His Fugitive Voice: After Fifty Years

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Five decades beyond C. S. Lewis’s death on that fateful November 22, 1963, the fashion in some precincts is to describe the man as “quirky,”  as though the folds, edges and concealments of his character and of his mind are only lately evident, or that owing to some set of cryptic psycho-tics he was, really, some tweedy eccentric.  This revisionism is unfortunate, and not because he didn’t have his quirks.  He did.  In the late thirties, for example, he contrived – for a chuckle, and as a joke on Oxford University, no less – to have his friend Adam Fox, who was barely a poet,  elected Professor of Poetry.  Very few of Lewis’s colleagues thought it was funny.  Later in life, when his old dog Mr. Papworth would not eat standing still or if anyone were watching, the by-now-famous man could be seen twice a day walking down his lane tossing dog food over his shoulder as the dog followed along gobbling it up.  Those were quirks, and there were some others, too, like his ability to quote any page from memory if someone gave him a few lines from the page – and yet (as we see in the manuscript of The Screwtape Letters) not confidently spell ‘rivet’; or the co-existence of his irrational fear (not as bad as his brother Warnie’s) that he might run out of money – that, along with an 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 seventy per cent of his income.  But all of this is standard fare for readers who have looked into the life. [1]

In that light, I will not be offering anything brand new – no code-breaking or any chronological novelties.  After all Dr. Johnson is right: people need to be reminded more often than instructed.  Nor will I argue my own hobby horses, that Lewis’s life falls into nine semi-neat stages, or was dramatically changed by five pivotal deaths (although I will touch upon three of those).  In fact, I will hardly argue at all – hardly.  Instead I will attempt a portrait of the Lewis who is unnoticed in plain sight, whom I have pondered for some time, and whose nature is useful in its ability to help us understand the master, his work, and the relationship between the two.  I realize that my fondness for my themes – resistance and escape: I fundamentally share the impulse behind both – may have distorted my view.  For its tendency to make us see its manifestation everywhere we look, Lewis himself has warned us against just such enthusiasm.[2] I hope such distortion is not the case here: we shall see.

I have called the current tendency unfortunate, though not because its claims are false.  It is unfortunate because it is a simplistic reduction, and it is especially unfortunate because the really useful revision would go much farther.  Here is the Lewis whom I see: no mere eccentric but, intellectually and temperamentally and radically so, a proto-anarchist (very ironically), a not-so-undercover counter-cultural resistance fighter, and especially a rebel whose final cause was escape – first against and from a sorrowful childhood; then from social convention, University rules, and paternal oversight and overreach; thereafter from many settled assumptions of his own profession; then grandly, persistently, from his Zeitgetist generally, including even from some friends; and finally from Zeit itself.  Moreover, and along the way as he aged, he sought to flee, not only from guilt but from his own gifts.  In short, this fugitive motif was the bass riff that ran under all the rich and varied fugues of his life and work and that knits them of-a-piece, finally making of him a towering, multi-faceted figure – and a Christian apologist straight from Galilee.  I begin with . . . reminders.

Just as his many geniuses give his widely varied works their distinctive qualities, for him to have traveled so many literary roads is itself astonishing.  Consider . . . . He was a published (if minor) poet of great metrical and narrative skill; a philosopher (that is, academically trained as such, whose first University appointment included philosophy, and whose admonitory Abolition of Man, for example, is proving frighteningly prescient); a first-person novelist the equal of Nabokov in technical proficiency and psychological depth; a writer of speculative fiction dense with ideas and of fantasy (Narnia) with some peers but no betters; a religious thinker whose sermons and essays have settled much epistemological hash, undone many a strawman, and clarified opaque doctrine; a fearsome public debater and engaged public figure; a vital social presence; a Christian apologist who wrote and roved and broadcast and who still invites attack as well as aspirants to be the “next C. S. Lewis”; and an assiduous book reviewer and unrelenting letter-writer.  In short, we know him – through his several voices – as much more than the reliable and supple apologist, the semi-avuncular adviser, and the compelling fabulist and romancer.  Such are his works and his work.

