Subscribe to Christianity Today
David C. Downing
C. S. Lewis Among the Postmodernists
In general, readers of C. S. Lewis have not shown much interest in critical theory, and readers of critical theory have not shown much interest in Lewis. Yet as Terry Eagleton has observed, those who dismiss literary theory—or who claim they can get along without it—are usually in the grip of one theory or another without knowing it. And Lewis understood as well that we cannot grapple with the meaning of a particular text until we know what we mean by meaning.
Those who popularized the word deconstruction in the United States have not overlooked Lewis. In a famous review, J. Hillis Miller suggested that M. H. Abrams's landmark study Natural Supernaturalism was obsolescent upon publication, because it critiqued Romanticism using assumptions inherited from the Romantics themselves. Miller patronizingly linked Abrams to the "grand tradition of modern humanistic scholarship, the tradition of Curtius, Auerbach, Lovejoy, C. S. Lewis." The compliment was lost on Abrams, who responded with his essay "The Deconstructive Angel" (1977), one of the earliest and still one of the most incisive critiques of poststructuralist interpretive strategies.
C. S. Lewis would not have enjoyed the compliment either. Throughout a lifetime of writing, two words that nearly always connote something wrong-headed or distasteful in his books are "modern" and "humanistic." Yet Lewis's critical essays invite rereading according to another famous remark by Miller—that "all good readers are and always have been deconstructionists." The results of such a project might well surprise both Lewis's admirers and his detractors.
In exploring the current critical landscape, students of Lewis may wonder where he might fit in. The simple answer is that he is off the map. Lewis was a theist, a traditionalist, one who assumed that a text had meaning, and who even insisted upon universal ethical values. Yet Lewis said that the educated person "is almost compelled to be aware that reality is very odd ...