By guest blogger Andrew Winckles
The Mimetic Criticism of C.S. Lewis
Whereas Eliot, post conversion, seems to have been primarily concerned with making his new belief speak to his intellectual ideas of poetics and criticism, C.S. Lewis seems to have been much more contented operating in the ambiguous middle ground between poetry and belief, recognizing the importance of both and the ways in which they speak to each other, without having to come up with a cohesive, definitive system or theory of all the ways poetry and faith interact. As he wrote in an essay on “Christianity in Literature,” “The rules for writing a good passion play or a good devotional lyric are simply the rules for writing tragedy or lyric in general: success in sacred literature depends on the same qualities of structure, suspense, variety, diction, and the like which secure success in secular literature” (1). Thus, from the outset, Lewis does not seem to possess Eliot’s drive to fuse Christianity and theory into a unified system, but instead to develop a dialogue between the two based on the commonalities they both share.
This does not necessarily mean that Lewis’ beliefs as a Christian did not influence the way he engaged in literary criticism. He does make moral judgments in his writings; he just does not seek to infuse them with the unity that Eliot aims for in After Strange Gods. “Christianity and Literature,” is perhaps the closest Lewis comes to formulating any sort of cohesive statement on the relationship between the two worlds. In this essay, he echoes some of Eliot’s concerns about tradition and originality for, whatever their differences on other literary matters, both men recognized the importance of a literary tradition and community in creating the great works of the modern world.
However, whereas Eliot was concerned with the individual author inserting his “personal view of life” into his or her work irrespective of tradition, Lewis was more concerned about artists who claimed themselves as the originators of whatever beauty and truth is to be found in their works. “What are the key-words of modern criticism,” he asks:
Creative, with its opposite derivative; spontaneity, with its opposite convention; freedom, contrasted with rules. Great authors are innovators, pioneers, explorers; bad authors bunch in schools and follow models. Or again, great authors are always “breaking fetters” and “bursting bonds”. They have personality, they “are themselves”.… we certainly have a general picture of bad work flowing from conformity and discipleship, and of good work bursting out from certain centres of explosive force – apparently self-originating force – which we call men of genius (“Christianity and Literature” 3).
This construction is problematic for Lewis, however, both as a literary critic and a Christian. Not only does it deny the influence of any work or pattern that comes before (as Eliot also argues), but it also sets the artist up as the originator of beauty and truth, not God. In Lewis’s conception, originality “is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone,” and “the duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, in reflecting like a mirror” (6). This does not mean that all art is derivative in the pejorative sense in which we have come to think of it, only that anything good derives from God. Christian artists or critics should thus strive to become “clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours,” and to reflect, not create, “eternal Beauty or Wisdom” (7).
All this is not to say that Lewis is denying any sort of creativity or advocating complete uniformity in art. It is not even to say that he is denying artistic merit and power in the works of artists who claim this personal originality and creativity – they may be dirty mirrors, but they are still mirrors. They also may merely be mirrors which reflect only the beauty and wisdom created by God, but every artist views these elements differently, and this is where literature derives its real power.
This is also where Lewis’s views on Christianity and literature radically diverge from Eliot’s. For, whereas Eliot seems to be obsessed with negative constructions of a work’s moral value, Lewis instead focuses on the positive effects literature can have on individuals, regardless of the author’s religious beliefs or the work’s “moral” content. In this sense he, according to Walhout, “attempts to avoid judging works according to whether they give expression to universal values and instead aims to analyze the particular perspectives that give works their individuality and historical particularity” (30).
It is these “particular perspectives” that have the power to so enlarge and enlighten human consciousness. In his An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis argues that one of the greatest things about reading is that it allows us “to enter into other men’s beliefs… even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved… And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content” (139). This allows a sort of self-enlargement in which we can understand the feelings and values of the other, even if we do not agree with them. It engenders an “enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors,” and “heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality” (140). It also frees the field of Christian literary scholarship to examine works that Eliot would call heretical from a different perspective, not necessarily an amoral one, but one that seeks to understand instead of condemn.
This, of course, does not mean that Eliot’s concerns about the “moral” nature of modern literature are not legitimate, but it does mean that they need qualification – a qualification that Lewis provides. For, while Lewis would certainly join Eliot in affirming the existence of an absolute deity and an absolute morality, he nevertheless seems to have learned to value the perspectives of others, even those that Eliot would call immoral. For it is only through understanding the perspectives of others, of seeing life through their eyes, that we can hope to understand the world and other people and then strive to make it a better place. Again, as Lewis writes in his Experiment in Criticism:
My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough…. in reading literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do (140-141).
Thus, even the most “immoral” literature (in Eliot’s definition), from Lewis’s perspective, is valuable because it indicates the void, the search for meaning which only some sort of absolute morality can fill. It indicates and represents the other in a manner that is consonant with Christ’s commands to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.”
This idea also provides a satisfactory grounds for a dialogue between Christian art and culture, for it is only when we set aside our closely held notions and preconceptions of the other, that we can hope to enter into a healthy dialogue about the role of Christians in the arts. People of faith must do away with the notion that all of culture is inherently hostile to their ideas and moral beliefs and begin to engage in dialogue in a manner which is both pragmatic and non-judgmental. On the other side, cultural critics must work to break down conceptions of all Christians as irrational, emotional, and judgmental and attempt to understand the deep and important moral concerns people of faith are engaged with. For, as Lewis put it, “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison” (Experiment in Criticism 140). Our own eyes are not enough, we need those of others – faith and art both provide vital narratives whereby we can see through these other eyes and we must strive to bring them together constructively.
Eliot, T.S. After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934.
—. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930.
—. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in
England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1933.
Hynes, Samuel. “The Trials of a Christian Critic.” The Literary Criticism of T.S. Eliot. Ed. David
Newton-DeMolina. London: Athlone, 1977.
Lewis, C.S. “Christianity and Literature.” Christian Reflections. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand
Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994.
—. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961.
Walhout, Clarence. “The Problem of Moral Criticism in Christian Literary Theory.” Christian
Scholars Review 24:1 (1994): 26-44.
Williams, Donald T. “A Larger World: C.S. Lewis on Christianity and Literature.” Mythlore
24:2 (2004): 43-55.