Great Minds Think Alike: The Mind of the Maker (Part 2)

In my previous C. S. Lewis-centered post, I lauded Dorothy Sayers’s book The Mind of the Maker, which I had intended only to peruse for overarching themes but wound up instead reading every word (even to the point of using it as part of my morning devotions) because I loved the writing so much.

It was a Lewis-centered post due to my emphasis on why Lewis appreciated her writing style and substance. I’d like to continue that analysis today.

Sayers’s third chapter, “Idea, Energy, and Power,” develops her thesis by showing how any completed work in life starts with an idea in the mind. This correlates nicely with what Lewis said to his brother, Warnie, when the idea of a senior devil instructing a junior devil popped into his mind while sitting in church.

He later explained that the genesis of Narnia was “a picture” in his mind “of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” He also remarked that when he decided to write the tales, “Aslan came bounding into it.” How? “I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time.” Sayers is making the same point in this chapter. As she notes,

The ordinary man is apt to say: “I thought you began by collecting material and working out the plot.” The confusion here is not merely over the words “first” and “begin.” In fact the “Idea”—or rather the writer’s realization of his own idea—does precede any mental or physical work upon the materials or on the course of the story within a time-series.

In chapter four, “The Energy Revealed in Creation,” she stresses that a truly imaginative work demands some diversity within it to properly emphasize the unity. The other side of an argument, so to speak, must be given voice in order to give the work its “vital power.” Literature that is merely “edifying” or “propaganda” will lose that vital power. “The Energy is active only in one part of the whole, and in consequence the wholeness is destroyed and the Power diminished. You cannot, in fact, give God His due without giving the devil his due also.”

This is essentially what Lewis does in Perelandra when he allows the ongoing dialogue/argument between Ransom and Weston (the Un-man). If there were no counterpoint to the truths Ransom is offering the Green Lady of that planet, the drama would be sapped from the narrative. It’s the dynamic of the diversity of views that ultimately reveals the soundness of what Ransom is saying. The story would be lifeless—except for the descriptions of the beauty of the unfallen environment—and there would be little reason to invest time in it because it would only be a work of propaganda.

Lewis also guided his readers into an appreciation for a written work itself, and downplayed the desire to delve more into the author than the work the author has given us. Sayers says virtually the same thing when she asserts, “To put it crudely, we may, and do, know the Iliad without knowing Homer.” She bemoans the many foolish speculations about Shakespeare and admonishes,

The itch for personally knowing authors torments most of us; we feel that if we could somehow get at the man himself, we should obtain more help and satisfaction from him than from his chosen self-revelation. . . .

And it is desirable to bear in mind—when dealing with the human maker at any rate—that his chosen way of revelation is through his works. To persist in asking, as so many of us do, “What did you mean by this book?” is to invite bafflement: the book itself is what the writer means.

All creative work, whether written, painted, sculpted, or whatever, begins with an idea. All creative work must transcend mere propaganda. All creative work stands on its own merits without needing an intimate knowledge of its creator.

In all these ways, Lewis and Sayers are in agreement. The old cliché, “Great minds think alike,” is illustrated in the minds of these two Christian authors/creators.

Lewis on Sayers’s “The Mind of the Maker” (Part One)

In a previous post, I wrote about why C. S. Lewis liked the writings of Dorothy Sayers, and I focused on her radio plays The Man Born to Be King, which she turned into a book.

There was another Sayers book that Lewis read prior to that one: The Mind of the Maker. It was published in 1941; Lewis wrote a short review of it in the journal Theology. He introduces the theme immediately: “The purpose of this book is to throw light both on the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity and on the process whereby a work of art (specially of literature) is produced, by drawing an analogy between the two.” Of this he wholly approves.

Then he proceeds to caution the reader about the one feature of the book that gives him concern:

I think that in an age when idolatry of human genius is one of our most insidious dangers Miss Sayers would have been prudent to stress more continuously than she does the fact that the analogy is merely an analogy. I am afraid that some vainglorious writers may be encouraged to forget that they are called “creative” only by a metaphor.

This concern for Lewis was centered on the arrogance that sometimes infuses the mind of the artist. He merely wished Sayers had stressed more the very distinct difference between the actual Creator and humans who sub-create at a lower level.

Yet that is his only negative remark on the substance of the book. “In general,” he continues, “I find Miss Sayers’ development of her analogy full of illumination both on the theological and on the literary side.” He concluded,

This is the first “little book on religion” I have read for a long time in which every sentence is intelligible and every page advances the argument. I recommend it heartily to theologians and critics. To novelists and poets, if they are already inclined in any degree to idolatry of their own vocation, I recommend it with much more caution. They had better read it fasting.

In their early correspondence, Lewis doesn’t really expound further on his views of The Mind of the Maker, but an analysis of some of the concepts within it may offer some clues as to what else he would have admired in the work.

The very first chapter, “The ‘Laws’ of Nature and Opinion,” serves as a complement to the way Lewis later expounded on the subject in Mere Christianity. There is a reality built into the universe, Sayers asserts, that no one in his right mind would ever attempt to deny.

Sayers goes on to say that there is a universal moral law that is behind even the moral code by which a society may function. Christianity, she maintains, has called this the natural law, and “the more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behavior; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called ‘judgments of God.’”

A society may have a moral code that wants people to behave like St. Francis, she posits, but what if that society prefers a code more in line with the Emperor Caligula? One must then refer to the natural law upon which the moral code ought to be based. By doing so, one should be able to prove “at the bar of experience, that St. Francis does in fact enjoy a freer truth to essential human nature than Caligula, and that a society of Caligulas is more likely to end in catastrophe than a society of Franciscans.” Her conclusion is very Lewis-like:

Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way.

This commandment is interesting because it specifically puts forward the moral law as the basis of the moral code: because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegiance to the truth.

That’s only one point she made that I know Lewis would have liked. There are others, but I’ll save those for future Lewis posts.