"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

05 October 2011

C. S. Lewis on Literature

Several of us read and discussed quotations from C. S. Lewis in chapel this week; here's what I wrote:

We often forget that C.S. Lewis made his living as a literary critic and teacher of literature. Teachers of literature today do not only use his literary works, such as Screwtape Letters or Till We Have Faces, in our classes, but also his works of criticism, such as The Discarded Image on medieval and Renaissance literature or Spenser’s Images of Life on the Fairie Queene. And his writings on the philosophy of literature, found in books such as On Stories and numerous essays in various collections, provide a framework for an approach to writing and reading that is invaluable to the serious Christian.

In his essay “Christianity and Literature” (which can be found in the collection Christian Reflections), Lewis writes about the contrast between modern criticism, which aggrandizes the self as the source of “creativity, originality, and spontaneity,” and the Scriptural understanding that we are to be “as little as possible ourselves,” and instead become “clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours.”

He writes, “pride does not only go before a fall but is a fall – a fall of the creature’s attention from what is better, God, to what is worse, itself.” Because of this, he asserts that “the basis of all critical theory [should be] the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody, in terms of his own art, some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” He further claims that “all the greatest poems have been made by men who valued something else much more than poetry”: in other words, art created merely for its own sake can only be shallow, frivolous, and self-important; art for the sake of the other – God and neighbor – has the potential to attain sublimity.

In other words, Christians are meant to be only reflected light – just as the moon has no light of its own but can only reflect the light of the sun, we have no light of our own but can only reflect the light of the Son of God. We cannot create ex nihilo: all that we make is drawn from what has already been given; it is discovery of that which already exists.

As both a writer and a teacher of literature, these claims guide my philosophy.

As a writer, this leads me to seek first to serve my readers rather than to focus on my uniqueness as a writer; the work I produce must not be intended to draw attention primarily to me and my ability to be “different,” but rather it must be intended to serve those who read it by reflecting the beauty and wisdom that God has revealed. I must be in the business of seeking truth before all else, desiring to make that truth accessible to others for their benefit. If I do this, I can be confident that the unique personality God has given me will be carried in the works – but only to the extent that it is helpful in serving to point others to its Source. “He must increase; I must decrease” must be the Christian writer’s motto as it is that of all believers.

As a teacher of literature, I desire for students to find the wonder and beauty of the works they read, and to glorify God for such gifts – that fallen men can show us the beauty of God’s creation and the hope of redemption in a broken world. We can and should love such writers, but we honor them most when we recognize that they point us to a greater One, to the One who is the Source of all beauty and wisdom. Even secular literature often does this, of course, because every writer is made in the image of God and able to reflect some truth about the world he observes and records and reflects upon; whether he knows it or not, his compass is set to true North whenever he writes with honesty. And even what he may miss reminds us of the world’s brokenness and the need for God’s message of redemption to inform it.

In these ways, Lewis’s professional and Scriptural understanding of the place of literature in the life of the Christian informs all that I do and – even more importantly – challenges me to always remember my own purpose in the world: to “become a clean mirror filled with the image” of the Lord who lives in and through me.

3 comments:

dylan said...

Beth -- You've basically summarized the reasons for my hope that centuries hence, poets like Roy Campbell and Jessica Powers will have survived, and poets like Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery will have been forgotten.

R Yates said...

Thanks, Dr. Impson. This post is particularly helpful this week, as I'm working on a presentation about creativity for Monday's class.

Beth Impson said...

Thanks, gentlemen -- always glad to be of help, Rob!

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