“When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”
So wrote Winston Churchill, explaining the elaborate courtesy with which, on behalf of the British Government, he declared war on Japan in 1941.
Intellectual combat, like actual warfare, benefits from politeness. And in this respect, C.S. Lewis provides us with a notable example.
In his ripe, late work, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis guns down one of his Cambridge colleagues. But you will not learn the name of Lewis’s target from the pages of his book; he never mentions it. Why make your opponent’s fate worse by brandishing his identity before the public? Play the ball, not the man.
In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis sets out to discover what makes a book good. (We may usefully apply his findings to films and plays as well as books.) He concludes that what makes a book good is whether it “permits, invites, or even compels good reading”.
Very well. And what is good reading? Good reading is reading which does not use the book, but receives it.
Using a book (or a film, or a play) means interpreting it so that it serves some pre-existing agenda of your own, turning it to account, making it do things for you. Receiving a book is something quite different. Receiving means surrendering to it, allowing it to work whatever degree of authority it can attain, and paying respect to it on at least two levels, not just as ‘something said’ – that is, something with a social or political or religious message, – but also as ‘something made’ – that is, a work of art, a work of beauty, with its own internal logic or design or pattern.
In its capacity as a work of art, a novel, for instance, may be received as a carefully constructed object, a skilful blending of imagery and allusion and characterisation, of pacing and balance, of repetition and variation, of sharp-focussed foreground events and mistier background perspectives, not to mention all the other qualities that a genuinely artistic novelist will deploy in the making of this object. It is these qualities that we mean when we talk about a novel’s beauty, as distinct from its message. The message might be bad, but the book could still have beauty of a kind.
Lewis is not intending to suggest that beauty can be ultimately separated from goodness. Beauty, to be sure, has a moral dimension just as it has a spiritual dimension. Nevertheless, beauty, although inseparable from goodness, can be distinguished from goodness. The beauty of a thing is not precisely identical with its goodness – or, for that matter, its truth.
Lewis wrote An Experiment in Criticism after he had moved from Oxford University to Cambridge University to become its first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English. The English faculty at Cambridge in those years was dominated by a figure called F.R. Leavis. An Experiment in Criticism never mentions Leavis by name, but he and his followers appear in Lewis’s book under the guise of ‘the Vigilant Critics’. The Vigilant Critics are readers who, in Lewis’s view, are incapable of really and truly reading books because they are always either intent on putting books to use or else interested in receiving them only as something said, not also as something made. Lewis writes:
‘[The Vigilants] labour to promote the sort of literary experience that they think good; but their conception of what is good in literature makes a seamless whole with their total conception of the good life . . . Nothing is for them a matter of taste. They admit no such realm of experience as the aesthetic. There is for them no specifically literary good. A work, or a single passage, cannot for them be good in any sense unless it is good simply, unless it reveals attitudes which are essential elements in the good life.’
This is a word in season for many Christian scholars and artists today, I think. We are apt to betray ‘Vigilant’ tendencies in our own approach to art, either as makers of it or as critics. We tend to create and to approve only those works of art that reveal attitudes we consider to be essential elements in the good life. If a book (or a film or a play) has “a Christ character” or a “redemptive ending” or a “moral outlook”, it will be approved. If it doesn’t, it won’t.
Thus art devolves into being little more than propaganda. It’s there to propagate a message; it’s a tool by means of which a Christian ethic can obtain leverage in the public discourse. And a tool needn’t be beautiful; it only needs to work. Genuine art, in which beauty, style, tone, balance, pattern, and so forth are necessary ingredients, – all of that is exchanged for a pot of message.
When there is so much apologetic work to be done in a world desperate for the good news of God in Christ, it may be asked what could be more important than to strain every sinew in the service of the Gospel – and to forget luxuries like beauty and think only of utility. Isn’t beauty an extravagance? Shouldn’t we think only, or at least chiefly, of effectiveness, of usefulness?
Questions worth asking, to be sure. But what is the Gospel? It is not just a message, something said for the achieving of a particular utilitarian purpose. It is also a life, indeed ‘life in all its fulness’, something made by God to be received and enjoyed by us for its beauty, as well as for its goodness and its truth.
