Alan Jacobs. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. San Franciso: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
NEAR THE END OF HIS NEW BIOGRAPHY OF C. S. Lewis, Alan Jacobs cites the novelist Philip Hensher who criticizes the "doctrinaire bullying" in Lewis's Narnia stories, which, he says, were, "written to corrupt the minds of the young." He also says, "Let us drop C. S. Lewis and his ghastly, priggish, half-witted, money-making drivel about Narnia down the nearest deep hole as soon as is conveniently possible." Jacobs also quotes the English author, Philip Pullman, who thinks Lewis's "supernaturalism" is life-denying and that the stories are littered with racism, misogyny, and essentially dishonest. In his view, "There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it" (307). If "drivel" is indeed what these critics think of Lewis's stories, what explains the intense vehemence of these criticisms? Drivel is best ignored. These authors do not ignore Lewis, but, with their criticism, honor the force of his ideas and the skill with which he communicates them. These criticisms recognize that this is not a tame Lewis and that his ideas cannot be ignored. Jacobs tells us why this is so.
At the center of these dangerous ideas is Lewis's imagination and Jacobs's biography aims to tell the story that "traces the routes of Lewis's imagination" (ix). Lewis wrote in A Preface to Paradise Lost that "The great moral which reigns in Milton is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined, that Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and that Disobedience makes them miserable" (xvi). Lewis goes on to note that this "dazzlingly simple" idea about the relationship of obedience to happiness is, at once, "the commonest of themes" in children's stories and is roundly missed by "great modern scholars" (xvii).
What is it about children's stories that make them better for ethical reflection than the writings of modern scholars? Jacobs's answer is that children's stories have "the ethical shape of a narrative world in which obedience to Just Authority brings happiness and security, while neglect of that same Authority brings danger and misery" (xvii). Jacobs quotes G. K. Chesterton who writes that a good story somehow inflames the imagination so that we can see that "courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life" (123). Modern scholars debunk these basic ethical sentiments because they wanted to be left alone to live in a world without a master story, left free to fashion their own story. Lewis came to doubt the debunkers when he saw that modernity, being without a story, was not liberated but unimaginative and inhuman.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PARTS OF Lewis's story is the near loss of his imagination. Lewis writes in Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare, "I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning." To be rational does not mean what the rationalists of his time meant. Lewis came to see that to be rational was to be truthful and meaningful. We need critical reason because knowing the difference between truth and falsehood matters. We need imagination because the absurdity and futility of our lived experience undermines the sense that our lives and actions have meaning. The third element in Lewis's anthropology is will. C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward maps out Lewis's idea of the rational human being. Imagine concentric circles with the imagination on the outside ring, critical reason in the next, and the will at the center. If our will is cut off from critical reason and informed only by the imaginative, we lose the ability to decipher the truth among the various competing but incompatible possibilities floating in our imaginations. When our will functions without imagination, we cannot see the meaning of our choices, actions, and indeed our whole lives. The story of the near death of Lewis's imagination is really a story about the proper relationship between the will, the imagination and the rational.
The Abolition of Man is an extended argument that provides insights into Lewis's struggle to sustain his imaginative life. Lewis argues that without the imagination (i.e., the organ of meaning) our moral choices will be guided either by the dry rational thought of the head or by the emotional feelings of the gut. When the head is in control, the will tends toward cold calculation, emptied of the romance of heroic action. When the gut is in control, we have no way to discern which of the conflicting feelings we ought to follow. We need "habits of the heart" (xxiii) that can combine the furious opposites of critical reason and imagination so that our moral choices are truthful and meaningful. The problem is that these habits of the heart are under attack by the "bitter, truculent, skeptical, debunking, and cynical intelligentsia" who work through the educational system (34).
Lewis thought that the near destruction of his imagination began with his schooling. In The Silver Chair, his dislike for modern education is depicted in a "progressive" school where psychology is the "master science," with "its emphasis on understanding rather that correcting or punishing errant students, and its belief that children require personal freedom rather than rules if they are to flourish" (19). In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund, the one of the four Pevensie children who eventually betrayed his brother and sisters, began to go wrong "at that horrid school'" where he learned to pick on anyone smaller than himself (33-34). Of his own schooling, Lewis thought it caused "a great decline in [his] imaginative life" (26). Lewis's most cherished educational experience was under the private tutelage of William Kirkpatrick, who, ironically, abetted the ruin of Lewis's imagination by introducing him to Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy. According to Jacobs, a poem by A. E. Housman best captures the essence of this pessimism:
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good (47).
