C.S. Lewis thought reading the daily newspaper was a waste of time, did not watch television, reluctantly agreed to radio appearances, and only rarely went out to the movies. So what can Lewis teach us about popular culture? Although it doesn’t initially appear that we can learn much from him on this topic, he has much to offer.
Popular culture today is a mixture of a variety of mediums, with the emphasis on film, television, and music as the dominant forms. As I have stated elsewhere, film and television are the “new literature,” meaning that interest in them has largely displaced books.
Lewis’s 1961 work An Experiment in Criticism presents his mature views on literature. The “experiment” in the book is to examine how readers treat literature, rather than to evaluate the quality of a particular work of literature on the basis of traditional literary criticism of his day.
As Lewis explained it, “Literary criticism is traditionally employed in judging books … I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.”
But what has this to do with popular culture? One thing that can be done, as an experiment itself, is to apply some of the insights Lewis offers in An Experiment in Criticism to contemporary popular culture. How is pop culture used? Why do those who like it appreciate it? Are there distinctions between careful and careless viewing of film and television? Do we search for the profound and insightful in pop culture?
Lewis would press us to develop reasons for our beliefs and attitudes about pop culture. There has to more than, “Ugh! I didn’t like it,” or “Wow! That was great.” We need to move beyond emotive utterances and instead move toward intellectual assessment.
In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis wrote about differences between “using” and “receiving” in relation to literature. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way,” wrote Lewis. Applying this approach to popular culture does not mean we ignore discernment or analysis, but that we delay criticisms and judgments of pop culture until we have sought to understand what we have seen or heard or read.
Does popular culture have anything of real value to offer? That depends on the pop culture in question. While it is unlikely that we will glean anything of lasting value from a vacuous reality television program, we may gain powerful insights into a moral dilemma from a well-crafted dramatic film or television program.
In reference to literature, Lewis wrote, “What then is the good of – what is even the defence for – occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feeling which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that could never exist … The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own …”
Our own eyes, Lewis went on to say, are not enough. We desire to “see through those of others … in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself … I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Popular culture can also help us “seek an enlargement of our being.” We can “see with other eyes,” even if we disagree with what we see.
But can pop culture help us grow in the manner that Lewis believed great literature could? Some would quickly say no, but isn’t this going too fast? Given that film and television are the dominant mediums of pop culture, it would be to our advantage to seek to understand their expressions as best we can rather than simply dismissing them out of hand.
Robert Velarde is an author, editor, and philosopher. His blog, “A Reasonable Imagination,” is at robertvelarde.blogspot.com.