Earlier this week, Daniel touched on some newspapers’ breathless “C.S. Lewis had premarital sex” exposes. Some of the comments on his post have mentioned the critique of Lewis in the Nov. 21 New Yorker.
Adam Gopnik’s essay offers the depth of detail readers would expect from The New Yorker, but dwells at tiresome length on Lewis’ sex life. In describing Lewis’ relationships with Janie King Moore and Joy Davidman, Gopnik leaves the impression that they were both married women still living with their husbands when they took to bed with Lewis. (We know that Davidman did. Contrary to Gopnik, we cannot be certain that Lewis and Moore “had a long affair.”)
Gopnik (pictured) does not mention that Lewis was fulfilling a promise to a World War I buddy to look after his widowed mother. (Whether Lewis and Moore ever engaged in a bit of the old non-marital rumpy pumpy is, as some comments on Daniel’s post indicate, not of great interest to Lewis admirers who understand that Lewis did many things before his conversion that he would not have done after it.)
Joy Davidman, in turn, was separated from her husband when she met Lewis, and Lewis left no impression that he was, in Gopnik’s words, “seduced by a married woman” by the time they were wed in a civil ceremony.
But enough about sex, as some of us are at least descended from the British.
Besides, Gopnik also is annoyed by Lewis’s brand of Christian faith. Gopnik depicts Lewis as a victim of that infamous Catholic soul-stalker, J.R.R. Tolkien:
It was through the intervention of the secretive and personally troubled Tolkien, however, that Lewis finally made the turn toward orthodox Christianity. In company with another friend, they took a long, and now famous, walk, on an autumn night in 1931, pacing and arguing from early evening to early morning. Tolkien was a genuinely eccentric character — in college, the inventor of Lothlorien played the part of the humorless pedant — who had been ready to convert Lewis for several years. Lewis was certainly ripe to be converted. The liberal humanism in which he had been raised as a thinker had come to seem far too narrowly Philistine and materialist to account for the intimations of transcendence that came to him on country walks and in pages of poetry. Tolkien, seizing on this vulnerability, said that the obvious-seeming distinction that Lewis made between myth and fact — between intimations of timeless joy and belief in a historically based religion — was a false one.
And so on. (This exceptionally long rant ends with Lewis on the brink of becoming a churchgoer, as if his conversion consisted primarily of faithful pew-warming at the nearest Anglican chapel.)
For Gopnik, Lewis commits the unpardonable modern sin of insisting that there’s such a thing as objective religious truth (and not merely subjective individual religious preference). On this point, Gopnik manages to make the postwar University of Oxford sound like a center of conformist Anglican piety:
Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it. But perhaps his leap from myth to Christian faith wasn’t a leap at all, more of a standing hop in place.
Most tellingly, while criticizing Lewis for his allegories, Gopnik shows a breathtaking literalism:
The trouble was that though he could encompass his obsessions, he could not entirely surrender to his imagination. The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter’s son — not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.
So much for the Lion of Judah.
Memo to the legendary fact-checkers of The New Yorker: Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, not A Grief Portrayed.