27 November 2013

New York C.S. Lewis Society Celebration

New York C.S. Lewis Society

Since I couldn't afford to go to London this weekend for the installation of Lewis's stone in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, I went to New York City to join in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Lewis's death with other poor or local scholars and fans. Here are little summaries of or commentaries on the talks.

Monsignor Hull gave the first introductions of the day, as this event was held in and partly sponsored by the Sheen Center for Faith and Culture. This reminds me to mention to you that there is something of a movement going on right now to wrest Lewis from the American Evangelicals and argue that if he were alive right now, he would be a Roman Catholic. This might be something to explore in a later post.

Then James Como gave further intros. I must say it was an enormous pleasure to meet, greet, listen to, and talk with all these lovely people and intelligent Lewis scholars.

During the talks, I sat with the intrepid William O'Flaherty of Essential C.S. Lewis. He is a walking Lewis encyclopedia: whenever a speaker referenced a title, text, image, etc. William pulled it up on his computer quick as thought. That was very cool.

The first speaker was William Griffin, who wrote the third biography of Lewis and worked as an editor at Macmillan for many years, helping to bring Lewis’s works to the United States. He told several delightful stories about his time at Macmillan.
In 1977, he did some research and found that 5 million copies of CSL's books had been printed. Macmillan had fallen short on their sales list and needed a new CSL book overnight. Griffin came up with the idea of a thematic anthology entitled The Joyful Christian, organized according to the points of the Nicene Creed. He chose the quotes, organized the book, and was about to go to press with it when—oops! His senior editor asked him if he had consulted Walter Hooper about copyright permissions! No, he hadn’t; who was Hooper? Once enlightened, he sent off a “grovel” asking for Hooper’s blessing on the new book. Hooper wrote back that the book was “worthy of a D Phil.” Griffin said, “that made me his slave for life.”
The book was a huge hit; 35,000 copies were ordered in the first two days of its availability. It was the start of the “blankety-blank Christian” series: The Joyful Christian, The Visionary Christian, The Electric Christian, etc.—all anthologies from various writers. Dorothy Sayers and Fulton Sheen were included. Griffin turned down a date with a movie star to meet Sheen to work on that book.
 There were other stories, other statistics. It would have been a more lively talk had Griffin just told his stories, rather than reading them out in a monotone. Perhaps the whole paper will be published somewhere so that others can enjoy the content of the talk. 

Next, Elaine Tixier read a paper about Till We Have Faces, which she argues is CSL's best work of fiction. I agree. She focused on themes of doubt and the stages that lead to faith. Although Lewis wrote that this novel is about what it would feel like for someone to lose a family member to Christianity—in other words, about how conversion feels from the outside, rather than the inside—Tixier talked about the novel as an extended query: Why do some people see what is hidden to others? Why do some have the gift of faith, while others do not? Its theme is the mystery of the transmission of faith. She compared it to The Silver Chair, which is also about the question Eustace asks Jill: “Are you good at believing things?” He chose to ask this question in several fictional works, because fairy tale and myth both have distance from our world, which provides distance and makes the reader more receptive to poetic language—and poetic language is at the heart of TWHF.
            Psyche illustrates both the simplicity and complexity of faith, while Orual believes in the gods, but is suspicious of their goodness. Her faith is transmitted (rather than direct or experiential—I'm not sure this was part of the argument). Orual is afraid, rather than rationally skeptical. She suffers from “infinite misgivings,” but also has moments of tenderness or self-oblivion. The palace scene minutely illustrates the “anatomy of doubt.” 
            Tixier also compared Orual's sorrow to the narrator's (Lewis's?) in  A Grief Observed.  He wrote: “It is not my reason that is taking away my faith; it is emotion.” Then she compared it to the short story “Light,” which is a distillation of the same points about doubt and faith. Both have misty uncertainty, a yearning for assurance, and emblems of sehnsucht [visible light, the mountain, etc]. Both books have a mystical core. Lewis's method of writing was often retrospective: remembering and reviewing past spiritual steps.
            TWHF uses the genre of the “Complaint” and also draws from the book of Job. A complaint is not blasphemy, but a way to faith. Charles Williams, Tixier pointed out, admired Job. He wrote: “Job's impatience had been approved, his apparent blasphemies accepted.” Orual is of Job's lineage. After her complaint is uttered, she enters into silence. She is a Job-like figure for our time. God's answer is not an answer, but a story. It also leads Orual into an Act of Exchange—Orual carries Psyche's burden. The mystical moment is a revelation of plenitude and simplicity. This is the climax of the narrative trajectory.
            Tixier’s paper was nice, but was not a scholarly analysis. It was an observation of a theme. This frustrates me, because Lewis studies have been plagued by summary and thematic papers for years, which I believe is one reason Lewis is not more respected by mainstream academia. I passionately believe that we need to STOP presenting these elementary observations and begin applying rigorous scholarship if any good work is to be done on Lewis.

Then Maggie Goodman, a member of the Society, read Lewis’s poem “The Late Passenger.”

Finally, Michael Travers spoke on “Invitation to Glory: CSL's apologetic of hope.” He recounted that Alister McGrath lists three reasons for the popularity of CSL's apologetics: 1. logical positivism has declined; 2. his writings have religious appeal; and 3. he appeals to the imagination. Travers wants to add another: his apologetic writings include an invitation to hope for Glory. Ecclesiastes says that God has put eternity into men's hearts. The Bible presents this hope in narrative form: a grand narrative of the created order. CSL gives voice to this Christian narrative of hope, inviting his readers home. Attempts to turn earth into heaven dull our longing for the real thing.
            His narrative of creation is found in The Magician's Nephew. It echoes the Biblical narrative.
We live in a condition of exile and hope: looking backwards to Eden and forward to Heaven. That Hideous Strength as a narrative of separation and “objectification.” The Silver Chair as classic quest narrative. But even when the quest is accomplished, the longing remains: it is a there-and-back-again narrative, but only back to a good earthly realm, not (yet) to Heaven. Longing is most naturally expressed in literature through the quest narrative (i.e., The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). {note: this is nearly the only Inklings work in which the longing is located in the EAST; everywhere else, good is to the WEST}. :) In The Great Divorce, this longing is shown in the strength, brightness, and hardness of all things in Heaven, to emphasize how much more real it is than earth.
            All of these themes are brought together in The Last Battle. {side note: Obviously the Stable and the Wardrobe are Time Lord technology.} Travers compared the end of The Last Battle with the book of Revelation, chapter 21, and concluded that all of Lewis’s works encourage his readers to long for heaven and for God.

            Again, this was a nice talk, but was not a scholarly analysis. It really wanted to be a sermon. Travers would have done better to go all the way and preach us an inspiring sermon, rather than reading a somewhat dull paper without applying scholarly rigor. We need to rescue Lewis from the burden of summary and thematic appreciation under which his works have struggled for these fifty years. On this anniversary, let us take a new approach. Let all conference organizers, journal editors, and event planners in Lewisiana covenant together: There shall be no more summary! We will only speak publicly about Lewis’s works if we speak intelligently. We will use profound analysis. We will raise his works to the level at which they belong: With the works of T.S. Eliot, or Tolkien, who are appreciated by mainstream scholarship. We will not let him fall into obscurity or into the grave of popularism. His popularity will take care of itself: His academic reputation will not. Therefore, we eschew summaries and fluffy appreciation from here onwards into the future. To another 50 years!

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