There was a weird little discussion on Mefi today about how Ayn Rand had a poor opinion about C.S. Lewis. So far as I’m concerned that’s a point against Rand and for Lewis, but the discussion soon focused on many people’s lingering dislike of Lewis. It’s mostly his Christianity– it’s just very hard for most people to take someone seriously whose ideology they’ve themselves rejected, and it doesn’t help that he had the effrontery to write a book they may have liked as children. For some reason he doesn’t get the pass that J.R.R. Tolkien does.
He’s also charged with misogyny. I don’t think this is quite fair– he was born in 1898, didn’t get married for fifty years, and I’d say he had far less than the average level of casual sexism for his time. If he really hated women, he wouldn’t have made so many of them into main characters in his books.
But then there’s poor Susan. I remember reading The Last Battle as a kid; the Christian allegory went right over my head, but I was baffled at what happened to Susan. Here’s the passage in question:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia and do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
And for this she doesn’t get to go to Heaven?
I’d like to explain what I think Lewis was getting at, but I’ll say right away that it’s not one of his finer passages. What is the sin here? Susan may be a foolish young woman, but usually Lewis’s villains are clearly villainous. What has she done to merit Aslan’s condemnation?
For one, it isn’t a condemnation. The (rather odd) notion of the book is that Lucy and the other children (and their parents) are dead– they died in a train wreck. Susan is alive, back on Earth, suddenly orphaned. We don’t learn what happened with her, but Lewis is very clear in this book and elsewhere that no one who desires salvation will miss it. He is not a determinist; to Lewis, Hell is a choice (and not even a permanent one).
One of the difficulties here is that The Last Battle scrapes off some of the allegorical dressing– at the end Aslan “no longer looked to them like a lion”. And this is clumsily done in the passage above: why should Susan care for Narnia any more? Indeed, in earlier books the older children were told to “come close to your own world”! The description of the others “doing things about Narnia” doesn’t sound like the healthy adjustment that Aslan had demanded earlier.
What Lewis meant to show, then, was that Susan had turned away from Christ— she was no longer a Christian.
To non-Christians this still sounds silly– why would a just God be angry at a person’s belief system, like the worst 16th century monarchs? But that’s asking to judge one worldview by the standards of another. If you don’t believe in God, of course you don’t believe that it’s wrong to not believe in God. If a belief is true, then certainly bad consequences should fall, at some point, for contradicting it.
But why the lipstick and nylons? Not because these are particularly sinful– Jill doesn’t say that Susan’s problem is being interested in makeup and boys, it’s in being interested in nothing else. Susan’s sin is putting these things in place of God. Lewis develops this theme much farther in other books, especially The Great Divorce and The Four Loves. Many things, he says, are harmless in themselves, indeed often good and great things like friendship and romantic love and patriotism, but become devils when they’re elevated above justice, the community, and the love of God.
Lewis was a moralist, you see, of the rare and wise kind who was interested not in condemning others, but in pointing out errors that he shared with the rest of us. Susan could easily have fit as a cautionary tale into The Great Divorce, alongside the man trapped in his own resentments, the artist obsessed with his reputation, and the woman who wants total control over her husband. Across an ideological divide, Lewis is not so different from Sartre: l’enfer, c’est les autres.
Of course, to most moderns, the idea of hell is not just merely wrong, like Hades, but cruel. How could a just God yadda yadda. Lewis didn’t feel free to reject the idea of hell, but in his own way he minimized it as far as he could. He saw it not as punishment but of self-banishment– some souls just reject goodness in all its forms, and goodness has no way of making them change their minds– so it leaves them alone. Lewis was also greatly influenced by George MacDonald, who was an explicit universalist. He doesn’t quite say he accepts universalism (the idea that everyone is eventually saved), but he’s also careful to never deny it.
The irony is that, on a practical level, the disagreement disappears. People who reject Christianity turn out to be just as moralistic as Lewis– just not always in the same ways. I’ve been wading through another Mefi discussion on sexism which is a thousand-comment debate on the morality of dick jokes and tweeting about them. On one level, those are just as trivial as Susan’s “lipstick and nylons”. And on another they’re just as much about the perennial question of being a good person and what can keep you from that.
One more thing that sometimes comes up in discussions of Lewis… his apparent disdain for “up-to-date and advanced people”, such as Eustace’s parents in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”, or Jill’s school in The Silver Chair. To some people he comes across as a reactionary who’s against anything progressive. But this too should be put into both personal and historical context. On the personal level, he was a medievalist, and a certain sympathy for the past at least fits well with that– surely it wouldn’t improve any work of history if the historian simply reinforced on every page his contempt for his subjects.
As for the historical context, you have to think in terms of the titanic three-way struggle of the early 20th century between fascism, communism, and capitalism, and seen from Britain, which hardly seemed like the top dog in this fight. The “up-to-date and advanced people” of his day were all too often in favor of dictatorship, war, and genocide. The early 20th century left was a very mixed bag and we can’t blame Lewis too much for being skeptical of it; he could hardly know how it would develop in fifty years.
Anyway, no one has to like Lewis. On the other hand– and this is one of the many things I learned from him– chronological snobbery is no better than the social kind. You can enjoy and learn from good people who you disagree with on other grounds. People are complex and the best people and best writers do not happen to appear only on our own side, whatever that side is.