Reassessing C. S. Lewis

The ghost of C. S. Lewis has haunted me much of my life, so much so that only relatively recently — to paraphrase Sartre, but by the grace of God –, have I been able to go down into the cellar, grab the ghost by the scruff of its neck, and throw it out. A. N. Wilson’s biography has been the final stage of the exorcism. I wish to use that book — here, dealing only with chapter one — as a broad outline for reviewing Lewis’ life and works, to try to put them into a better frame, a better context than the one that dominated my thinking for so long.

Partly, this is because I have seen many others submit to the same siren song. Indeed, it is almost impossible for a Christian with both philosophical and literary propensities not to do so. In Lewis he finds a defender of orthodox Christianity — or so it seems at first blush — presenting Orthodoxy with an intimate, confiding tone, a certain cheer, and above all, an endlessly fecund ability to illustrate with apt quotations from world literature. This contrasts markedly with the typical Christian’s own experience of orthodoxy presented by preachers with a supercilious tone, a stridency, and nought but Bible proof-texts. 

The tonal issues aside, Lewis’ wielding of apt citations from world literature is indeed astonishing. It spans all nations having a literature. In respect to our own Western literature, his at-hand, effortless knowledge seems to be unplumbable over a period spanning well over two millennia. “I wish I could do that,” I caught myself thinking. How many abortive careers of English or Comparative Lit. have been launched from this velleity cannot be guessed. Worse yet, however, are the dozen rabbit trails that others have pursued, boning up on this or that epoch of literature, even in despite of their main career.  We start dropping authoritative pronouncements, based on nothing but having read it in Lewis. “The Medievals didn’t believe in a flat earth, you know.” There is, in short, something about Lewis’ approach that almost everyone finds attractive at first, and many to their own disadvantage.

Distinguo. A real awakening of a love for poetry or epic would be helping a man to become more human. Doubtless, this is a part of the effect of the Lewis narcotic. A narcotic that deadens a bit of modern decayed flesh, helping one regain his deeper manhood. But there is a second kind of narcotic ecstasy which we might dub second order — a love, not of the poetry, but of the love of poetry. Being in love with being in love (e.g., rather than with a woman) is a pathology that can be applied to literature just as much. 

Combining this distinction with the general view of calling, we can say that I am not wanting to disparage any reawakened humanity here, but only wish to exorcise the dilettantism that distracts a man from his true calling, and the second-order appropriation of literature which is at bottom nought but priggish pride.

All of that by way of basic motivation. The parallel stream of criticism must deal with the content of Lewis’ opus. And it turns out, this content leaves a great deal to be desired from the Christian point of view. To anticipate a later theme, it should have raised red flags everywhere when, in the introduction to his Mere Christianity, Lewis admits that it was a Methodist that faulted him for weakness on Justification by Faith, and a Romanist on vicarious atonement. Chuckle chuckle. What should have induced him to put his manuscript to the flames, instead is taken up in Lewis’ boundless merriment as proof (somehow) of his catholicity! In addition, both the suppression of these key themes, and Lewis’ profession of ignorance point to serious character issues, I submit. Indeed, there is a problem with honesty that runs like a dark vein through Lewis’ whole life, and one we must come to terms with. The invariable accompaniment to most of his books of a large picture of Lewis grinning impishly at us, either from his writing desk or through a cloud of smoke, doubtless aids the illusion. But it is long since time to blow some of the smoke away.

It is necessary to survey Lewis’ life from a very young age in order to understand how certain deeply troubling aspects of his soul came about. This raises a methodological question: what are the real facts important to our narrative? Indeed, there are three “narratives” that need to be kept distinct in respect to any man’s childhood: (1) the actual state of affairs; (2) the child’s subjective appropriation of those states of affairs; and (3) the adult’s retrospective reinterpretation of the same states of affairs. The wonderful thing is that there is hardly any sequence of childhood facts under (1) and (2), let them be as nasty and twisted as you want, that could not be sublimated into a great story. An abusive childhood can indeed be overcome. 

