’s pilgrim approaches paradise, he is granted a vision of heaven as a Mystic Rose – the “celestial rose” (‘Dante’s Similes’), the “eternal Rose” (‘Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s Comedy’). Gustave Doré’s famous illustration to the Paradiso (see below) brings out the rosiness of that vision most beautifully.
Now notice Lewis’s supreme wit when he turns from literary criticism to his own creative work. In The Last Battle, the final volume of his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s characters also gain a vision of heaven – or ‘Aslan’s country’ as it is in that world. They go through the door of a stable, a small hut on a hill, but the interior of the stable turns out to be not dark and smelly and confined as they had expected, but light and fragrant and endlessly spacious. As they journey “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country, they find it contains a walled garden, situated on a great height, from which they can see the whole of Narnia spread out below. Lucy meets her old friend Mr Tumnus, the faun, and together they stand looking down over the wall at the glorious view beneath them. Then Lucy turns inward again, standing with her back to the wall and looks at the enclosed garden:
“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “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 farther up and the farther 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 at all 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 go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”
With this metaphor that he puts in the mouth of Mr Tumnus, Lewis pulls off one of his most daring and outrageously funny tricks. Heaven itself, which Dante had compared to a rose, Lewis compares to an onion, but an onion bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Great metaphor-maker that he was, Lewis sees that an onion bears a meaning not found in the rose. The onion’s rings reflect the geocentric medieval cosmos, that system of nestled spheres focussed either on God or on man, depending on your point of approach. From the physical perspective, man’s home, earth, was the centre of everything, and God’s home, the Empyrean, was on the circumference. But from the spiritual perspective, heaven was the heart of reality, and earth was merely peripheral, suburban. These competing perspectives Lewis unpacks in The Discarded Image:
How, we ask, can the Empyrean be the centre when it is not only on, but outside, the circumference of the whole universe? Because, as Dante was to say more clearly than anyone else, the spatial order is the opposite of the spiritual, and the material cosmos mirrors, hence reverses, the reality, so that what is truly the rim seems to us the hub.
Onions have circumferences, rims, hubs; they are globes, whereas roses are buds and blooms, – their petals don’t hold the circle. To that extent, onions are more like cosmological reality as the medievals understood it, and roses turn out to be metaphorically deficient.
The repeated cry at the end of The Last Battle – “Further up and further in!” – is a paradoxical statement, reflecting both the spatial order and the spiritual order at once. Lewis’s pilgrims go “up” as if heaven were outside earth, but they simultaneously go “in” as if earth were outside heaven. Lewis, the great lover of the Comedy, sees where Dante’s imagery falls short. He ends Narnia not with a slavish repetition of the Mystic Rose, but with his own freshly-minted vision of a Mystic Onion.