A Rare Specimen
J. R. R. Tolkien once told a future biographer of C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) that “You’ll never get to the bottom of him.” Tolkien’s counsel proved prescient for all Lewis biographers as none were able to delve beneath the surface of his life and thought. Alan Jacobs, however, comes to this daunting task with unique credentials: besides being a longtime Lewis reader, he (like Lewis) is a trained literary scholar, an accomplished public intellectual, and a confessing Christian. The Narnian marshals these considerable resources and yields the best biography of Lewis yet written. Its value stems from the seriousness with which Jacobs takes Lewis as a thinker and his intelligent engagement with Lewis’s ideas and art. Yet these elucidations of the contours of Lewis’s mind contain significant shortcomings and raise analytical questions that are nonetheless as piquant in their own right as the volume’s many virtues. If Jacobs has not plumbed the depths of Lewis fully, then, he has sounded them more successfully than any previous chronicler of Narnia’s creator.
The Narnian is principally an intellectual biography, “the life of a mind, the story of an imagination.” In choosing this focus, Jacobs distinguishes himself from prior biographers and surpasses them. While accurately attentive to the facts of Lewis’s life, Jacobs recognizes that Lewis’s significance rests on what he thought and wrote, and he makes a strong case for Lewis’s contemporaneous and continuing impact on modern Western culture, particularly as fabulist. In the process, Jacobs provides welcome historical context, while also striking a fitting balance between correcting certain black legends about Lewis without whitewashing his more questionable opinions on controversial topics. This judicious equipoise is especially evident in his treatment of Lewis’s views on women; but Jacobs is less effective at rebutting allegations of racism, claiming weakly that Lewis’s racial constructions are a more pardonable Orientalism.
Jacobs is also sensitive to more fundamental themes of Lewis’s thought, if not to all of their implications. He contends that the core of Lewis’s worldview was a Chestertonian receptivity to the possibilities of existence and a consequent wonder at, and gratitude for, all aspects of Being. Jacobs further links this “willingness to be enchanted” to Lewis’s signature notion of “joy.” From a young age, Lewis experienced intimations of the eternal in quotidian settings; to him, these unconsummated glimpses of the transcendent and an ensuing sense of longing were more satisfying that the complete quenching of any other desire. He finally found this yearning for the ineffable fulfilled and intensified by his adult recovery of Christianity, which replaced the hints and guesses of “joy” with the felt real presence of God, especially in prayer and sacramental worship.
Lewis therefore considered the “disenchantment of the world” one of modernity’s radical failings. Jabobs argues convincingly that a consequent anxiety about the impoverished moral imagination of rising generations helped spur Lewis to write The Chronicles of Narnia, as he sought to provide inoculation against a cultural pathology that he had diagnosed in earlier works like The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. Indeed, Jacobs casts Lewis’s views on education as a microcosm of his protest against secular, positivistic, technocratic society’s predominant principles. In particular, Lewis rejected belief in necessary progress, dubbing it “chronological snobbery,” and in scientism, which he regarded as the antithesis of genuine science, as it denies objective truth to allow an “inner ring” of ideologies to assert their will-to-power over intellectual discourse, social practice, and human and physical nature. Jacobs hence rightly identifies Lewis and the Inklings as a “force countertradition” that defiantly upheld orthodox Christianity, customary Western wisdom, and man’s mythopoeic impulse.
Besides his experiences of “joy,” a related facet of Lewis’s early life helped shape his fears about a worldly age’s apparent exclusion of the supernatural, and his sense of the remedies for this perceived deficiency. During his adolescence and young adulthood, Lewis confronted growing bifurcation, and tension, between his imagination and his reason. One of Lewis’s wellsprings of “joy” was mythology. But, under the tutelage of rationalist Schopenhauerean William Kirkpatrick, Lewis became convinced that the myths he loved were illusory, even as his discursive dedication that life is devoid of transcendent value seemed “grim and meaningless.” This conflict between what he found attractive and what he deemed true widened until 1931. On September 19 of that year, Tolkien and Hugo Dyson persuaded Lewis that the Christian myth presented not only an enticing story, but one that had rational, existential veracity. In so seeing Christ as “Myth become Fact,” Lewis healed the breach in his mind, for this “true myth” was simultaneously imaginatively appealing and rationally demonstrable. This incarnational equilibrium became a hallmark of Lewis’s outlook and enabled him to be equally adept in the diverse genres of fantasy and apologetics.