The man behind those is himself engaging.  We have come to know the unsettled boy who (unlike his brother at the very same schools) simply could not fit in; the brilliant student and legendary scholar, lecturer and demanding tutor at Oxford; the animal-lover and that bountiful alms-giver who opened his home to evacuees during World War Two and tutored the needful among of them; the intrepid walker and talker; the constant imbiber of tea with a fondness for alcohol and tobacco; the prodigious reader and writer; the Famous Man and so that dutiful correspondent; and the valued friend whose conversation, joyfully dogged encouragement, and sheer presence was of great delight.  His lifelong friend Owen Barfield has reminded us that he was, as much as anything else, “a very funny man”;  and his pupil, friend and sometime-Inkling John Wain has described him as “all the time delightfully aware of [his] identity and out to get, and to give, as much fun as possible with it.”  Nor can we forget the devoted brother and, finally, husband; and of course the prayerful, reverent and humble Christian who, though unrelenting in the practice of his apologetic vocation and quite conscious of his popularity and effectiveness, would never assert beyond his knowledge nor abuse his influence.

All of this has made of Lewis (or a version of him, officially we might say) someone overlooked, or under-estimated, by even the most astute literary critics and journalists; that is, a top-shelf literary figure.  Regard:  1/ As a prose stylist his gifts of wit, analogy, imagery, epigrammatic economy, rhythmical dexterity, and rhetorical adroitness should place him in any canon worthy of study by anyone who pretends to know – let alone to teach – the literature of English speaking peoples.  2/ His many voices have produced a trenchant body of work that includes hallmarks of its many types, remains relevant, and invites commentary.  3/ His personal influence upon very many millions of people is deep, significant and abiding.  And  4/ his personality and life continue to arouse interest.

Well, that, of course, and, having been reminded of the official man, we might ask, Why this continuing interest?   The reason, I believe, is that he was a man with a private and social life marked, not by quirks or eccentricities, but by what we students of his life and work must regard as anomalies.  That is, he was what so many of his readers do not expect and therefore have overlooked.  Personally as well as professionally, at least among men, he was very much his own man.  It is this independence – in the tweedy, conventional, and conventionally Anglican Oxford don who had barely traveled and whose circles were few and small – that often confuses even the people who do notice its ubiquity in his life and work.

Even though it should startle or confuse no one: from the beginning – we must begin with a childhood which, though lovely at its start, would be roiled soon enough – from that beginning he was his own boy, too.  He wanted company on his terms or, better yet, to be left alone, even though he knew, eventually, that God would not comply.  As a very young child he named himself – Jacksie (after a slain pet dog), and Jack he would remain.  He was a smart aleck, answering, when queried about his self-professed prejudice against the French, that if he knew why he was prejudiced then it wouldn’t be a prejudice, “would it!”  More than anything he treasured his time in The Little End Room of his family’s huge house, away from his overbearing father, reading and writing his stories of dressed and talking animals.  That became the redoubt of his one-boy resistance movement.

Then, three months before his tenth birthday, his mother, Flora, died: “a continent sinking like Atlantis.”  Now, the literature on the effects of early parental loss is dispositive.[3]  It tells us that mourning may be delayed (e.g. until we see a version it in The Magician’s Nephew, more than forty years after the fact); school phobias will likely ensue; the pre-adolescent child (especially a boy who has lost a mother) will delay long-term romantic love (Lewis wouldn’t find “the romance that passed [him] by in [his] teens” until his fifties, when he married Joy Davidman Gresham); nightmares are frequent (in Lewis’s case about spiders); and conversions are common, including conversions away from religious faith.  By the time of his Confirmation this grandchild of clergymen and child of serious and observant Christians – it was not, as he would claim, a nominally Christian household – was both signing himself “philomasix” (an adolescent sexual reference: “lover of the whip”) in letters to his first friend Arthur Greeves and calling himself a “blaspheming atheist.”  (Blaspheming he certainly was: an atheist he was not, in spite of what he said: we must handle with care assertions that great people make about themselves.)   Perhaps this stage of his flight was owing to typical teenage foolishness, not to the sorrowful boyhood from which any sane youngster would flee, but he would say that it took him as long to gain inhibitions as it took his contemporaries to lose them.

This time he is right.  The survivor of early parental loss may search for a relationship analogous to the one lost, abetting the delay Lewis remarks upon.  Practically stepping out of the textbook, he would set up a household with his slain army buddy’s mother, Janie King Moore – a mother-surrogate whom he would refer to as his own mother and who would, in the twenties when Lewis was that “blaspheming atheist,” become his lover.  Of course the whole ménage was rebellious, not just against Christian and conventional morality, but against conventional immorality as well – and against those University regulations that required college residency.  Worst of all, it was contrary to the sorry tale he was fobbing off on his father (who was Lewis’s sole support: his diary from the twenties reveals that his trousers were so worn he thought them on the verge of indecency, and he could afford only one razor blade).

