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The Trials of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis: A Biography

by A.N. Wilson
Norton, 334 pp., $22.50

It has been suggested that if our civilization were to fall to pieces, leaving only fragments of our literary culture, archaeologists would have to conclude that there may have been two Bertrand Russells, one the brilliant author of Principia Mathematica, the lectures on logical atomism, and other logical and philosophical works, and one a popular writer on sexuality, education, politics, and so on. It seems at first one might have a similar fantasy about C.S. Lewis. There is the most learned, the most incisive historical critic of medieval and Renaissance literature of his generation, the author of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost,’ The Discarded Image; then there is the author of Out of the Silent Planet and its (inferior) sequels and of the allegorical fantasies set in the mythical kingdom of Narnia; and then we have the popular theologian who had and has, among evangelicals, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, a high and still persisting reputation. Miracles, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, all were popular when they appeared, and most have kept their popularity and continue to sell. Of this Lewis there is a shrine and an archive at Wheaton College in Illinois.

It wouldn’t really be plausible, though, to think there were two or more C.S. Lewises. The author of all the works is manifestly the same man, with the same quicksilver mind, the same cargo of curious learning, the same obsessions and prejudices. Everything—critical works, fantasies, theological books and tracts—is, as it were, fingerprinted by Lewis. A trivial but telling example: Lewis was a great smoker—sixty cigarettes a day between pipes, A.N. Wilson tells us—and a deep drinker, and he despised total abstainers and nonsmokers. In one of the Narnia stories (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) there is a wretched boy of morally feeble character whose parents are teetotalers and nonsmokers, pacifists, despisers of fairy stories, and Lewis seems to suggest that it isn’t surprising they should have nurtured the priggish Eustace.

To the complexities of Lewis the writer we must add the complexities of the rest of the life. Brought up an Ulster Protestant, he came to reject the black and rancorous ethos associated with the faith and ended as a High Church Anglican who frequented the altar and the confessional. But his spiritual development, as Wilson recounts it, isn’t straightforward, either before or after his conversion, first to theism and then to Christianity, in the Twenties and Thirties. The two women in his life were already married to other men. His relationship with Janie Moore, the companion of his life from his undergraduate days into his fifties, may or may not have been physically sexual; Wilson thinks, reasonably, that it was, at least in the early years. The relationship began when Lewis was eighteen and Janie Moore forty-five.

The relationship with the American Joy Davidman, a lively, foul-mouthed, Jewish convert to Christianity, was certainly sexual. He married her in a civil ceremony—she was divorced, and under the discipline then prevailing in the Church of England, she could not be married to Lewis in an ecclesiastical ceremony. His Anglican friends seem to have been quite remarkably unintelligent in assuming such a ceremony was impossible; for Joy’s former husband, Bill Gresham, had himself been married before he was married to Joy, and the Gresham-Davidman marriage was thus canonically void. Wilson remarks that had Lewis been a Roman Catholic he would have had no problem about an ecclesiastical ceremony. However, when Joy was believed to be dying they found an Anglican priest who was prepared to bless their marriage.

The mixture presented in Wilson’s biography of the life of learning, the college life at Magdalen where he taught, of domestic drama and bad temper, religion, and sex, is irresistible. Wilson on the whole does his best with the mass of material, perhaps too rich for some appetites, drawn from the published and unpublished sources. He is not a devotee and is thus not inclined to tumble into hagiography, and doesn’t obscure or tone down those features of the life that may grate on the sensibilities even of admirers.

He has a simple thesis to account for the bizarre and acrid features of Lewis’s life. It is that the death of his mother when Lewis was nine was traumatic and to this trauma was added an unsatisfactory relationship with his father, a man who seemed to the young Lewis, and perhaps to Lewis at every stage of his life, both comic and malign. Lewis’s sadomasochistic tastes are early well-established; he has fantasies in adolescence about beating girls on the bottom, and these fantasies don’t go away in adult life.

In both partnerships with women he was trampled, bullied, and exploited. He never voiced resentment and it doesn’t seem extravagant to see the attractive power of pain in these relations. Wilson gives us one account which sets out in its horror and in affecting domestic detail a representative instance of his position in reaction to Janie Moore:

Friday, 27 April 1923 saw Jack working on Old English until the moment when he was required to carry an old cast-iron wringer, a miniature mangle, into the centre of Oxford by bus, with the instruction to see if it could be exchanged in a certain shop for a lawnmower. Since the shop did not want it, he had to carry the mangle back up Headington Hill. He was then, in the same afternoon, told that Mrs Moore had lost her purse, and sent back into Oxford to enquire after it at the bus station. Each of these journeys would have taken in the region of twenty minutes into town and twenty out again. It would be easy to suppose that the diary is a catalogue of complaints about this ceaseless succession of chores, but no breath of complaint…ever occurs in their pages. Readers who suppose that he is complaining about Mrs Moore are imagining what they would feel like if they had to rush out of a lecture, buy some margerine (sic) for Mrs Moore and cycle up Headington Hill with it before they went to their next academic assignment. But as readers of The Allegory of Love were to be reminded thirteen years later, “to leap up on errands, to go through heat or cold, at the bidding of one’s lady, or even of any lady, would seem but honourable and natural to a gentleman of the thirteenth or even of the seventeenth century, and most of us have gone shopping in the twentieth with ladies who showed no sign of regarding the tradition as a dead letter.”

