Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 3)

When C. S. Lewis was completing his degrees at Oxford in the 1920s, he was being bombarded at that time with all the new ideas floating around the intellectual world. One of these was Freudianism. As with most young people, at first he was somewhat taken in by such new thought, but he later dismissed it as a false theory of psychology. All one has to do is read his The Pilgrim’s Regress to get his wonderfully scathing diagnosis of its fallacies.

So when he saw literature critiques begin to follow Freudian concepts, he had to comment. In his essay “On Criticism,” he takes aim at such reviewers:

Another type of critic who speculates about the genesis of your book is the amateur psychologist. He has a Freudian theory of literature and claims to know all about your inhibitions. He knows what unacknowledged wishes you were gratifying.

Why did an author write the book in the way he/she did? Well, that author doesn’t really understand the unconscious wishes that made the book spring forth, the amateur psychologist boldly proclaims. And woe to anyone who tries to set the record straight:

By definition you are unconscious of the things he professes to discover. Therefore the more loudly you disclaim them, the more right he must be: though, oddly enough, if you admitted them, that would prove him right too.

And there is a further difficulty: one is not here so free from bias, for this procedure is almost entirely confined to hostile reviewers.

How can a reviewer know so much about an author’s “unconscious” wishes? Lewis analyzes the shaky ground on which such a reviewer takes his stand:

And it would not be unreasonable to point out that the evidence on which such amateur psychologists base their diagnosis would not be thought sufficient by a professional. They have not had their author on the sofa, nor heard his dreams, and had the whole case-history.

In other words, it’s pure speculation based on pretty much nothing solid.

What these reviewers don’t seem to take into consideration, Lewis notes, are the conscious reasons an author has for writing what he/she does. No, these reviewers say, everything must emanate from the unconscious. Lewis skewers this perspective:

They seem to fancy that a book trickles out of one like a sigh or a tear or automatic writing. It may well be that there is much in every book which comes from the unconscious. But when it is your own book you know the conscious motives as well.

You may be wrong in thinking that these often give the full explanation of this or that. But you can hardly believe accounts of the sea-bottom given by those who are blind to the most obvious objects on the surface. They could be right only by accident.

So beware of fanciful speculation about an author’s intent, Lewis advises. Give the author some credit for knowing his/her reason for writing.

I wonder what an amateur psychologist/reviewer would say about my blog posts? My books? It might be fascinating, but most likely inaccurate.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 2)

In my last C. S. Lewis post, I drew from one of his lesser-known essays entitled “On Criticism.” I find that it contains a number of great insights into how reviewers of books can fall into errors. The first error Lewis pointed out is that some reviewers simply don’t do the work necessary: they don’t read carefully and miss the mark on the actual facts contained in a book.

A second error, according to Lewis, is when a reviewer attempts to provide a background for the book, yet does so without adequate knowledge. This often results in a fanciful tale with little relation to reality.

A great example, Lewis says, is of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Lewis, of course, knew all about its genesis, as he was probably the prime instigator in getting Tolkien to continue work on it and finally completing it. He knew the date when Tolkien began the project and could comment with authority that the critics had something terribly wrong historically:

Most critics assumed . . . that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb. Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible.

Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false.

Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess. Here certainly the warning to us all as critics is very clear and alarming.

Lewis then takes the critics to task for ignoring what they were supposed to be doing: writing a review of the actual book before them, not inventing a tale of how the book came into being and what might be the message behind the message within the book.

Notice that in all these conjectures the reviewer’s error has been quite gratuitous. He has been neglecting the thing he is paid to do, and perhaps could do, in order to do something different. His business was to give information about the book and to pass judgement on it. These guesses about its history are quite beside the mark.

After remarking on the mistaken assumptions about Tolkien’s work, he mentions how the same thing has happened with his own:

And on this point, I feel pretty sure that I write without bias. The imaginary histories written about my books are by no means always offensive. Sometimes they are even complimentary. There is nothing against them except that they’re not true, and would be rather irrelevant if they were.

I find it a little amusing that Lewis says those misunderstandings can sometimes be quite nice, but that the real issue is that they are false regardless.