Mrs. Moore was some twenty-five years older than Lewis, and he would care for her until her death in January of 1951.  The erotic aspect of this liaison would lead to a haunting guilt lasting at least until his early fifties (more about that anon).  Even when not erotic, though, his relationship with Mrs. Moore was the first concrete example of the Weiberherrschaft to which he was disposed.[4]  He had fled from one little end room in search of another, where being “left alone” took the form of a self-indentured servitude to a woman, putative atheism, and lies.  Well: no one promised that the route back home from behind enemy lines would be direct, or easy.

During the following decades – from young adulthood and beyond, even after his conversion – his closest friends intuited an unfinished, subcutaneous layer in Lewis. The philosopher Owen Barfield, his dear “second friend “and solicitor, would describe some of his work as “pastiche” and thought his post-conversion life marked prominently by “voulu”;  his devoted brother – his dearest friend – said of his conversion that it was not a conversion as much as a recovery from “a long mental illness.”  In the opinion of some who would know, he was a wonderful friend but given to new, unbounded enthusiasms even at the cost of compromising old friendships. Will we ever adequately understand l’affair Davidman or Lewis’s secrecy surrounding that marriage?  I think it likely that we have the same Weiberherrschaft here that we saw in the case of Janie King Moore – though his marriage did (I think) turn into a genuine love affair.  And there was 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), the publication in America of Pilgrim’s Regress being by Sheed and Ward, a leading Catholic house, and because of his early popularity among Catholics.  In the event, the possibility of his – or Warnie’s – crossing the Tiber horrified him.  These were neither quirks nor eccentricities but signs of a severe independence, pockmarked by a self-professed bigotry.

As his own man, the mature public Lewis – as scholar, critic, and what these days we call a public intellectual – this Lewis would have assumed himself so situated as to indulge his rebel spirit and thus to resist his Zeitgeist, and not at all under cover but defiantly.  His first book as a Christian was the militant allegory Pilgrim’s Regress (1933).  Written in two weeks, it subverts most of the tides of his time (fascism, communism, Freudianism, materialism, spiritualism) and features, of all heroes, an escaping pilgrim who instead of progressing actually regresses: a thrown gauntlet if ever there was one.  And – of course – there was more to come.  For example, in “The Dangers of National Repentance” (1940) he is admonitory: “You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition” – as contrarian then as it is now.  By then he had already converted to Christianity – again, let us remember – against the stylish Oxford tide, and would defend it against all comers at meetings of the famous Socratic Club.  And who else but Lewis – Eliot?  John Dewey?  Chesterton? – would write, in 1933 yet, the following?  By the way, this too swam against the tide:

Nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. . . . Did you see that he said ‘The Jews have made no contribution to . . . culture and in crushing them I am doing the work of the Lord’?  Now [Lewis continues] as the whole idea of ‘the will of the Lord’ is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has . . . in a single sentence . . . shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.

Or consider this, from “Religion and Rocketry” (1958), than which there is no more astute, trenchant, or profoundly Christian critique of the impact of Christian evangelizing upon the heathen:  “The missionary’s holy desire to save souls has not always been kept quite distinct from the arrogant desire, the busybody’s itch, to (as he calls it) ‘civilize’ the (as he calls them) ‘natives.’”  In the late and largely neglected “The Seeing Eye” (1963), published first in America as “Onward, Christian Spaceman,” he expands upon the theme, contemplating the possibility of humanity meeting an alien rational species:

I observe how the white man has hitherto treated the black, and how, even among civilized men, the stronger have treated the weaker. . . . I do not doubt that the same story will be repeated. We shall enslave, deceive, exploit or exterminate.

(An aside: I suspect that this opinion was prominent among the reasons that caused him to turn down the offer of a CBE from the great Churchill, an avid imperialist.[5])

Even as this untamed lion forged his escape through the spirit of the age he relished the resistance fighter’s stance, famously referring to himself, in his 1954 Cambridge University inaugural lecture, as a dinosaur, and he was.  He had tackled Eliot’s mega-influential snobbishness and modernism (he could not look at the night sky and see “a patient etherized upon a table”) and would do the same with  F. R. Leavis’s in “High and Low Brows” and with his defenses of  the infra dig Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, William Morris and George MacDonald.  No one was safe: in our school-ridden Age of Methodology he eschewed all schools.  Moreover, here and there (especially in book reviews) he would toss off epochal and contrarian ideas – the Renaissance never happened, Aristotle’s Poetics is a ruinous book, tragedy is a “phantom concept” – and not bother to elaborate upon, let alone to defend, them.  In his dispositive Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century he designates a five-decade period of that literature “Drab” and claimed – could C. S. Lewis be this tone-deaf? – that the word is merely descriptive of the normative style of the period, not at all judgmental.[6]

