Wednesday’s Word: Excoriation
This is a painful word any way you cut it (or scrape it). Excoriation signifies one of two things, either the scraping or removal of the skin or the denunciation or rebuke of someone. They are similar, but distinct meanings. On the one hand both meanings represent the tearing apart of someone, either literally or figuratively. And yet on the other hand, I think that to scold or verbally put someone in their place is always a harsh, difficult thing to take whereas the removal of skin may sometimes be a good thing where there is infection or disease present, for instance.
It is on the later that I would like to focus my thoughts for this piece. For when I think of this kind of excoriation, there is a certain scene from literature which springs right to the forefront of my mind and that is the transformation of Eustace Clarence Scrubb from a terrible dragon back into a boy in the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis.
In this story, the incorrigible Eustace has been cursed with taking the form of a dragon for “thinking dragonish thoughts” as the author puts it and the dragon really becomes a metaphor for the sinful nature of man. In time, however, Eustace’s terrible ugliness on the outside ends up helping him to see the terrible ugliness that is on the inside of him and he begins to change. But though he does become more compassionate and thoughtful towards others in the midst of his trial, he is not able to rid himself of the curse on his own power. He needs someone else to flay the dragon skin from his back and restore him to the way he was created. And the one person able to do that in the world of Narnia is Aslan, the Christ-like lion who is the heart and soul of each of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series.
Eustace recounts the scene of his transformation with the following words:
I was so afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is fun to see it coming away…
And so excoriation becomes liberation for Eustace. And through this picture and through this story, Lewis gives us a window into a reality that so many miss. For though we may make improvements to our character, though we may raise ourselves up in the sight of our peers, our friends, and our loved ones, at the end of the day we cannot change our nature, we cannot change who we are when our heads hit the pillow at night and no one else is looking. There is a “bentness” inside of us that keeps the old skin constantly coming back. We are like dead bodies wrapped up in the finest fashions. However good we may look on the outside, and however much perfume we spray on our bodies, the stench, the rot, always seems to return. We do not need to improve our appearance. We need a resurrection from the dead.
Sometimes a fictional story can be truer than the mere recitation of facts. For the mere data may tell us what is true, but the story helps us to see the significance, the why, the wonder and awe of why that truth matters. It is the wind in the sails of reality. And whether it’s a voyage on the Dawn Treader, the one ring falling into the fires of Mt. Doom, or the tragic death of a Danish prince, that is a journey that is always worth taking.