Monday, July 28, 2008

C.S. Lewis: An Experiment in Criticism

One of the finest non-fiction books written by C.S. Lewis is An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 (two years before his death).

Unfortunately, this work is often overlooked by those interested in Lewis in favor of more mainstream works such as Mere Christianity, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Screwtape Letters. While those are all fine works in their own right, An Experiment in Criticism offers Lewis's mature insights on literature and how readers relate to it.

But Lewis's ideas on this subject extend beyond his application to literature. Lewis, in fact, applies his insights to music and art. Likewise, we may apply his wisdom in relation to literature to contemporary popular culture. As such, the ideas in An Experiment in Criticism are applicable to contemporary literature, film, television, etc.

Lewis begins by distinguishing the majority from the minority when it comes to literature. The majority, for instance, don't read anything more than once. Once they have "used" literature, they move on. This, in essence, is consumerism applied to literature. But Lewis says the minority can enjoy a work of great literature many times. Indeed, it is this returning to a great work of literature that, over the course of a lifetime, is a joy, as well as an education.

For Lewis, it's important to learn from the great conversation of history, represented in literature. When we read "old books" in some way we participate in this conversation, becoming familiar with the themes and nuances of ideas, points and counterpoints, throughout the ages.

Through reading literature, moreover, we can see through the eyes of others and by doing this, we expand our horizons and our understanding. As Lewis put it, "We want to be more than ourselves ... We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own ... We demand windows ... in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself."

But the concept of literature or ideas as products to be consumed, combined with extensive ignorance of history and ideas, dampens our intellectual sensibilities. We prefer a clever 30-second advertisement to a prolonged but rewarding discourse on an important subject. We don't want to think too much because popular culture does not want us to think too much. Not thinking deeply is easy. But in thinking deeply we discover great truths about ourselves and our world.

An Experiment in Criticism is a relatively short work (about 140 pages). But do not read it quickly, but in doses. Take twelve days, reading one chapter per day and the epilogue and appendix on the final day. Think about the ideas, apply them, and try to understand how they relate to contemporary culture. If you do so with an open mind, seeking understanding, I can assure you the experience will be a rewarding one.


Karla said...

Awesome. I am a huge Lewis fan, but I haven't heard of that book, I don't think. I once saw a book by him in the literary criticism section of a book store and never found it again. Maybe that was it. I didn't know the title to find it again. I'll have to get that one. I just finished re-reading the Screwtape Letters and Miracles. I read The Chronicles of Narnia quiet frequently since childhood. I see something new every time I read them. They are packed with wonderful treasures. I wish I could have sat in on an Inklings meeting with Lewis, Tolkein, and Sayers. That would have been incredible!

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the comments, Karla. An Experiment in Criticism is one of my favorite non-fiction books by Lewis. Also, it's short and, as such, offers a good intro to his mature thinking about literature.

On sitting in on an Inklings meeting, see my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis, which features a chapter set at the Eagle and Child pub. Sayers is not present, but Lewis, Tolkien, Charles William, and Warren Lewis have a dialogue with a skeptic about friendship, love, and reason.

Karla said...

I think the literature criticism book I came across was a thick book. I never found it again. I'll have to get the book you mention soon. I've read just about all of his books.

Awesome. Have you been to the Eagle and Child? I plan to visit Oxford one day and see that pub. I would love to take the RZIM course there one summer.

Robert Velarde said...

The book you came across was probably English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. This is a chunky book that was part of the Oxford History of English Literature series (or the O HELL, as Lewis jokingly called it!).

I have not been to the Eagle and Child, but hope to visit it someday. The setting ideas for my chapter at the pub came from photographs.

David Strunk said...

Thanks for the tip on this Lewis book. I had heard of it, but had never ventured to purchase or read it. I, like Karla, have read almost everything. I have most certainly read almost everything still in print. There's some out of print stuff too, right?

Also, thanks for your (or Lewis') thoughts about thinking for one's self. I borrow from other ideas, read the newspaper a lot, take classes, but if I'm honest with myself, I rarely have an original thought that I work on, think over, write about, and hold for myself. My papers in coursework almost always defend the position of the person I've read. I suppose that's a confession.

Robert Velarde said...

David, thanks for the post. I think you will enjoy An Experiment in Criticism.

Yes, there are a few Lewis books that are out of print such as English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, The Allegory of Love, and Selected Literary Essays.

Original ideas are hard to come by. But even Lewis admitted as much, acknowledging that many of his own ideas are borrowed from great thinkers of the past.

In this respect, there's nothing wrong with borrowing from the past, but it's important to borrow from the best and, whenever possible, enhance and adapt ideas so they are relevant in a contemporary setting.

Regarding coursework, I think most profs understand that truly original ideas are rare, which is why they tend to look for how one interacts with ideas being studied. When I spent some time grading grad student papers, I looked for an understanding of ideas, intelligent interaction with the ideas, and strength of reasoning in defending or critiquing ideas (and proper grammar and format, too!).

But if you get to the doctoral level then, yes, it's time to come up with an original angle on something for a dissertation.

Karla said...

I think you can think for one-self and not need to be original. You can believe the Bible, for instance, not simply because you were told to, but because you know how to think and you know it is true. There is nothing new under the sun. We are always going to glean from those we read and accept what is true and dispense with what is not. Schaeffer was a student of Van Til and Lewis learned from George McDonald. I can see a lot of Schaeffer and Lewis in the writings of Ravi Zacharias. They are all learned thinkers who do not swallow something just because they are told it. They know how to think for themselves. Most importantly, our thinking ought to be coming more and more Christ like as a byproduct of our relationship with Him.

Anonymous said...

Robert, thank you for your comments on the book. I received it as a gift four years years ago from a professor but only opened it for the first time, I'm ashamed to say, two days ago. The first chapter was so rich in insight I had to reread it 3 times to make sure I hadn't missed anything. My research questions address the texts that linger in a cultural sense and in the lives of individual readers. This text will be something I return to again when the writing begins. Unfortunately, a work such as Lewis's, despite being brilliant common sense, is likely to be dismissed in the academies as elitist rubbish. A shame indeed. Thanks for your insights.

Robert Velarde said...

Anonymous, glad you found the comments about An Experiment in Criticism useful. Unfortunately, Lewis has indeed been ignored or marginalized at academic levels. His book The Allegory of Love, for instance, is out of print, as is English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. His Preface to Paradise Lost is excellent, but it too seems to lack a firm place in current academic studies of Milton, with some exceptions.

Fortunately, Lewis is experiencing something of a renaissance in the realm of philosophy. I'm currently reviewing a new book called C.S. Lewis as Philosopher, for instance, and Lewis has garnered some attention in philosophy circles of late thanks, in part, to Victor Reppert's revival of the argument from reason presented by Lewis in Miracles.

Karla said...

It's amazing we see Lewis as so scholarly when he, himself, said he wrote to the non-scholar of his day. His audience wasn't the elitist academic, but the every day man of his time.