In his counter-cultural rebelliousness he took few prisoners of any sort, allowing no unexamined assumptions, literary, religious or otherwise, and pricking the balloons of jargon wantonly.  Even in the sermon “Membership,” pronouncedly not lit. crit., he could not help himself, writing of the psychological concept du jour,  “I mean the pestilent notion (one sees it in literary criticism) that each of us starts with a treasure called ‘Personality’ locked up inside him, and that to expand and express this . . . is the main end of life.”  Elsewhere he would remind us that “feelings” – our treasured feelings! – “come and go, but mostly they go.”  (Imagine, for a moment, him telling this, say, to Dr. Phil or Oprah.)   And just in case you thought he was a tame Christian lion (as he told us his Aslan was not), he would oppose anti-obscenity and -sodomy laws, avow that it was better for people to live in sin rather than violate their marital vows, and opine that a truly Christian society would surely be a socialist one.[7]

Here Lewis’s treatment of culture per se – his radical, that is, his uprooting, of its claims – enters our portrait.  The concept now seems to have achieved hegemony and demands for itself exactly the diffidence that Lewis could never afford it.  Note this . . . cheekiness . . . of his manner of nearly trivializing (is that too strong a word?) an existential threat to Western Culture in  “Learning in Wartime,” preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on December 22, 1939:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. . . . Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow under of something infinitely more important than itself. . . . I reject at once an idea . . . that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious.

As we shall see, two years later Uncle Screwtape would confirm this very perspective to the pathetic Wormwood.  Maybe more to the point is “Christianity and Literature” (also 1939).  There Lewis argues that a striking contrast exists between the basic principles of modern literary criticism and those of the New Testament: ‘creative’, ‘spontaneous’, and ‘freedom’ rule the former; whereas ‘convention’, ‘rules’, and ‘discipleship’ inform the latter: not an argument against culture per se, but certainly the sort of skepticism that broke, and breaks, ranks.  And in “Christianity and Culture” (1940) Lewis goes farther still in his questioning of the uses of culture.   He finds that the strictly natural level of creation, including culture, “is held on sufferance” within a Christian, supernatural, perspective, and that the New Testament is “decidedly cold to culture,” warning, as it does, against any kind of superiority.  He reminds us of Newman’s thinking that “culture does not produce Christians but it may produce Christian gentlemen,” and warns us that “good taste” is not a spiritual value, and that culture-sellers (like Lewis himself, he says) may include Christians, though mostly as an antidote!  And finally there is “On Living in an Atomic Age’ (1948).  Such an age, Lewis tells us, is no different than “an age of Viking raids, plague, or death-by-auto accident.”  He says, “such threats may break our bodies (microbes can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”  After all, everything – including all civilizations – will end in oblivion, and their durations will have been infinitesimal compared to the “oceans of dead time” both before and after.  He ends with a characteristic, and unsparing, reversal:

We must resolutely train ourselves that survival of man on this

earth . . . must be only by honorable and merciful means. . . .

Those who care for something else more than civilization are the

only people by whom civilization is likely to be preserved.[8]

I trust that Lewis has made my point, which is simply this:  his long and unrelenting resistance yields a commanding perspective that is not only not cultural, not only not trans-cultural, not only not merely counter-cultural, but almost anti-cultural; in a word it is supra-cultural – and in being that seems quite orthodox if you share the perspective.  That is, from beyond the culture – beyond that combination of language, literature, the visual arts, customs, mores, and unexamined assumptions of all kinds that make up a culture – or from above it, he helps us see our fetishizing of culture as a sort of insanity, and culture itself an idol.  Has his Great Divorce ever been greater?  Surely Lewis’s sharp-shooter’s application of the phrase “enemy-occupied territory” to Western culture must come to mind.  Of course, from inside the culture, it is Lewis who must seem crazy: if not quite as febrile as  Jeremiah out there in the wilderness, surely close enough?  And so his genius – the application of his transcending individuality – is to present us with a choice:  in or out?  We, with Lewis, might escape, leaving the Zeitgeist behind.

Enter here two of the most widely-read and influential works of Christian apologetics in the language, the nearly-contemporaneous Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity: the first a masterpiece of satire and psychological insight, the second a marvel of concision and direct address, both intensely counter-cultural.  Consider this, from Uncle Screwtape’s fifth letter: “. . . the European humans have started another of their wars. . . .  Of course a war is entertaining. . . . But what permanent [my emphasis] good does it do us unless we make use of it for bringing souls to Our Father Below?”  Or this, from the fifteenth letter: “The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity.  He therefore . . . wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. . . . Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the present. . . . far better to make them live in the future [which is] of all things, the thing least like eternity.”

