Putting C.S. Lewis on the Couch
C.S. Lewis: A Biography
By A.N. Wilson
Pages: 334 pages
Review Author: Christopher Derrick
“This remains the century of Freud,” says A.N. Wilson, and he writes accordingly. There have been various biographies of C.S. Lewis; this is by far the most psychological, the most relentlessly Freudian. It will therefore prompt some people to high indignation, though it has already delighted others. Lewis always did of course elicit sharply polarized responses.
Wilson is an English writer, an able novelist among other things. As a biographer, he displays a certain habitual imprudence in his confident choice of distinctly formidable subjects: Milton, Scott, Tolstoy. Some kind friend should perhaps have warned him to handle Lewis with greater caution or not at all. But he does know the mechanics of his job, and his knowledge of Lewis — while bearing the marks of being recently acquired and a shade superficial — is at least sufficient. This is a thoroughly readable biography, freely enriched (if that’s the right word) by the creative imagination which is every true novelist’s glory.
We learn that in an Episcopal church in Monrovia, Calif., there is a big stained-glass window depicting the figure of C.S. Lewis, as though he were a canonized saint. I have no doubt that in many eyes Wilson will seem like a window-smasher, only concerned to fling stones and bricks through that sacred and sainted image.
An exercise in debunking, an attempt to cut Lewis down to size? Well, it can always be argued that “debunking” is only a pejorative word if one is in favor of bunk. It can also be argued that everything should be seen in its true dimensions, as it really is or was, and should therefore be cut down to size or built up to size as may be necessary from time to time.
In the abstract, we would all agree. But deep emotional involvement will always militate against objectivity, and there are many people in whose lives Lewis has played an intellectually, but also emotionally, crucial part, so intensely so as to make him into the object of a cultic admiration that can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to idolatry.
From some angles, therefore, Wilson will seem to be blaspheming.
In fact, he is attempting nothing so very dreadful. What gets debunked is not so much Lewis himself as that exaggerated cultus of Lewis which is — an English reviewer has to speak carefully here — an overwhelmingly American phenomenon. Wilson observes it with sardonic relish. It isn’t just that stained-glass window in California. We read of complex discipleships, warring sects, fictitious Lewises invented for cultic purposes, fictitious relationships to the genuine Lewis, and hagiographical and hagiolatrous instincts running wild in assorted directions. Wilson has great fun, and he doesn’t hesitate to name living individuals.
All this occupies only a small part of his foreground attention, but a sense of its absurdity does seem to motivate the whole, to a degree that endangers Wilson’s own desired objectivity. It isn’t total absurdity. That stained-glass window may be allowed to remind us that a “saint” is (among other things) a man or woman through whom the Light shines, and in that sense, Lewis may well deserve the title and the cultus. Countless people are on record as telling us that the Light shone into their own lives, initially and most crucially, through Lewis. They respond accordingly, in appreciative gratitude; if some of them tend to over-respond rather wildly, well, let’s remember the cultus that is so widely and freely offered to politicians and footballers and rock “musicians.” As cultic heroes go, Lewis isn’t so terrible.
For my part, I knew him well for some 23 years, whereas Wilson never met him at all; while I revere Lewis’s memory and his work, it has never occurred to me to think of Lewis as a saint — or, for that matter, as any notable kind of sinner. But then, while I owe a great deal to him, he never played any road-to-Damascus part in my personal life.
He emerges imperfectly recognizable from Wilson’s treatment, but with his greatness unimpaired. On the one hand, I often found myself rubbing my eyes in bewilderment and saying, “Are we really talking about the same man?” On the other hand, there is no aspect of Lewis’s greatness — as scholar and tutor, as a writer of religious books and (relatedly) of fiction for both adults and children — that fails to get respectful mention in these pages. But the emphasis is very much on Lewis the imperfect human being, and therefore on his psychological and moral imperfections.
These were real enough. But in order to make the most of them, Wilson is willing to stretch the evidence. He sees a carnal relationship, for example, where the records suggest only dependence upon a mother-substitute; he sees an adulterous pseudo-marriage where the strictest canonist in Rome would have raised no eyebrow. These are not the only points at which the novelist seems to be taking over from the biographer, with free use of the novelist’s God’s-eye-view prerogative of seeing into his characters’ deepest secrets and darkest motivations.