Imagination is the organ of meaning. If one's life seems meaningless, imagination cannot but wither. Though Lewis found Schopenhauer depressing, his pessimism hit home as Lewis came to the conclusion, "'Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought to be grim and meaningless" (49). Lewis's experience of trench warfare in the First World War did nothing to dissuade him from his pessimism. In his poem Spirits in Bondage, written during his convalescence from his war wounds, Lewis gives poetic voice to his pessimism as he writes:
The ancient songs they wither as the grass
and waste as doth a garment waxen old,
All poets have been fools who thought to mould
A monument more durable than brass (76).
The line "poets have been fools" reflects the slow death of Lewis's imaginative life which was "unable to resist the combined forces of philosophical pessimism and the horrors of the Great War" (80). Nor did the end of the war make any difference. In fact, upon returning to Oxford to study, Lewis realized the war's "'absolute suspension and waste'" (88). It is then, in 1920, that he writes, "I am more worried by what goes on inside me: my imagination seems to have died...I go round and round on the same subjects which are always those I least want to think about" (100).
This pessimism at least had the positive effect of bringing Lewis to recognize that, having no idea about what was "the real Good," he had "'no business to object to the universe as long as I have nothing to offer myself—and in that respect we are all bankrupt'" (101). For a time this bankruptcy had been a negative fund of "energy that had driven the poems... in which he was 'defying heaven,' hurling contempt at the Jailer-God." But this too "had run out, and in the process his imagination had been starved" (102). With the loss of his "'poetry'—his imaginative life" (109) nearly completed, Lewis was left:
"kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape"; had he remained in that state his ultimate fate would have been that of the Dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle, who in the midst of the glorious landscape huddled together and face each other, insisting that "rich red wine" is but "dirty water out of a trough" and a magnificent feast no more than an old turnip and raw cabbage leaf. When the children beg Aslan to help them, he tries—the wine and feast are his efforts—but must conclude, "They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief" (134).
Jacobs sees Lewis faced with this decisive either/or decision between cunning and belief. Without imagination, cold reason would turn to cunning, but in order to preserve the imagination he would have to admit that he was not the author of his own story.
We know how the story turned out, as Lewis's conversion has been examined over and over again, but there is something unique in Jacobs's retelling of this familiar story. Like any story we read repeatedly, its goodness is not in the unknown ending, but in remembering the unlikely events leading up to the end. Jacobs succeeds in fixing readers in the middle of Lewis's story by making connections with texts and events in Lewis's life and with insightful analysis of Lewis's books and letters. This brings about a renewed recognition of the angst-ridden struggle Lewis experienced when caught between cunning and belief, and a renewed appreciation for the unlikely event of Lewis's choice of the way of belief. Lewis thought that a good story had a way of giving readers a "sense of the story of which their own lives are a part, of the moving course of their own action and experience." As Jacobs performs a good retelling of a good story, he brings us into Lewis's story in a way that lets us think imaginatively about our own either/or experiences and appreciate better the importance of the well-formed imagination for choosing against cunning and for belief.
In a letter to his father, Lewis once wrote, "It will be a comfort to me all my life to know that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word...It leaves the whole thing rich in possibilities: and if it dashes the shallow optimisms it does the same for the shallow pessimisms" (120). This recognition of life's rich possibilities is what Lewis would come to call joy, which is that consciousness "of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy'" (146). If the natural world of modern rationalism was the whole show, this desire for joy would only fuel our disenchantment with our lives. But if it is true, as Tolkien wrote, that "the legend-makers with their rhyme" pointed to another reality "of things not found within recorded time,"(146) then the desire for joy, makes even our sufferings in a way unimportant. Until that fulfillment of joy is realized, Lewis saw the role of poets and storytellers as helping us overcome our many disenchantments with images of a more enchanted world. Lewis once observed, "When the old poets made some virtue their theme, they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for the didactic is often the enchanted" (xxiv). Narnia is neither '"doctrinaire bullying'" nor drivel, but the imaginative adoration of one saved from the cunning of cold pessimism. If Lewis seems, to his critics, untamed, it is because he has given us stories that reflect the truth and beauty that he saw in obeying Aslan, who is not a tame Lion.