And so, having undone the Zeitgeist, Lewis here opens a salient that is the point of the spear (so to speak) by taking on Zeit itself.  And in its stance against culture and against time, Mere Christianity is no different.  Near the end, in his chapter “Nice People or New Men,” Lewis asks, “What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or ‘the real world’ [or ‘culture’] fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?”  It can be no wonder that Lewis referred to time as that “gaping wound.”  Any attentive and willing reader of The Chronicles of Narnia certainly understands: that wardrobe door opens, first to another timeline, space, nature and culture but finally to timelessness.  And Ransom, too, in his second adventure understands: is there a greater escape from our time and culture than his trip to unfallen Perelandra?

In its daring, its urgency, and its compelling expression, such an array invites wonder.  How much more wonder, then, must we feel over Lewis’s ambiguous – nearly hostile – stance towards his own rhetorical gifts?  I’ve suggested that he would flee from these as he did from those other regnant claimants upon him – his boyhood, convention of varying sorts, the Spirit of the Age, and time itself.  He found the Classical lineaments and post-Classical emphases of rhetoric (the “Queen of the Arts,” let us remember) entirely uncongenial, even disturbing.  His notebooks offer virtually no use of rhetoric that is not derogatory; and in his literary history he writes, “rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors.  If the Middle Ages had erred in their devotion to that art, the renascentia, far from curing, confirmed the error.”  Acknowledging that they praised “beauties” at best opaque to us, he  asserts, “this change of taste makes an invisible wall between us and them.  Probably all our literary histories, certainly that on which I am engaged, are vitiated by our lack of sympathy on this point [emphasis added].”  (I note that his copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is utterly unannotated, rare among Lewis’s books.  It seems he may as well not have read it.)

Withal he was as troubled by his own susceptibility to the practice of rhetoric as he was impatient with the art behind it.  “I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people, but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little,” he wrote, after hearing a speech by Hitler (the night before he conceived the idea for The Screwtape Letters).  Even more telling is the conversation between Augray the sorn and Ransom in chapter six of Out of the Silent Planet.  There Augray chides the hrossa for their inflated love of beautiful words.  You see, the hrossa sent Ransom by an excessively long and dangerous route.  “It is just like a hross,” Augray laments.  “If you died on the harandra they would have made a poem . . . and all this would seem to them just as good as if they had used a little forethought.”  But perhaps most telling with respect to his distrust of rhetoric are the instances when he brings his own fictional talk to a halt.  During the debate on Perelandra, the wrong side has the better argument; Ransom “wins” only because he acts non-rhetorically – by punching the Un-man in his mouth.  The only passenger on The Great Divorce bus to Heaven who stays is the one who stops rhetorizing and exclaims, “Damn and blast you!  Go on can’t you?  Get it over,” and presently shuts up.  In The Silver Chair Puddleglum’s affirmation follows his determining action:  With his naked webbed-foot he stamps on the fire that is complicit in the witch’s verbal spell.  And at the end of Till We Have Faces the queen writes, of what had been her lucid and, at least Part One of it, rather convincing complaint (in fact a rhetorically formal Greek apologia) “only words, words; to be led out to battle with other words.”

His old, ambivalent view of the art is intimately tied to his equally ambivalent view of one’s self and the Christian demand that it be transcended.  In the private venue of lyric poetry this alarm surfaces explicitly in “As the Ruin Falls”:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek –

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

And what he finds particularly discomfiting is not only the effect of rhetoric upon his credulity but its hold upon his self, for that hold symptomizes an inability to let go of his old, needful theatrical ego. Listen to this cri de coeur, written late and also unpublished in his lifetime:

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories that I seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

I find such rejection of one’s own gifts and the voice it gives rise to profoundly, almost intolerably, heartbreaking.  Yet, the more deeply we look into Lewis the more personally unsettled – really, the more imprisoned – he seems, especially in the late forties and very early fifties.  Surely this period was Lewis’s Dark Night of the Soul, the first of three quick steps that take him into his fifties.