But all-important is narrative (3), the grownup’s retrospective. There are two limiting cases by which this can manifest itself: There is the case of George MacDonald, whose childhood — specifically and notably, his relation to his father — was wonderful in every discernible way. There is, at the other extreme, the crabbed, disrupted and disruptive child — think Eustace –, who, mirabile dictu, eventually comes to reinterpret his entire early world by inversion of how he interpreted it originally — to realize, for example, that the “nasty ogre of a father” was, at worst, exactly the father most suitably matched, in the providence of God,  to what he needed; and at best, actually a good man, the opposite of what he once thought. Of course, the story for many will be a mixture of these two limiting cases.

Now (1) and (2) without (3) might be interesting to a certain kind of biography, especially when the goal is to show how the stamp of greatness was present from an early age. “The child is father to the man,” the Greeks said. Think of the legends of George Washington’s childhood, or Herodotus’ treatment of Cyrus the boy. In this study of Lewis, in contrast, I will almost always be interested in (1) and (2) only as reflected in (3). We have (3) most notably in his 1955 book, Surprised by Joy.  SBJ is thus itself an event in the life of Lewis occurring well into middle age. I will self-consciously interact with that work even while telling the story of his life as a young boy, because it is the retrospective product of Lewis the man that is the only thing we are after.

In short, this is not so much about Lewis’ childhood as the middle-aged Lewis’ reflection on his own childhood.

I mentioned George MacDonald’s relationship to his father, and in contrast, the first thing that pops out in Wilson’s biography is Lewis’ life-long scorn for his father. Likewise, the first thing one has to observe about SBJ is its vicious treatment of his father. A supercilious hostility toward his father undoubtedly began in early childhood, and scarcely abated throughout his life.

What makes this fact particularly painful is that any objective reading of the facts of the case indicates that Lewis had one of the greatest fathers imaginable, and moreover, one even whose eccentricities were so suited to Jack’s needs as to only make sense in view of a Divine craftsman who works all things out in infinite wisdom. Albert Lewis was hard-working, successful, funny, devoted, smart, and pious. He wept openly when taking leave of the boys for school at the Belfast quays. But here is how Jack the adult describes him:

When he opened his mouth to reprove us he no doubt intended a short well-chosen appeal to our common sense and conscience. But alas, he had been a public speaker long before he became a father. He had for many years been a public prosecutor. Words came to him and intoxicated him as they came. What actually happened was that a small boy who had walked on damp grass in his slippers or left a bathroom in a pickle found himself attacked with something like Cicero on Catiline, or Burke on Warren Hastings; simile piled on simile, rhetorical question on rhetorical question, the flash of an orator’s eye and the thunder cloud of an orator’s brow, the gestures, the cadences and the pauses. (SBJ 38)

We can be quite sure that if the offense was “leaving the bathroom in a pickle,” this was something more culpable than Jack is making out. Compare Jack’s dismissive attitude toward his offense with Augustine’s in regard to stealing pears. Indeed, the proof that this is so tumbles willy-nilly out of his own mouth as he continues the narration:

The pauses might be the chief danger. One was so long that my brother, quite innocently supposing the denunciation to have ended, humbly took up his book and resumed his reading; a gesture which my father (who had after all only made a rhetorical miscalculation of about a second and a half) not unnaturally took for “cool, premeditated insolence.”

