What Art is For: With C.S. Lewis and Dr. Charlie Starr

cs lewis an experiment in criticismI am pleased to be presenting a paper at the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture in Glasgow, Scotland. This great adventure is mostly to present some of my doctoral research on C.S. Lewis, focussing on his An Experiment in Criticism. It is also partly an opportunity to connect with other scholars in my field, and a small part to make my way to the area from which my family fled in 1819. It is a trip that is about ideas, people, and pilgrimage.

In preparation for my paper, I have been reading An Experiment in Criticism on a monthly basis. Last month I read it and did the strange experiment of pulling out a list of the books C.S. Lewis mentions in it—a kind of ad hoc “best of” list.

This month, I am writing up my thoughts about the book. Now that I have made my notes, I am now turning to what others have said about this little book. This journey was kind of a mixed bag for me. An Experiment in Criticism is prophetic of a lot of the instincts that culture would develop in literature, and yet it was largely ignored outside of a few literary critics. I think it’s a beautiful, funny, flawed and manifestly quotable book.

Yet, few have done serious work on it, and those who have turned to it have done so to think about Lewis’ ground-breaking work on fantasy and myth. There were also a surprising number of papers where the book was listed in the bibliography, but I could see no tangible link in the argument. Apparently, An Experiment in Criticism has been important to critics, but they have sometimes struggled to articulate what that influence means.

cs lewis an experiment in criticism 4One of the clear statements came out of a paper by Charlie Starr in Inklings Forever VII, the papers from the 2010 C.S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium at Taylor University. I met Charlie at the 2012 Taylor conference and have talked here about his intriguing project of decoding C.S. Lewis’ handwriting. In this paper, Charlie is talking about “Aesthetics vs. Anesthesia: C.S. Lewis on the Purpose of Art.” It’s a good question. We have been toying with the problems with moralistic art here on A Pilgrim in Narnia, and Charlie hits it straight on.

A significant portion of the people who write to me are Christians who want to communicate their faith through stories–wanting to move “past watchful dragons,” culture’s unvoiced prejudices, as Lewis claimed Narnia could do. I understand that deep desire that artists-in-waiting have to evangelize in their work. You may be called to do that. But before you do, read Charlie’s treatment of one of Lewis’ points in An Experiment in Criticism:

… Lewis did not see the purpose of art to be the production of sermonic tropes or Christian propaganda. Even as viewers of art we shouldn’t look to see if there is a hidden Christian message in a movie or book. On the contrary, “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way” (An Experiment in Criticism, 19). Writing specifically about literature, Lewis claims that whatever edification we get isn’t about finding truth in books: “To value them chiefly for reflections which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them, is a flagrant instance of ‘using’ [texts for our own purposes] instead of ‘receiving’” [ them for what they are] (An Experiment in Criticism, 82-83). Instead, great art is about a particular activity of imagination; it is about finding new ways of seeing—about seeing through the eyes of others:

The nearest I have yet got to an answer [to the question of literature’s value] is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself….We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented….[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself….Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend Myself; and am never more myself than when I do (An Experiment in Criticism, 137, 140-41).

cs lewis an experiment in criticism 3In short, Lewis very specifically rejects any view that “literature is to be valued…for telling us truths about life”15; instead, he values literature apart from its utilitarian purposes. This flies in the face of much contemporary Christian thinking about art and culture, both on popular and intellectual fronts. On the popular front are well meaning Christians who accept the model of “culture war”—we are in a battle that must be fought by governing what our kids are exposed to and protesting against films, songs and TV shows which are hostile to our point of view. On the intellectual front is an emphasis on “worldview analysis”—examining the worldviews behind artistic texts to point out there hidden assumptions or mine their truth value. And while both have their place, they fail to understand what art is for.


Read more about this question here and here. You can read more from Dr. Charlie Starr’s here. The paper is published in a collected volume called, C.S. Lewis and the Arts: Creativity in the Shadowlands (2013).