Unfortunately, Jacobs’s treatment of these dimension of Lewis’s life and thought is disappointing and misguided. His depiction of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity is marred in several crucial ways. His analysis of Lewis’s movement from atheism to theism pays no serious attention to two weighty factors: Lewis’s exploration of philosophical idealism and the subliminal theological impact of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, which Lewis claimed “baptized my imagination.” His discussion of Lewis’s transition from theism to Christianity has considerable flaws as well. Although Jacobs grasps the importance of the Tolkien-Dyson conversation, he does not emphasize the pivotal role that G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925) played in introducing Lewis to the notion that his two friends later accented. Jacobs is also hazy on exactly when Lewis became a Christian due to his inexplicable omission of an epiphany Lewis had on a trip to the Whipsnade Zoo on September 28, 1931, that convinced him that Jesus was the Son of God. David Downing’s detailed account of Lewis’s spiritual journey (The Most Reluctant Convert, 2002) is thus a necessary supplement to Jacobs’s surprisingly slipshod rendition of what he recognizes as a central moment in Lewis’s later life.
Beyond mishandling the discreet dynamics of Lewis’s conversion, Jacobs also distorts the mental equilibrium that it gave him. Jacobs makes a credible argument that Lewis turned from writing apologetics to children’s fantasy in middle age because “he had become a Christian not through accepting a particular set of arguments but through learning to read a story the right way. And maybe others could move closer to Christian belief by the same path.” But Jacobs overreaches in suggesting that Lewis had concluded by this juncture that the discursive was lesser than the imaginative per se. A more plausible reading of the record is that Lewis judged that he had personally exhausted his possibilities in apologetics and hence needed to experiment in a new rhetorical mode to stimulate his creativity, even as he articulated constant themes; but there is no evidence that Lewis generalized this feeling into an indictment of reason’s efficacy. At most, he had reached the entirely orthodox position that the richness of suprarational religious experiences cannot be captured fully by dogmatic formulas.
Jacobs, in contrast, at times displays an almost pietistic impatience with the discursive itself, culminating in his disturbing claim that “words are tokens of the will.” This premise and his ensuing assertion that didactic speech about the supernatural is “a relatively superficial activity” are quite contrary to the Inklings’ conviction that language is a sacramental synergy of sign and signified, ultimately of the Word and the world. In ascribing his more postmodern standpoint to Lewis, Jacobs misconstrues some of Lewis’s motives in writing The Chronicles of Narnia and also misreads some of his seminal later texts, especially “De Descriptione Temporum” (1954). Jacobs quotes this address’s stirring peroration in which Lewis depicts himself as a “dinosaur” who in his person spans “the Great Divide” that has arisen between “Old Western Culture” and modernity; Jacobs then concludes that Lewis was now “less inclined to defend that culture than merely to embody it. . . . He will not defend Old Western Culture so much as simply be a rare specimen of Old Western Man” (emphasis in original). In fact, the bulk of his talk consists of richly textured arguments about the nature, components, periodization, and ramifications of the Great Divide and the perdurant worth of its Old Western side, but Jacobs neither supports nor analyzes them. Such a stark imbalance between what Lewis said and what his critic selects for commentary reveals that Lewis’s mind remained more even-tempered in his final years than Jacobs realizes.
Highlighting these shortfalls in The Narnian should nevertheless not undermine its consequential achievement. In understanding that Lewis’s ultimate importance is as a thinker and a sub-creator, and in undertaking an intellectual archeology of that mental world, Alan Jacobs has supplied a substantial warrant for continued study of Lewis. His attention to detail and respectful, if critical, approach disclose a mind awake to Lewis’s accomplishments, weaknesses, and place in literary history. Even his serious omissions and misinterpretations should stimulate future scholars to think more clearly and deeply about the profound intellectual, religious, aesthetic, and cultural questions with which Lewis grappled. If it is impossible to get to the bottom of C. S. Lewis, then The Narnian takes readers further up and further into his tale than any prior account. Indeed, perhaps fathoming completely the life of a mind as complex as this Old Western Man’s must await that day in the New Narnia when Aslan will tell each person his own story.
Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). An associate professor of history at Christendom College, he teaches courses in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.
Posted: December 25, 2007