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The Universe of C. S. Lewis

In his Letter to Posterity Petrarch wrote:

Among the many subjects that interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own. In order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages.

Well over a century later Machiavelli wrote a famous letter to a friend in Rome describing his own life in the country, how he spent his evenings at work on a treatise entitled De Principatibus:

In the evening, I return to my house, and go into my study. At the door I take off the clothes I have worn all day, mud-spotted and dirty, and I put on regal and courtly garments. Thus appropriately clad, I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, being lovingly received, I feed on that food which alone is mine, and which I was born for; I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask the reasons for their actions, and they courteously answer me. For four hours I feel no boredom and forget every worry. I do not fear poverty, and death does not terrify me. I transfer myself completely into the ancients.

We have been at it ever since. Petrarch, Machiavelli, and a whole movement we call the Renaissance became busily engaged in recovering an image that had (as they thought) been discarded in a dark age when the virtù of their glorious “ancients” was lost. It was our first great revivalist movement—succeeded since by so many others that we may not even name them here. Then there came in Romantic times the recoil and a growing concerted effort to recover precisely the Image that the Renaissance revival had sought so energetically to do away with: the Image of the medieval universe in which Dante’s Comedy moves and has its being. In each case, the bibliographies are long; and the second of these “renascences” must now include this posthumous volume by an Oxford don and Cambridge professor who years ago became a name to scholars with a study of medieval tradition entitled The Allegory of Love.

It should be remembered, however, that the author of that work, now a classic, was concerned on its first page to deny that his study represented anything that could be called a “revival”:

The study of this whole tradition may seem, at first sight, to be but one more example of that itch for “revival,” that refusal to leave any corpse ungalvanized, which is among the more distressing accidents of scholarship. But such a view would be superficial. Humanity does not pass through places as a train passes through stations: being alive it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still. Neither the form nor the sentiment of this old poetry has passed away without leaving indelible traces on our minds. We shall understand our present, and perhaps even our future, the better if we can succeed, by an effort of the historical imagination, in reconstructing that long-lost state of mind for which the allegorical love poem was a natural mode of expression.

Machiavelli claimed that his own efforts at transferring himself into the world of the past amounted to the “opening up of a new route”—the image of Columbus looming obviously in the background of his metaphor. Lewis would not, of course, have made any such claim for this his second attempt to travel back to that world which the Florentine strove so passionately to cast aside. As the learned professor and student of medieval poetry that he was, he is well aware of the many medievalists who have taken this route before him, and have indeed explored a good deal more thoroughly than he seeks to do. His claim for what he has here done to recover a discarded image is modest enough:

This book is based on a course of lectures given more than once at Oxford. Some who attended it have expressed a wish that its substance might be given a more permanent form. I cannot boast that it contains much which a reader could not have found out for himself if, at every hard place in the old books, he had turned to commentators, histories, encyclopedias, and other such helps. I thought the lectures worth giving and the book worth writing because that method of discovery seemed to me and seems to others rather unsatisfactory. For one thing we turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t. Again, frequent researches ad hoc sadly impair receptive reading, so that sensitive people may even come to regard scholarship as a baleful thing which is always taking you out of the literature itself. My hope was that if a tolerable (though very incomplete) outfit were acquired beforehand and taken along with one, it might lead in. To be always looking at the map when there is a fine prospect before you shatters the “wise passiveness” in which landscape ought to be enjoyed. But to consult a map before we set out has no such ill effect. Indeed it will lead us to many prospects; including some we might never have found by following our noses.

Lead in,” “enjoy the landscape,” “wise passivity”: any reader familiar with Lewis’s historical and critical writings will recognize at once the key notions of his scholarly creed. Again and again he had reminded us that we must make ourselves capable of receiving a work of art, and that the test of a work is our reception of it. Or he liked to turn it the other way and say that we must seek to project ourselves, transfer ourselves (though I do not know that he ever made use of Machiavelli’s phrase) into a work of art by placing ourselves in spirit in the age in which that work has its roots and lifespring.

The aim of the present and last attempt at transferal lies entirely within such a program. Lewis’s lectures at Oxford, from which the volume came (the Preface is dated July, 1962), were evidently so many attempts to “lead in,” to bring his students to stand inside the medieval edifice, or “Model,” as he so often styles it in these pages, to win to a position from which that structure might be viewed and understood in the main lines of its architecture. In short here are some further exercises in the use of the historical imagination, in the reconstruction of a long-lost state of mind.

Clearly scholars and professional medievalists are duly warned from the start that the little volume is not for them. It is written for those who “are entering upon medieval studies,” and in general for any reader who needs to be led into that time of our past which for some centuries following Petrarch we had tried hard to live down and forget.

On the whole it is a graceful and charming performance, and quite successful in its aim. It leads in very well: but it will outrage each and every professional medievalist who overlooks the prefatory warning and reads on to see how very sketchy it all is, for him, as a representation of the medieval “Model.”

It is a rapid tour, but we do come to stand within the Ptolemaic cosmos and look up from center at the sun and the other stars as Dante urged us to do; and look up, too, at the great ladder of being that reaches from the humblest creature here below to the Creator of all, and this through a familiar principle of plenitude on which that ladder rested: “lest the perfection of the universe should anywhere go limping,” as Chalcidius put it; and we touch on that most important of all dividing lines in the history of Western thought, the line at the moon between permanence above and mutability below; and we consider how by a certain line of thought Nature was set free for her triumphant poetical career, how Nature “became somebody.” Lewis is at his best here, and readers of the Allegory of Love will recognize the familiar masterly touch.

There are thus chapters on the Heavens and on their inhabitants, both good and bad Angels; and chapters on Earth and man at the center of it all—yet not at the center at all, on another view, but as far from center as may be, indeed outside the wall, a mere suburbanite in this old universe.

