Sunday, July 13, 2008

John Beversluis's critique of A. N. Wilson's Biography

This is John Beversluis's critique of A. N. Wilson's biography of Lewis, which originally appeared in Christianity and Literature in 1991, I believe. I remember longtime IVP editor Jim Sire sending it to me and asking what I made of it. The received view of Beversluis's book among Lewis sympathizers at that time was that the book was essentially a hatchet job on Lewis and that anything positive Beversluis might have had to say about Lewis was disingenuous. This essay refutes that viewpoint; no genuinely hostile critic would criticize what I have subsequently called the Anscombe Legend, and by that I mean the biographical claim that Lewis considered himself to be so thoroughly trounced in that debate that he gave up Christian apologetics. Beversluis affirms the legend in the 1985 edition of his book, but he abandons it here, because, as Lewis would say, "the weight of the evidence is against it." But no genuinely hostile critic would give up such a juicy theory for the mere trifling reason that it's not supported by evidence!

Surprised by Freud: A Critical Appraisal of A. N. Wilson’s Biography of C. S. LewisIn the preface to Surprised by Joy Lewis explains that the book is not a general autobiography, but the story of how he “passed from Atheism to Christianity” (vii) and that it omits everything irrelevant to the story, however important by ordinary autobiographical standards. It was not until 1974, eleven years after his death and nineteen years after the publication of Surprised by Joy, that the first biography pf Lewis appeared, coauthored by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper. The next dozen years produced a steady stream of books about Lewis’s work and several collections of reminiscences, but no more biographies. Then, between 1986 and 1990, three appeared in quick succession: by William Griffin, George Sayer, and, most recently, A. N. Wilson.

Although all cover more or less the same ground, each approaches Lewis from a different perspective and with a different emphasis. Green and Hooper, the pioneer work, is still eminently worth consulting. Palpably infused with a desire to enter into the mind and heart of its subject, it provides a judicious and sympathetic account of Lewis’s life without succumbing to the temptations of hagiography and hero-worship. Griffin’s is the least successful of the lot and a case unto itself. Subtitled A Dramatic Life, its imaginative reconstruction of Lewis’s world reads more like historical fiction and, at times, does tend towards hagiography and hero-worship. Sayer avoids both and sheds welcome new light—partly by devoting more space to Lewis’s early years and partly by being less reticent about the sensitive areas of his life: his ambivalent attitude towards his father, his gradual estrangement from J. R. R. Tolkien, his enigmatic relationship with Mrs. Moore, and his (to some) equally enigmatic marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham. Sayer’s affection for Lewis does not preclude candor, but he is not a gossip and never trespasses beyond the limits of privacy and propriety.

Which brings us to the new biography by Wilson. Repelled by the excesses of “Lewis idolatry” and determined to avoid turning him into a “plaster saint,” Wilson opts for a tough-minded, no-nonsense approach. The dust jacket gives fair warning of what we are in for: “Brilliant. Agnostic. Prejudiced. Gregarious. Bullying. Loyal friend. Heavy drinker . . . And, after his death, almost a cult figure. C. S. Lewis was all these things and . . . a mystery to those who thought they knew him best.” Notice: a mystery—not to those who knew him best, but to those who thought they did. This distinction is exploited with a vengeance as Wilson proceeds to recount The Unexpurgated Life of C. S. Lewis. Never mind Owen Barfield’s confession that Lewis “stood before [him] as a mystery as solidly as he stood besides [him] as a friend,”[ii] or Tolkien’s warning that Sayer would find Lewis interesting but “never get to the bottom of him,”(iii) or the well-attested fact that in some respects Lewis remained a mystery even to his beloved brother, Warnie. Wilson will tell all.

