The scandal of C. S. Lewis

Stanley Fish, aging literary theorist who didn’t want to be one, has a blog at the New York Times where he “challenges” received ideas. Although he’s at times interesting, we’re often left with nothing much after he’s finished talking. I share this fault at times.

However, I’ve noticed how his respondents often reply using the ideas of the Cambridge prof of Mediaeval and Renaissance literature, C. S. Lewis, who’s more commonly known as a children’s book author and professional, if not muscular, Christian.

Fish seems to “reply” with nothing more than silence.

Lewis is a scandal to the literary academic of contemporary, 21st century America, like an unmentionable great-uncle of disobliging habits. He gets the Adorno treatment: just as you can check the bibliography of whacking great books about “20th century musical theory” to find Teddy gone missing, Fish doesn’t talk about Lewis.

In Fish’s case, this is because Lewis very neatly anticipated a theory of Milton studies for which Fish takes too much credit: the belief that Milton, although conflicted, basically was “for” the angels and not the devils of Paradise Lost, and that Milton’s Satan is no hero in disguise.

More generally, this is because Lewis’ literary criticism anticipated post-colonial studies, and it’s not the fashion to credit Dead White Males.

As a mediaevalist, Lewis was at pains (in his volume in the 1954 Cambridge History of English Literature, on 16th Century Literature Excluding Drama) to point out that the Tudor Renaissance was not only a time of new learning: it was also, according to Lewis, a time of new ignorance.

In particular, Lewis was aware that the Spenserian programme of The Faery Queen was a political project, centering “culture” in the valley of the Thames, and manufacturing the lie that the Celtic margin (Scotland but perhaps also Ireland) was “primitive” and in need of “English” language and culture: this when Scotland was a functioning monarchy same as England during the later Middle Ages, and Ireland had preserved Christian civilization in the “dark” ages.

Lewis seems as aware as Foucault that this cultural imperialism was essentially the same phenomenon as the genocide of William of Cumberland after Culloden: there’s a continuity between the common-room put-down, and the crofter slain with a sabre’s blow for being in the way of the dragoon.

Read William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makarys (the “makers”, Dunbar’s poetic contemporaries): it is a storm of refined passion which questions the justice of God in the shortness of life: I shall now type a quatrain from memory:

He hath blind Harry and Sandy Traille
Slain wi’ his schour of mortall haille
Quihilk Patrick Johnston might not flee!
Timor mortis conturbat me

But: English readers shuddered in refined repulsion at the implied pronunciation as if talking like a Northern man meant you could not have certain emotions. The Latin refrain only made Dunbar, for Southern readers, a proto-Wog, where the “wog” of the 19th century was the “westernized Oriental gentleman” educated at the missionary school but not “qualified” to live on the Peak here in Hong Kong.

Lewis questioned the racism of English studies from his Christian perspective, making many High Table enemies. He compounded his marginality by marrying an American Jewish ex-communist.

Today, owing to the success of his children’s books, and his Christianity, he is still sniffed at and ignored by the fashionable, despite the fact that he anticipated, not only post-colonial studies but the New Age transformation of Enlightenment back to myth, something which is not altogether to be regretted as long as the memory of Enlightenment is not forgotten.

But, if you’re trying to get an English MA you are well-advised not to pipe up about Lewis in seminars. Your teacher will probably have taken her kids to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and will have bought them the books, for today, even your flaming liberal is scared of transgressive children’s literature, and she’s probably not read Lewis’ kids’ books deeply enough to realize that Lewis is criticising capitalism when the White Witch tempts Edmund with Turkish Delight!

Fish won’t admit for a second that he cribbed Lewis in his Milton work. The scandal of C. S. Lewis is that he showed how to be a Christian and a grown-up without once implying that you must be a Christian to be a grown-up. Lewis was the last in fact of a breed: a humanist and a Christian: an Erasmus.

Change Record

29 July 2013: Changed “in class” to “in seminars”
29 July 2013: Added comparison to Erasmus


3 Responses to “The scandal of C. S. Lewis”

  1. Thanks for the good literary sleuthing in your comments on C. S. Lewis (and S. Fish). As a footnote, let’s expand the C. S. Lewis picture to include the lovely, intelligent 1993 Richard Attenborough film, “Shadowlands.” With Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, it adds more evocatively human dimensions to the older historical and literary ones you’ve so nicely also sketched. — yours, Phil

  2. spinoza1111 Says:

    Saw Shadowlands, liked it (great casting).

  3. I love what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the awesome works guys I’ve included you guys to my blogroll.

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