Romanticism is “Spilled Religion”

Just this month, A Reading Life, a new collection of Lewis’s writings was released. The subtitle is “The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes.” The journey takes you through Lewis’s “fun, whimsical, and wise” words about authors like Shakespeare, Dante, and Tolstoy, as well as his good advice about reading well. I don’t see it in the collection, but I like this line from a letter to a student: “One of the minor rewards of conversion is to be able to see at last the real point of all the old literature which we are brought up to read with the point left out!”  (January 29, 1941).

This article is not about the new collection, though I’m sure the new book will be a valuable synopsis. Rather, given its release and this blog’s oft return to reading well per Lewis, I want to point our attention to the 1943 preface to A Pilgrim’s Regress. Here, we see Lewis re-reading his own prose 10 years after the first edition. It’s interesting how critical he is of himself. 

“On re-reading this book ten years after I wrote it, I find its chief faults to be those two which I myself least easily forgive in the books of other men: needless obscurity, and an uncharitable temper,” he says, cutting right to the chase. As to obscurity, he blames his own “rarely trodden” road that winds around and around philosophy before reaching Christianity. He says the very charitable word, “If I had had any notion of my own isolation, I should either have kept silent about my journey or else endeavoured to describe it with more consideration for the reader’s difficulties.” He illustrates his “blunder” by relating it to some journey no one’s taken through a desert that few have visited. His second reason for obscurity is his personal meaning of romanticism, and for this point, he lists seven uses of the word, concluding that he wouldn’t use the term to describe anything anymore. He thinks it’s just too misunderstood. Here’s an abbreviated run-through of the seven kinds:

  1. dangerous adventures in remote places;
  2. stories with dragons and magicians, fairies and dwarfs;
  3. characters who adhere to a “high-flown” code of ethics;
  4. tales like Poe that accent a love for death;
  5. self-absorbed and ego-driven characters;
  6. revolts against existing orders;
  7. one with nature tales.

Lewis knows that some authors fit into more than one category. “It will be seen, of course, that many writers are ‘romantic’ on more than one account,” he says, but in terms of his reflection on The Pilgrim’s Regress, he didn’t think romanticism in any of the above groupings. Rather, the story is attempting to present an “intense longing.” It’s a longing that is satisfying, like a hunger with the knowledge of food soon to be eaten, an example Lewis uses. “This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth,” he says. And, “For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”

Yes! This is so much the dance between suffering and hope in the Christian life, but Lewis has a second point of meaning. He says, “there is a peculiar mystery” to this longing. “Thus if it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks ‘if only I were there’; if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks ‘if only I could go back to those days’.” You’ll recall that he addresses this in his collection The Weight of Glory. He says a few things worth noting here –

  • “Glory, as Christianity teaches me to hope for it, turns out to satisfy my original desire and indeed to reveal an element in that desire which I had not noticed.” (“The Weight of Glory”)
  • “Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organisation which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials.” (“Learning in War-Time”)
  • “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (“Is Theology Poetry”)

Through the fits and starts of finding and losing meaning can lead us down this path of clarity. “It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given…”

This misunderstanding of romance fueled his writing and what he calls out as “uncharitable temper.” The works of Freud and Lawrence gave no place for “immortal longings,” and he says he lost his patience with American thinkers who placed romance in the category of nostalgia and not something impressing us into a future otherness. “In the end, I lost my temper,” he says.

“If I were now writing a book I could bring the question between those thinkers and myself to a much finer point,” Lewis notes. And what’s that finer point? Romanticism, in Lewis’s sense of the word, is “spilled religion.” It’s the trail – “those bright drops on the floor” – that can lead to the Truth of Christianity, or, as Lewis says, leading those who are willing, to “the end to taste the cup itself.”

He continues with some explanation about the meaning of the poles, in case it is lost to readers. His poles of North and South are the “over-wise and over-foolish” giants, of which we must navigate, desperately staying on the main road. The North hosts “men of rigid systems whether sceptical or dogmatic.” The South comprises “boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night… who offer some sort of intoxication.”

Both poles are evil and very much a looming presence today, perhaps even more than in the 1940s. How true is this, for example – “[For a Southerner] every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt,” Lewis says, and, “for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect.” Lewis assesses his moment in time to be very much a “northern” bent. I would suspect most of us would say our day holds fast to the “southern” sentiment – if you feel it, it’s legitimate and right, so go do whatever you want if it feels right to you. We must stay clear of both lest ensnarements. Lewis says, “We were made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men. Not beasts nor angels but Men—things at once rational and animal.” Or, as he says elsewhere, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal” (“The Weight of Glory”).

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