In addition to his alleged revelations about Lewis’s life, Wilson offers what purports to be a serious assessment of his work—literary as well as theological. But it is a curious assessment. Although he rarely agrees with Lewis, he rarely disagrees with him either. As a matter of fact, his criteria of assessment embody a rather blatant double standard. When he disapproves of an argument, he quarrels with Lewis’s logic and concludes that he has not established his claim. But when he approves of an argument, he does not praise Lewis’s logic and conclude that he has established his claim. Instead, he “accounts” for Lewis’s views in unabashedly reductionist psychological terms by tracing them to irrational causes, such as the childhood loss of his mother, his allegedly lifelong search for a mother substitute, and other psychological and emotional factors “over which [Lewis] had no control, and of which he himself perhaps had only an imperfect knowledge” (128).

This retreat into psychology is not a minor flaw—an occasional lapse, a harmless idiosyncrasy. It lies at the heart of Wilson’s biographical method and is already ominously present in the preface where he quotes Dostoevsky to the effect that if everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen; and thereupon announces that everything on earth is not rational and that all attempts to live in accordance with reason have failed. In view of these cosmic disclosures, it comes as no surprise to find Wilson insisting that Lewis’s “hugely popular” appeal “can only be explained” in psychological terms: the Lewis who “speaks” to “the present generation” is not the rational Lewis, but the Lewis who “plumbed the irrational depths of childhood and religion” (ix-x).

To assess the content of Wilson’s biography, we need to be clear about the method on which it is based. Wilson claims to have taken a fresh, hard look at the evidence; and his biography initially presents itself as a landmark book destined to supercede those of his insufficiently realistic—not to mention, idolatrous—predecessors in two important ways: first, he refuses to sweep embarrassing or otherwise unpleasant evidence under the rug; second, he claims to have unearthed new evidence. The result promises to be an enhanced understanding of Lewis—not Lewis the “plaster saint” but the “real” Lewis who “deserves our honour” (xviii).

But “evidence” is a slippery term. If Biographer A claims that there is more (or better) evidence for his/her portrayal of someone’s life than for Biographer B’s, he (or she) thereby endorses his/her portrayal as more reliable, as better attested by the facts. But the term “fact” is as slippery as the term “evidence.” Facts are not “out there” waiting to be discovered, like pears on a tree waiting to be picked. Facts are often contextual and theory-laden. What counts as a fact—what we learn from experience—often depends on what we bring to it.

This has momentous implications for biography. Wilson’s view of what counts as evidence (or as a fact) is determined by the theory-laden, pre-biographical commitments that he brings to his investigation. Although never articulated or made explicit, they are implicit throughout the book; they, too, are already ominously present in the preface where, having affirmed his belief in the irrationality of human life, Wilson explains how the relevance of this belief to himself as a Lewis biographer gradually became clear during a trip to Belfast that his “researches” required him to take:

Walking the streets of the working-class districts of the city one is confronted by distressing images of human irrationality . . . It would not be the best place . . . to take a non-believer in the hope of persuading him or her that Christianity was a very ennobling belief, but it is a very good place for a Christian to recognize what a small part reason lays in most human lives; and it might very well prompt the visitor, and even the resident, to hope that some form of Christianity could be expounded which was the agreed and good thing which all Christians hold in common . . . which Lewis named Mere Christianity. (x-xi)

It is instructive to ponder the non-committal language with which Wilson makes these “observations.” He does not say that he was confronted by these “distressing images,” but that “one” is confronted by them; he does not say that these images convinced him of the small part reason plays in most human lives, but that Belfast is “a very good place” for “a Christian” to “recognize” this; he does not say that they prompted him to hope for a more salutary form of Christianity, but that they “might very well” prompt “the visitor” or the “resident” to hope for such a thing.

What exactly is Wilson claiming here? Precisely who is “one”? (Or, for that matter, “the Christian,” “the visitor,” or “the resident”? In employing these locutions, Wilson is not referring simply (or even primarily) to himself; but neither is he referring to everyone—any Christian, Belfast visitor or resident you please. In fact, some of them might deny that the “distressing images” reveal the irrationality of human life. A few might even deny that they are distressing. But if Wilson is referring neither to himself nor to people-in-general, to whom is he referring?

