Friday, September 18, 2015

C.S. Lewis revisted

'Shadowlands', the play, then film, on C.S. Lewis' later life and relationship with Joy Davidman over-emphasises the shift from bachelor to husband, from the rationalising uptight Oxford don to the sympathetic, if challenged, loving partner. For Lewis was, in truth, highly unconventional, having lived for many years with an older woman, Mrs Moore, mother of a fallen comrade in the First World War, and her daughter, until the former's death. Earlier biographers tended to assume that this relationship (with an older woman) was Platonic, but Alastair McGrath in his excellent biography of Lewis rather doubts this (at least in its early stages).

Interestingly too, his closest and oldest friend, Arthur Greaves, was homosexual if a cloistered one (in line with current mores); and, though Lewis was clear that his sexuality flowed in a different direction, it never seemed to give him any pause for prejudice and he happily shared, by letter, his own sadomasochistic fantasies with a discomforted Greaves!

It was not only in his domestic arrangements that Lewis is not quite what he is projected to be (especially by his huge US Christian evangelical following) because though undoubtedly a gifted apologist for Christianity both in formal apologetic terms and in his imaginative fiction, he was by no means, I think, a conventional nor possibly wholly 'orthodox' one.

Nor should we be surprised, I think, not least if one looks at his friends - though Tolkien was a rather conventional Roman Catholic, Charles Williams was a highly original Anglican with a background in the practice of ritual magic and Owen Barfield was an Anthroposophist, follower of Rudolf Steiner. Friendships for Lewis never imply agreement; however, it does demonstrate a certain capaciousness in his own religious universe. It betokens too possibly a shared belief with one of his mentors in imagination, George MacDonald, that every person in the end would find their way, in however circular a manner, to paradise. As his own image has it, sooner or later, a person would find sufficient focus to get off the bus and enter the gates of heaven.

One of the great virtues of McGrath's biography, beyond humanising Lewis is to contextualise his thought both in the context of his life and in the history of ideas. You see a person truly engaged in fashioning their understanding of life, its experienced meaning and, in Lewis' case, how that was so widely shared with others.

It, also, shows how, without in any way diminishing the importance of either his academic or his apologetic work, that it is Narnia that is his lasting achievement.

It is true (as Philip Pullman has noted somewhat obsessively) that this world carries anachronistic features of the times in which they were written, but these are, I think, fully transcended by the vigour of the stories and the imaginative vision of another place that provides spectacles through which you see your own world, opened out to new possibilities and ultimately to eternity.

I remember my own first acquaintance that came not as a child but as an adult on holiday at a friend's house in France and finding a bookshelf of all the children's classics that I had missed reading as a child (for being a child much wedded to facts)! I read the Narnia Chronicles through (and E. Nesbit too) and was entranced and able to see how skilfully webs of ideas had been woven together and hung in a magical atmosphere that spoke of the possibility of a world that answered our desire.

McGrath points to a central feature of Lewis' understanding that we carry within us a desire that is always anticipating something yet other, delightfully and yet with a sense of loss, until it rests in God (or as Gregory of Nysa would note until it realises that it's infinite stretching out, being met and emptied is precisely what it means to be present in the unfathomable that is God).

This will be, I realize, the third biography of Lewis that I have read over the years, and the best. I realize that only two other people have been 'awarded' this level of biographical attention; and, coincidentally, one of them, Aldous Huxley, died on the same day as Lewis. Much divides them in background, context, and content but they were both engaged in what 'AE' Russell called the 'politics of eternity' and both imagined that this first and foremost required an individual conversion of life that required a commitment to a practice (or practices) rooted in religious tradition(s) that was a call to holiness, that sainthood is ultimately the measure of humanity. It is a 'high anthropology'  of whose call we need to hear more not less and to which McGrath's biography is a welcome addition.




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