Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why People Don’t Like C.S. Lewis

I was reminded, in listening to the WSIRN podcast (the guests of which skew decidedly more center-left than I, and therefore provide interesting fodder for thought), of how many people dislike CSL.  The guest who brought him up said she found his Space Trilogy “boring”; that is a non-obvious critique in terms of a taste that I understand without sharing.  But it put me back to thinking about the more obvious reason that many people dislike Lewis’s fiction: because they read it as proselytizing.

Now if you’re a certain type of literary purist (whose Christian initials might be J.R.R.) you may, though sharing Lewis’s Christianity, nevertheless regard his fictionalizing as insufficiently … fictional.  Again, a taste that I understand without sharing.    And certainly I understand (again: understand) that if you’re Phillip Pullman, or of his mindset, you will take it ill to discover that a beloved childhood chapter book should turn out to be about Jesus in disguise.

But I think that any critique of Lewis for being a ham-handed proselytizer misses the point.  Lewis was no psychological dummy.  Even if his Narnia books are simplistically Christian, his Space Trilogy contains penetrating (sometimes devastating) psychological insights; if his Space Trilogy is unconvincing or unappetizing or “boring,” I would point still-dubious readers to The Screwtape Letters and Till We Have Faces.  Non-Christians (or Christians with different philosophical commitments) might still disagree with Lewis’s presentation of human psychology; but I think any fair reader would have to admit that (1) Lewis is trying to be realistic and (2) he does a remarkably good (if imperfect) job.  It’s a bit like reading Tolstoy: one can sit back at the end of the day and say “Yes, but people don’t really/always/exactly work like that,” while still holding that Tolstoy is an amazing portrait painter.

(Mind you, I mostly agree with Lewis’s psychology.  But I’m trying to wear the other man’s hat today.)

If, then (or as Mrs. Bennet likes to say: “But, however”), we admit that Lewis is no psychological dummy, can we suppose him to be the ham-handed proselytizer that he is sometimes portrayed as being?  Perhaps; but the portrait becomes less plausible.

This brings me to my unanswered question: What if, instead of reading Narnia (and to a lesser extent the Space Trilogy) as books to convert readers, we read them as books to give pleasure to readers?  What if the whole thing really is a game in which Lewis knew his readers knew exactly what he was doing, and believed pretty much as he believed, and the fun was in seeing him do it, and how he would do it?  What if they’re not persuasion, but entertainment?

What if Lewis had just said to Tolkien one fine day: “Tollers, there isn’t enough of our sort of fiction floating about.  We just have to write some ourselves.”

To put it as a statement (as my dogmatism struggles to escape this quaestio genre): I suspect that a lot of the Lewis hatred I’ve seen over the years is based on the supposition that he was trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes.  And I suspect—indeed, I am almost certain—that that supposition is mistaken.

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