Friday, November 22, 2013

C. S. Lewis: Why All the Fuss?

Christian apologist, novelist, public intellectual — Lewis spoke to his own time and ours in many voices. 

Nearly 50 years ago, not long after C. S. Lewis’s death on that horrific November 22, 1963, I first beheld his name. It was in Jeffrey Hart’s “The Rebirth of Christ,” published in National Review. Four years thereafter I helped found the New York C. S. Lewis Society (the oldest and still the largest of such societies), the midwife for which, as it happens, was National Review itself. Linda Bridges, then a summer intern at the magazine, received a letter to the editor asking if there was any interest in forming such a group and passed it on to Mr. Buckley, who, being a Lewis reader, included it in his Notes & Asides column. I mention this now not merely for the sheer pleasure of closing the circle, but also to lend some perspective to the tiresome question that I’m still sometimes asked, “Why all the fuss?” Even now there remains puzzlement over Lewis’s popularity, and many who are not puzzled persist in misconstruing the man.

For example, 20 years ago Christopher Hewetson, the vicar of what for three decades had been C. S. Lewis’s parish church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, seemed to sum up the English attitude toward the great man perfectly. He told his congregation that, yes, perhaps the time had come to improve their “connection with C. S. Lewis.” He said, “When I came here three and a half years ago . . . there was a certain ‘yes but.’ I found it difficult to get a well-known preacher to . . . the dedication of the Narnia window. Since then his rating has increased. [My emphasis.] . . . He was a very committed Christian, a man of great prayer. . . . We must be proud of our connection with him and learn from it.” Yet by the time Father Hewetson made his concession, Lewis for most of the century had been the most famous Christian apologist writing in English: His voice was among the most recognizable on the BBC during World War II, his picture had been on the cover of Time magazine, and his books were widely translated and selling in the millions.

Now we have this, from the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has published The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia. In it this good man (but not good literary critic, I think) allows that Lewis “help[s] us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity.” Fine. But then Archbishop Williams frets about Lewis’s presumed “orientalism” and lingers over the simplistic notion that Susan Pevensie never returns to Narnia because she began to wear lipstick, whereas the actual reason is her denial of the very existence of Narnia and her claim that the adventures there were mere children’s stories invented by her and her siblings.

Any writer’s reputation has its vicissitudes. At his death Lewis’s fell so sharply that many of his books went out of print, until (owing in part to the founding of the New York Society) it pivoted. In the event, however, there is now a memorial to Lewis in Westminster Abbey, and I say it’s about time the Brits played some catchup. For it is we Americans who (for several decades) have made the most fuss. And here is why.

First, there is the man himself — an amply published (if minor) poet of considerable metrical and narrative skill; a philosopher (that is, academically trained as such), whose first university appointment was in philosophy and whose admonitory Abolition of Man (1943) is proving frighteningly prescient); a public intellectual whose book reviews and topical essays, such as “On Living in an Atomic Age” (“Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs”) and “The Dangers of National Repentance” (“you can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition”), settled much hash; a first-person novelist (Till We Have Faces, 1956) the equal of Nabokov in technical proficiency and psychological depth; a writer, with some peers but no betters, of speculative fiction (the “Ransom Trilogy,” 1938–1945) and of fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia, 1950–1956), works dense with ideas; a religious thinker whose sermons and essays, such as “Transposition,” “Membership,” and “Meditation in a Toolshed,” have knocked down many a straw man and clarified opaque doctrine; a fearsome debater (e.g., at the Oxford Socratic Club, of which he was president from 1941 to 1954); a Christian apologist who still invites attack as well as aspirants to be the “next C. S. Lewis”; and a prose stylist whose gifts of wit, analogy, imagery, economy, rhythmical dexterity, and rhetorical adroitness should place him in any canon worthy of study by anyone who claims to know — let alone to teach — the literature of English-speaking peoples.

Lewis, of course, was just such a teacher: a lecturer, literary critic, and historian whose achievements are the bedrock of his professional reputation. With the anomalous exception of the anti-Leavisite An Experiment in Criticism (1961), these works were greeted enthusiastically and continue to ping here and there, if only among the few professional scholars who perform their due diligence. (The Allegory of Love, 1936, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama, 1954, remain touchstones of literary history.)

On the surface, the quotidian man was the familiar beer drinker and pipe smoker; the compulsive reader, writer, and talker; the long-distance walker; the scholar, tutor, and lecturer; the Inkling among like-minded friends without whom we might not have The Lord of the Rings; and the famously unrelenting Christian convert. He was a wounded veteran of the Great War who had taken prisoners and argued against pacifism but said that though he would willingly die for his country he would not willingly live for it; and he was a man who doubted the wisdom of space exploration, given its potential for exploiting cognizant beings out there just as we had exploited and subjugated black people down here (under the guise, yet, of evangelization), and who excoriated Hitler in 1933 as “imbecilic” for insulting the Jews. But along the way, and for a chuckle, he pulled off a (to him costly) prank on Oxford University by contriving the election of the non-poet Adam Fox as its Professor of Poetry.