Much of the fascination and effectiveness of this last “operation lead-in” by the Cambridge professor lies in a constant awareness of his reader’s predictable modern sensibility in the matter. Lewis’s dialectic, as always, moves constantly and adroitly between the two universes, theirs and ours. Thus when he had led us through chapters that follow out (never mind how rapidly) the ways in which the Image or Model, the medieval edifice, was constructed—the “builders” passed in review range from Chalcidius and Macrobius to the Pseudo-Dionysius and Boethius—and when finally we have the structure before us fully fashioned as it were, we are invited to stand back from the whole and to find it the sublime thing that it is—but, does it suit our taste in universes?

The human imagination has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered byways? No twilight? Can we never get really out of doors? The next chapter will perhaps give us some relief.

Lewis was ever the master of smooth transitions from chapter to chapter. His next here gets us “out of doors” by bringing us into focus on the Longaevi, those creatures who “haunt woods, glades and groves and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns…Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs…. The alternative would have been to call them Fairies.”

In the Allegory of Love Lewis’s term for the tradition of courtly love, the spirit of it, was “truancy”; and he pointed out perhaps more sharply than anyone before him had done how from Andreas the Chaplain to John Gower recantation for that truancy became, in the end, the accepted and expected thing. “We hear the bell clang; and the children, suddenly hushed and grave, and a little frightened, troop back to their master.” Somehow the chapter on the Fairies is the most successful of this whole survey of the medieval picture, and the most unexpected. And it is an “escape” that can prompt us to reflect that Lewis was probably at his best always when he was dealing with a “truancy.” So it was with Courtly Love; and so now in a sense it is with the medieval Model—which for him is also an escape, a fiction. Or so, in his closing pages, he writes of it:

I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendor, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree. It is possible that some readers have long been itching to remind me that it had a serious defect; it was not true. I agree. It was not true.

In a sense we have been taken on a tour through what is seen as a construction of the imagination, in which, as he says elsewhere, we see “the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of passionately systematic minds bringing huge masses of heterogeneous material into unity. The perfect examples are the Summa of Aquinas and Dante’s Divine Comedy; as unified and ordered as the Parthenon or the Oedipus Rex, as crowded and varied as a London terminus on a bank holiday.” For Lewis this great Model of the Universe is a supreme medieval work of art. Perhaps he would have said that it is both true and untrue, as any work of art is bound to be. But in the end we shall hardly fail to remark that any reader at all familiar with either the Summa or the Comedy, the two works with which he chooses to compare the “Model,” is bound to miss something in the picture he gives of it. Where, finally, we may ask, is the drama of salvation itself, the central action of all this vast stage-set and the only action that mattered? One keeps thinking that Lewis will surely come into focus on the movement of the soul to God, or away from God, that we expect to see taking place within this great edifice—but he never does. I do not mean that his tour of the Model is a failure for having left out what ought to have been the highlight of it all. But I do submit that a student of Dante and Aquinas will probably feel something of a shock when he reaches the end and realizes that the omission has taken place. It looks very much like a “gran rifiuto“; and that C. S. Lewis, the author of The Screwtape Letters and so many works of Christian apologetics should be guilty of it in a work on the medieval Image seems passing strange—strange, that is, until on second thought we realize that it was almost predictable. That drama, which for Thomas Aquinas was “the movement of the rational creature to God,” and nothing less than the subject of the whole Second Part of the great Summa; and which for Dante was a journey from a dark wood all the way up to the Love that moves the sun and all the stars—Lewis has no name for it here, has no place for this movement in his book, leaves it quite out of the picture. In a way it is incredible.

It is too late to put the question to the living man; but the suggestion of the answer is perhaps not so hard to find here and there in the books he left us, in a passage, say, of a paper he entitled with a question: Is Theology Poetry?

There are two things the imagination loves to do. It loves to embrace its object completely, to take it in at a single glance and see it as something harmonious, symmetrical and self-explanatory. This is the classical imagination: the Parthenon was built for it. It also loves to lose itself in a labyrinth, to surrender to the inextricable. That is the romantic imagination; the Orlando Furioso was written for it. But Christian theology does not cater very well for either. If Christianity is only a mythology, then I find the mythology I believe in is not the one I like best. I like Greek mythology much better: Irish better still: Norse best of all.

And a page later he added:

Fairies are popular in England because we don’t think they exist; they are no fun at all in Arran or Connemara.

Evidently, in dealing with the medieval Model, there was something which for Lewis required, not a willing suspension of disbelief, but a willing suspension of belief, if the imagination was to embrace the Image in its fullness. Indeed the journey to God as Dante presents it, that very pulse and heartbeat of the whole, would have had to be a kind of fairy tale (like the Model within which it was enacted) for Lewis to have met that requirement. The journey to God would have had to be a kind of truancy, a construction of the imagination. But this it could not be for him. It was too true—and so he had to leave it out.

One comes thus to see finally that Lewis’s very choice of “building metaphors” such as The Model, was in itself intended to be selective and to leave out the drama that went on in the edifice. For the structure has shape in space, whereas that drama is a movement, an action of love. It is not what we view but what we do, on a distinction made by Lewis in the paper referred to:

We must remember that “shape,” when applied to that whose parts succeed one another in time…is a metaphor. To enjoy the shape of a Poiema is something very different from enjoying the (literal) shape of a house or a vase. The parts of the Poiema are things we ourselves do.

So that part of the medieval Mode which he himself did, the specifically religious part, Lewis deliberately left out of the picture—and surely it was because for him that part, at least, of the “supreme medieval work of art” was not yet discarded.

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