On The New Yorker on Lewis

This post began as a comment on Ronan’s thread about Lewis over at the Bloggernacle Times. It became far too long to be a comment over there. I apologize if this borders on poaching, but this would have only been a distraction from a more general discussion of the different ways Lewis is viewed by Americans and British (one of Ronan’s focus points over at the Bloggernacle Times).

It is always interesting to see what impresses different people about different things. Adam Gopnik’s article on C.S. Lewis in the current New Yorker provides a great case study for this. In that article, Gopnik sort of scoffs that Americans would be so impressed with Lewis’s religious reasoning and effective didactic prose. This, of course, isn’t “nuanced” enough for the sophisticated literati. Instead, Gopnik praises the Wilson biography of Lewis, at least in part because it “is clear” about “Lewis’s weird and complicated sex life.” Good thing that we can all know about that (and, of course, we should).

Gopnik notes that Lewis was abright and sensitive British boy turned by public-school sadism into a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert. This we must know; those who read and appreciate The Great Divorce but don’t know that just aren’t getting it.

Similarly Wilson–the author of the “realistic” biolgraphy–is further praised over Lewis’s “Christian” biographer Jacobs, because an analogy to strip clubs can’t be drawn out of Jacobs’s descriptions of Lewis’s time at Magdalen College, Oxford. This is apparently something important for Gopnik and, by inference, the New Yorker audience, and Wilson passes muster:

Jacobs is a bit touristy about Magdalen’s charms; Wilson is much better, tartly and accurately describing how the system of tutorials, seemingly so seductive—an essay delivered each week by the pupil, and analyzed and critiqued by the tutor—helps turn the tutors, from sheer exhaustion and self-protection, into caricatures of themselves, rather as the girls in a lap-dance club take on exotic names and characters.

Yes, when in my tutorials at Oxford with the Taylor Professor of Modern Languages and Literature as my tutor, I am sure that the venerable scholar felt somehow transported into a seedy London lap-dance club and assumed the name Parzifal or something similar in his discussions with me about my attempts to write something intelligent about Weimar Classicism. We wouldn’t want readers of the New Yorker to think that an Oxford Don is actually a serious and committed scholar, genuinely interested in transmitting knowledge and the ability to think and write to those they tutor. But, admittedly, it is more fun to think about them the way the Gopnik does instead of the boring old (and likely much more accurate) version that they are just boring old academicians with scholarly pursuits and interests that seem eccentric to the baser thrill-seeking masses.

Gopnik goes further and with the melodrama of a television soap opera observes of Lewis that “His works are a record of a restless, intelligent man, pacing a cell of his own invention and staring through the barred windows at the stars beyond. That the door was open all the time, and that he held the key in his pocket, was something he discovered only at the end.” Salvation for Lewis wasn’t in his conversion to Christianity–how quaint that was of the scholar! It was just another eccentricity, this one playing on his “vulnerability” for feeling that liberal humanism couldn’t account for the transcendence he felt when uplifted by a poem or nature. “Preying” on this vulnerability, Tolkien prompted Lewis’s conversion, but from Gopnik’s analysis, the Christianity of it all was just a pretext–compared favorably to the drug-induced transcendence of the 1960s: “One had to become religious to save the magic, not to be saved from it.” No, this Christianity was not Lewis’s salvation. After all, after his conversion, we still find the same “priggish” Lewis who is only “finally humanized”–i.e. finds the “key in his pocket” that he had the whole time–“by sex with an American Jewish matron.”

And who can really understand Lewis’s Screwtape Letters without realizing that for Lewis, as instructed by Tolkien on a late night walk, “If you were drawn to myth at all, as Lewis was, then you ought to accept the Christian myth just as you accepted the lovely Northern ones“? This is so relievingly relativized: it is refreshing (for the unbeliever) to think that the “embarassing” Christian apologist accepted the myth of Wodan with the crows on his shoulder the same as the myth of Christ with a dove on his shoulder. Both equally absurd to the unbeliever, they were apparently equally plausible to Tolkien, who imbued Lewis with his philosophy that “All existence . . . was intrinsically mythical; the stars were the fires of gods if you chose to see them that way, just as the world was the stories you made up from it.” I admit, this is a very comforting philosophy, at least for the here and now. Whether Lewis really viewed things this way is, I think, far from established by Gopnik’s analysis, although Wilson’s biography might be convincing (I haven’t read it yet), especially if he finds a way to compare it all to something of prurient interest.

Interestingly, Gopnik seems to underestimate the importance of the statement by Lewis, which he quotes, that “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.” This establishes Lewis’s faith, in addition to his scholarly conclusion about the way all myth functions. It is an important distinction that seems rather de-emphasized in this analysis. Rather, Gopnik notes how odd it seems that Lewis believed the Anglican Church to be the one true spiritual path despite the fact that it hinged on both dubious points of “a controversial incident in Jewish religious history as the pivot point of all existence” and “a still more controversial one in British royal history as the pivot point of your daily practice.” Gopnik seems to evidence true admiration that Lewis could still believe in “the power of the Romantic numinous” despite these hinderances. But all this seemingly contradictory information can be reconciled with the suggestion that “perhaps his leap from myth to Christian faith wasn’t a leap at all, more of a standing hop in place.” That is, Lewis could find Anglican Christianity to be one true spiritual path because he had intellectually absorbed all previous myth into it so that he adhered to a localized, mythic Anglican Christianity that was thoroughly British and alien even to Christianity’s mediterranean roots.

After his conversion, however, Lewis’s writing suffers. This is because “his conscience as a writer lets him see that the marvellous should be there for its own marvellous sake, just as imaginative myth, but his Christian duty insists that the marvellous must (to use his own giveaway language) be reinfected with belief. He is always trying to inoculate metaphor with allegory, or, at least, drug it, so that it walks around hollow-eyed, saying just what it’s supposed to say.” What a tribute! But for his compulsion to “reinfect the marvellous” with belief, his writing would still be marvellous. Unfortunately, he has ruined his writing by drugging it with the party line. At least Gopnik seems to believe this view is realistic (and it probably is for all who do not share Lewis’s faith; for the latter, however, Lewis’s writing is not “drugged” and “walking around hollow-eyed, saying just what it’s supposed to say.”)

The Narnia Chronicles suffer from this same problem:

The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter’s son—not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.

From my perspective, however, these are often the favorite and most emotionally powerful parts for believing readers. I have often observed (believing) people become emotional when they try to read aloud about Aslan being offered up as a sacrifice or scraping scales off of a sorry dragon.

More importantly, Gopnik doesn’t agree with the allegory on a doctrinal level:

Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side.

It seems that a sort of El-Che-resurrecting-as-Castro-story would be a more fitting allegory, according to Gopnik:

If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory.

Nevermind that for believers, Christ was not only humble, but he was also the lion of the lord in declaring that some sinners would be better off had they never been born (or would at least would wish they had never been born) and in throwing the money changers out of the temple. He was a humble servant, it is true, but he is also the Lord who will come again in terrible glory to smite his enemies’ ruin upon the face of the land, splitting the mountain in two and burning the wicked.

But the final judgment is that “In the final Narnia book, “The Last Battle,” the effort to key the fantasy to the Biblical themes of the Apocalypse is genuinely creepy, with an Aslan Antichrist.” This closes the matter on Lewis’s allegory, creepy device that it is.

At this point the reviewer turns back to sex, a topic not touched upon in at least five paragraphs, so now ripe for recourse. Discovering sex, according to Gopnik, turned Lewis from his philosophy that “God never gives people pain that isn’t good for them in the long run” to something more . . . nuanced. After all, “This kind of apologetic is better at explaining colic than cancer, let alone concentration camps.” Rather, Gopnik turns to Bertrand Russell this time, rather than lap-dance clubs, for an analogy: “An old Oxford tradition claims that Bertrand Russell, on being asked why his concerns had turned so dramatically away from academic philosophy, replied, with great dignity, “Because I discovered [copulation].” So did Lewis, only he was older.” After suggestively dwelling a little on how the “real Joy Davidman, a spirited Jewish matron from Westchester,” allowed Lewis to “satisfy” “a lot of crannies for a middle-aged don,” Gopnik notes profoundly that

It is tempting to say that Lewis, in the dramatic retellings of this story, becomes hostage to another kind of cult, the American cult of salvation through love and sex and the warmth of parenting. (She had two kids for him to help take care of.) Yet this is exactly what seems to have happened.

Not only had he become religious later in life, but he also became hostage to the “American cult of salvation through love and sex and the warmth of parenting.” He just couldn’t keep away from those cults. When Joy died of cancer, Lewis’s “faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like: questioning, unsure—a dangerous quest rather than a querulous dogma.” Gopnik presents this more as an admirable intellectual turn than a fact caused by personal tragedy. Interestingly, Gopnik writes that “Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.” Lewis had finally become more “nuanced” by doubt. Why this would be comforting to the unbeliever, however, is hard to say. Is Gopnik implying that “the unbeliever” monolithically wants others to doubt like he or she presumably does, not wanting others to enjoy a certainty that he or she lacks?

