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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Adam Gopnik on C.S. Lewis: Fairy Tales and the Religious Imagination

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 11/16/05 at 12:56 PM

I’ve tried and failed to get into C.S. Lewis’s writings on religion. I read Surprised by Joy as a grad student, and a student recently gave me The Abolition of Man. While the latter work didn’t do much for me at all, I found Surprised by Joy quite readable, if occasionally puzzling. Needless to say, despite my disappointment with Lewis’s essays for grown-ups, the name C.S. Lewis still brings up happy memories, from when I devoured the Narnia books as a child—completely oblivious to the Christian allegory I was supposed to be imbibing.

This other C.S. Lewis has been a mystery to me—an avowedly Christian writer whose account of his religious beliefs isn’t even especially convincing. In Surprised by Joy, one sees a writer whose imaginative life is apparently animated primarily by fairy tales, but who turns to religion as a way to amplify and order the joy his imaginative worlds give him. One finds passages like the following:

I also developed a great taste for all the fiction I could get about the ancient world: Quo Vadis, Darkness and Dawn, The Gladiators, Ben Hur. It might be expected that this arose out of my new concern for my religion, but I think not. Early Christians came into many of these stories, but they were not what I was after. I simply wanted sandals, temples, togas, slaves, emperors, galleys, amphitheaters; the attraction, as I now see, was erotic, and erotic in rather a morbid way. . . . The idea of other planets exercised upon me then a peculiar, heady attraction, which was quite different from any other of my literary interests. Most emphatically it was not the romantic spell of Das Ferne. “Joy” (in my technical sense) never darted from Mars or the Moon. This was something coarser and stronger. The interest, when the fit was upon me, was ravenous, like lust.

Lewis’ account of the role of literature in the development of his religious imagination seems confused. For one thing, since the passion for science fiction and fantasy was so intense, why worry about “Joy” (which has a specifically religious meaning for Lewis) altogether? And since his own imagination is so often the story of Surprised by Joy, why not design his own religion based on the fantastic alternate worlds that had already created and populated by him in his own mind? Why the Anglican framework exactly? 

Adam Gopnik’s long piece on Lewis in this week’s New Yorker clears up many questions. The whole piece is worth reading to people interested in Lewis, but perhaps the final two paragraphs are especially intriguing, as Gopnik bridges the gap between a secular reader’s passion for fairy tales (or more generally, for the otherworldly) with the religious believer’s investment in them (generally as a stimulant to spiritual growth). 

Here is Gopnik from the New Yorker:

For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

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. 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. As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.

Clearly Gopnik sees Lewis as a talented fantasist first, and a Christian distantly second. But what I think is helpful about Gopnik’s review essay is the way it links the two rather different modes of writing and thinking about the imaginative world. Secular readers (and readers from outside the Christian tradition) can indeed appreciate Narnia (well, most of the series) as an involving fantasy world, completely separate from its allegorical meaning. And their need for such stories is not very different from the need of religious believers to imagine spiritual significance overlaying material reality. While huge gaps remain between the two kinds of readers, someone like Lewis can act, at his best, as a bridge over the epistemological divide. 


Amardeep, I think you miss the context of the passage you quote from Surprised by Joy. He is referring at that point to a time in his early adolescence when he had a brief flare-up of religious enthusiasm. It soon waned, and a year or two later he was an atheist. “Joy” was a curious kind of aesthetic experience—something akin, I think, to the Kantian sublime—that did not have a religous meaning for him then, or at any time until he became a Christian.

I too think Gopnik’s essay is illuminating, but I resist Gopnik’s attempt to explain why the religious believer finds consolation ot excitement in fantasy stories. He thinks that fantasy is pleasurable “at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship”; it seems not to occur to him that not all religious people find moral teaching, or moral strictures, stifling or imprisoning. In fact, people like Lewis take positive delight in the moral content of Christianity. Surely Gopnik can recognize that a person with religious belief might experience a moral code differently than a person who lacks belief. I think Lewis liked fantasy that reinforced the moral teachings of Christianity.

(Full disclosure: Gopnik is quite dismissive of my biography of Lewis in his essay. He’s still a really smart guy—on other topics. The bastard.)

By on 11/16/05 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought the first three sections of Mere Christianity were pretty good, in terms of answering most of the more obvious and stupid objections to Christian beliefs.

Of course I can’t remember, now (several years later) what those answers were. And the last section completely lost me.

By David Moles on 11/16/05 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

NB: took positive delight in what he took to be the moral content of Christianity.