As always with Lewis, he takes his own criticism to heart, wanting to ensure he doesn’t fall into the same trap:

I must learn not to do the like about the dead: and if I hazard a conjecture, it must be with full knowledge, and with a clear warning to my readers, that it is a long shot, far more likely to be wrong than right.

Bottom line: maintain integrity in all you write. That’s a great lesson for us all.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 1)

Finding something by C. S. Lewis that I’ve never read previously is always a joy (and I believe I’m talking about “joy” in the true Lewisian sense). One of his essays, “On Criticism,” has a series of pearls that I will share over the next few Saturdays.

Every author needs to receive constructive criticism. Lewis welcomed it to improve his writing, and since he wrote so much, he was subjected to a vast number of critiques. While he appreciated good critiques, he did have a few words to say about those that were not offering an honest appraisal.

Lewis freely admitted that while an author is not necessarily the best judge of his book’s value, “he is at least an expert on its content.” What amazed him was how often a reviewer simply neglected to carry out “a careful reading of what one criticises.”

He continues:

Unless you have been often reviewed you will hardly believe how few reviewers have really done their Prep. And not only hostile reviewers. For them one has some sympathy. To have to read an author who affects one like a bad smell or a toothache is hard work.

Who can wonder if a busy man skimps this disagreeable task in order to get on as soon as possible to the far more agreeable exercise of insult and denigration.

Lewis, of course, in his quest to be scrupulously fair to others, inserted this proviso:

Now of course it is true that a good critic may form a correct estimate of a book without reading every word of it. That perhaps is what Sidney Smith meant when he said “You should never read a book before you review it. It will only prejudice you.”

I am not, however, speaking of evaluations based on an imperfect reading, but of direct falsehoods about what it contains or does not contain.

Lewis then shared a personal anecdote about a certain volume of poetry in his library that previously had belonged to a scholar he admired.

At first I thought I had found a treasure. The first and second pages were richly, and most learnedly annotated in a neat, legible hand. There were fewer on the third; after that, for the rest of the first poem, there was nothing. Each work was in the same state: the first few pages annotated, the rest in mint condition.

Why had that scholar focused on those first few pages and then ignored the rest? Lewis called this the “first lesson” the reviewers taught him: “Let no one try to make a living by becoming a reviewer except as a last resource.” He declined to accuse all reviewers of “laziness or malice.” Rather, he contemplated,

It may be mere defeat by an intolerable burden. To live night and day with that hopeless mountain of new books (mostly uncongenial) piling up on your desk, to be compelled to say something where you have nothing to say, to be always behind-hand—indeed much is to be excused to one so enslaved.

I know Lewis was in that position often as well. In my research into Lewis’s letters to Americans I came across one letter in which he was responding to longtime correspondent Mary Van Deusen about a book she wanted him to read. It was particularly interesting to me because that book was Witness by Whittaker Chambers.

I consider Witness to be one of the best autobiographies of all time. I’ve written a book on Chambers and his influence on Ronald Reagan, primarily because of how Reagan was impacted by Witness.

So when I came across this letter, I eagerly anticipated what Lewis would say about it. Did he get Witness? Is it possible that these two authorial giants that meant so much to me might have crossed literary paths after all? I knew Chambers had mentioned Lewis in one of his famous essays, “The Devil,” so what would Lewis’s response be?

When Van Deusen suggested he get the book, Lewis merely answered, “I’m afraid I can’t find a W. Chambers book. It’s better not to send the book. They all get lost in the pile on my table.”

This could be one of the great lost opportunities of the twentieth century. One would have loved to know Lewis’s response to that book, which, although written as an autobiography, is a wordsmith’s delight. But it was not to be.

Lewis understood the reviewers’ lament, so even while he wrote about the deficiencies of some critiques, he could empathize with the plight of those reviewers.

Lewis: The “Higher” Temptation

Reflections on the Psalms 2Reading C. S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms for the first time, I came away with some “reflections” that surely should make us stop and think for a while. For instance, when commenting on what some might call the intemperate language toward enemies found in some of the psalms, Lewis notes that it is probably because the Jews took right and wrong more seriously than others.

