Friday, 15 February 2019

C S Lewis

I first came to Lewis in the 1980s through his Narnia books and Space Trilogy, at that time I liked a lot of his images, his mythic imagination but thought Lewis did way too much Christian preaching and that his Christian beliefs did not fit seamlessly into his stories but jutted out making them unshapely. By comparison I thought George MacDonald's book Lilith was a thoroughly marvellous work where imagination and Christian teaching worked together seamlessly. But I also held an antipathy toward Christianity then which I no longer hold.

I read my daughter the Narnia stories while she was growing up, she liked them and read some of them on her own and we watched the 3 Disney Narnia movies that came out and unlike many others, we liked them all.

But it is only in the last decade that my appreciation of Lewis has grown and that i have read more widely of his works.

Lewis was the central figure in the Inklings, all the key Inklings were primarily friends with Lewis and secondarily with one another,  the Inklings' original meetings were held in Lewis' rooms at Oxford. My appreciation of Lewis has grown, I appreciate him as a person and a writer although he is not my favourite or I think the greatest Inkling. Lewis' work may have the broadest scope combined with a pretty popular reach, his polemics probably lack the intensity that the other three Inklings (Tolkien, Charles Williams & Owen Barfield) have in spades. They are perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern circle of Prophets and Lewis was the everyman, being the most sensible and prosaic particularly in his popular book of Christian apologetics "Mere Christianity". While his Narnia books while the four main children feel very ordinary the books are filled with a certain outlandishness of imagination mixing Father Christmas, fawns, talking animals a witch and a Lion who serves as the Jesus of Narnia.

Owen Barfield writes of Lewis "C S Lewis was for me, first and foremost, the absolutely unforgettable friend, the friend with whom I was in close touch for over forty years, the friend who might be regarded hardly as another human being , but almost as a part of the furniture of my existence..."

But Barfield also writes about Lewis' influence on him as a thinker "I told him (Lewis) that ... it was he that taught me to think at all" and that he was impressed that Lewis refused to take philosophy as a merely academic exercise.

Lewis was a good Christian, he got Owen Barfield to act as his personal lawyer to administer the  significant funds Lewis earned from publishing and funnel it into charitable activity. Lewis was certainly not materialistic in the sense of wanting to acquire significant possessions and material wealth. I don't know if Lewis wrote about divine poverty, I don't think I have read anything.

Barfield obviously loved Lewis as a friend and admired him as both a writer and a human being, it is very easy for us to do the same.

There is a key story in Lewis life regarding World War I, he made a promise with one of his fellow soldiers Paddy Moore that if either one of them failed to survive the War they would look after the Parent of the other, Paddy Moore did not survive so Lewis ended up living with and in a sense looking after Mrs Moore, now anyone that has read Lewis biography will experience a certain amount of pain about this as Mrs Moore seems to have been a selfish and domineering person who not only impacted Lewis but also his older brother Warnie, I don't know if people connect Warnie's drinking with Mrs Moore but it certainly doesn't seem to be a stretch. I came across a comment recently about Warnie raising the issue of Mrs Moore and being bluntly cut off and that it was not a subject that could be discussed. Was this a feature of Lewis, he did a similar thing to Barfield in cutting off their great War discussion, that Barfield was able to continue somewhat and find resolution by writing about it after Lewis death. But in the case of Mrs Moore it has often been framed that Lewis had to do what he did because of his promise, but I don't think so Lewis chose to interpret his promise in a certain way, if someone takes responsibility for their parents all they need to do is make sure they are financially sound and to visit them regularly, living with them is surely not required. If Lewis thought he was being a good influence on her I can see no evidence of that and allowing her free reign with her petty tyrannies was surely not doing any good for her character and was certainly causing his brother very real suffering.

Lewis' work is multifaceted he did Christian apologetics, imaginative allegory, science fantasy, children's fantasy, adult myth, literary criticism and autobiography as well as a extensive letter writer not just to his friends family and peers but also to numerous fans that wrote to him

I will end with a number of selections from his works that have particularly stood out for me:

On Re Reading:
In literature the characteristics of the 'consumer' of bad art are even easier to define. He (or she) may want her weekly ration of fiction very badly indeed, may be miserable if denied it. But he never re-reads. There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary. It is infallible. The literary man re-reads, other men simply read. A novel once read is to them like yesterdays newspaper. One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter. It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk. Whether the bad poetry is re-read or not (it gravitates suspiciously towards the spare bedroom) I do not know. But the very fact that we do not know is significant. It does not creep into the conversation of those who buy it. One never finds two of its lovers capping quotations and settling down to a good evening's talk about their favourite. So with the bad picture. The purchaser says, no doubt sincerely, that he finds it lovely, sweet, beautiful, charming or (more probably,) 'nice. But he hangs it where it cannot be seen and never looks at it again. 

On why we should read old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. ALL contempo-rary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united - united with each other and against earlier and later ages - by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century - the blindness about which posterity will ask; "But how could they have thought that?" - lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt (note: this was written in 1943) or between Mr H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us .in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them. 
On The Scottish writer George MacDonald whom Lewis called his master, and in his autobiography he said he baptised his imagination:
Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius — a Kafka or a Novalis — who can make such a story Mac-Donald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know But I do not know how to classify such genius To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can co-exist with great inferiority in the art of words—nay, since its connection with words at all turns out to be merely external and, in a sense, accidental Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored It may even be one of the greatest arts, for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry or at least to most poetry It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and 'possessed joys not promised to our birth It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions...

Definition of Myth from "An experiment in Criticism", this book should be read by anyone that has studied literature, it serves as something of an antidote to the possession by fashionable literary theories and an encouragement to surrender oneself to great pieces of literature and be receptive towards them

The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing us to a permanent object of contemplation—more like a thing than a narration—which works upon us by its peculiar flavour or quality, rather as a smell or a chord does. Sometimes, even from the first, there is hardly any narrative element. The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow of Ragnarok is hardly a story. The Hesperides, with their apple-tree and dragon, are already a potent myth, without bringing in Heraldes to steal the apples... The experience is not only grave but awe-inspiring. We feel it to be numinous. It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to us. The recurrent efforts of the mind to grasp—we mean, chiefly, to conceptualise—this something, are seen in the persistent tendency of humanity to provide myths with allegorical explanations. And after all allegories have been tried, the myth itself continues to feel more important than they. I am describing and not accounting for myths...
And lastly an except from "Out of the Silent Planet", the first book of Lewis Space Trilogy, the books in this trilogy are quite odd mixing quite a bit of didactic dialogue but Lewis also has these richly imaginative depictions and here I love how he recasts our experience of space:
But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him.. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name `Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more, No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory—the
'happy climes that ly 
Where day never shuts his eye 
Up in the broad fields of the sky: