Wednesday, August 31, 2016

C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain (1940)

The jacket of the Fount edition, as read by thousands of 1970s era Christian students


C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a many-sided author. His earliest publications, up to 1930, were tentative attempts at establishing a career as a poet; but clearly he had (to put it kindly) the wrong sort of talent. In1929 he experienced a conversion, gave up his militant atheism and adopted a forthright Christianity. His academic career was by now in full swing. The 1930s saw his first scholarly books, Rehabilitations (a collection of separate essays) and the formidable Allegory of Love (1936), which was very well received and established him near the head of his field, which was Medieval and Renaissance literature. The creative urge had not left him and he also produced an allegory of his own conversion called The Pilgrim’s Regress; this was a poor book, but he was to make up for that later when he covered much of the same ground in Surprised by Joy.

His great run of popular Christian books began with The Problem of Pain (1940). Scholarly work continued, including the magnificent English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954; the one book of his that I have never stopped reading, and probably never will)*. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, and of course the popular Narnia books for children; and much else. All his work speaks in the same, instantly recognizable, voice; but there is some variation. During the war years, which also produced The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and the Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, there is an enviable boldness, even stridency, which must have made instant converts of many and angered many more.

To speak personally, I don’t care anything for the science fiction books with their thinly-disguised religious themes, and I don’t care deeply for the hastily-written Narnia series – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair are the ones I like best. His other fictions are not outstanding either. The excellent Screwtape Letters is best regarded as a series of colourful sermons. Even Till we have faces (1956) only really pleases me because it is at the opposite extreme from the stridency of the early 1940s**. Lewis learnt from his own experiences in an oddly child-like and definite way, and his books from the mid-1950s onward are the work of a wiser and humbler man: Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, A Grief Observed etc.

His writing remained anathema to many progressives, though; they were scarcely able to compete with the immense though lightly-carried learning of books such as Studies in Words and The Discarded Image, but they took infuriated exception to a tone that implied on almost every page an utterly different outlook from their own. The fury was all the greater because the fundamental simplicity of his views allied to an outstanding limpidity and graciousness of expression produced a dangerously populist cocktail. They knew he would be listened to, and it didn’t seem fair. It is said that Lewis failed badly in his debate with a professional philosopher following the publication of Miracles. The perception of those who said so was that his cocksure cleverness went with a complete failure to understand the point of any twentieth-century intellectual or artistic movement; he could only make snide populist remarks like a journalist writing for the Daily Mail. It remains a disturbing paradox, the more so because (having been so deeply influenced by Lewis during my late teens and early twenties, when I was both a medievalist and a born-again Christian) I am afraid that I share a good many of his blindnesses, and am in some fundamental way arrested in an imaginary Lewisian world of values even though my conscious opinions were never conservative and are not now religious. (I should add that, though Lewis has been anthologised in collections of Conservative thought, I do not remember him ever pronouncing on a party-political matter; he seems to have been perfectly sincere in his professed lack of interest in topics of that sort. At the same time there’s no doubt who would have been most upset by his assaults on e.g. modern educationalists***.)

The Problem of Pain, at its best, can be illustrated from this passage about guilt from the chapter entitled “Human Wickedness”:

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.... [Without it,] the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one who is always making impossible demands and always inexplicably angry.... Why not live and let live? What call has He, of all beings, to be “angry”? It’s easy for Him to be good!

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God...

In short, the “grandfather in Heaven” picture of God appeals only to those who have no sense of a living God at all, like myself. This seems to me a completely persuasive argument. Of course you can say that when someone feels guilty it often makes them feel better to be particularly self-condemnatory, taking comfort in their inner high-mindedness. But this says nothing about the truth of the insight. A real God must be, whatever else, inexorable.

The chapters on Hell and Heaven carry the same conviction. Lewis was immediately criticized for defending the doctrine of Hell, which was presumably an embarrassment to other propagators of the faith, but this criticism amounts to nothing. Anyone can see that hell does indeed exist in many places on earth, and therefore its metaphysical dimension poses no new difficulty. The Christian story makes no sense if there is no hell. How can anyone be moved by Good News unless things are seen to be bad? Why would anyone busy themselves with saving sinners unless there is something to save them from? Why is there a church entrusted with a mission if it is impossible for anyone to turn away from God? It is true that hellfire preaching and hellfire parenting had repulsively abused one element in that story, and laid the whole Christian system open to the most violent objections, but for churchmen to just go quiet about it was a trifling evasion, which merely demonstrated what most people already sensed, that if you wanted to learn the truth about anything it was no good asking a priest.