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to What Art is For: With C.S. Lewis and Dr. Charlie Starr

  1. Extollager says:

    “In short, Lewis very specifically rejects any view that “literature is to be valued…for telling us truths about life”; instead, he values literature apart from its utilitarian purposes.”
    You might want to add some nuance. Otherwise you may seem to imply that Lewis would disdain a great deal of medieval and Renaissance literature. You could also leave yourself open to the charge that you’re implying Lewis was an advocate of art for art’s sake and thereby putting him in company that he doesn’t fit in with very well.
    I’d suggest that one passage that could be helpful is the one where, as I recall, Lewis says something to the effect that, with a Christian author, the writer was often really adoring the beauty of truth when we might think he was trying to promote a doctrine about which there was contention. (Obviously I’m not remembering how Lewis put it, but that’s a reasonable approximation, I think.)

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    • Thanks for this–I think it is an important point. I mean, literature does something–even here, it enlarges, helps us transcend and experience otherness and diversity of view. In this book it also entertains. It “embiggens,” to use a phrase from the Simpsons. I think the critique of Christians (and all kinds of ideologues–there is bad atheist or feminist fiction and poetry) who put their hands on a story for teaching purposes is worthwhile.
      I don’t know the reference that you are hinting at in the last paragraph.

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      • Dale Nelson says:

        Brenton, you should recognize the passage to which I referred, since you quoted it yourself in 2013. The passage is from the opening of A Preface to Paradise Lost, where Lewis, addressing Charles Williams, wrote:

        “Reviewers, who have not had time to re-read Milton, have failed for the most part to digest your criticism of him; but it is a reasonable hope that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand henceforward that 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.”

        You cited this on 2 Dec. 2013.

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  2. Charles Huttar says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I have long considered Lewis’s “Experiment” as a pioneer text in what a few years later came to be called reader-response criticism — yet much larger in outlook than the directions taken by those later theorists. What a pity that they were not attuned to Lewis’s approach, or that other critics (especially Christian ones) who did not buy into R-R limited themselves to fighting it, rather than making use of Lewis to broaden and correct it.
    That always tended to be Lewis’s way, whatever the points at issue. In saying this I think at once of Sanford Schwartz’s magnificent “Lewis on the Final Frontier” in which he demonstrates how Lewis didn’t just attack evolutionism but (in his first two “space” novels) discerned what was of value in each of its successive manifestations (Wellsian and Bergsonian) and then go on to show how a Christian outlook could enhance that value while eliminating what had to be discarded. He beat the opponents at their own game, as it were.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “I have long considered Lewis’s “Experiment” as a pioneer text in what a few years later came to be called reader-response criticism — yet much larger in outlook than the directions taken by those later theorists.” The late A.D. (‘Tony’) Nuttall said something to much the same effect when he gave a talk to us at the Oxford Lewis Society once. He and the late Stephen Medcalf were old and great friends, who I think sparred as well (in friendly ways), and might be examples of buying into R-R with a Lewis-like thoughtfulness, Medcalf self-consciously Christian and Nuttall (at least in the 1980s) Christian-friendly. (See Jonathan Bate’s obituary, linked at A.D.N.’s Wikipedia article, in this context, where he calls him “receptive to new ways of thinking but always committed to a classically humanist view of literature as a vital means of helping thoughtful people to make sense of reality.”)

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    • Thanks Charles and David. Being trained in biblical studies, reader response was part of our toolbelt. Even then–an this is a naive critique of it–I struggled with RR’s reductionism in people who thought that was the only way in which to engage with a text. It was rarely this pure, but if you approached from another angle you would meet resistance. But many people who thought the only meaning possible was in the reader (not the text, the text world, the author, or the audience interconnections).
      I think Lewis helps us imagine reader response without taking away our capacity to think about the text in other ways.

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  3. Great post. Thanks! You might check out Munson’s and Drake’s _Art and Music: A Student’s Guide_. They rely on Lewis’s overall argument in EIC.