Though Lewis concedes “not unnaturally,” it is obvious that that is not his burden. Whether Warnie’s act was premeditated, it was certainly cool and insolent — not “humble” — for a boy to listen to his father’s philippic, and neither apologize nor defend, but simply pick up a book and start reading. What these boys needed was a good thrashing. It is along that direction alone — too indulgent — that the father’s discipline can be criticized. But a vicious literary allusion has popped into Lewis the boy/man’s mind, so he continues:

The ludicrous disproportion between such harangues and their occasions puts me in mind of the advocate in Martial who thunders about all the villains of Roman history while meantime lis est de tribus capellis

This case, I beg the court to note,
Concerns a trespass by a goat

Common sense and internal evidence suggests that the narrative of the father’s declamation is exaggerated — Jack is obviously enjoying this opportunity to pile on some literary references. (Indeed, doing the very thing he accuses his father of.) What is most troubling about the narrative is a side-effect of the total lack of humility, shame, or repentance as the middle-aged man looks back on his childhood antics. None of the attacks on his father are necessary to the stated purpose of the biography — to explain his theory of “joy” in connection with his conversion. What we have instead is the 56-year-old still-a-boy glancing up at us boy-readers with a wink and a twinkle in the eye, as if to whisper, “It’s really bad, isn’t it?” Winston Churchill played the same game in his book Roving Commission. Insightfully (though not in connection with this particular incident), Wilson mentions that about this time Lewis saw the play Peter Pan:

It is one of the Grand Conspicuous Omissions in Lewis’s autobiography that he says nothing about this experience which, to judge from the Lewis Papers, was momentous. For there was no children’s story more apposite to his life than that of the little boy who could not grow up…  (26)

I am not latching onto the trivial hypothesis that Lewis “refused to grow up, to become a man.” No, the theme I am suggesting is more in the nature of a warped dishonesty. It is a willingness to use others as objects to drag through the mud in order to bring the spotlight to some feature of oneself — even, a rather trivial feature of oneself. 

Seeing Peter Pan happened just after the time Jack spent at Wynyard, a school headed by Rev. Capron, eighteen months that parlays into one tenth of the autobiography under the title “Concentration Camp.” The section includes more sly Peter-Pan-like winking and tittering about how awful “Oldie” the headmaster was. Despite the trashing, it turns out Jack was something of a teacher’s pet — “a position which I swear I never sought” he quickly reassures us boys, lest we should suspect he might have broken the Boyhood Code (SBJ 26). He makes up for this on the next page by taking Peter Pan kitsch to yet a new level — the faux-scholarly footnote documenting Oldie’s sin: [fn #1: “this punishment was for a mistake in a geometrical proof”]. Tearing down other authority figures is in the same genre as doing so to one’s father, according to our catechism, and once it becomes clear what Jack is doing, it becomes quite tiresome. I therefore skip rehearsing it further here. 

However, there are two other themes in this chapter that we must also keep our eye on that have important beginnings in this epoch.

First, in this period, he claims to have adopted real, genuine Christianity for the first time, being taught doctrines by the high Anglo-Catholic men “who obviously believed them” “as distinct from general ‘uplift’” (33). But the implication that his religious training in Belfast could be characterized as “general uplift” is either an errant lie or an egregious example of self-deception. It will be worth dwelling on this a moment. 

We first recall his nurse Lizzie Endicott from the peasant class that taught him to avoid the “dirty wee popes” in the mud puddles. Not profound religion, but certainly heart-felt, and certainly not “general uplift.” Then there was his Presbyterian governess Miss Harper. “A theological lecture interspersed between the sums was one of his first intimations there was Another World in which Christians were supposed to believe. He preferred the other world of his own invention.” (Wilson, 16). There was the presence of his grandfather Lewis, “who wandered about the corridors of Little Lea muttering psalms” (Wilson 24). There was the deep piety of his father, which I will document d.v. a bit more another time. Finally, we have the proof that Lewis’ training was not “general uplift” from a letter Wilson dug up written by Jack himself at this very time! The 56-year-old that wrote such a glowing account of the Anglo-Catholic service evidently forgot what the 10-year-old had written:

In this abominable place of Romish hypocrites and English liars, the people cross themselves, bow to the Lord’s table (which they have the vanity to call an altar) and pray to the Virgin. (24)

Oops. It can be dangerous writing things down and then forgetting about them.

