Lewis: Humility & the Literary

C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is a surprisingly good read. I say “surprisingly” because I expected a heavy tome that would be hard to understand. It isn’t that at all. I drew from it in my previous Lewis post, showing how he clearly differentiates between the unliterary and the literary. He notes that the majority of people fall into the first category.

A false implication can arise from that division. People may think Lewis is being a snob. That’s not the case, and in the second chapter, he clarifies the distinction. It is wrong, he instructs, to believe that the unliterary belong to some kind of rabble. Critics, he says,

accuse them of illiteracy, barbarism, “crass,” “crude,” and “stock” responses which (it is suggested) must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilisation.

Lewis disagrees. Rather, those who are included in the many who are not attracted to great literary works “include certain people who are equal or superior to some of the few in psychological health, in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.”

So Lewis doesn’t classify the literary as the best people in society by virtue of their reading habits. There are other factors to consider.

Some of those in the literary category may not be as virtuous and emotionally fit as those they may think of as their inferiors. In fact, if one begins to divide humanity into inferior and superior classes solely by reading tastes, one has created a false division and revealed the sin of pride in oneself.

Lewis warns,

And we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent. With the hasty and wholesale apartheid of those who ignore this we must have nothing to do.

Lewis then goes on to catalogue the problems of some in the literary class. While one would expect the literary to have “a profound and permanent appreciation of literature,” they may not at all. Some have become so professionalized that they read only out of duty anymore. He writes in particular of “overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep.'”

He feels for people like that because they may have begun their literary journey in joy but now consider it mere work.

The text before them comes to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which they can complete their tale of bricks. Accordingly we often find that in their leisure hours they read, if at all, as the many read.

Another branch of the literary are simply status seekers. They grew up in families and circles where they were expected to read only the “approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy.”

So, as one of that literary class, Lewis has no problem seeing the pitfalls that some fall into. He rejects the idea of literary people naturally being the best in society.

This is what I’ve come to expect from Lewis. He never lost touch with the ordinary man or talked down to him. All one has to do is read his letters to that multitude who wanted his advice; his humility shines throughout his responses.

More on this next week.

Lewis: The Few & the Many

A very pleasant task I’ve set for myself is to read C. S. Lewis works that I’ve not yet taken the opportunity to examine. In this journey, I’ve taken on The Discarded Image, The Allegory of Love (tough read for me; not done yet), and now An Experiment in Criticism.

Since I’m a historian and not a literary critic per se, I admit I was hesitant to tackle this one, figuring it might be too dense for my taste, too pedantic perhaps.

That prejudgment was completely wrong.

What an unanticipated joy it has been to follow Lewis’s thinking in this little book. I even discovered, in the first chapter, some quotes I’ve appreciated before when he distinguishes between what he refers to as “the few and the many” when it comes to the types of readers.

“In the first place, the majority never read anything twice,” he opines. “The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.” Great works, though, he argues, should be read multiple times over the course of one’s life.

A second difference, Lewis notes, is that “the many” turn to reading only if there’s nothing else that pops up that they would rather do. “It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.'” Whereas the devoted readers—the few—“feel impoverished” if they are denied “attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days.”

A third distinction is that the literary are so drawn into what they read that they often have an experience “so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”

His final distinguishing characteristic?

As a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. . . . They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

While Lewis is focusing on novels and poetry in his comments, I’d add that, for me, it isn’t limited to those genres. Really good nonfiction writing also can qualify. For instance, there’s Lewis’s own works such as Mere Christianity or his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. I repeat lines from those in my mind regularly.

I’ve had this experience with other books also. Whittaker Chambers’s Witness is awash with such memorable lines, phrases, and meaningful paragraphs that I have taught it constantly to students for thirty years. I highly recommend it to all who love excellent, striking prose.

Near the end of chapter one in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis sums up nicely the reaction “the many” have toward “the few.”

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal.

So is Lewis intimating that “the few” are somehow superior humans who should look down on those who don’t have the same perspective on reading? Not at all. Those who are familiar with Lewis’s humility would never accuse him of that. In fact, he addresses that very issue in chapter two.

But that’s for next Saturday’s post.