This is no idle semantic quibble. There is, of course, nothing inherently suspect about referentially opaque locutions like “one,” “the Christian,” or “the visitor.” They are common in both spoken and written English; although a trifle pedantic, they are usually perfectly innocent. But these (in themselves innocent) locutions admit of other, more dubious uses in which this referential opacity is exploited in such a way that these ostensible appeals to allegedly corroborating but in fact unidentified, and unidentifiable, witnesses become diversionary maneuvers. Lacking specificity of reference, they drive a wedge between assertion and assertor and become insulating rhetorical devices that enable an author to decline responsibility for his/her claims but still advance them.

In any event, Wilson’s Belfast trip took him to Lewis’s childhood home, and it was there, while standing in the Little End Room, that he allegedly discovered that he was beginning to “come to terms” with “the Lewis phenomenon”:

I realized that what Lewis was seeking with such painful earnestness all his life was not to be found in this house; nor had it ever been, for any of the time he had lived there after his mother’s death. Without the capacity to develop an “ordinary” emotional life, based on a stable relationship with parents, Lewis was driven back and back into the Little End Room, “further up and further in.” (xii)

As “we” who live in the century of Freud have “learnt,” our lives are “profoundly affected” by our childhoods; like the rest of us, Lewis was “compelled to repeat or work out the drama of early years” (x). Accordingly, after his mother’s death he immediately embarked on a “quest” for mother substitutes—a quest that “dominated” his future relationships with women:

His companion for over thirty years was a woman old enough to be his mother; and when she died it was not long before, like a Pavlovian dog trained to lacerate his heart with the same emotional experiences, he married a woman whose circumstances were exactly parallel to those of his own mother in 1908—a woman dying of cancer who had two small sons. (xi-xii).

These wholly unargued claims and the question-begging language in which they are couched suggest that all this came to Wilson as a series of revelatory empirical discoveries. In fact, however, his use of “realized” is as suspect as his use of “one.” He does not say that during his trip to Belfast he was struck by the possibility that Lewis’s childhood loss might have played a role in his emotional development and that this would be an interesting hypothesis to test by studying his books, by conducting interviews with people who knew him, etc. He says that he “realized” that this was so. Since it is logically impossible to realize what is false, the implication is that what Wilson “realized” must be true.

This is not “research;” it is conceptual sleight of hand. Granted, a person can realize a lot while standing in a room for the first time: that it is larger (or smaller) than he had expected, that it commands a good view of the landscape, that it has been renovated since Lewis’s day, etc. But how, just standing there in the Little End Room, could Wilson have “realized” that Lewis’s childhood loss had shaped his entire emotional development, his future relationships with women, his literary tastes, and even his religious conversion? An occult epistemology is at work here.

Wilson’s biography is also an undisguised, and often severe, rebuke of “the Lewis cult” which (especially in America) is enamored of (what Wilson thinks is) a fiction: a morally scrupulous, non-smoking, and non-drinking Lewis rather than the “real” Lewis “both of whose sexual relationships were with women who had husbands still living”(xvi), who smoked “sixty cigarettes a day between pipes,” who “liked to drink deep” (xii), and who sponsored “bear and Beowulf” dinners each term the purpose of which “was primarily to get drunk” and to indulge in “rowdy songs and bawdy rhymes” and during which, as host, he would scurry about “exuberantly insistent” that everyone’s pint was full (xii, 130-31). As should be clear from these passages alone, Wilson is not a giant among Lewis biographers because of his cautious understatement, precision of utterance, and remarkable sensitivity to nuance. Although there is no denying the existence of an adoring constituency roughly describable as a “Lewis cult,” nothing is gained by this debunking campaign masquerading as a “more realistic” portrait. Ignorance and propriety prohibit me from venturing an opinion about the women in Lewis’s life, but I am not at all bothered by his personal habits. As for the “beer and Beowulf” Lewis and his “termly dinners,” about which Wilson tattles like a teacher’s pet, all I can say is: I wish I had been there!

