Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Conflicted But Redeemed: James Como’s Life of C.S Lewis

Let me throw the gauntlet down. This is the single finest biographical survey yet written on C.S. Lewis. Yes, I’m quite sincere. No exaggeration, no typical Birzer hyperbole. As far as I know, I’ve read all of the serious biographies over the last 30 years. Of those, Chad Walsh’s 1949 Apostle to the Skeptics is excellent but incomplete; Humphrey Carpenter’s 1978 The Inklings is too scattered, unsure of what it wants to be; Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper’s 1974 C.S. Lewis: A Biography is too (often) adulatory; and A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis (1995) is too cynical. Each is good, to be sure, but none of them actually capture the personality, purpose, and essence of the endlessly fascinating and complex C.S. Lewis.
(For the sake of sanity, I’m excluding the myriad of bizarrely and superficially pietistic and evangelical treatments of Lewis as quasi saint. In these latter—all too many, we must lament—Lewis comes across as a two-dimensional prig, devoid of will and choice, more fitting as a Precious Moments figurine than as a flesh-and-blood human being. These books are as painful to read as they probably were to write, the saccharine oozing in pustules from each page.)
A poet, professor, public speaker, editor, and essayist, James Como has spent much of his professional life exploring every aspect of C.S. Lewis’s life and writings. Even if Dr. Como had not written this biographical survey, he would always be listed among the greatest of Lewis scholars, especially for his extraordinaryC.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table. That Dr. Como has finally pieced together over fifty years of his own findings and thoughts on Lewis in A Very Short Introduction perfectly solidifies his position at the top of an impressive and mighty list. Indeed, this book finds the perfect balance between the Lewis that became famous and the Lewis that remained—generally—hidden to the public. To be sure, Dr. Como’s Very Short Introduction is, as advertised, a very short biographical survey, but it’s delightful and reminds me much of Theodor Haecker’s forgotten little 1934 gem,Virgil: Father of the West, in tone and scope. It’s the kind of book that we need far more of. It’s much longer than an Atlantic Monthly expose, but it’s also much shorter than, say, a David McCulloch life and times. It’s the kind of book you can devour in one long sitting and feel quite satisfied after reading it. In a little over one hundred pages, you’ll happily come to know the complexities of the most famous convert to Christianity in the twentieth century and Oxbridge don, Jack Lewis.
Though written as a biographical essay rather than a footnoted academic treatise, Dr. Como’s Very Short Introduction employs the best sources possible, fully understanding the evolution of Lewis’s own thought and writings while also incorporating the finest reminiscences of the man.
In his C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, the first study of Lewis’s work (1949) and a template still very much worth reading, Chad Walsh makes Lewis’s wholeness clear, and his title is perfect; Lewis is the apostle to sceptics, not necessarily atheists. Also well worth reading (for their first-hand accounts of Lewis) are Roger Lancelyn Green’s C. S. Lewis (1963), Jocelyn Gibb’s edited work Light on C. S. Lewis (1965, nine essays that evidence the breadth of Lewis’s work and personality), C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table (1979, a collection of essays mostly by those who knew him early and late), Carolyn Keefe’s authoritative C. S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher (1971), Stephen Schofield’s In Search of C. S. Lewis (1983), and John Lawlor’s beautifully written C. S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections (1998).
No one could find a better summary of the best written about Lewis. Equally important, though, Dr. Como understands Lewis not as an ideologue, pre-programmed to become Christian and spread God’s word, but as a fallible man who more often than not made almost supernaturally wise choices in his intellectual life, if not always in his personal life. Just as Lewis believed every culture possessed some element of the true Christian story—no matter how small—so, too, every man possessed some element of God’s grace, no matter how small.
In his personal life, though, Lewis desperately needed to find and accept that grace, especially when it came to his relations with women—whether Mrs. Moore (his war buddy’s mother), Joy Davidman (his late in life wife), or Ruth Pitter (a poetess he admired more than a friend and hoped to marry after Joy passed away). Indeed, according to Dr. Como, Lewis had a “fraudulent, secret self” against which he had to come to terms and, actually, overcome. “Nevertheless, any consideration of Lewis’s ‘self’ is something of a minefield. He hid, distorted, invented, denied, and finally transcended it. Always he coyly warned us against discussing it,” Dr. Como explains. Those who knew Lewis best as a child and young man—his father and his brother—were horrified by Lewis’s relationship with women, and his closest friends in the 1920s and 30s—such as Owen Barfield and J.R.R. Tolkien—knew absolutely nothing of this aspect of Lewis’s life.
Dr. Como’s writing style is quite enjoyable, a cross between Ernest Hemingway staccato and the more refined intellectualism of Tom Wolfe’s gonzo journalism. Effectively alternating between past and present tenses, Dr. Como’s hard-earned wisdom and life-long learning reveal themselves in every sentence of the book. Dr. Como also possesses the eye of an outstanding biographer, knowing exactly when to make the quirky quirky and when to make it expressive of the norm. In discussing Lewis’s own style, Dr. Como stresses that Lewis feared that a “republic of letters” might very well collapse in upon itself, with each writer thinking himself a pope. Instead, Dr. Como notes, Lewis knew that one must speak and write to his audience, academic or not. Certainly, Lewis’s BBC radically popular radio addresses during World War II convinced him of the necessity of communicating to and with the broadest audience possible. This should not suggest that Lewis did not write for an academic audience. He often did, and, when he did, such as with his Allegory of Love, he did so very well. Unlike most of his academic colleagues, though, he knew that he had a duty to speak to those who did not necessarily agree with him. Frankly, one might readily write the same of Dr. Como’s biographical survey. He has all the scholarship and ability of an academic, but he writes in the voice of the intelligent reader of whatever profession.
Lewis was, as Dr. Como so correctly notes, always his own man, and his own forceful actions toward colleagues, friends, family, and students—tended to attract or repulse those around him, with little middle ground for neutrals. Those who loved him, loved him dearly. Those who despised, despised him just as dearly. Dr. Como brilliant explains Lewis’s playful and deep love of myth, his extraordinary charity (quite similar to that of Russell Kirk), his normalization of the genre of science fiction, his rather complex and sometimes downright bizarre relations with women, and his vast reading of every possible book. The latter, especially, matters to Lewis’s own writings, as many of his articles and books are really gothic autobiographical reflections of his readings (again, quite similar to that of Russell Kirk).
While I have been reading Professor Como’s work for three decades now, I have never had the pleasure of meeting or corresponding with him. After reading this glorious biographical survey of Lewis, though, I’ve just added having a “beer with James Como” to my goals-in-life checklist. As for now, I’m quite content to have read the thoughts of one great man on another.
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