He knew he was out of sync with the zeitgeist — and relished the stance (as we see in his Cambridge University inaugural lecture as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, 1954, in which he refers to himself as a dinosaur). Even in “Membership,” pronouncedly not a work of lit. crit., he could not help himself, writing, “I mean the pestilent notion (one sees it in literary criticism) that each of us starts with a treasure called ‘Personality.’” Having no “school,” he was free to toss off epochal ideas — the Renaissance never happened, Aristotle’s Poetics is a bad book, tragedy is a “phantom concept” — and not bother to elaborate upon them, let alone to defend them. Just so would he lift ideas and expressions from others (especially Richard Hooker) without acknowledgment — although, to be fair to Lewis-the-medievalist, also without any claim to originality, which he thought vastly overrated. He would say a thoroughly Christian society would probably approximate a socialist one and that it would be better to have sex without marrying than to break the marriage vow. He was a Christian apologist whose conception of church is the theological equivalent of one of Heisenberg’s uncertain quantum particles.

And the plot thickens. He could remember virtually everything he read but (as we see in the manuscript of The Screwtape Letters, 1942) could not confidently spell “rivet.” He was a man so inept at balancing his checkbook (he was at first rejected by Oxford for having failed a simple algebra test, a requirement later waived owing to his voluntary service in World War I) that he thought he would go broke. Nevertheless, he was possessed of enormous personal generosity, giving out of pocket to any vagabond who came his way (“I don’t care if he’s going to drink it up, Tollers [Tolkien]; that’s exactly what I was going to do with it”) and continuously out of his bank account to the tune of nearly 70 per cent of his income. His closest friends intuited some buried layers in Lewis: Even his devoted brother, Warren (his best friend), said of his conversion that it was not a conversion as such but rather a recovery from “a long mental illness.” Indeed, the more deeply we look at him the more personally unsettled he seems. As a boy he suffered early parental loss and, for the rest of his life, all its hallmark consequences; in particular, he eventually came to terms with his mother’s death but never got over it.

Then there was his second “mother,” Mrs. Janie King Moore (the mother of a comrade-in-arms who was killed in the Great War), about whose presence in his life he was false enough in his 20s (while a “blaspheming atheist” — Lewis’s own words) to lie continuously to his father. We learn from letters he exchanged 25 years later — in Latin — with an Italian priest who is now St. Giovanni Calabria that he remained sufficiently riven by guilt over this early mendacity to wonder if his sins had been forgiven: this, after writing, but not himself publishing, an essay (“On Forgiveness”) in which he affirmed that with the proper satisfaction of certain requirements a person would be grievously sinning if still uncertain of forgiveness. (He would recover his good sense shortly before Mrs. Moore’s death in January of 1951 but after her departure to a nursing home.) Finally, and in the opinion of some who would know, he was a wonderful friend but given to new, unbounded enthusiasms — we will never fully understand his involvement with the American writer Joy Davidman or his secrecy about his marriage to her. Moreover, these enthusiasms might even compromise old friendships, as his enthusiasm for Davidman did his friendship with Tolkien.

Now, if none of that invites studied consideration, there is more still: the Ulsterman who had a strain of anti-Catholic bigotry but who once was suspected of having “poped,” in part because of certain Catholic practices and beliefs — e.g., frequent auricular confession and taking of the Eucharist, prayers for the dead, belief in purgatory (ironically, the possibility of his brother’s converting to Rome horrified him); the very busy man who more than anything else wanted to be left alone but who answered every letter — and there were thousands — that he received; the spiritual seeker who, in his late 40s (before the effusion that is Narnia), so accused himself of accidia that he truly believed he would never write another word and seriously welcomed the prospect, so tempting to pride was the praise he was receiving. “Lord of the narrow gate and needle’s eye / Take from me all my trumpery lest I die,” he wrote in a poem published only after his death. He would remain thoroughly conflicted over rhetoric — its power and his mastery of it — his whole life.

Nevertheless, it is owing to that rhetorical mastery that his personal impact upon millions of readers has famously reached even to the point of religious conversion. He could summarize an argument with an epigram as crisp as a Communion host: “I believe in Christianity,” he writes in the sermon “The Weight of Glory,” “the way I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” His imagery — “one day we will ride bareback, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses” — is often irresistible, conveying his pre-eminent concept of Sehnsucht (what he called Joy), the desire for Heaven and the occasion for hope, the hallmark of his apologetics. In Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) he describes the afterglow of his hero’s transcendent experience of Joy: “It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island. . . . Presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, ‘I know now what I want.’” Thirty years later he would tell us, in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (the last book he would see through to publication), that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”

Yet I wonder if that last Lewis — the romantic proselytizer and avuncular oracle — takes up so much reputational oxygen that it obscures the whole man’s broad cultural influence. For each of his personae has its voice: the religious thinker and fantasist as well as the public philosopher, the literary artist, the penetrating critic, and the unrelenting letter writer. For it is all of those voices together that sing us to intellectual clarity and coherence, to visionary joy, and to spiritual hope, and that lift us finally to the brink of Heaven.

At the end of the day, that is why all the fuss.

— James Como is professor emeritus of rhetoric and public communication, York College (CUNY). His most recent book is Why I Believe in Narnia: 33 Reviews and Essays on the Life & Work of C. S. Lewis. He can be reached at


Jack the Giant-Killer

That Hideous State

No comments: