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David C. Downing

C. S. Lewis Among the Postmodernists

How to be a perspectivalist without losing your foundations.

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 and that the ultimate truth, whatever it may be, must have the characteristics of strangeness."1

Strange indeed is the experience I have had reading critical theorists of the past few decades. In the midst of grappling with Jacques Derrida on the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the doyens of structuralism; Michel Foucault on social mores; or Roland Barthes on the novelist Honore de Balzac, I have had moments of thinking I've read this sort of critique before. And, strange to say, the echoes I was hearing came not from Friedrich Nietzsche or Ludwig Wittgenstein, but from the pages of C. S. Lewis.

My first example of dejavu comes from Derrida's critique of Levi-Strauss. Influenced by the theories of the great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Levi-Strauss inventoried 800 myths as sign systems on the analogy of languages, where meaning emerges from binary oppositions among signifiers. In the "Overture" to his four-volume Mythologiques (1964-71), Levi-Strauss announced: "I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of it."

Derrida seriously undermined Levi-Strauss's structuralist project in a presentation published as "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Derrida pointed out that the attempt to interpret the underlying structure of myths assumed an ability to stand outside interpretive structures, to free oneself from one's own cultural understandings for an objective view of culture. But one cannot transcend one's own cultural paradigms in order to study scientifically the nature of cultural paradigms. Derrida insists that we consider "the structurality of structure," recognizing that there is no absolute center, no fixed vantage point which is not itself implicated in the structure.

Obviously, this observation has serious implications for Western philosophy in general, especially for those who would posit a Divine Absolute. Yet C. S. Lewis, the resolute theist, offered a similar critique, though in a more folksy idiom, in his essay "Meditation in a Toolshed," first published in 1945. Lewis begins by recounting an experience in which he was standing in a dark toolshed with only a beam of light coming in through a crack in the door. When he looked at the sunbeam, he saw nothing but specks of dust with darkness behind them. But when he moved so that the sunbeam fell across his eyes, he no longer saw the toolshed, or the sunbeam, but rather he could see outside—grass and trees and sky, even the sun 90 million miles away. He concludes, "Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences."2

Next Lewis offers a series of contrasts between looking at and looking along: the way it feels to be in love versus the way a biologist would describe hormonal activity; the actual process of thinking versus brain function as a neuropsychologist might observe it. Then he asks, which is the truer picture: looking at or looking along? Someone standing beside him in the toolshed might discount his description of the world outside because all they could see from their vantage point was the sunbeam. But then someone else could be standing to the side, observing the observer. As Lewis concludes, "In other words, you can stand outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled."

The following year Lewis applied this perspectivist paradigm to Freudian and Marxist critiques of religious belief. In " 'Bulverism,' or the Foundation of 20th Century Thought," he begins by noting that Freudians interpret individual thought processes in terms of "bundles of complexes" and Marxists in terms of "economic interests," both dismissing Christian arguments for belief as "ideologically tainted."3 But Lewis reminds them that "Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology. … The Freudian and the Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it."

Lewis's criticism resembles what is now known as the Mannheim paradox, first formulated by Karl Mannheim: if all ideology is motivated by economic interests, whose economic interests does Marxism serve? How is Marx immune from his own generalization, and how does he explain his own access to real causes behind ideology?

Like Derrida, Lewis emphasizes that all analysis is situated.

Lewis's critique of Freud has been amplified by Paul Vitz in his essay "The Psychology of Atheism."4 Vitz examines the lives of Voltaire, Freud, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and several other notable atheists, finding in each case an unusually troubled relationship with the father. It would seem possible that each has tried to kill the male parent symbolically by projecting him into a transcendent sphere and then declaring he doesn't exist. As Vitz's rather impish analysis suggests, it is just as easy to construe unbelief as neurosis as it is belief.

Like Derrida, Lewis emphasizes that all analysis is situated, that there is no position of utter objectivity from which one may think about thinking itself. Derrida's critique is, of course, the more radical one, and he is quite aware that he himself is situated; in his essays, Derrida is forever cheerfully sawing the branch off beneath himself even as he writes. (I defer the question as to whether his antifoundationalism is a subtler form of foundationalism.)

