Friday, March 25, 2022

Owed To Joy (1)

When C.S Lewis was a pupil at one of the many very nasty prep schools that were dotted around England in the Edwardian era he started to take religion seriously. He started to say his prayers and read his bible and obey his conscience. But he soon gave it up and became a schoolboy skeptic. He was, he said, "In that state of mind in which a boy thinks it extremely telling to call God Jahveh and Jesus Yeshua".

There were two reasons, he says, for his loss of faith. He was studying the Greek and Roman classics at school, and becoming fascinated with Norse mythology on his own time. All his tutors and peers took it absolutely for granted that Zeus and Thor were at best pretty stories made up by poets or at worst wicked deceptions forced on the credulous by priests. So why he asked, should it just so happen that, while all the other gods were rubbish, that God worshipped by white English people was the literal truth?

The second reason was this: Young Lewis understood that words without thoughts never to heaven go: so he tried, very hard, to concentrate on his prayers; to believe what he was saying; and not to let his mind wander. This meant that praying could take hours and hours: every time he got to the Amen, a little voice would tell him that he hadn't been doing it properly and ought to start again.

A.N Wilson -- in what with all its flaws is still the only grown-up biography of C.S Lewis -- is inclined to believe the first explanation but not the second. The first is the kind of thing that might occur to a very clever school boy; the second is too much the kind of thing that a middle aged moralist might project back into his boyhood.

Devin Brown does not have much time for that kind of skepticism. His book, A Life Observed is subtitled a Spiritual Biography of C.S Lewis. It carries a recommendation and an introduction by no less a person than Douglas Gresham.

"There is a kind of biography that claims to understand Lewis's life better than Lewis himself did" writes Brown "There is a kind of biography that looks at what Lewis tells us in his autobiography and, following the biographer's own set of presuppositions, claims to understand Lewis's life in a way that Lewis himself could not. This is not that kind of biography."

and again:

"Before leaving this stage in Lewis's life we might again look, as we did earlier, at a biographer who claims to know Lewis better than he knew himself.... As we noted earlier, there is a type of biography that takes the details Lewis gives us about his own life, and using a secular lens, claims to be able to see through them to what really lies behind them in a way that Lewis himself could not. There is a type of biography that sees this practice as its proper foundation and purpose. This is not that kind of biography."

So: the right kind of biographer is one who leaves his presuppositions at the door, and presents value-free facts about his subject without skepticism or interpretation. This sounds like what C.S Lewis might have called dryasdust scholarship: the kind of thing which tells you that a biscuit tin is a container for cookies (p21) and that when Lewis talks about queuing in rationing-era England, he means waiting in a line (p118). But Devin Brown does not really approve of that kind of biography either:

"There is a kind of C.S Lewis biography which is lengthy and definitive. In it, readers find our when Lewis's great great grand-father was born and what Richard Lewis, for that was his name, did for a living. This is not that kind of biography."

He was born in 1775 and was a farmer. His son Joseph was a methodist minister, and his son Richard was a boiler maker. Lewis's own father, Albert, was a lawyer. It's not that hard.

Douglas Gresham in his introduction says that books of that kind are too dry:

"The pages crackle with facts, faces, places, dates and history. Some of them are very good books about Jack, but -- here's the rub -- Jack is not in them."

We will come back to what it means for a person to be "in" a book. 

So, in one sense a biography should not really be interested in the authors life at all. What we should really be interested in is the subject's real and ongoing existence, in heaven (or, presumably, and depending who you are writing about, in hell):

"This book is different" writes Douglas again "It is the story of Jack's real and true life -- not the mere flash of the firefly in the infinite darkness of time that is our momentary life in this world, but the one he left this world to begin -- and how he came to attain it."

"What Winston Churchill is doing in Heaven" or "How John Lennon is getting on in Purgatory" would be rather odd books. I suppose you could fill several volumes with the officially recognised activities of the Virgin Mary in the millennia since her Assumption. One of the four most important biographers in human history said that if he included everything that his Subject did, the whole world could not contain all the books that would be written. But for Brown and Gresham writing about the subject's real, spiritual life seems simply to mean writing about how the subject's heavenly existence intersected with their material one.

"My goal" (writes Brown) "is to focus closely on the story of Lewis's spiritual journey and his search for the object of that mysterious longing that he called Joy."

So: the best kind of biography is the spiritual biography, the one which pays attention to the subject's faith and inner life and ignores nearly everything else. Very conveniently, C.S Lewis has already written this kind of autobiography: Surprised by Joy. 

The thrust of Lewis's book is that he came to faith through a highly subjective experience which he calls Joy. Brown glosses this as: "an unsatisfied desire which was more desirable than any other kind of satisfaction" which pointed to "something which hovered just beyond what his consciousness could grasp--- something unattainable but wonderful." 

Lewis doesn't quite say that what he was longing for was straightforwardly God; and he doesn't quite resort to the kind of syllogism sometimes attributed to him by very clever schoolboy skeptics.

The Proof From Joy
Mr C.S Lewis would like God to exist
Therefore, God exists.

But he does indeed say that "in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else". And unless we are writing that sort of biography, we have to take him at his word. 

So a biography of C.S. Lewis can really only be a retelling of Surprised by Joy; and that's what Devin Brown gives us: a pretty uncontroversial summary of the book, with a few sidelong glances into the admittedly obscure Pilgrim's Regress; and a canter through Lewis's post-conversion life -- Inkling, Tolkien, BBC, Narnia, marriage, bereavement.

But Surprised by Joy is a very strange book. A.N Wilson praises it as a piece of unintentional comedy. Lewis sets out to explain how he came back to faith in early middle-age and omits from the book anything which is not relevant to that story. Fair enough. Writing is all about selecting material. No-one tries to put every incident and every fact into their book. (Well, no-one apart from Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But can we take it on trust that Lewis knows what events were relevant to his conversion and which were irrelevant? He says that the endless physical abuse at the hands of a literally psychopathic schoolteacher did him "in the long run...little harm." Surely we are permitted to reply "Says who?" (Can Lewis be unaware that "it never did me any harm" is a shocking cliche in talking about that kind of thing?) He spends a lot of time painting a picture of his eccentric Irish father, and then kills him off in a half a sentence because his death "does not really come into the story which I am telling", to which, again, one feels the need to say "Oh yeah?" Even his experiences in the First World War "have little to do with this story." Really?

A detailed, critical, close-reading of Surprised by Joy from a sympathetic theological perspective would be well worth attempting. In fact, if I knew anything about research grants and footnotes I might have a go at writing it myself. My Masters thesis was called What Chaucer Didn't Write. (It was about spurious additions to the Canterbury Tales: medieval fan-fiction.) "What C.S Lewis Didn't Say" might be a very good title.

We could start by talking about omissions which Lewis himself draws attention to. The thing that happened at Prep school that was even worse than the psychotic beatings. The World War I experiences that are not worth talking about, except as a joke. The enormous emotional episode which everyone (including Brown) assumes has something to do with Mrs Moore, his semi adoptive mother. 

And the demon-possessed man. I think the demon-possessed man is probably quite important.

But we could also spend many a happy hour tracking down all the people he name checks. Maybe John Garth or someone could identify the Irishman called Johnson who would have been a life-long friend if he hadn't died in the trenches? It's an odd approach. Lewis's story, he tells us, is about nothing apart from the experience of Joy, and written for the benefit of strangers who know him only from his books. But he spends a lot of time telling us the names of the dead old men he's not going to tell us about. At times, Surprised By Joy feels more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a spiritual autobiography.

"The worst is that I must leave undescribed many men whom I love and to whom I am deeply in debt: G. H. Stevenson and E. F. Carritt, my tutors, the Fark (but who could paint him anyway?), and five great Magdalen men who enlarged my very idea of what a learned life should be - P. V. M. Benecke, C. C. J. Webb, J. A. Smith, F. E. Brightman, and C. T. Onions."

Another possible title for the book would be Who The Fark?

