Summer Reading II: C.S. Lewis


My second blog on summer reading comes from a much overlooked book, C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. Like so much of his writings, in An Experiment, Lewis is as prescient as he is original, arguing for a more well-rounded and robust reading culture. Only recently have others, like Alan Jacobs and David Ulin, begun to echo Lewis’s basic message about literature.

One of Lewis’s most important points is that at both a high-brow and low-brow level, there is “a confusion between life and art” in the practice of reading fiction.

At the lower level, this confusion is exemplified in the lust for sensational news stories. However, for Lewis, the more corrosive form happens “on a higher level” where:

it appears as the belief that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us ‘truths’ about ‘life’. Dramatists and novelists are praised as if they were doing, essentially, what used to be expected of theologians and philosophers, and the qualities which belong to their works as inventions and as designs are neglected. They are reverenced as teachers and insufficiently appreciated as artists.

The danger here is in losing any sense of literature as art, as something that was made. Lewis explains:

None of the three kinds [tragedies, comedies, and farces] is making a statement about life in general. They are all constructions: things made out of the stuff of real life; additions to life rather than comments on it …. What guards the good reader from treating tragedy … as a mere vehicle for truth is his continual awareness that it not only means, but is. It is not merely logos (something said) but poiema (something made). The same is true of a novel or narrative poem. They are complex and carefully made objects. Attention to the very objects they are is our first step. To value them chiefly for reflections which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them, is a flagrant instance of ‘using’ instead of ‘receiving’.

When we turn to literature first and foremost with questions surrounding data, facts, philosophies, ideologies, etc., when we focus primarily upon questions of ‘meaning’ and ‘message’, we lose sight of the aesthetic object. Unfortunately, these questions tend to define most literary pedagogy. What is more, this kind of approach to literature tends to diminish the power of the literature to work upon us, and as such we strip literature of one of its greatest appeals to readers, young and old.

Lewis concludes:

We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.

But one of the chief operations of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude … In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions … than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings, and total experience, of other men.

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