If we ask what’s the point of beauty, we are in danger of falling in with very dodgy company. It was Judas Iscariot, remember, who asked why the precious ointment was not sold and the money put to use. It is the servant, not the son, who thinks only in terms of utility, of how much money his work will get him from his Master, rather than how all his life contributes to a relationship with his Father. Work, however necessary, is not the end of life, only a means to an end, and the end we have in view includes beauty and sheer extravagant enjoyment. Six days God worked, but on the seventh day He rested and enjoyed what He had made.
In other words, it is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to make room for the aesthetic category. Pointless, ‘useless’ beauty is essential to the good life lived under God. When one comes to think of it, pointlessness is almost the definition of beauty. For as long as something has an obvious point we can describe it as useful, strong, effective, efficient, et cetera. But as soon as we observe something that has no obvious point and is yet still pleasing, we resort to calling it beautiful. If books and films are not to degenerate into mere tactical manoeuvres in the culture wars, we must retain space for aesthetic assessment, for consideration of a film or a book not just as something said, but also as something made, – something with its own beauty, however faint.
‘All criticism, no doubt, is influenced by the critic’s views on matters other than literature. But usually there has been some free play, some willingness to suspend disbelief (or belief) or even repugnance while we read the good expression of what, in general, we think bad . . . One could admit that Housman’s ‘Whatever brute and blackguard made the world’ hit off a recurrent point of view to a nicety, while seeing that in a cool hour, on any hypothesis about the actual universe, this point of view must be regarded as silly. One could, in a measure, enjoy – since it does ‘get the feeling’ – the scene from Sons and Lovers where the young pair copulating in the wood feel themselves to be ‘grains’ in a great ‘heave’ (of ‘Life’), while clearly judging, as if with some other part of the mind, that this sort of Bergsonian biolatry and the practical conclusion drawn from it are very muddled and perhaps pernicious. But the Vigilants, finding in every turn of expression the symptom of attitudes which it is a matter of life and death to accept or resist, do not allow themselves this liberty.’
And it is liberty that is at stake. The outlook which Lewis espouses here frees us from the ever-turning treadmill of propaganda into the spacious realm of art. Admittedly, it involves a certain loss of rigour, but then life after prison will always seem somewhat broad and latitudinarian to a jailbird. The gains, however, are immeasurable, – literally, immeasurable. We move beyond the precise calculation of effect, the exact calibration of ‘the message’, and are released into a sabbath rest. We escape the circle, the ever-tightening circle, of incessant strenuous computation.
In this freedom, we can begin to enjoy books (and films, and plays) for their own sake rather than for an end to which they can be put. We become freemen, rather than slaves. As Lewis points out in Studies in Words:
‘Free study seeks nothing beyond itself and desires the activity of knowing for that activity’s own sake. That is what the man of radically servile character – give him what fortune and leisure you please – will never understand. He will ask, ‘But what use is it?’’
In the West today, we have more fortune and leisure than any people on earth. Will we exercise our freedom to enjoy a world in which, in addition to work, there is art? Or will we retreat into a jailhouse of constant politicking?
The sort of cultural small-mindedness that Lewis exposes in his attacks upon Leavis and the Vigilant Critics could well be described as ‘Puritan’, in the popular sense of that word. Puritanism has indeed come to mean a sort of life-denying, over-serious, tub-thumping vigilance. But, as Lewis observes in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, the first Puritans were not like that at all. The original Puritans rejoiced not in works but in grace, not in how much use you could be put to, but how much gratuitous plenty you could receive.
When it comes to art, I would argue that Christians should be prepared – every now and again – graciously to waste their time noticing the aesthetic merits of non-Christian stories and films, even anti-Christian stories and films. It may seem pointless, but retaining the category of pointlessness is the very point at stake.
The art with which Lewis tackles Leavis is itself an example of beauty. No need to splatter his brains out and crow loudly over the corpse. When you have to dispose of a man’s ideas, it costs nothing to be polite.