I'd also want to look up the texts of the many poems Lewis he quotes and alludes to. The Greek quotes and the literary allusions make me suspect that Surprised by Joy is really directed at his academic colleagues, not his thousands of radio-listeners -- unless, I suppose, he is disingenuously presenting an oblique argument from authority to the plebs. I have heard of Trollop, Conan-Doyle and Beatrix Potter, but struggle with Lummuck, Trahern and W.W. Jacobs. After finishing Yeats, Lewis plunged into Maeterlinck and Bergonson, which is nice to know. And what, for goodness sake, is a Votary of the Blue Flower?

One of the key moments in the story is when he is leafing through a volume of Longfellow's poems and accidentally stumbles on the line:

"I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead——"

Lewis says that the line struck him completely out of context.

"I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."

"It is safe to say that not many Lewis fans will be moved in the same way that Lewis was by these lines" says Brown, although he thinks they might have been moved by the rallying cry "Narnia and the North!" in the Horse and His Boy in a similar way. 

But I think that I can see what it means to experience a weird stab of joy from a line of poetry you don't understand. If words didn't carry force regardless of context, poetry would be an impossibility. Lin Carter, the disciple and populariser of Bob Howard, includes Robert Browning's Childe Rowland in a 1969 anthology of fantasy stories. The poem, he says, is based on one single line ("Childe Rowland to the dark tower came") from King Lear: "but the line, it seems, haunted Browning as the poem he built out of that nagging ghost has haunted me."

Lewis made a bit of a thing out of not understanding T.S Eliot. I hope someone told him that "like a patient etherised upon a table" strikes some people the way "Balder the Beautiful is dead" struck him. Poetry communicates without being understood, as the fellow says. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of his face.

Lewis says that it was the phrase, and not the imagery or the argument of the Balder poem which triggered him. Tegner’s Drapa is Longfellow's 1850 translation of an 1820 Swedish poem based on the poetic Edda. It is quite striking: and the fact that it is a translation I think gives it a slightly alien, unearthly air:

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
Odin placed
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.

Some time later, he says that the phrase "Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods" set him off on one, even though he had no idea who Siegfried was and what Gotterdamerung meant. But of course, Wagner's epic ends with the cremation of Siegfried and the suicide of Brünnhilde. Isn't it slightly suspicious that Lewis was desperately moved by two isolated lines of poetry both of which came out of poems about funeral pyres? Two poems which both involve rings, and in which the cremation of a dead hero precipitates the end of the gods? 

In the Poetic Edda, Wotan whispers the word "rebirth" into Balder's ear. This seems to signify an endless cycle of death and rebirth. The gods of Asgard will be destroyed in the battle of Ragnorak, but from the the ashes New Gods will arise and the story will start all over again. But for Tegner it means that the new, more cuddly religion of Christianity is going to replace the savagery of the Norse world.

The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.

Lewis was deeply interested in the idea of pagan precursors to Christ; and in the idea that Christianity not only replaced what was evil about paganism, but also preserved what was good in it. This was, indeed, how he resolved the problem that had occurred to that very clever little boy: it wasn't that Christianity happened to be true; and that Balder happened to be false: Balder and John Barleycorn and Osiris were prefigurations of the death and resurrection of Jesus: good dreams. This is why he remarked (to the horror of some evangelicals) that it would probably have been okay, as a Christian, to say a prayer to Apollo the healer at Delphi.

Longfellow's line opened Lewis up to Joy; Joy opened Lewis up to God and then to Christianity. But the lines cone from a poem which contain -- prefigure -- a lot of the idea which would be absolutely central to C.S Lewis is a mature thinker. 

Isn't it at least possible that what affected him was not the lines, but the myth: that he is remembering the intellectual and emotional response to the whole poem and locating those feelings in the first three lines?

Isn't this the sort of thing which, when reading books about the lives of famous dead writers, we have a right to think about? 

Or does even asking the question mark us out as the Wrong Kind of Biographer?


(.....continues.....)

