C. S. L. on reading old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

—C. S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

C. S. L. on slavery

Fifty years and a couple of days after he departed from the Shadowlands.

Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

—C. S. Lewis, ‘Equality’ (collected in Present Concerns)

To the end of the world (and back again)

This past Friday I received two books from Amazon, and passed the whole night and most of Saturday morning in an orgy of reading. First, as an hors d’oeuvre, I read C. S. Lewis’s collection The Weight of Glory, which is much less known than it ought to be; it contains some of Lewis’s best work. The main course was The Last Dark, the tenth and absolutely last of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books.

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C. S. Lewis on radical change

The Guide laughed. ‘You are falling into their own error,’ he said, ‘the change is not radical, nor will it be permanent. That idea depends on a curious disease which they have all caught — an inability to dis-believe advertisements. To be sure, if the machines did what they promised, the change would be very deep indeed. Their next war, for example, would change the state of their country from disease to death. They are afraid of this themselves — though most of them are old enough to know by experience that a gun is no more likely than a toothpaste or a cosmetic to do the things its makers say it will do. It is the same with all their machines. Their labour-saving devices multiply drudgery; their aphrodisiacs make them impotent: their amusements bore them: their rapid production of food leaves half of them starving, and their devices for saving time have banished leisure from their country. There will be no radical change.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

‘A Confession’, by C. S. Lewis

I have sometimes been asked why I write old-fashioned epic fantasy instead of something Edgy and Hip and Relevant and Commercial. I have also sometimes been asked (not always by the same people) why I write trivial and childish epic fantasy instead of something Deep and Meaningful and Artistic and Literary. To both those questions I have to give the same answer, which is a poem by the inimitable C. S. Lewis:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

Lewis on novels on Johnson on marriage

Marriage is not commonly unhappy, otherwise than as life is unhappy.

— Samuel Johnson

I can’t say that would be a whole novel with the moderns because the whole novel would not get as far as that.

— C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis on ‘Kelsie’

Excerpt of a letter from C.S. Lewis to his brother Warnie, 1 July 1921, as printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. I, p. 561:

Saturday evening . . . I dined alone with Kelsie. She always had her on days and her off days: and for many years now there have been times when I found têtes a têtes with her longer by mental measurement than the clock would vouch for. But on this occasion, honestly it was so boring that there was an air of insanity about it all: connected perhaps with the terrible heat and with that crowded tiny dining room at the Mitre. She never paused. Stories that I have heard from those same lips so often before followed one another: somebody was engaged and somebody else had broken off an engagement: the inevitable discussion of the Greeves’s: had I heard about so and so: did I remember what Willie Jaffé had done on such and such an occasion?

When we went up to the private room again, I could do no more. Wrapping my gown round her head to stifle her cries, I seized our cousin by the left ankle and precipitated her from the window. She flew out over the High in a great arc: the strolling butties and undergraduates looked up and shouted. But to my horror, just as she descended on one of the pinnacles of St. Mary’s spires, her dress developed a certain balloon like quality: instead of breaking into a thousand pieces she rose up on the giddy ledge and, just as I lost consciousness, I could hear her proclaim distinctly to the whole town ‘I once saw an awfully funny thing happen to a girl at Aldershot — .’ I can’t quite swear to all this having happened exactly as it is here set down: but something like it must have taken place, since the undoubted fact remains that I did get away.

Wendy Delmater explains admirably where Lewis went wrong:

He had no idea that seizing the offending drone by the left ankle always has that unfortunate effect. However, should one seize a bore by the right ankle and dangle him or her while making suitable threats, one might walk away with a pair of tickets to the theater. Even if one is forced to take the bore to the theater, good manners will suffice to keep the person quiet (except for intermission).

Do not ask me how I came by this clandestine knowledge. It is sufficient that I know.

C. S. Lewis on progress and ‘seeing through’

Late in The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis treats us to a chestnut about progress:

It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all.

The concluding half-paragraph of the book:

There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis — incommensurable with the others — and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.