As I have long suspected, the above letter is proof positive that his protest in later writings of not knowing the Reformed perspective is fake. It is dissimulation. The “more genuine Christianity” he discovered here is described as prayer, Bible, and conscience. (SBJ 34). There is no mention of repentance — conscience, after all, can simply refer to the inner resolution to do good –, nor of a sense of sin, nor of the satisfaction of Christ. Yet Lewis the 56-year-old identifies this as “real, genuine Christianity,” in contrast to the heart-felt piety of many around him as a boy in Belfast, which he dismisses as advocating mere uplift.

The second ominous theme that starts to develop in this chapter is already hinted at when he says (SBJ 27) “everyone talks of sadism nowadays”. They do? we ask. He mentions the things he liked in literature at this period: “sandals, temples, togas, slaves, emperors, galleys, amphitheaters; the attraction, as I now see, was erotic, and erotic in rather a morbid way” (SBJ 35). Wait… the attraction was what again?! and in what way?! That he identifies this list of literary props with morbid eroticism at all is certainly troubling; that this is the second major theme of this period of his life, along with adopting for the first time “genuine Christianity” is baffling as well.

Moreover, his breezy adoption of a quasi-Freudian outlook is troubling. As a Christian, he should have attacked that pseudo-science, as he had just begun to do eight years earlier in the voice of Bill Hingest (p. 36). Instead, he plants sly memes inviting the reader to take Lewis on as a patient. “You will remember,” he says, “that I had already learned to fear and hate emotion; here was a fresh reason to do so” (SBJ 33). But fear and hate can themselves be modeled as emotions. So he was emoting against emotions, but doing so in second-order reflection. A genuine emotion isn’t observed, it is felt, it is the manner of expression. As soon as I say, “I am angry,” I am not angry in an honest way any more. I am observing someone — me — that is angry. Imagine Wotan, while chasing down Brunnhilde after her disobedience, saying “this is good; I’m really in touch with my emotions now.” Why would a grown man say of his childhood, “I should have welcomed and loved emotions.” What is it that he missed? A passive aesthetic experience? Failing to maximize the inner experience? But would he not then have missed the experience of hating and fearing emotions?

Moreover, if there is anything to psychoanalysis, it should certainly not be performed on oneself. That would assume without warrant that the mesh were superficial, easily transcended the moment notebook and pencil were picked up. Lewis talks like a superficial man here, as though a deep warpage of the soul is the stuff for beer-hall banter, to which anonymous bystanders can also be invited to contribute. There is something narcissistic and precious about this move to self-psycho-analysis which, if not precisely dishonest, is at least inauthentic.

In a nutshell, there we have Wynyard, arguably the turning point of his life, when he embraced a Christless Christianity and “morbid eroticism.” He learns to slander, and bend and suppress the truth. He even refers to Wynyard as Belsen (23)— if he must use such a macabre slander, wouldn’t humility suggest using an analogy to the British concentration camps? For the British invented the practice fifty years earlier, in South Africa. Wilson notices some of the troubling themes, and digs a little. But much more should be done in studying this fateful year. The shock of coming to a strange land with strange accents, smells and bells immediately following the death of his mother seems to have changed Lewis permanently. He himself seems to have sensed it, by dwelling so long on a relatively short period of time, and turning the hapless Rev. Capron into such an ogre. But he doesn’t seem able to untangle the deep self-deception of his own heart and mind. That is the fearsome thing about self-deception.

The trashing of his father and other authority figures, even counter to evident facts, the beer hall psychoanalysis, the dishonesty, the morbid eroticism, and the self-deceptions surrounding his own religious development, are troubling indeed. Biographers are going to have to keep digging. Surprised by Joy was written three years after he met Joy Davidman in person, and his succumbing to her flatteries suggests that that relationship should be looked into as part of the cause of that hideous defection. But whatever the influences, he must be held accountable for his own behavior.

The greatness of his fiction does survive the man, however.

More later.