One of the advantages of finding new libraries is that the librarian’s skill of book-buying is more art than science. The librarians I know, despite their adept use of analytics, have as much curator or architect in them as they have of business person or technologist. Each library, then, has its own little oddities. I can guarantee that in some library in the world there is a book you didn’t know about in the area where you are the expert. Each library is an adventure.
As I was haunting section 823.912 at the University of Chester, as I love to do, I saw a book in the stacks that I did not know. Edited by George Watson, it is a plain Scolar Press academic print of Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis (1992). Honestly, I expected to find a dozen essays gathered from some 1990s conference—and probably pale works by readers still basking in the warm glow of Narnia. I was wrong. Instead, to my delight, this book gathers together 46 reviews, critiques, letters, and memorials of Lewis’ work, written by some of the 20th century’s most important literary scholars and critics. This was a real treat to find.
I could not read the whole book, and spent most of my time looking at genius critic William Empson’s comments about Lewis. Rather than a review, then, I will begin a conversation with Watson from his Introduction, where he is thinking primarily of C.S. Lewis as a critic. George Watson was an Australian student at Trinity College in the late 1940s, and was drawn in by Lewis the teacher through the Socratic Club. Watson went on to become a politically engaged colleague of Lewis at Cambridge, an important translator, editor, and critic. His most famous student (in my circles, anyway) was Douglas Adams. Watson
Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic” (1). Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis. However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it” (5). That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.
Watson goes on to make some descriptions of Lewis’ work. The Oxford History of English Language (OHEL) volume on English Literature in the 16th Century “caused a learned body in the United States to set up a committee to refute its teachings as dangerous to the study of Elizabethan poetry, and treatises were written against it” (1). Another highly admirable trait, making Lewis “a conservative iconoclast” (1) worthy of attention.
Lewis’ lectures on the medieval worldview, The Discarded Image, “is a daring summary of his life as an intellectual historian, a taxonomy of ancient and medieval myths and the dogmas that underlie them, disarmingly subtitled in dull, textbook fashion ‘an introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature.’ (2).
As Lewis was an anti-Modernist writing during the most effective Modernist period (1930s-1950s), what many don’t notice is that he is, according to Watson, a modernist. “His mingling of formalism and fantasy—a critical and analytical interest in the forms that fantasy takes—was something which, when he died in 1963, was on the point of becoming fashionable, and it will never be known what he would have made of that sudden change of mood” (4). Indeed, Watson saw Lewis as prophetic, predicting—and I agree—the French critical turn in the 1960s. Watson reminds us that we probably don’t want to point that out: “A French avant-garde, in any case, does not wish to be told that an Englishman has been saying it all for years” (4).
Yet, Watson is cautious about direct parallels between Lewis and the French critics: “any resemblance between his views and those of Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida is patchy and highly coincidental” (5) They all distrusted realism and loved fantasy, but on different grounds. Lewis would have resisted the return to Hegel (and its extreme, solipsism). Lewis was a skeptic, but not an extreme or radical skeptic, as in the French school. His love for romance came from a belief that the best stories were Myth Retold, and that we do not get lost in the poet, but what the poet is lost in (beautifully played out in The Personal Heresy).
Watson rightly notes that An Experiment in Criticism predicts critical theory and reader-response theory, that The Personal Heresy predicts Wimsatt & Beardsley’s “The intentional fallacy” (4), and that his essay/lecture “On Stories” predicts narratology—as we have noted before. Watson believes that Studies in Words was the most important OED book since Empson’s, but it completely ignored as contemporary theory and was coolly received.
Watson is right that for C.S. Lewis, literary criticism was “a shared enthusiasm” (3). The Inklings were remote and Lewis loved that remoteness. “The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking, and deliberately unfashionable.” (6). I had already been attempting to situate Lewis in Johnson, but Watson is further on in that journey: “Like Samuel Johnson, whom he greatly admired and whose antithetical syntax he often echoed, Lewis could be teasing and contradictious, and his fondness for arguing both sides of a question led, in some quarters, to a reputation for sophistry. All that, and his worldly success, could make for a certain tension in debate” (6).
Watson’s view of Lewis is humorous, but not uncritical. Indeed, Watson has a kind of Lewisian and Johnsonian “antithetical syntax” when considering Lewis:
“It is fortunate, in the end, that he was not unfailingly loyal to his own theories, any more than more recent theorists have been, and that he frequently committed the personal heresy when he wrote of himself and others. He was a critic whose views are supremely bound up with the course of his life, an abiding instance among authors of the importance of intention” (7).
Nicely said. Scholars of Lewis have been commiting the personal heresy all these many years, and it is important to put those early thoughts of Lewis in context with the whole.
Yet Watson does not have the fullest possible reading of Lewis. For example, he says that “theology is only an episode in his literary career” (2)—I’m not sure this quite covers it, though perhaps I misunderstand what Watson means. I don’t know that there was anything Lewis wrote that was not theologically tinged—even in that “OED book,” Studies in Words. He does offer a good caution about reading too much into Lewis’ biography from The Allegory of Love , but says that “Lewis was a bachelor critic” (3). I think he underestimates Joy Davidman’s personal and literary impact, which in my mind commands the better part of the last decade of his life. Davidman was certainly an influence on Lewis’ finest literary fiction, Till We Have Faces, and provided energy and focus for Lewis to publish books of essays and lectures—the very books that Watson praises the most. This idea of the “bachelor critic” was true, though, before the mid-50s, and Watson presses the point of Lewis’ Oxford outsiderness in a clever way:
“He was also a happy bachelor, and the fact was sometimes felt to be damaging. Bachelors, like critics, are not supposed to be happy.” (3).
For all its wit and interest, this essay could use the tightening that a critical look at C.S. Lewis’ biography would provide. But it was a refreshing read from a younger colleague of the Oxford don who walked in heady circles. This essay also fills out some of the context behind the brief correspondence between Watson and Lewis in 1962 (in volume 3 of The Collected Letters).
Mostly, it is an invigorating essay about C.S. Lewis as literary critic and theorist, written by an expert who knew the field intimately and knew Lewis as colleague and friend. Watson’s critical Lewis emerges as an anti-Modernist largely in step with modernity, as a rare conservative iconoclast and controversialist in the tradition of Samuel Johnson and G.K. Chesterton, and as a lover of stories. Watson concluded that “His age … needed him” (7). I tend to agree.
George Watson, ed,, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis (Scolar Press, 1992). Watson died suddenly in 2013. You can read his obituary here.