Monday, October 11, 2010


The first in an occasional series of responses to "The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis"


Fleming, John V., "Literary Critic" in “The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis”, edited by MacSwain, R. and Ward, M., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK (2010)

I always warn my Philosophy students, about two weeks into the course, never to patronize Plato. I'm fond of quoting Alfred North Whitehead at them: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." It's a warning I need to repeat periodically.

They need this warning because by this time they have met both Plato and Aristotle, and found the latter’s model of the universe more familiar to them than the former’s. In fact, they have begun to pigeon-hole Plato (and his division of reality into two eternally divided planes of existence – the spiritual and the material) as an irrelevant hang-over from some primitive, superstitious pre-history. They need reminding that all of western philosophy is a continued exploration of questions and themes identified by Plato. Even the great Aristotle is defined largely by his disagreement with Plato, who had mapped out the terms of engagement on the nature of reality, goodness, virtue, truth, knowledge and political governance when Aristotle was still a callow youth.

The point is that Whitehead had fundamental disagreements with Plato, but recognized that he and his peers work entirely within this field of enquiry that Plato mapped out. He never spoke of Plato condescendingly as a product of his times, never damned him with faint praise, and never spoke of his achievements just to set him up for an assault on his outmoded a priori assumptions.

In some ways, I feel, John V. Fleming is Aristotle to C. S. Lewis’s Plato. I am not aware that he was ever Lewis’s pupil in the way that Aristotle was Plato’s (Lewis retired from teaching at Oxford shortly before Fleming went there as a student) but Fleming is one of today’s leading scholars in the field for which Lewis was most admired in academic circles: medieval romantic poetry. He is on some issues one of Lewis's sternest critics. And in the brilliant recently published “Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis”, he contributes the opening chapter on Lewis as a literary critic.

By way of background, Lewis did pioneering work in bringing some of these epic medieval poems into the world of academic debate, and in the process he identified the concept of ‘courtly love’ as the driving paradigm behind this form of literature. Courtly love is best explained as the relationship between a noble knight and his beloved: subject to rigid protocol, ineffably romantic, chaste, each the epitome of truthfulness and honour, with the woman served by the man and venerated by him as the pure, untouchable embodiment of beauty and virtue.

I have not read either the epic poems to which Lewis devoted so much of his life and energies, nor have I read any of his books about them. On the other hand, I have read most of his populist writing; I have some understanding of, and empathy with, the meta-narrative that he brought to his analytic work. And I can see how his high view of courtly love in terms both moral and artistic could have been informed to some extent by wishful thinking. The kind of attitude to human love that he describes (or rather, prescribes) in his role as a Christian ethicist has much in common with it, and is deeply rooted in the classical and biblical concept of agapê or altruistic love which Christians associate with the self-giving action of God in Christ. To regard divine-human love as the role model for human relationships is in the main stream of Christian ethics.

Fleming rejects the concept of courtly love as unhelpful and misleading (p16), and in fact he often apostrophizes the term, perhaps a little ironically, in his essay. He is entitled to do so, and indeed I agree (much as a mouse might agree with a lion) with some of his criticisms. However, as with Aristotle and Plato, Fleming unavoidably works within the boundaries of a discipline developed and codified by Lewis. And however strongly he disagrees with Lewis, however much he rejects Lewis’ assumptions, however fiercely he disowns Lewis’ methodology and conclusions, he owes Lewis more respect than he shows in this essay.

In fairness, there are few openly negative comments, particularly in the early part of the essay, where Fleming nevertheless makes his disagreements with Lewis clear:

‘Courtly love’ is not a medieval term. It was first used in the 19th century by a French medievalist… (p16)  

’Everyone has heard of courtly love,’ Lewis writes, ‘and everyone knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc."   (p16)

’Comparatively few still believe, as Lewis did,  that courtly love reflects an actual social reality...' (p16)

Indeed, most of the essay's descriptive and analytic passages show considerable enthusiasm for Lewis’ knowledge and style, even where his assumptions and conclusions are dismissed as questionable. It is in the final section headed “Assessments” where Fleming summarises his own evaluation of Lewis that things sound a little less positive:

“…he was strangely content to identify ‘courtly love’, an extra-Christian if not anti-Christian substitute for the foremost of the theological virtues, as the mainspring of medieval European poetry.” (p25, my italics)

Fleming continues, without clarifying what he thinks the foremost of the theological virtues to be:

It is my opinion…that in his pursuit of ‘courtly love’…he became the corrupting Aristotle who misled a generation of readers in understanding the supremely important poem he had done so much to rescue from oblivion.”

I would love to know Fleming comes to see Aristotle as a paradigm of corrupting influence (indeed it is ironic that he himself seems to be acting as the Aristotle to Lewis’s Plato). I also cannot relate to the ‘strangely’ I have italicized above, even in the full context in which it occurs, because courtly love seems to articulate precisely (albeit in a radically different cultural setting) a biblical picture of male-female relationships modeled on the eschatological relationship between Christ as groom and the Church as bride, which I am sure is what Lewis himself had in mind.

Two further references in the essay are worthy of comment. In the context of a paragraph on Lewis’ generosity of spirit, the suggestion that he even on one occasion "approaches genuine scorn for a fellow literary critic" (p26) seems a disparaging non-sequitur. And finally, the last paragraph contains the single most patronizing comment in the entire essay:

What a professor can point out, perhaps, is that Lewis’s prose is probably most confident and also most magnificent when he is addressing an audience most like himself: an audience admiring of and widely read in the earlier periods of English literature. (p27, italics original)

What a layman reader of Lewis’ works can point out, perhaps, is that hundreds of thousands of very ordinary people have been moved and inspired by his confident and magnificent prose, and that many of them might think this statement says more about the essay’s author than its subject.

The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis is essential reading for any fan of Lewis’ work. I feel that this opening essay, however, starts the anthology out on a less than totally gracious note.

No comments:

Post a Comment