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Saturday, October 09, 2004

C.S. Lewis: A Biography

It's sometimes said that you learn as much about the biographer as the subject. In the case of C.S. Lewis: A Biography (or should I say "pathography") by A.N. Wilson I think you learn more about Wilson than about CSL. In 312 well written pages Wilson gives you his view, or should I say his Freudian psychoanalysis of the life of Lewis (1898-1963).

And that view essentially boils Lewis down to a man who could never come to terms with the death of his mother in 1908 and as a result of his Oedipus Complex had a sexual relationship with a mother-figure (Mrs. Janie Moore) 25 years his senior that also fulfilled his need to be dominated by a woman, rejected and then accepted God only when his biological father died in 1929 (God as wish-fulfillment), rejected the intellectual defense of Christianity and retreated into his childhood when challenged (and by a woman no less), and who when Mrs. Moore died married a course and disagreeable woman in Joy Davidman again because of his sadomasichistic need to be dominated by women. There.

There are some redeeming aspects of the book. First, Wilson's literary analysis of many of CSL's works is quite interesting. For Wilson, CSL's scholarly works such as The Discarded Image, The Allegory of Love, and his history of medieval literature are among his best and his comments on these books were interesting for me as someone who knows precious little about literature. And Wilson does a good job of describing the academic environment and politics in which Lewis worked in both Oxford and Cambridge and how Lewis was thought of by his peers. One gets the impression that Wilson shares CSL's peer's view that when CSL began his defense of the faith he compromised his intellectual standing.

Not surprisingly then, Wilson does not care for CSL's apologetic works and takes a dim view of The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and Miracles. In each, he condescendingly picks apart arguments and illustrations (Lord, Liar, Lunatic, the incarnation, and that naturalism abolishes reason) and attempts to make the books, and CSL's whole attempt at a defense, appear simple and childish. He especially fixes on one incident after Miracles was published as a key point in his story. As the story goes the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe read a paper at a meeting of the Socratic Club (an Oxford society where CSL was president and where an atheist and a Christian would each read a paper and defend it) on chapter 3 of Miracles. Wilson writes that Lewis was so crushed by Anscombe's obvious disposal of his argument against naturalism that he essentially abandoned his intellectual defense of Christianity and retreated into his childhood which produced the Narnia stories. I thought this sounded strange and in pulling out my copy of Miracles I noticed that the last revision of the book was made by CSL in 1960, long after the crushing defeat when he supposedly abandoned an intellectual faith. I've since discovered that he edited Mere Christianity in 1952 as well. In Wilson's view Lewis develops an imaginative view of faith only after Joy dies as exemplified in A Grief Observed.

But Wilson is especially keen on pillorying CSL's spiritual autobiography Surprised By Joy published in 1955. Wilson thinks it a cruel book (he says the same of The Screwtape Letters) because of the chapter on Albert Lewis (which I'll admit is tough but very funny) and one that does not portray the real reasons, by which he means Freudian reasons, Lewis became a Christian.

In the end this book gives you a picture of CSL as a man struggling against his neuroses that began with the death of his mother and who hides his feelings behind his books, his smoking and drinking, and bullying of his students and peers.

If that's not enough CSL's brother Warnie doesn't come off well either. He's simply depicted as a frustrated man stuck in his own childhood, totally dependant on Jack (the name everyone called Lewis), and a whiskey addict who periodically disappears to Ireland and elsewhere for a "bender". Oh, Wilson does say he was a fine historian for his book on French history.

Perhaps the main reason Wilson wrote the book is revealed both in the preface and in the last chapter. Wilson abhors the "CSL Industry" by which he means the idea that CSL has become a kind of saint to many, especially in America. And so his aim is to inject some realism into the plastic portraits of Lewis (for example that CSL wasn't a loud and bullying smoker and drinker - something that Wilson apparently thinks must be abhorrent to all those American evangelicals who appreciate CSL) that have in his view replaced the real man. I'm not sure this book is any better than those plastic portraits since it seems to erect its own false image of Lewis. I do agree that those like Walter Hooper (who has also changed his own handwriting and speaking voice to be more in accord with his master) who now believe in the perpetual virginity of CSL have obviously moved from appreciation of Lewis to misguided veneration.

I'll have to admit that this theme of the book struck me close to home since my wife, elder daughter, and I did visit Oxford last spring when in England on business with the express purpose of seeing where CSL lived and worked. I think my wife and I were both surprised that for so famous a writer there is precious little public recognition of his work outside of a few pictures in the Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings met and a plaque on the house where Joy Davidman lived when she first moved to Oxford. But perhaps that's the point and reveals Wilson's perspective. CSL is not viewed as a famous writer in Oxford, or England for that matter, and so Americans like us visiting Oxford and the continued popularity of his apologetical books probably seems grotesque to someone like Wilson.

All I know is that for me the works of CSL provide challenging insight and clarity to many aspects of the Christian life, from its intellectual components to the moral landscape on which I find myself daily doing battle. I don't think many who appreciate CSL as an author hold the plastic portrait view of the man but rather, like us all, think of him as he described Joy and himself in A Grief Observed, "A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God's patients, not yet cured."

Since there are many inaccuracies and other difficulties with the book I'll leave these two links if you're hungry for more. I'm told that George Sayer's biography is much better and I might just go ahead and read it as a corrective. In case you didn't get the message, this book is not recommended.


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