Just as Derrida has decentered Western philosophy, others have decentered Western historiography. Peter Novick in That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity" Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988) asserts that the goal of historians in the first half of this century was to make history into a science, to reconstruct the past objectively, "how it actually was," in Leopold Von Ranke's phrase. According to Novick, "the most universal of 'regulative fictions' used to find order in the chaotic past is periodization, cutting the continuous thread of time into manageable lengths." Novick goes on to trace the work of Michel Foucault, Michael Polanyi, Thomas S. Kuhn, and others to show how thoroughly this ideal of value-free history has been exploded.

Lewis's work in literary history often doubled as cultural history, and one might suppose he saw himself recovering for modern readers a sense of "how it actually was." But here again we find his comments on historiography complementing rather than contradicting what has been said more recently. His magisterial book The Discarded Image pieces together the medieval world-picture like a great rose window of stained glass, concluding that "few constructions of the human imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree." But then Lewis adds that the Medieval Model has a serious defect: It was not true.

Having granted that fact, he goes on to examine the way in which any world-view, including modern ones, can be said to be "true." He notes that the medieval model was not "refuted by the telescope," nor overthrown by empirical evidence in general, but rather by a growing awareness of how much more economically the Copernican model "saved the appearances." He also shows that the predominant evolutionary model of the nineteenth century was already widespread before Darwin's discoveries lent empirical weight to the paradigm. Lewis concludes that

no model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age's knowledge. … It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death. … But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.

This outline of how scientific models rise and fall, based on Lewis's Cambridge lectures in the fifties, strikingly anticipates that landmark study published in the following decade, Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962).

Lewis was just as circumspect about historical paradigms as he was about scientific paradigms. In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1954, he commented on the heuristic nature of historical periods:

All lines of demarcation between what we call "periods" should be subject to constant revision. Would that we could dispense with them altogether! As a great Cambridge historian [G. M. Trevelyan] has said: "Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray." The actual temporal process, as we meet it in our lives … has no divisions, except perhaps "those blessed barriers between day and day," our sleeps. Change is never complete, and change never ceases. Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again. And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for. A seamless, formless continuity-in-mutability is the mode of our life. But unhappily as historians we cannot dispense with periods. … We cannot hold together huge masses of particulars without putting them into some kind of structure. … Thus we are driven back upon periods. All divisions will falsify our material to some extent; the best one can hope for is to choose those which will falsify it least.5

If Lewis saw the difficulty of arbitrarily setting off one period from another, how much more presumptuous he found attempts to interpret the whole sweep of history. In his essay "Historicism" (1950), he pronounced it sheer illusion to suppose that scholars, "by the use of their natural powers, [could] discover an inner meaning in the historical process."6 Lewis argues that the great wealth of primary data from the past has been irrecoverably lost. To those who would claim "the important parts of the past survive," Lewis replies that the word important can only mean "relevan[ce] to the particular inquiry he has chosen. Thus if he is an economic historian, economic facts are for him important: if a military historian, military facts."

Lewis feels that even for a theist who believes "history is … a story written by the finger of God," there can never exist the conditions to read the text:

If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. Yes; and if the sky fell we should all catch larks.

Lewis adds that even if we believe that the totality of time is a text written by God, "we have not got it. … We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility?" Once again, Lewis stresses the undecidability of many of the great questions we would like to pose.

In addition to decentering philosophy and historiography, poststructuralist critics have also denied that written texts have a center. Critics such as Paul De Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jonathan Culler have best shown what deconstruction looks like when applied to actual texts. But perhaps the most famous project is Roland Barthes's S/Z, where he dissects the Balzac story "Sarrasine" into 561 discrete fragments by applying five semiotic codes concurrently to the original text. Barthes makes no apologies for what he calls "manhandling" the text, declaring it to be "a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds." Barthes privileges the pluralistic text, because it allows for free play on the part of the reader-as-rewriter, allowing her or him to participate in the making of meaning every bit as much as the producer of the text.

One should not expect Lewis to endorse any such approach to literary interpretation. Yet without adopting Barthes' method, Lewis could also recognize and enjoy texts with pluralistic structures and unresolved centers. He praised The Faerie Queene for its "polyphonic narrative" long before that term came into common use, and he reveled in the quality of perpetual irresolution he found in the works of William Morris.

Radical skepticism about human thought is self-refuting

I have tried to show here that Lewis was not a doctrinaire essentialist, one who claimed that his faith commitments gave him some privileged vantage point from which to interrogate philosophy, to see the meaning of history, or to find the hidden unity of a text. I am not denying that Lewis was in many respects an objectivist—as one would expect from someone who could write an essay entitled "The Poison of Subjectivism"! His The Abolition of Man attacks relativism as a modern aberration, arguing that basic ethical norms are shared by all cultures. Lewis compiles quotations from Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Augustine, and a great many world religions, ancient and contemporary, trying to show the universality of basic moral themes. Such analysis is unabashedly foundationalist. Depending upon one's response to the contemporary climate of ideas, The Abolition of Man may be dismissed as woefully naive or admired for its prescience, offering trenchant commentary on trends that would become much more pronounced after Lewis's time.

But how is it that such an unshrinking foundationalist could also present analysis that parallels the decentering strategies of several postmodern commentators? Bruce Edwards has distinguished between the method of deconstruction and its metaphysics (or antimetaphysics). Edwards explains:

In its most innocent form, deconstruction is simply an attempt to deal with the finiteness of human knowledge, the subjective element of perception. It reminds us of the constitutive nature of what we call knowledge and challenges our easy equation of words with things in themselves. As such, it serves the discerning critic as a fresh reading strategy with which to sift the text for internal incongruity, contradiction, and ambiguity.7

I believe that Lewis was just such a discerning critic, and that his awareness of the "situatedness" of all analysis and the plurality of texts bears out Miller's somewhat glib remark about all good readers being deconstructionists. In his own scholarship, Lewis habitually resisted the totalizing impulse, the urge to reduce complexity and exclude contradiction in order to achieve some spurious unity.

Lewis would probably not even be bothered today to find himself a foundationalist among antifoundationalists. He might say, as he did to the New Critics, "If you take your stand on the 'prevalent' view, how long do you suppose it will prevail? … All you can really say about my taste is that it is old-fashioned; yours will soon be the same."8 But he would also assuredly point out how truly difficult it is to be an antifoundationalist. In his essay "De Futilitate," he points out that radical skepticism about human thought is self-refuting:

Can we carry through to the end the view that human thought is merely human: that it is simply a zoological fact about homo sapiens that he thinks in a certain way: that it in no way reflects (though no doubt it results from) non-human or universal reality? The moment we ask the question, we receive a check. We are at this very point asking whether a certain view of human thought is true. And the view in question is just the view that human thought is not true, not a reflection of reality. And this view is itself a thought. In other words, we are asking "Is the thought that no thoughts are true, itself true?" If we answer Yes, we contradict ourselves. For if all thoughts are untrue, then this thought is untrue. There is therefore no question of total skepticism about human thought.9

It would seem that human thought is imprisoned on a conceptual Mobius strip. Even in trying to move to the opposite of foundationalism, one finds oneself having to assert what R. G. Collingwood called "absolute presuppositions," foundational axioms that must be accepted without proof. Apparently, it is not merely theists or foundationalists who embrace the formula Credo ut intelligam, "I believe in order to understand."

C. S. Lewis continues to speak to current problems of interpretation and meaning because of his intellectual agility, his willingness to adopt decentering strategies at the operational level, while rejecting self-canceling denials about the possibility of "a still point in the turning world."

Lewis recognized the difficulty of producing any discourse that points to metaphysical realities. In Miracles, he described "the burning and undimensioned depth of the Divine Life" as "unconditioned and unimaginable, transcending discursive thought." In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, he describes his own conversion in terms approaching the mystical:

Into the region of awe … in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we might have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective … the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired.

I believe that Lewis's continuing freshness, almost four decades after his death, is rooted in this characteristic fusion of metaphysical affirmation and epistemological humility.

David C. Downing is associate professor of English at Elizabethtown College. This essay first appeared in slightly different form as "From Pillar to Postmodernism: C. S. Lewis and Current Critical Discourse" in the journal Christianity and Literature. Reprinted with permission.

1. "Christianity and Culture." In Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 12-36.

2. "Meditation in a Toolshed." In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 212-15.

3. "Bulverism." In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 271-77.

4. Paul Vitz, "The Psychology of Atheism." Truth, Vol. 1 (1985), pp. 29-36.

5. "De Descriptione Temporum." In Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969), pp 1-14.

6. "Historicism." In Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 100-13.

7. Bruce Edwards, "Rehabilitating Reading: C. S. Lewis and Contemporary Critical Theory." In The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis As Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer, edited by Bruce Edwards (Bowling Green State Univ. Popular Press, 1988).

8. An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961).

9. "De Futilitate." In Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 57-71.

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