By Jonathan on 11/16/05 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t think Gopnik’s essay really addressed Lewis’ own answer to this question.  His early book _The Pilgrim’s Regress_ is about his journey to Christianity from fantasy, and Lewis gives it explicit consideration.

I quote from the Preface to the Third Edition of this book (which, by the way, although it does not contain the phrase “objet petit a”, very well could):

“In the second place, there is a peculiar mystery about the *object* of this Desire.  Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring.”

[Lewis then goes through a number of sequential examples: the child looking at a far off hillside and wishing he were there, remembrance of an event in the past and wanting to return to it, wishing that “faerie lands” really existed, erotic fantasy, hankering after occultism, and a confusion of this desire with intellectual craving for knowledge.]

Lewis continues with “Every one of these supposed *objects* for the Desire is inadequte to it”, and the following page shows how each of them is unsatisfying once fulfilled or imagined to be fulfilled.  Finally, Lewis concludes with this as a sort of proof of theism: “It appears [...] that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given [...] And if Nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist.” “The dialectic of Desire” is a “sort of ontological proof”.

This may not be especially convincing, but it is Lewis’ answer.  Fantasy, for Lewis, functioned as a particular stage of desire that he had tried out and rejected on the way to Christianity—at least in 1943, which is apparently when this Preface was written, and therefore does not represent Lewis’ most mature thought.

Just in case anyone takes this mention to be a recommendation of _The Pilgrim’s Regress_, I should say that I don’t think it is a very good book.  Lewis’ best fiction is, in my opinion, _Till We Have Faces_.

By on 11/16/05 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: Right. Amendment accepted.

By on 11/16/05 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I found the place where I think that Gopnik goes subtly wrong: “For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic.” Lewis at one time did believe that fantasy was part of a stimulant to a deeper spiritual appetite (in the sense of something you’d try out and pass through) but his reasoning seems rather conventional rather than mystical.  Gopnik need not agree with Lewis, but it doesn’t seem like he really considers Lewis’ own answer.

By the way, I was mildly surprised that when Gopnik mentioned three works by George MacDonald, none of them were _Lilith_.

By on 11/16/05 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan, I couldn’t possibly argue with Lewis’s biographer! And anyway, a quick glance at a few other passages in the novel supports your point about “Joy” (I’m not sure how I mis-remembered things so utterly). For instance:

“I will . . . underline the quality common to the three [childhood] experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one chawracteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is."

I suppose I could excuse myself somewhat because Lewis defines “Joy” here as a transcendental (or revelatory) experience—outside of any individual power or agency. 

At any rate, I stand corrected.

By Amardeep Singh on 11/16/05 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At any rate, I stand corrected.

Hey, as Tim Burke likes to remind us, that’s what the blogosphere is for.

By on 11/16/05 at 05:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When I was in high school my pastor gave me Chesterton’s and Lewis’s apologetics (Screwtape especially) to read—this was his standard procedure for skeptics, I suspect.

To me they were both too ingenious. They seemed like ways of justifying to others a belief you already had or wanted to have, but useless for someone who was actually doubting. The polemical anti-modernism was pretty evident, too, but I had nothing against modernity. A lot of the argument seemed to be “Since everything else is unproven too, why not be a Christian?” and “Science can’t do the things Christianity claims it can do.” Both of these are very weak arguments for someone who actually seriously doubts Christianity.

Both Tolkein and Lewis were, IIRC, part of the sentimentalism of the “pretty, pretty past” of the middle ages. (Laslett’s term). To me the middle ages are extremely interesting, but pretty impoverished and brutal too, and I think that neo-Catholics, et al, did misrepresent them.

I also think that both Tolkein and Lewis exaggerated the orthodoxy of whatever text they admired. Tolkein asserted without any intelligible argument that Beowulf was “deeply” Christian and monastic in origin, and IIRC Lewis stressed the orthodoxy of the tradition of courtly love.

Making great writers orthodox seems like standard operating procedure. I’ve never studied Milton, but I only recently discovered that he, like Newton, was an Arian (anti-Trinitarian). It seems that this fact should be better known.

By John Emerson on 11/17/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But this group of writers is interesting in part because their best work subverts what they think they should be trying to do.  Look at the confrontation with God (with Chesterton insists must be read as no such thing) at the end of _The Man Who Was Thursday_.  Or at Lewis’ rereading of the Jesus myth with Aslan as lion.  Or at Tolkien with his “subcreation”, which I think that he knew at some level was Gnostic in inspiration rather than Catholic.