He did see, however, a danger in having this heightened sense of right and wrong, if someone were to let that go out of control. Here’s how he put it:

Ir seems that there is a general rule in the moral universe which may be formulated “The higher, the more in danger.” The “average sensual man” who is sometimes unfaithful to his wife, sometimes tipsy, always a little selfish, now and then (within the law) a trifle sharp in his deals, is certainly, by ordinary standards, a “lower” type than the man whose soul is filled with some great Cause, to which he will subordinate his appetites, his fortune, and even his safety.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having one’s soul filled with God’s Cause, but Lewis offers a warning, even to those of us who are striving to ensure God’s ways are the standard in our society. He goes on:

But it is out of the second man that something really fiendish can be made; an Inquisitor, a Member of the Committee of Public Safety. It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics. Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.

I don’t believe I would ever be tempted to kill for what God has put in my soul—that would be at odds with the love of God in my heart—but it is a temptation to strike out verbally against those whom I see destroying what God wants to do.

Lewis continues with another example from his own profession:

C. S. Lewis 13One sees the same principle at work in a field (comparatively) so unimportant as literary criticism; the most brutal work, the most rankling hatred of all other critics and of nearly all authors, may come from the most honest and disinterested critic, the man who cares most passionately and selflessly about literature.

Write a book sometime, and you will know what Lewis means. He concludes with this:

The higher the stakes, the greater the temptation to lose your temper over the game. We must not over-value the relative harmlessness of the little, sensual, frivolous people. They are not above, but below, some temptations.

Another application. I speak and write on political and governmental issues, and I share my views with vigor. There is always the temptation, as one deeply involved with the study of history and government, to lash out at those who have no idea what is going on and who, I believe, are leading us down a path to destruction.

I may be absolutely correct in my analysis (as indeed I think I am), but there is the temptation at all times to go beyond a proper critique and to lose the spirit of the Lord in my communications. I’m constantly drawn back to how God wants me to communicate His truths.

I appreciate Lewis’s insight here, and his caution. May we all take his words to heart.

Proper Christian Criticism

Question: Is it right for a Christian to write a blog such as mine and include pointed criticisms of the government and its leaders? Shouldn’t I, instead, humbly accept whatever the government does, in the spirit of Christ? Fair question. Here’s my response.

OT ProphetRead the Bible. Start with the Old Testament and all the denunciations of the government delivered by faithful men of God. No king ever had a free pass. Read the prophets and realize that those prophetic books are filled with declarations of how the government has denied God’s truth and is poised to suffer His judgment.

Go over to the New Testament. Read about how John the Baptist criticized both the civil and religious leaders of his day. He spoke directly and forcibly. And what of Jesus? Did He sin when he took a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple because they were profaning the worship of God? Did He spare the feelings of the Pharisees when he called them whitewashed tombs?

I’m afraid some Christians have a false image of what it means to be the representatives of Christ on earth. Yes, we offer the love of God. Yes, we show people how they can receive His forgiveness and become part of His family, now and into eternity. But in order to receive God’s love and forgiveness, people need to be confronted with their sins first. They need to grasp the need for repentance and lay down their pride.

We also have a commission to do what the apostle Paul described in his second letter to the Corinthians:

We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Every generation has its speculations and lofty ideas that contradict the truth of God’s Word. We are commissioned to combat those false notions with His truth. No one in a society, no matter the position, from the lowest to the highest, is exempt from criticism when that person is deviating from the truth.

Obama Arrogant Look 2That applies especially to those who wield immense influence over others. When a president endorses abortion on demand, exalts the sin of homosexuality and seeks to destroy the Biblical concept of marriage, oversteps all legal boundaries on his authority, attempts to silence those who disagree with him, uses his office to divide the nation into groups continually at odds with one another, and constantly displays an arrogance and sense of entitlement that directs all his actions, one would be derelict of one’s Christian duty to simply accept this and say nothing in opposition to the nature of this president’s reign.

Christians are to be salt, preserving the good in a society. Christians are to be light, revealing the path of righteousness. One cannot preserve the good or show the path of righteousness without simultaneously highlighting that which is evil and unrighteous. Both are essential. That is what I attempt to do. That is what I will continue to do.