Why do we read (or write)? C.S. Lewis answers –
This post was prompted by 2 recent posts by friends, both writers (one professional, the as-yet unpublished). A few days ago Lars Walker (the professional) linked to an article on Christian fiction, asking the question “what is Christian fiction?” A week or 2 earlier, my friend Alex had posted a criticism of the advice to authors he had often encountered, to “write what you know”, arguing for imagination and exploration in writing.
Both posts, in different ways, irresistibly made me think of perhaps the most eloquent defence of the value of literature I have ever read: the final chapter of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism.
While I don’t have sales figures to hand, I would hazard a guess that An Experiment in Criticism is one of C.S, Lewis’ lesser known or appreciated works today. This is, in my humble and unlettered opinion, a great shame. As the title indicates, it’s actually about literary criticism, and it proposes a new approach. Reading Lewis’ analyses of the literary critics of his day, and the shortcomings of their approaches was both eye-opening and depressing. Eye-opening as I Lewis dissects their methods, and depressing as one realizes that 60 years later, all the problems he points out are still there – in spades. Once again, Lewis pointed out the problem in the 40s or 50s, and has been roundly ignored by the literary establishment ever since.
An Experiment in Criticism should probably be read by anyone interested in why we read and how we read. Even if “literary criticism” doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, if you enjoy books, Experiment will both encourage and interest you. And parts of it are simply sublime. In the final chapter, Lewis steps aside from “criticism” to address a more basic question: why do we read?
Without further ado: extracts from the Epilogue –
IN the course of my inquiry I have rejected the views that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself. And I have dissented from the Vigilants' belief that nothing can be good as literature which is not good simply All this implies the conception of a specifically literary 'good' or 'value'. Some readers may complain that I have not made clear what this good is…
Nevertheless, since silence might be given some sinister interpretation, I will lay on the table what few and plebeian cards I hold.
If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature both of knowledge and of power, the question 'What is the good of reading what anyone writes?' is very like the question 'What is the good of listening to what anyone says?' Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer IS obvious. And if it is worth while listening or reading at all it is often worth doing so attentively. Indeed we must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention.
The mark of strictly literary reading, as opposed to scientific or otherwise informative reading, is that we need not believe or approve the Logos. Most of us do not believe that Dante's universe is at all like the real one. Most of us, in real life, would judge the emotion expressed in Donne's Apparition to be silly and degraded; even, what is worse, uninteresting .. None of us can accept simultaneously Housman's and Chesterton's views of life, or those of Fitzgerald's Omar and Kipling. What then is the good of-what is even the defence for- occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which wc should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist-on Dante's earthly paradise, Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles, Chaucer's or Spenser's Lady Nature, or the Mariner's skeleton ship? …
The nearest I have yet got to an answer 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. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they arc saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level - in other words, not to discount perspective would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is 'I have got out'. Or from another point of view, 'I have got in'; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.
Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person's place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process_ can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; 'he that loseth his life shall save it'.
We therefore delight to enter into other men's beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.
This must not be understood as if I were making the literature of power once more into a department within the literature of knowledge-a department which existed to gratify our rational curiosity about other people's psychology. It is not a question of knowing (in that sense) at all. It is connattrec not savoir; it is erleben; we become these other selves. Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they arc like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal. Hence it is irrelevant whether the mood expressed in a poem was truly and historically the poet's own or one that he also had imagined. What matters is his power to make us live it. I doubt whether Donne the man gave more than playful and dramatic harbourage to the mood expressed in The Apparition. I doubt still more whether the real Pope, save while he wrote it, or even then more than dramatically, felt what he expresses in the passage beginning , Yes, I am proud'. 1 What does it matter?
This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos; it opens to us experiences other than our own. They are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, 'interest' us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say 'How true!') or the abnormal (and we say' How strange!'); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic, the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entree to them all. Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. 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. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the' privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
There. Won't you be forever glad you read that?