In the end Gopnik tells Christians why they like Lewis, and it is not because of Lewis’s articulate Christian apologetics, wonderful allegorical storytelling, or enlightening Christian doctrinal discourse. Instead, Gopnik slaps “religious believers” with his theory of why they like Lewis’s writings:

The religious believer finds consolation, and relief, too, in the world of magic exactly because it is at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship, even if the believer is, like Lewis, reluctant to admit it.

This bit of psychoanalysis is probably more revealing about Gopnik’s own views about religion generally than it is an accurate conclusion as to why believers appreciate Lewis. But this isn’t all, Gopnik goes further.

The irrational images—the street lamp in the snow and the silver chair and the speaking horse—are as much an escape for the Christian imagination as for the rationalist, and we sense a deeper joy in Lewis’s prose as it escapes from the demands of Christian belief into the darker realm of magic.

For some reason, although Gopnik never explains why, except to say that religion offers only a “straitened and punitive morality,” the darker realm of magic is supposed to offer an “escape” from the “demands of Christian belief,” in all its light and love, an “escape” that was as much enjoyed by Lewis as by his believing readers. That, according to Gopnik, is the true Lewis and the true reason anyone likes his writing.

8 Responses to On The New Yorker on Lewis

  1. Ronan says:

    Wow! John, I’m going to need to read this slowly and carefully. The best thing about the Bloggernacle Times is that one can post a few sentences with the hope that someone will flesh-out the rest! You and Russell at T&S have done that. Thanks!

    You are right about Gopnik’s motives, and they are pretty obvious. I think, though, that it is wholly useful to see Lewis through the eyes of non-believers, to bring balance to the force, so to speak.


    Posted by Ronan

  2. ed says:

    John, you may enjoy the critical take on Gopnik’s essay found here.  

    Posted by ed

  3. That is a great slam on Gopnik, John. His notion of Tolkien “preying” upon Lewis is particularly revealing of Gopnik’s agenda. One thing I would add: Gopnik gets Lewis plain wrong in writing that Lewis decided that “the Anglican Church to be the one true spiritual path.” Lewis was, on the contrary, quite emphatic that while every Christian needs to leave the foyer and enter into one of the rooms–that is, denominations–in the mansion of Christianity, he made no claim as to which room in the mansion is the “true spiritual path.” He wanted everyone to find a home; he was not interested, within the bounds of “mere Christianity” (which, admittedly, probably wouldn’t have included Mormonism) in fighting over which room was best.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    To be fair though, I think for any non-believer the whole world of belief is a very alien realm. I suspect that the difference between English and American views of Lewis comes primarily because England just isn’t as religious and the religion it typically has is quite different from Lewis. The T&S discussion points that out I think. The Americans typically are simply more like Lewis.

    But one often finds this bemusement and befuddlement at religious believers among the media who largely aren’t religious. 

    Posted by clark

  5. “The T&S discussion points that out I think. The Americans typically are simply more like Lewis.”

    That’s kind of an odd way to read my T&S post, Clark, though I suppose you may be right. I think it’s more a matter of there being more Christians or other seekers in America who want the same sort of things that Lewis wanted, whether or not they actually understand what it is they’re wanting. I actually don’t think Americans are particularly romantic in Lewis’s sense, but whereas Lewis’s searching appeals in Britain encountered a lot of people who were familiar with but had burned out on the whole romance thing, in America it’s been eaten up

  6. k.d. clement says:

    Loved this John. I too have noticed the new essays about Lewis and why the tales are NOT really Christian, flawed, or whatever.

    Gopniks essay especially reminds me of current academic literary theory. Make it about sexual confusion, make it about biography, make it about gender-but heaven forbid, don’t make it about the story! Yes, I’m bitter. My husband finished his PhD in German Literature last year and can’t get a job because he didn’t write about Queer Theory or some such nonsense-theories that the New Yorker crowd eats up like brioche and marmelade.

    It is interesting that Gopnik assumes children and adults lose interest in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan enters the scene. My children watched the cartoon version of the story last summer. My oldest was 4 at the time and completely transfixed. After the show ended she looked at me, eyes huge and tears spilling onto her cheeks, and said: “Mama, it makes the water come out of my eyes!” Art with the kernel of transcendence will do that to a person.

  7. JTF says:

    Yes, I’m bitter. My husband finished his PhD in German Literature last year and can’t get a job because he didn’t write about Queer Theory or some such nonsense-theories that the New Yorker crowd eats up like brioche and marmelade.  

    LOL- that’s one of the main reasons why I left my German Ph.D. program!! 

    Posted by Jordan

  8. Mary Adams says:

    tJohn, thanks for a great post. I enjoy reading anything about C.S.Lewis. 

    Posted by Mary Adams

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