4 comments:

  1. In America "The Monkey's Paw" is a story greatly beloved by school anthology compilers. And rightly so, since it is genuinely disturbing and memorable. But Lewis refers to Jacobs as a humorous author, so I guess it was actually not typical of his work.

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  2. The most puzzling thing about Surprised by Joy is that Lewis's story of how he became a Christian does not tell us how he became a Christian. In Lewis's description of his journey to faith Lewis there are two threads, there is the experience of 'joy' which he finds primarily in Norse tales and poems and there is the intellectual journey from atheism to idealism to theism to Christianity. The final move, the one where he moves from theism to belief in Jesus as God incarnate is glossed over. It sort of happened on a bus ride and he can't explain it. And as for joy he may still have those experiences bit now he's a Christian he does not take much notice of them.

    This is odd because from other sources and from his letters that there was an important discussion with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, that led to this shift. It potentially links together, as you point out, Lewis's 'joy' experience, with specific features that Christianity shares with some pagan myths. As Lewis described it in his letter sent to his friend Arthur at the time:

    "Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself, I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it. Again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’ Now 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."

    It is as if having presented all the clues and gathered everybody in the drawing room for the denouement, the detective just says, 'by the way it was Professor Plumb, another person I do not have the time to describe as he has little to do with this tale, and moves on'

    I have no idea why, having a story to tell about how he became a Christian Lewis decides at the key point to not actually tell it.

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  3. He indirectly alludes to a different incident -- an old academic atheists saying "Rum thing about the dying and rising God myth -- I sometimes wonder if it had really happened."

    You might think that the conversation with Dyson and Tolkien didn't loom very large in him memory -- we happen to know about it because the letter to Arthur survives, but he might have forgotten all about it. Except that he uses the "myth that really happened" and "myth became fact" rather often in his essays.

    I wonder if he thinks that "How I came to believe in a personal God" is the proper subject for an autobiography, but "How I came to accept the Christian claims about Jesus" belongs more in a book of apologetics? Or if, deep down, there is an ancestral belief that Christianity and Religion are basically interchangeable, and that once you believe in God, the rest follows automatically?

    But like you, I was very disappointed when I first read the book: we can have five pages telling us why the Irish landscape looks like a bucket of potatoes, but half a paragraph of "and then I came to believe that Jesus was the son of God."

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  4. Well, in support of the idea that he held the belief that once you believe in God, Christianity follows, is that he tells us that once he came to believe in God, without any beliefs about Jesus or the afterlife, he felt he had to start going to Church.

    After I became an Evangelical Christian in my late teens I was looking for stuff to read and Lewis came up. I found him really readable and much more, no much less, ghettoized than evangelical books. Surprised by Joy, I found very readable, potatoes and all, and I came to it without expectations, since like most of the other Lewis books for grown ups it came with a yellow cover in paperback. But, it does have this blink and you miss it conversion. In fact Lewis is always a bit coy about about his conversion. In an interview with the Billy Graham magazine they asked him how he made his 'decision for Jesus'. More than most people Lewis does explain most of his beliefs as decisions, specifically choosing between options on the basis of plausibility, but, being a contrarian, and speaking to an organisation that is decidedly Arminian, he decided to pretend to be a Calvinist and said, 'I didn't decide, I was decided on'. Although, in some ways the account of his conversion in S by J does look a little Calvinist. I suddenly believed, my eyes were opened as it were, and I can't explain it. In some ways I find that more believable that Lewis's tendency to make all his other switches in belief look like the result of pure ratiocination.

    I did enjoy A N Wilson's biography of Lewis and for two main reasons. Firstly it does try to give us a picture of a real human being not a plaster saint and secondly, it does try to give an explanation of some of the rather odd bits in S by J, such as the difference between Lewis and his father's understanding of Professor Kirk. But, Wilson introduces his own oddities. Actually there is a whole industry of Lewis oddities. Wilson claims that Walter Hooper, who is himself a bit of an oddity, believed Lewis never consummated his marriage. Another oddity, Katherine Lindskoog, decides to phone Hooper and ask him. He says, no he didn't believe that. I mean the whole who is fighting for what thing is getting very out of hand.

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