C. S. Lewis: Why All the Fuss?
Christian apologist, novelist, public intellectual — Lewis spoke to his own time and ours in many voices.


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.

C.S. Lewis Remembered
C. S. Lewis — one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century — was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898, but spent most of his life in Oxford — first as a student, and then, for 29 years, as a fellow and tutor in the English faculty, until he was hired away by Cambridge.
Besides keeping up a full teaching load and speaking to a wide variety of audiences (most notably in his wartime talks on the BBC), he wrote more than 30 books and enough articles, sermons, letters, and other occasional pieces to fill another 30 books.
But life wasn’t all work for Jack Lewis. There was plenty of time for long walks in the countryside and for high-spirited gatherings with friends, including J. R. R. Tolkien (inset upper right), Charles Williams, Neville Coghill, and Lewis’s brother, Warren (shown here with CSL), at their favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, a.k.a. the Bird and Baby.
Lewis’s last two years were plagued by illness, and on November 22, 1963, he died quietly at his home, known as The Kilns, on the outskirts of Oxford, about an hour before the world was stunned by the news from Dallas.
The following quotations are a sampling of Lewis’s wide-ranging writings on faith, God, the human experience, and literature.
ON CHRISTIAN FAITH: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: that it really happened.”
“That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
“If we are not Christians, we shall dismiss this [the frequent vindictiveness in the Psalms] with the old gibe ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ That is impossible for us who believe that God chose that race for the vehicle of His own Incarnation, and who are indebted to Israel beyond all possible repayment.”
“Even the New Testament bids me love my neighbor ‘as myself,’ which would be a horrible command if the self were simply to be hated.”
“As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation.”
THE DIVINE: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.”
“If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you.”
“Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: ‘We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’ Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection -- if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent.”
In reply to those who argue that intercessory prayer is ineffective and presumptuous: “Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found) however much soap you use.”
In The Great Divorce, a man newly arrived on the fringes of Heaven reports that everything is “so much solider than things in our country”: “The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen.”
KNOWLEDGE & WISDOM: “You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?”
“It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’ It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall.”
“You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? . . . Use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”
THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.”
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
“I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.”
THE LITERARY LIFE: “All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.”
“If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.”
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.”
Updated: Nov. 22, 2013