Similar trials crowded upon him almost daily throughout the years of his association with Minto (a nickname given to Mrs. Moore to mark her partiality to an English sweetmeat of that name). His trials with Joy Davidman were less oppressively domestic. She had little sense of the material poverty of English middle-class life in the postwar years. On one occasion, before they were married and before they were even lovers, Joy sent her children to an expensive English school she knew she couldn’t afford; Lewis, of course, paid the fees. On another occasion she used up, according to Lewis’s brother, a year’s ration of coal in three months.

The quirks of personality and the strange vicissitudes of his life are such that a critical estimate of Lewis’s work seems a dim affair after the blood and fire of the life. All the same, if we value Lewis it must be on account of the work; and Wilson gives a useful sketch of the writing, both the scholarly work upon which his reputation in the schools must rest and the other works, imaginative and religious, that won him fame in his own time and keep much of their popularity today.

Wilson thinks, and this reviewer would agree with him, that the scholarly works deserve high praise. They are original, imaginative, and are still wonderfully readable. Wilson argues that the voice and the directness of the appeal to the ordinary educated reader are the things that keep Lewis, unlike so many of his worthy contemporaries, out of the dry-as-dust category. He picks out for special praise the Preface to ‘Paradise Lost‘ and The Discarded Image.

The Preface to ‘Paradise Lost‘ is indeed a magisterial work. Lewis found himself irritated, perhaps, by the habit in modern critics of treating Paradise Lost as though it were a novel and Satan, Adam and Eve, and the angels as though they were its characters. What Lewis does is to show us the intellectual material Milton used: the tradition of the epic, Augustine on the Fall, medieval speculation about the angels. As so often in Lewis’s work, the ideas are taken to be of importance today, and not simply of antiquarian interest. The Discarded Image, as Wilson makes vividly clear, helps us to grasp how the world looked and felt to medieval people. Looking at such work must have strengthened the courage of the electors to the Cambridge Chair—one suspects courage was needed—which he occupied from 1954 to the end of his career and his life. (He died on the day J.F. Kennedy was assassinated.)

From his early university work—a first in Mods, a first in Greats, a first in English—it became clear that he could hope for a university career. His fellowship at Magdalen was to be expected, and he was a successful—though not always loved—tutor and an effective lecturer. He came to be disliked by some of his colleagues in Oxford, who found him wrongheaded and a bit of a bully. His great friends were such men as Tolkien, Charles Williams (who was translated with the London office of the Oxford University Press to Oxford during the war), Hugo Dyson (for some reason Wilson goes on about his having a clubfoot), who was refreshingly unenchanted by Tolkien and who is said to have cried out during a reading by Tolkien of a manuscript, “Oh fuck, not another elf!” and the Chaucer scholar Nevill Coghill, all of them except for Coghill a little out of the mainstream of academic life. That Lewis acquired fame through his writings outside the academy provoked some jealousy. The academy is characteristically mean spirited in such matters. The late J.B. Leishman, whose large frame, high bicycle, checked tweeds, and curly pipe may still be remembered by some with affection, was a “sound” scholar in his field of English seventeenth-century studies but came to be thought unsound by the hacks when it became known that he spent much of his time studying and translating—here he was a pioneer—the work of Rilke.

A sad departure from generosity in Lewis was his absurd (and successful) campaign in 1938 to make the entirely unworthy Adam Fox, the chaplain of Magdalen, the Oxford Professor of Poetry. Lewis was helped in his disgraceful campaign by Tolkien and other friends who ought to have known better. The other candidates, both entirely respectable, were E.K. Chambers and David Cecil. It was the news that Chambers was being considered that caused Fox, who ignorantly believed Chambers was simply “a retired civil servant who made Shakespeare his hobby,” to say: “This is simply shocking, they might as well make me Professor of Poetry”; to which Lewis responded, “Well, we will.” And they did. This piece of buffoonery did Lewis much harm. It was an odd concomitant of his public concern with Christian morality. It could well have been instanced as a clever device of the enemy in The Screwtape Letters. These letters of an old devil to a young one, who is serving his apprenticeship in the great craft of seducing the human race from its allegiance to God, show Lewis’s satirical powers and his penetrating wit at their most accomplished.

Wilson gives an account of some of Lewis’s theological writing, trying to bring out its strengths and weaknesses. He is acute in noticing some of Lewis’s worst mistakes. A prime example is his attempt to give the ordinary man some sense of what the Incarnation involves “If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.” Wilson’s comment is just and proper: “Apart from being offensive, this is bad theology. God made human beings in His own image and likeness. Human beings did not make slugs or crabs.” Wilson has an admirable discussion of what Lewis took to be a knockdown argument for the divinity of Jesus: that the reader of the New Testament is driven by the text into the dilemma in which Jesus is either God, or a bad man, or a madman. Wilson brings out how poor this is as an argument.