We see the first stage, this darkness, most clearly in his Latin letters to Don Giovanni Calabria, more intimate, even, than those to Arthur Greeves as an adolescent. On January 14, 1949, he confesses to being troubled in his home life and to suffering from accidia, lukewarmness almost to the point of despair.  He allows that he may never write another book worth reading – and expresses gratitude for that, since his popularity has given rise to pride. Better that he fall silent.  This is happening as Mrs. Moore’s mental health is worsening, along with her moods and her character, and before she is hospitalized.  On January 12, 1950, he writes to his friend Sister Penelope, “Pray for me; I am suffering incessant temptations to uncharitable thoughts at present; one of those black moods in which nearly all one’s friends seem to be selfish or even false.”  Then, no fewer than three years later (December 26, 1951), he reveals that only recently (eight months earlier, on St. Mark’s day, April 25th) does he finally come to believe that his sins have been forgiven.  And note: this is four years after having written an essay on forgiveness (not published during his lifetime) in which he asserts that it is itself grievously sinful not to accept forgiveness if one has repented and done penance.  As Lewis’s conversion occurred shortly after the death of his father, this great relief comes to him only after the death of Mrs. Moore.

Thus begins the second, very brief, step.  What remission the unencumbered fugitive must have felt, foreshadowed twenty years earlier but now the real thing.  For just here we see that change in Lewis’s work (sowed earlier and ripening gradually) that some have so securely, and so implausibly, attributed to a presumed defeat by Elizabeth Anscombe at the Socratic Club (and not-so-by-the-way: he never stopped making the argument that she supposedly refuted, that naturalism is self-refuting).  After a harrowing descent, followed by a transitional remission, we have fruition.[9]  His work now becomes more eschatological, and before our very eyes blossoms into the third step.

Of course, the first formal expression of Lewis’s vision of longing, hope, and heaven comes in 1941, in his magnificent sermon “The Weight of Glory,”[10] the full flowering of his apologetic signature.  Not much later (1944) in “Is Theology Poetry?” he famously tells us, “I believe in Christianity the way I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”[11] But it is, I believe, in the early fifties that we see the irruption of what I think of as Lewis’s full-blown eschatological stage, the Oil of Gladness pouring Himself forth into the now fully-receptive soul, beckoning him, not away from boyhood, social and professional convention, the Zeitgeist, and the like – that he had achieved – but from our “gaping wound” itself and towards the only Geist who counts.  “The World’s Last Night” appears in 1951, debunking the myth of evolutionary progress, arguing (again) that naturalism is self-refuting, and  reminding us that we must “dress our souls not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next.  The good dress is the one that will face that light.  For that light will last longer.”  Of course, Narnia, too, is pouring out.  And most notably, at the very end of the last book he saw through the press, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis suggests much more of that “everything else” he had referred to “The Weight of Glory,” certainly much more than most of us routinely see:

Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ.  And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing and the water flow, and lights and shadows move across the hills. . . . Guesses of course, only guesses.  If they are not true, something better will be.

It’s as though he were training a telescope on Eternity, bringing us closer and closer as he leaves space-time and its cultures and mores and assumptions and sorrows behind.  He shows us the Only Real Thing: then and there, not here and now.  It is why he could say, and mean, “anything not eternal is eternally out of date.”

Yet, while showing us how to follow his joy-filled escape route to hope thence to Heaven, he also turns his telescope around to show us the small world we would be leaving.  He had done this in Screwtape, of course, and in The Last Battle.  More complexly he did it in his great masterwork Till We Have Faces.  Orual learned the lesson that Lewis also teaches in “The World’s Last Night”: “. . . a man should ‘sit loose’ to his own individual life, should remember how short, precarious, temporary, and provisional a thing it is; should never give all his heart to anything which will end when his life ends. . . . the whole life of humanity in this world is also precarious, temporary, and provisional.”  However, my own favorite look back upon our small snare-of-a-world comes (again) from that minor masterpiece “The Seeing Eye.”  Avoiding Christ, Lewis tells us, has become very easy in our time: “avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track.  Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances.  Keep the radio on.  Live in a crowd.  Use plenty of sedation . . . You’ll find advertisements helpful: especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal.”

So as the fifties progressed, Lewis became more and more withdrawn from the life he had led:  from some of his friends, from Oxford, from bachelorhood, and from the sorts of things he had been writing.  He became less of a controversialist (though his book-reviewing remained crisp and severe) and more meditative (as in “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”).  Even in his professional work his old militancy was mitigated.  Take An Experiment in Criticism (1961).  For its premonitory (reader-oriented) thinking, this anti-high brow (i.e. anti-Leavis) corrective should be a touchstone.  But who ever heard of a book of literary theory that short, that readable?  Consider its stirring peroration:

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.  Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough.  I will see what others have invented. . . . I regret that the brutes cannot write books.  Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee. . . . Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . . as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Has any literature student here, or anywhere, ever read any criticism or theory as appealing and as moving as that?  Maybe in Foucault, or Derrida, or Leavis?  Lewis  made it look just too easy, too understandable, too uncomplicated: it couldn’t be serious.  He certainly did not toss it off, but it is leavened, authentic, and resplendent, without the pastiche Barfield saw in Lewis’s contribution to The Personal Heresy some thirty years earlier.[12]

