05 March 2007

Lewis' Letters.

Upon the release of the third and final (?) volume, James Como reviews The Letters of C.S. Lewis in the current issue of The New Criterion:

Lewis’s few dozen book reviews (uncollected) and cultural commentary are elegant and wide ranging. On October 25th, 1934, he writes to Paul Elmer More in appreciation of More’s new book, The Sceptical Approach to Religion; Lewis came to understand why some philosophical Christians “so hate Idealism.” Yet Lewis, who marks Idealism as one the great influences on his conversion, cannot “relinquish the Absolutist view of God.” His “wish-belief” system demands the eternal and necessary

while also not wanting the immobile, the unanswering … and this would be the flimsiest of self-indulgence, but for the huge historic fact of the doctrine of the Trinity. For surely that doctrine is just the doctrine that we are to give up neither of those conceptions of God of which you accept one and … reject the other.

Then the coup de rhetorical grace:

Is the Christian belief not precisely this; that the same being which is eternally perfect … already at the End etc etc, yet also, in some incomprehensible way, is a purposing, feeling, and finally crucified Man in a particular place and time? So that somehow or other, we have it both ways?

This high wattage intellectual jolt and quenching spiritual gulp seems definitive and is not to be found either conceptually or rhetorically in Lewis’s books.

This level of religious thinking transcends Christian differences, which Lewis would not touch in his published work. But at least once his argumentative nature pushed him to discuss a sectarian matter in correspondence. Between April and June of 1945, Lyman Stebbins, the founder-to-be of Catholics United for the Faith, wrote two letters to Lewis. The first asked for reasons not to convert to Catholicism. In a letter on May 8, 1945, Lewis replies:

In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much as a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is.

Lewis goes on to invoke the inability of Catholic theology to trace some of its doctrines to “within 1000 years of [Christ’s] time,” and especially the importance of fidelity to Scripture:

The great point is that in one sense there’s no such thing as Anglicanism. What we are committed to believing is whatever can be proved from Scripture. On that subject there is room for endless progress.

Stebbins (who made short work of this argument) would attribute his own conversion to this exchange, and we know many other Catholic converts began their journeys by reading Lewis. I believe his relationship to the Church of Rome was knottier than he himself supposed. In that light, how interesting that Lewis affirms the very Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints. On April 1, 1952 he writes of his late and treasured friend, the novelist and theologian Charles Williams, “I do miss him. But what strikes me even more is the sense that he is already helping me more from where he is than he would do on earth.”

The rhetorical Lewis is patently evident, with revealing ambivalence, in the letter of July 20, 1940. Not often is the reading public privy to an idea for a book in its conception, yet there, at church no less, is the very zygote of The Screwtape Letters:

Before the service was over—one cd. wish these things came more seasonable—I was struck by an idea for a book wh. I think might be both useful and entertaining. It wd. be called “As One Devil to Another” and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first “patient.”

More revealing, though, is an earlier reference in the letter to a BBC broadcast of one of Hitler’s speeches (simultaneously translated). Lewis has been listening with his friend and physician Robert Havard. Hitler is making “a final appeal to common sense,” insisting that it has never been nor ever will be his intention to trouble England. To his own distress, Lewis writes,

I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people: but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little. I should be useless as a schoolmaster or a policeman. Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me, at any rate for the moment.

This, notwithstanding Lewis’s certainty of the truth. Seven years earlier, on November 5, 1933, he had written to Greeves:

Did you see that [Hitler] said “the Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.” Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.

Rhetorical unease is no mere tick in Lewis. Though understanding the art through and through, he was always ill-disposed towards rhetoric (like Socrates) and would be abidingly unsettled by his own rhetorical mastery. A deeply set turbulence in Lewis’s soul that rumbled to the surface in the late Forties precipitates the dark night. On January 14, 1949, he writes to Father Calabria that his “house is unquiet and devastated by women’s quarrels,” referring to Mrs. Moore as his “aged mother” who “is worn out by long infirmity,” in fact, mental infirmity. He claims to have nothing left to say, that his public has tired of him, and that such emptiness is all to the best, since he might otherwise “fall into that evil disease, vainglory.” On September 10 of the same year, he confesses to the priest “a certain Accidia, an evil disease and, I believe, of the Seven Deadly Sins that one which is in me the strongest—though few believe this of me.” No wonder he would write, in “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” (not published during his lifetime):

From all my lame defeats and oh! Much more

From all the victories that I seemed to score …

Lord of the narrow gate and needle’s eye

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

The second volume ends in the midst of this nadir.

Here's the whole thing, registration and purchase required.


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