Lewis himself was fully aware of his own vulnerability to Freudian treatment, and he gave much thought to its philosophical implications, not only out of personal self-protection. He certainly had his problems. His mother died when he was very young, and he was immediately packed off to a harsh and crazy school in an alien land. He had an extremely difficult relationship with his father, who was eccentric to the point of near-lunacy. His dear brother fell deep into the whisky. You don’t need to be a Freudian of the Strict Observance in order to see all that as likely to generate feelings of insecurity, with a consequent need for that mother-substitute and a consequent tendency to compensate by assertiveness of manner. In the pattern of all this adversity, you might even see the roots of the sado-masochism which — as we have known for a long time — was the “sexual orientation” of Lewis’s younger days at least. You might thus come to understand various aspects of his personal story — though always in the most tentative and provisional way, never with certainty.
But what then? Lewis’s psychological and moral imperfections aren’t so noteworthy. He shared them with millions. Why should they deserve such prolonged attention?
Beyond the danger of triviality, there’s a further danger of jumping to false conclusions, as though the following three propositions added up to a logical chain of inference. (1) Lewis had his psychological problems and tensions, perhaps of more-than-average intensity; (2) Lewis was a psychopath; (3) Lewis’s thought — his religious thought in particular — is of pathological interest alone and is not to be taken seriously in any further sense. So, Lewis returned to belief in God (for example) at just about the time of his father’s death; his subsequent theism — and, by extension, any theism — is therefore to be seen in terms of Oedipal conflict alone; ergo, there isn’t any God.
This danger takes us into the land of “Bulverism” and “the Personal Heresy.” Lewis knew well enough that any belief is discredited in so far as it can be shown to have irrational causes (that’s crucial for the argument of his Miracles). But the relationship of psychological causes to psychological effects is one thing; the relationship of logical antecedents to logical consequences is quite another. A man might have clearly pathological motivations for devoting himself to some line of thought which — when fully worked out — would command the assent of the sanest and most logical people. You don’t explode a syllogism by pointing out that the man advancing it supposes himself to be Napoleon.
To be fair, Wilson is not guilty — or not very guilty — of any such Bulveristic confusion. But he does fail to exclude it; he does hold the door open to its eager practitioners. He is terribly serious about the psychological aspects of his subject, while treating every substantive question in the frivolous style of a dilettante. There are points at which he attempts to engage Lewis in some argument of the more or less philosophical kind: These are best passed over in tactful silence.
Where a door is held open, people are likely to rush in. People have rushed in. When this book first appeared in England, it was greeted by a whole series of astonishingly hostile reviews — hostile to Lewis, that is, and grateful to Wilson for opening the door to loud denunciation, to the contemptuous rejection of all that Lewis was and therefore of all that he said outside the realm of pure scholarship. What a disgusting man Lewis was! He was a sado-masochist, for one thing, a filthy pervert! (You would never be allowed to speak like that of homosexuals, but Lewis is fair game.) Yes, a filthy pervert, and an aggressive bully, an outmoded thinker, and a dogmatist. Oh yes, and he refused to grow up, he was utterly fixated on his own childhood, he was insufficiently respectful of the literary norms of his day, he wore shabby clothes, he drank a lot of beer, and he was far from slender. Do you think I exaggerate? I do not. It’s in precisely these terms (among others) that the London press has been proclaiming the general awfulness of Lewis, with this book as its pretext, its insufficient justification.
This is an interesting phenomenon, quite as interesting as its converse mentioned already. It reminds me that if the psychological game is to be played at all, it can be played in both directions. On reading those various outbursts, I felt like getting each reviewer onto my couch and inquiring into his dreams and childhood traumas and all the rest of it. Why should the not-very-exceptional imperfections of one particular Oxford don, dead some 27 years, still retain the power of eliciting such vituperative hatred?
It’s very odd. I psychoanalyze it in terms of Lewis’s still being perceived as a threat, a most formidable challenge to various comfortable habits of the secular-humanist mind — also (by some) as a kind of class traitor. It wasn’t only in religious matters that he challenged the entrenched priesthood of the intelligentsia. His cultural populism has not yet received the attention it deserves. There’s a Ph.D. there for somebody.
For me, the chief interest of Wilson’s book lies in the responses it has already elicited in some quarters and seems certain to elicit in others. In itself, I find it something of a disappointment — a potentially good book that chose its author rather unwisely. I’d like to believe that the Freudian game is capable of being played more responsibly than this, with less elevation of guess work into dogma, less patronizing vulgarity, less of the mere silliness which Wilson displays too frequently. But that may be just my unsuitable optimism about an inherently limited game.
Lewis is far from being beyond all criticism, intellectual and (if you insist) personal. But it needs to be weighty and well supported. Wilson plays his chosen game briskly enough, so as to elicit strong partisan responses, as if he were in some sporting arena; he achieves little else.
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