We might say that, like another fugitive, his heroine of The Queen of Drum, Lewis is finally making it to Elfland.  But we can go back farther than that poem.  His earliest hero, Dymer, was escaping too, and was killed for the rebellion he caused in the Perfect City – but not before he lay with the perfect bride and begot a monster who, after killing his father, became a god dwelling in “white lands long-lost Saturnian years.”  In fact Lewis, I believe, wrote four autobiographical works in addition to Surprised by Joy: Dymer, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Till We Have Faces, and A Grief Observed, but the first of these was Dymer.  It is he, the eponymous fugitive-hero, who lived in Lewis to the very end.

So there we have my rendering of Lewis the fugitive and voice.  But what of Lewis himself, the radical subversive who would say that the only people who condemn escape are jailers?  Alas, by now we must wonder if the personae of such a figure are at all reliable avatars of  the actual person.  Any great writer’s reputation is complicated, tenuous, and somehow false: a dicey matter even for the writer.  Ann Rigney, making some sense of a reputation in The Peculiar Legacies of Walter Scott, tells us that to have legs a reputation requires “productive remembering”: that is, portability, remediation (or non-print versions of the work), and diffusion. For Lewis it would prove a long, hard haul.  Over the past seventy-five years or so Lewis’s simmered, then boiled to the rim, then simmered again, then boiled again, though not so high as it did the first boil, then, some fifty years ago, went cold, only to resume a slow, then a very quick, boil.

Any number of events were influential: studies of Lewis dating from the late forties, then a blossoming of scholarship dating from the sixties onwards (thanks to the diligence of Clyde Kilby at Wheaton College and what is now the Wade Center), ever more Lewis works (thanks to the unrelenting editorial devotion of Walter Hooper), the founding of Lewis societies (here the New York C. S. Lewis Society was pivotal), the translation of Lewis’s life and work into non-print media (not only the early TV movies, the biopic, and the blockbuster movie, but the unlikely: The Question of God on PBS, and Freud’s Last Session, Off-Broadway), the lamentable merchandising of Lewis-related products and pseudo-Lewis books, and the many internet conversations replete with a social network of sites and blogs.  In short, the reputation, or some aspect of it, seems to have boiled over.  Now Lewis gets thoughtful and approving print attention beyond Narnia, every now and then his name being dropped quite casually as an intellectual touchstone to be reckoned with.  In short, he has achieved diffusion, or at least a version of him has, and from that there is no escaping – at least for the foreseeable future.  But who knows?

More than fifty years ago there was this, largely unnoticed in Lewis commentary.  You will, I believe, find it surprising, I mean beyond that it appeared in the first place. In May of 1959 “Christian Spaceman – C. S. Lewis,” by the influential critic and book-reviewer Edmund Fuller, appeared in the high-brow, culturally eclectic hard-cover magazine Horizon, an event, for its length and analytical richness, but also for its prophetic insights.  For example, in introducing Americans to the Deep Space (Ransom) Trilogy, Fuller makes the following, tangential, observation, so utterly surprising to us more than fifty years later:

I rate high among Lewis’s accomplishments a work gener-

ally less well known, as yet, than the trilogy [this is 1959,

remember], but for which I predict a growing reputation

and a long life. This is the series of seven books for children

which compose The Chronicles of Narnia.”

He then gives a wonderfully inviting, yet concise, summary and interpretation of the Chronicles.  But he ends his essay with an appreciation: “I am grateful to Lewis for some of my richest experiences of mind and heart,” leaving us with choice imagery from Deep Heaven and writing, “am I to say these are not real?  I count them among the great symbolic visions of ultimate reality which reveal to us that we are more – and are part of more – than the data of our senses can record.”  In our Narnia-saturated habitation, we see that Dr. Johnson is right: we need to be reminded more often than instructed.

Here, then, are two final reminders of Johnsonian wisdom.  Twenty years ago Christopher Hewetson, the vicar of what for three decades had been C. S. Lewis’s church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, seemed to sum up the English attitude towards the great man perfectly.  He told his congregation that, yes, perhaps the time had come to improve their “connection with C.S. Lewis.”  After all, Mr. Hewetson continued, “when I came here three and a half years ago . . . [t]here was a certain ‘yes but’.  I found it difficult to get a well-known preacher to preach at the dedication of the Narnia window.  Since then his rating has increased.  [my emphasis] . . . He was a very committed Christian. . . . We must be proud of our connection with him. . . .”  But this good man was wrong.  By the time of his condescension, Lewis had already been the most famous Christian apologist writing in English for most of the century, his voice among the most recognizable on the BBC during the war, his picture on the cover of Time magazine, his books selling in the millions.  Now The Cambridge University Press is bringing back five Lewis titles that have been out of print (including The Allegory of Love, originally from the Oxford University Press), and there is a statue of Lewis in Westminster Abbey.