At the height of his career as a popular theologian Lewis had an encounter with the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe at a meeting of an Oxford society. In chapter 3 of Miracles Lewis had argued that “Naturalism” was self-refuting. By “Naturalism” is meant something like: What we say and think is determined by physical processes of which a causal account can be given; he is saying that if this is asserted to be true, there are no grounds for the application of “true”; the assertion is thus self-contradictory and is self-refuting. Anscombe was able to show that Lewis’s argument as he develops it is deeply confused. He was shaken by Anscombe’s critique, so much so that he began to eschew philosophical and logical themes, giving himself instead to scholarly and imaginative work. This is greatly to his credit.

Wilson is a practiced biographer and has written about Scott, Milton, Belloc, and Tolstoy, and has as well written many novels. The sweep of his narrative in the biography of Lewis is impressive and there is much that is acute and well argued. I have already commented on the cogency of his refutation of Lewis’s argument that the reader of the New Testament is driven by the text into a dilemma: either Jesus is God, or he is a bad man, or a madman; and there are many other felicities. But much in this work is careless and unworthy of him. It may be useful if I say what I find wrong with some of the detail.

First, Wilson has failed to do what any writer on such a subject as Lewis ought to do, namely, work out a coherent view of how the various genres of literary work are to be described and commented on. If they are to be treated thoroughly and given their place in the movement of the life, then decisions have to be made on what to look at in detail and what to pass by with just a mention. Wilson strikes me as not having thought this problem out. For instance, most readers of Lewis would, I am convinced, find Till We Have Faces, Lewis’s use of the Eros and Psyche story, one of his best executed and most moving works. But this is merely mentioned by Wilson, though it is plainly connected with Lewis’s spiritual development and illuminates it; whereas The Pilgrim’s Regress, for instance, and the weaker Narnia stories are looked at in more detail.

Again, the life of Lewis has of necessity to be in part an account of the intellectual milieu in which he worked. The material having to do with English studies seems to me very well done. But when Wilson talks about the philosophical issues then debated it seems to me that he very often gets it wrong and this means that, for instance, the account of the bruising encounter with Anscombe is unsatisfactory. For example:

The followers and friends of Russell, particularly Ludwig Wittgenstein, and subsequently such popularizers of Wittgenstein’s early thought as A.J. Ayer, saw their way out of this string of difficulties by placing a clear no-entry sign at the turning of the road. “The world is that which is the case.” [I prefer the old Ogden translation: “The world is everything that is the case.”]

This is variously mistaken. Wittgenstein was not a follower of Russell, though he was at one time a friend. Ayer was certainly not a popularizer of Wittgenstein’s early thought “The world is everything that is the case” is not, as Wilson seems to suppose, a thesis in epistemology, but a thesis about the scope of propositions.

Wilson tells us that such concepts as “right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly” were “dismissed” from the vocabulary of Ayer and the logical positivists. What Ayer and those who sympathized with him did was to give an account of these concepts very different from such older philosophers as G.E. Moore and Harold Prichard. But they no more dismissed “right and wrong” and the rest from their vocabulary than they dismissed “square,” “red,” and “painful.” Given this misunderstanding it isn’t surprising that Wilson praises Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a fine and in some respects justified polemic, for its philosophical power.

Wilson says of Plato “that the imagination…gave to human beings the chance to penetrate other worlds, to recover earlier states of being, and ultimately to see God.” This is so far from anything Plato ever maintained that I can’t think why Wilson says this. If the reference to earlier states of being is a reference to the doctrine of recollection, as it was used to justify the slave boy’s ability to do geometry in the Meno, then this has nothing to do with imagination.

I have already mentioned the encounter between Lewis and Anscombe in Oxford. Wilson recognizes its importance for Lewis’s career as a theologian but doesn’t do justice to the details of the argument. This is hard to excuse, for Anscombe has published what she had to say about Lewis’s argument in the third chapter of Miracles.* Wilson also has opprobrious things to say about Anscombe herself, but to suggest, as I think he does, that she is capable of being sophistical in debate and a bully seems to me false, even absurd, as the fiddle-faddle about her being, for one of Lewis’s psychological makeup, a threatening female and a witch.

There are some signs of carelessness in the writing and editing. Proper names are sometimes wrongly spelled (e.g., “John Stewart Mill,” “Pseudo-Dionysus,” and so on).

Lewis had a fine initial endowment. He tells us that when he was a schoolboy at Malvern his Latin master “first taught me the right sensuality of poetry, how it should be savoured and mouthed in solitude. Of Milton’s Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,’ he said, ‘That line made me happy for a week.’ ” Such a boy is rare, and it has to be said that his talent was not neglected. It was judged rightly by many relatives, friends, and colleagues. By many conventional standards his life was unhappy, but it seems nevertheless to have contained ecstatic moments and he was enormously productive—“writer’s block” was something he knew nothing about. Empson thought him the best read man in the field. We must applaud Wilson’s skill in bringing him so sharply before us.

  1. *

    The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, Vol. 2 (University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 224–232.

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