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  4. wanderwolf says:

    Interesting response to the book and the presentation. I’m going to have to find this book to read, now.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “In short, Lewis very specifically rejects any view that “literature is to be valued…for telling us truths about life”; instead, he values literature apart from its utilitarian purposes.”
    Extollager (see post above) has a point, Lewis may value literature apart from its utilitarian purposes but he values it for its communication of Truth as well.
    “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth,” Lewis wrote, “but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” In other words, we don’t grasp the meaning of a word or concept until we have a clear image to connect it with.” [C S Lewis
    In “The Allegory of Love” he implies that it is important to know the author’s motives or “inner conflict”(the “bellum intestinum”, the internal psychological struggle which lies at the root of allegory) in the first place before seeking any value or truth in the work because – “The allegorist leaves the given – his own passions – to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given – his own passions – to find that which is more real. [C S Lewis ]

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Your comment makes me think variously of both Barfield and Tolkien, and the fruitful interactions the three of them must have had. And Charlie Starr’s quoting “The nearest I have yet got to an answer [to the question of literature’s value] is that we seek an enlargement of our being” also reminded me similarly of the wonderful first chapter of Williams’s Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933) – happily available scanned in the Internet Archive – and, I think, praised recently by Sir Geoffrey Hill. (Ah, Inklings! – as it happens. Perhaps George MacDonald should be mentioned, too, about the interactions of imagination and reality beyond it, as beyond (though not excluding) authorial intention.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • My personal view is that Lewis was trying to emphasise the fact that “allegorists” are expressing their personal perceptions of abstract universals through an outward projection of their personality, while “symbolists” are relating to an existing internal and external “living spiritual” reality, and the importance of a distinction between the two can not be exaggerated. “Roman religion begins with the worship of things that seem to us to be mere abstractions” [C S Lewis]“ it ends with us today recognizing that culture as the abstract personification of “brutal cruelty”. The value lies in the substance of the spiritual reality being reflected in the literature or the art, not in the artist or his methods. “Applying this principle to literature, in its greatest generality, we should get as the basis of all critical theory 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.” [C S Lewis]

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    • Yes, quite. I mean, all of his book-length literary work (except An Experiment in Criticism) was really literary history to give that contextual awareness of text worlds (so Discarded Image, Studies in Words, OHEL, Preface to Paradise Lost, and Allegory of Love).

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  6. Pingback: Lewis, Wagner, and Frankenstein: Literary Accident or Reader’s Providence? | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brenton, perhaps one day you might bring Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism into conversation with Charles Williams’s The English Poetic Mind. Lindop speaks very highly of this book.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It’s also handily scanned in the Internet Archive! I think it’s a good idea to bring both it and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933) into conversation with An Experiment in Criticism. (I suppose they may have known essays and reviews the other was publishing while both – and Tolkien – were together in Oxford: I’m not sure I’ve ever read references to Lewis looking up C.W.’s earlier literary critical books, though he could have (other younger Oxford scholars have down the years – for example, if I recall correctly, I once had an interesting little conversation with Barbara Everett about the importance of Williams’s discussion of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, here, to the subsequent study of that play.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Here’s another interaction of younger (b. 1932) poet, scholar, and teacher, Sir Geoffrey Hill, lecturing as Professor of Poetry, about what may be the ‘least’ or ‘lightest’ of Williams’s early literary critical works Poetry at Present (once again, handily scanned in the Internet Archive):

        [audio src="http://media.podcasts.ox.ac.uk/engfac/poetry/2015-05-05_engfac_hill.mp3" /]

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    • Thanks for this suggestion. I have not read “English Poetic Mind”–and I don’t remember the Oddest Inkling covering it. Lindop did a pretty good job (in my quick breeze through) of integrating most everything (which doesn’t always sit well together).

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  8. L.A. Smith says:

    Thank you, Brenton! Really enjoyed this post – the comments are a bit over my scope of knowledge but I appreciated this look at this unknown-to-me book of Lewis’.“The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way” (An Experiment in Criticism, 19). Good food for thought there. This whole discussion of how to “be” a Christian writer can get so very tiresome. You can tie yourself in knots worrying about if your book or story or whatever is “sending the right message”. And to question whether or not as a writer you “should” send a message with your book/story/whatever is almost akin to heresy in some quarters. I really appreciate your adding to my thoughts on this. Should have known Lewis had something to say about it! 🙂

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    • Thanks for this note. I think his real message here is on how to be a good reader, the idea of submission to the text.
      I think people react to message-based work because it has been done so badly so very often. Nicolas Cage in “Left Behind” is sort of a perfect storm of message-first writing. Elsewhere Lewis separates the writer and the person. The creator-writer works the piece, and then the man develops the piece.

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  9. Pingback: 2016: A Year of Reading | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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