By on 11/17/05 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But this group of writers is interesting in part because their best work subverts what they think they should be trying to do.

I’m not so sure that is the case. Because Dr. Arnold’s Eminent Victorian Anglicanism—self-righteous, extremely sentimental, bound up with the march of Empire—is the recieved myth of that sect’s weltanschauung, it’s tempting to chalk up the different impression one gets from the Tolkien/Lewis circle as some sort of private innovation on the part of the latter, if not an outright innovation. But, an Anglicanism with a distant, not-very-sentimental god presiding over a bare-bones structure into which artists could insert whatever they found beautiful from history, may have been more widespread than we think. A sort of do-it-yourself medieval Catholicism, if we think of medieval Catholicism being primarily defined by its ability to synthesize all the aesthetically powerful bits of paganism.

I suggest this because while they are not usually bracketed together, if the Anglicanism of the Tolkien/Lewis circle is described this way, we see that TS Eliot’s was likewise. And it’s therefore entirely possible to think that Narnia/LOTR etc. were not subverting their religion on any level, but rather expressing what the authors felt was the freedom provided by that religion, which was one of its chief qualities.

By scriblerus on 11/17/05 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PS Adam Gopnik’s article reminds me that Tolkien was not Anglican but Roman Catholic. I still think it’s fair to speculate upon the existence of a particular common approach to Christianity, Western Civ, and creative work among English academics between the wars.

One more interesting point from article:

(Gopnik) Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that 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.

The moral force of the Passion, yes, but there’s more to the Christian story than the Passion and there’s also more to the force of the Christian story than morality. The Messiah foretold in the prophets is of course the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who will shatter the nations with a rod of iron etc. etc. And as we all know, the Christian myth gets a great deal of tension—aesthetically, psychologically, and doctrinally—from the assertion that the Christ of the Passion is the same as the Messiah of the prophets. Lewis’ allegory tries very boldly to present both sides of this (hypothetical) character in a single episode. I’d say the result is the weakest part of the Narnia books, but it’s not for want of trying.

By scriblerus on 11/17/05 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure how much I agree with that interpretation, scriblerus. “A sort of do-it-yourself medieval Catholicism” into which you insert whatever you find powerful from history and paganism has another, shorter, name: heresy. It is precisely the tension between these writers’ various assertions of orthodoxy and the imaginative heresies embodied in their best works that I find interesting.

(BTW, Chesterton was also Catholic).

By on 11/17/05 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A number of these comments are rather too sweeping and unsubstantiated to be reckoned with—but then again, some are true. Tolkien and Lewis are both guilty of idealizing the Middle Ages, though not always. Lewis’s argument in The Allegory of Love was that the amour-courtois tradition was often self-consciously Christian—which is obviously true—but he concludes that their attempts to reconcile Christianity and adultery were ultimately unsuccessful: “the rift between the two worlds was irremediable.” That’s not really “making great writers orthodox,” is it? More like tracing tropes to the point of aporia, surely an impeccable critical strategy. Likewise, Milton’s Arianism has been known to everyone studying him since his own lifetime—Lewis takes it for granted in his book on Milton, and merely wonders what effect it had on the poetry.

By on 11/17/05 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

After further consideration, I suppose I’m thinking only of Eliot, and him only to the extent that he was clearly under Pound’s influence.

My instinct though is to reject as superficial any reading of Lewis which identifies a tension between what we now recognize as the fantasy elements of his work and what we now recognize as Christianity, and which further points to Tolkien’s work as an example of the same tension between the same elements. I doubt Christianity has been so monolithic from their time and place to ours that I can be sure I know what would have constituted heresy in their milieux, as opposed to the expansion of Christian culture by educated men.

But I may be rejecting a straw man, and in any case I don’t seem to be able to propose a coherent alternative.

By scriblerus on 11/17/05 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

aw yes lewis...not a bad prose stylist...too bad nothing he ever wrote was true

By scribiendi on 11/17/05 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s an interesting essay on Lewis at Andrew Rilstone’s blog.

By on 12/07/05 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s raise a glass, shall we, to all those who now and in times past have themsleves paid tribute to the rich legacy of the imagination in its ability to transcend the temporal and transport the mind into the rich realms of possiblility.

May we never forget the gift of language and the potential that we all have to leave a positive mark, however faint, upon the stage of human history.

Here’s to all of you out there who have ever longed for more than meets the eye - for all that nourishes the soul and feeds the spirit as it strains to rise above this present mortal coil.

By on 10/12/07 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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