Here are some sentences from the chapter on Heaven.

You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven – namely, that we do not really desire it... There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else... Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. ... The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. ... Always it has summoned you out of yourself. And if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down and brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you. “The door into life generally opens behind us” and “the only wisdom” for one “haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work.” This secret fire goes out when you use the bellows: bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze. The world is like a picture with a golden background, and we the figures in that picture. Until you step off the plane of the picture into the large dimensions of death you cannot see the gold. But we have reminders of it. To change our metaphor, the black-out is not quite complete. There are chinks. At times the daily scene looks big with its secret.

If I call this a great piece of literary criticism (e.g. of George Macdonald, whose words are quoted) I may seem to be unfairly limiting the kind of writing that it is. I don’t intend that. We tend to have a mental picture of primary writing (“literature”) that is in some way directly engaged with life, and then
of secondary writing (“criticism”, “commentary”, “review”) that stands lower in the hierarchy and only addresses itself to details of primary writing, so that engagement with life has become flickering and indirect. Unfortunately the grey bulk of any university library tends to confirm that hierarchy. But “literary criticism” as I mean it here (and Lewis is a prime example), if it moves away from the original writer’s words, does not thereby move further from life, but only sideways to get a different angle, and though further from one aspect of life nearer to another. In the same sense I might want to say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a great literary criticism of Plutarch.

But at the same time I do intend a limitation of my praise. Unquestionably the heaven suggested in this chapter is a heaven that can be believed in and can be wished for (its very definition, indeed, is that it is wished for). The limitation is that the kind of yearning evoked by Lewis is (I suspect rather than know) an experience that only a few people can instantly relate to. If it is, as one might immediately judge, really an inchoate desire to return to the womb, then that might make it more universal. But for it to seem like a possible hint of heaven one needs to conceive it in its developed manifestation. That what evokes the yearning in Lewis’ own examples (“the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side”) reflects Lewis’s own tastes and nationality and gender and interests is not an argument against it. But it appears to me that a yearning for the unrealizable is not an intrinsic part of human experience. I don’t know; I admit that, personally, I recognize what he’s talking about very well, but then, I share many of his backgrounds. Human experience is overwhelmingly various.

As an outline of Lewisian Christianity, then, the book seems to me a success. I shan’t bother much about local criticisms; the chapter on “Animal Pain” seems to me to depend on some quite extraordinary views about non-human life – one gathers that Lewis had no interest in nature****. But on the general subject that his book purports to treat, i.e. suffering, I think his success is very mediocre.

Lewis was writing when Europe was again at war. He had served in World War I, and had ample personal experience (not only in combat) of pain and suffering, but the book steers clear of evocation; as the quotations may show, it treats pain rather intellectually. If we are not religious philosophers, there is indeed something rather offensive about the expression, “The Problem of Pain”. You wouldn’t talk about “the problem of genocide”, or the “problem of starvation”, as if these things were all very well in their own way but posed one or two thorny issues for a believer. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a theological issue, but I think that Lewis, clearly unwilling to deal with instances in detail, has actually failed to confront it. He thinks he can reduce e.g. Ivan Karamazov’s terrible denunciation in Dostoyevsky’s novel to a few bare logical assertions. But perhaps suffering cannot be reduced in that way. There are, if you want to put it that way, at least two “problems of pain”, one for the sufferer and one for the witness. In fact there are a million problems – they will not be “boiled down” in the way that Lewis hopes.

The natural and right human reactions to suffering are, for a sufferer, to endure it if possible; for a witness, to alleviate it if possible, or else to lament it. Lewis’s book may well have cheered sufferers and helped them to endure – in fact I’m sure it did, though he disclaims both the intention and the skill. But his argument proves far too much, and really leaves no room for lamentation, grief, horror or shock. One must be appalled at Ivan Karamazov’s accounts of  children being tortured; but how can God’s world contain what one must be appalled by? And what redemptive salvation is imaginable that can ever right these wrongs? It is a fundamental challenge to the Christian story of a good God.