The second reminder gets it right, looking beyond the personae to the man himself.  Not too long before Mr. Hewetson made his plea, Peter Bayley, the distinguished scholar who also had been Lewis’s pupil, really did strike the resonant chime about the man he saw buried twenty-five years earlier:

My last memory is of his funeral on a very cold and frosty but brilliantly sunny morning.  There was one candle on the coffin as it was carried out into the churchyard.  It seemed . . . a symbol of the man and his integrity and his absoluteness and his faith that the flame burned so steadily, even in the open air, and seemed so bright, even in the bright sun.

So long his own man, Lewis had labored hard both intellectually and spiritually to give himself away.  Toward the end of his life he seems to have succeeded and now, finally, was home, free.  Though too convivial to be a Jeremiah, this resistance fighter had “fought the good fight, ran the race, and kept the faith,” and “to the ruddy end,” as he might put it.  That Little End Room turned out to be no smaller than all Eternity.

But – in my rendering, at least – he has left us that fugitive voice (which I first encountered nearly fifty years ago).  It speaks now, making and marking a way out of this “enemy-occupied territory.”  For his imaginative effusions remain as radical as nature itself; his reason and reasoning as dependable as the multiplication tables; and his spirit as beckoning, as  liberated, and as liberating as the open arms of the Cross at which he worshiped.

May the God of hope bring you such joy and peace in your faith that the power of the Holy Spirit will remove all bounds to hope.                                                Rom 15.13


[1] A shorter version of this essay was delivered as the opening plenary address at the C. S. Lewis Fiftieth Memorial Celebration of the C. S. Lewis Foundation, the University of San Diego, June 22, 2013, University.  A print version of this essay also appears in the November, 2013 issue of CSL: The Bulleting of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

[2] On October 24, 1960, Lewis answers Alistair Fowler’s praise for Ellrodt’s enthusiasm in his Neo-Platonism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: “reading your account of the book I am divided between a great greed to see it and the little haunting fear ‘is he beginning to see pictures in the fire?’”

[3] See Sol Altschul, ed., Childhood Bereavement and Its Aftermath.  Emotion and Behavior Monographs: Monograph No. 8.  Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, Inc., 1981.

[4] That there was an erotic relationship of some kind is now a commonplace in Lewis scholarship, though the evidence is, of course, circumstantial, the most telling of those circumstances being Lewis’s absolute refusal to discuss Mrs. Moore, even in his autobiography – or even with his brother.  Christopher Derrick, Lewis’s pupil and, later, his friend, argues for the presence of Weiberherrschaft in Lewis in his C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome.

[5] Also see Weston’s imperialist manifesto delivered at the end of Out of the Silent Planet.

[6] He seems similarly disingenuous when expressing his frustration at those who believed there was a real Malcolm receiving those letters on prayer.  Should I really have known better?

[7] Not incidentally, he was a Christian apologist whose conception even of church is the theological equivalent of a quantum particle in Heisenberg’s uncertain universe.

[8] Lewis’s most belligerent anti-cultural statement is “Lilies that Fester” (1955), in which he explicitly urges “rebellion,” claiming “there is no time to spare.”  Here, though, the attack is not on culture per se but on its self-conscious consumption and the harms that result from that.

[9] Perhaps Joy Gresham, though only after a while and for all her own affliction and the complication of her children, relaxed Lewis, provided a zone not unlike his original redoubt but more capacious, and thus afforded him the comfort and reassurance that would be the conditions for an amplified vision, a Zeit flight, so to speak, into his fifties.

[10] Strong adumbrations are in Pilgrim’s Regress and even in The Problem of Pain (1940).

[11] Whenever this vision arises, no matter if the mode be narrative, expository, argumentative, or imaginative – and often these modes tumble forth as though all at once – his rhetoric tends to move from the possible to the probable, then to the promising, thereafter to the pleasurable, penultimately to desire, and finally to the hope for Heaven.

[12] A portion of Lewis’s work, especially his professional academic work, does not fit the paradigm I’m sketching here.  But the preponderance of it – including his Experiment – does. Nevertheless, in light of those “pictures in the fire,” we should remember that portraits, like lives, are not geometry proofs.