An instance of where I think Lewis’ book is at its weakest is his argument against the additiveness of pain. He argues, basically, that in a waiting-room where two people have toothache, no-one is experiencing “2 x toothache”; the pain threshold of one individual sufferer is all the pain there ever can be. He actually uses this example of toothache, and I think you’ll agree that it tends to  trivialize the matter. People do not question the benevolence of God because of toothache. They question it when whole communities are ruined, when villages are burnt, when countries starve, when cities are sacked or when people are herded into a forest to dig their own graves.


Therefore we ask, Monarch of all that lives,
Firm in your heavenly throne,
While the destroying Fury gives
Our homes to ashes and our flesh to worms –
We ask, and ask: What does this mean to You?

(Euripides, The Women of Troy trans. Philip Vellacott)


It's quite true that each individual can suffer no more than the worst a soul can suffer. But we are more than individuals; the wholesale destruction of communities, families, cultures, ways of life, invoke feelings that are different from those in which a single person suffers torment.

Lewis, I think, was not much of a community person. His books are almost entirely free of patriotism or a sense of nationhood, which is rather refreshing. He was not close to his parents (his mother died when he was nine) and he had no children. As a scholar he had risen untrammelled out of Ulster, the place of his childhood, and he lived and breathed the fellowship of his colleagues; an excellent but rather anomalous kind of community. So perhaps it was not so hard for him to see all our attachments to local culture and local identity as things to be yielded up, being merely human and temporal constructs in the face of an overwhelming and universal vision of God.

Some of the shortcomings of his treatment of suffering must have become plain to him personally when, after the loss of his wife from cancer, he wrote A Grief Observed. The earlier book is in the end frivolous. In it he pretends to write about pain in order to give an athletic display of the strength and joyousness of his conviction. It was a calling-card.  

*

A C.S. Lewis sentence and its influence

I used to read C.S. Lewis incessantly when I was eighteen, and there are several sentences in C.S. Lewis’ works that have influenced me deeply. This is one of them:

The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside the secondhand bookshop.

In fact, like other deeply influential sentences that became part of my everyday mental furniture, I didn’t remember it particularly accurately. I remembered it, approximately, as “the real sign of a good reader is being able to find something to read on a railway station bookstall”. The variation isn’t really all that important, but my rewording glossed over any question of what is meant by “needs” in connection with reading. 

So far as this ideal of a good reader is concerned, its lifelong influence on me is pretty obvious, e.g. in the post you are reading now. I cultivated an interest in whatever books came to hand, and found after a while that I never really needed to go and buy new books; I preferred to loiter in the charity shops, since I was just as fulfilled by what I found there as by any imaginable alternative. (It also saved my purse and it appealed vaguely to ecological principles at the same time.)

This self-education in the books of the charity shop eventually provoked my notion of relativism. Since it was in fact possible, rather easily possible, to find something to read all the time, perhaps (I surmised) no book was really any better than any other; it was all about the reader. You could (I theorized) in principle harvest the same fruit from a worthless detective pap novel or a book of freezer recipes as from Julius Caesar and Leaves of Grass ; after all, wasn't the whole of culture encoded in the language and the moves made within any book? And what grounds had I to condemn what might seem dull or crude when I didn’t know the full context, when I didn’t write such books myself and wasn't part of their natural audience and didn’t even know what it’s like to write such books or read them in their intended context?

I don’t think Lewis would have approved that particular extension of his thought. He plainly believed in real values, and on his sixpenny tray he was certainly not envisaging freezer recipes. I think his example is carefully chosen, because he really thought ther was a lot more worth reading on the sixpenny tray (some Scott or Stevenson, for instance) than in fashionably abstruse shelves full of the Bloomsbury authors and modernism and other things he didn’t feel interested in grasping, like Wittgenstein. But I didn't absorb that part of the message. 

I didn’t remember the sentence accurately, and of course I didn’t remember its context either, at least not consciously. It comes from the chapter about “Affection” in The Four Loves (1960). Lewis remarks on the indiscriminate nature of affection and how (unlike the less humble loves) its objects are not selected; for their intelligence or sexiness, for example. We develop affection for someone because they just happen to be around. In that context he starts to talk about what it means to have a wide sympathy for other people; it isn’t demonstrated by having a large number of friends or lovers (because friends and lovers are chosen) but by a ready sympathy with people that you meet with but probably wouldn’t choose. That’s when the analogy with reading comes along. 

The whole chapter is good, but this is about me and the sentence. Forgetting the original context, I have extended the message I took away with me from the second-hand bookshop to other art-forms, nature, places, weather and people. It’s a seductive analogy but like all analogies it has falsity stitched into it. It all works very smoothly so long as you aren’t trying to accomplish anything. If things (or people) aren’t tools, why indeed should you get hung up about value? It sounds amiable, but is limited; of course the alternative sounds terrible – the way I’ve chosen to present it – people as tools! But reading books (and living with humans, too), these activities are diminished if they are just contemplative idylls, just about the mild pleasure of watching the clouds race and not about making things happen. I know this, but my nature didn’t want all that trouble; shrugged aside the unattractive risks of accusation or confrontation. That’s why I find the sentence a good example of what influence, too often, amounts to. You seize the little moment that fits how you already feel inclined to live. This is waking life, but it works in much the same way that dreams get composed out of materials that cohere because of multiple, stray, happy accidents. I was really influenced, but I had reasons for welcoming the influence.  

But still, Lewis was a great reader, so long as “great” means being open to wonder. A colleague remembered him, shortly before his death, enthusing boyishly about Les liaisons dangereuses; not a book you might have expected him to take to. “Why has no-one told me about this before?” he demanded. 


*





Notes:

* I picked it up to check the date of publication – it happened to be already out of the shelves – and lost most of an evening reading the first chapter for the hundredth time. [Aside from its own merit, it also produced a fine pendant in the form of John Carey's essay "Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Prose", printed in English Poetry and Prose 1540-1674, ed. Christopher Ricks (Sphere History of Literature in the English Language, Vol. 2). Carey, and to some extent Ricks, are post-Lewis critics quite as much as they are post-Leavis critics, and Carey's essay consistently has Lewis in view; chiefly in his energetic assaults on works canonized by Lewis such as More's Dialogue of Comfort, Sidney's Arcadia and Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity. Though Carey reaches quite opposite conclusions from his master, he reads these books in the same kind of way, as living repositories of values that must be earnestly proclaimed or torn down. When neither likes the book, they say merely the same things (Lyly's Euphuism), but Carey enjoys negative critique as much as Lewis did and he is prepared to sacrifice Bunyan altogether in order to spend a few pages ripping Walton's Lives to shreds; Carey on Bunyan would have taxed the author much more.]  

** It is fair to say that great swathes of Christian heartland do not agree with me. The impressive 140 reader reviews for Till We Have Faces on amazon.com speak of it as a life-changing discovery. (The largest number of reader reviews that I have come across is 267 for Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice.) [NB I wrote this in 2004. In 2016, Till We Have Faces has 526 reviews.] 

*** What Lewis did proclaim, at least when he was at his most unworldly, was essentially the Augustinian argument of De Civitate Dei. The nature of earthly government did not matter; one should be law-abiding, but what really mattered was the heavenly city. In principle this view implies political quietism; it lends no support to the idea that one kind of government is better than another. But in practice this means lending no support to political change, and in particular denying the aspirations of Marxist belief. A more developed political view grew out of studying Hooker and others for the “OHEL”. But the word “conservative”, even without a capital letter, creates a false idea of the kind of writer Lewis was – he was not a follower of ideas but a creator of them. It’s true that he often presented his views as if he was revering some tradition or orthodoxy, but this only reflects his myth-making temperament. His ideas were really a new development building on romanticism and in particular some of its nineteenth century offshoots (e.g. George Macdonald). For Lewis the ideas of the past were not a vague cloud of worthy sentiments, as for a conservative, but a dynamic intellectual conflict in which he eagerly participated as if it were all still alive (there are no “dead issues” in Lewis’s world). Wholesale acceptance or rejection of the past would have meant nothing to him; he grasped too much of the detail.  He defended what he cared about, and tended to re-invent it as he did it.

**** But he did, some years later, write a very powerful anti-vivisection essay; the grounds were philosophical and humanist.





  

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