These are not atypical or isolated examples. Wilson misses few opportunities to cast Lewis in an unfavorable light. Sayer’s Lewis—fond of beer, slightly overweight, with a network of tiny blood-vessels covering his face, devoted to his friends, and indifferent about his appearance—becomes Wilson’s heavy-drinking, “red-faced pork butcher,” “buttoned up” in his tiny circle of medieval cronies, and clothed in “shabby tweeds” (235-36). The language is pejorative, the tone berating, the drift dismissive. Wilson even has disparaging things to say about Lewis’s staggering correspondence. Unlike previous biographers, who note with admiration bordering on awe the dogged determination with which he replied to every letter he received out of a sense of obligation to his readers, Wilson briskly reports that Lewis was “addicted” to answering his mail and offers a less lofty explanation: “It could be said”—by “one,” I suspect—“that a man who was better adjusted . . . might have seen the dangers of such correspondences [that] quickly develop into fantasies” (235). As “evidence” for this remark—again not a verifiable or falsifiable empirical assertion responsibly advanced by the author of the book, but only something that “could be said”—Wilson cites Lewis’s correspondence with several American women after his debate with G. E. M. Anscombe—among them Joy Davidman Gresham, whose arguments he had demolished—and knowingly confides that it was “reassuring” to Lewis, still licking his Anscombe-inflicted wounds, to be able to refute “these unseen ladies across the water” (236).

Wilson’s credibility is also called into question by a glaring omission. He ignores three essays in which Lewis anticipates and (to my mind) discredits the method on which his biography depends. In them Lewis argues against (what in his “Open Letter to Dr. Tillyard” he calls) the “personal heresy,” i.e., the kind of criticism indulged in by amateur psychologists who think that a book “trickles out of [an author] like a sigh or a tear” and who infer “the pathology of a [writer] from his work.”(iv)Lewis calls this kind of criticism “Bulverism” and argues against it as follows:

Suppose I think . . . that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this . . . is “wishful thinking.” Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself . . . If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic . . . but only after you have . . . discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking . . . [Y]ou must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. [v) In fairness, I should add that although Wilson ignores these essays, he does allude to Lewis’s exchange with Tillyard and candidly acknowledges that he would have objected to “the present biography” as a “vivid example” of the personal heresy. But instead of showing that Lewis was wrong on literary grounds, he replies to the charge of having committed the heresy by committing it again: “It is typical of Lewis’s later self that he should have seen no virtue at all in Tillyard’s approach and . . . labeled it ‘heresy’” (146). Here we catch Wilson in the very act of explaining why Lewis is wrong before showing that he is wrong. Confronted with Lewis’s thesis that a writer’s arguments must be evaluated as arguments rather than as products of irrational causes in need of psychoanalytical explanation, he responds not by evaluating it as an argument, but by treating Lewis’s thesis as if it were itself a product of irrational causes in need of psychoanalytic explanation.

It is time to become very specific and to confront Wilson’s biography on its own carefully staked-out ground. His fondness for first recording what Lewis (or those who thought they knew him best) believed and then revealing what is actually the case is in evidence throughout the book.

Example one: Although Lewis “denied that the land of Puritania of . . . The Pilgrim’s Regress was to be identified with the North of Ireland, it plainly was so” (9). No evidence. No argument. It just “plainly was so.”

Example two: In Surprised by Joy Lewis recalls that during the autumn term of 1910 he discovered Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum and loved it at first sight. He adds that what he chiefly valued in Arnold was “a delightful quality of distance and calm, a grave melancholy [coupled with] a passionate, silent gazing at things a long way off” (SbJ, 53). Not so, grumbles Wilson; like so much else in Surprised by Joy, this explanation just “throws dust in the reader’s eyes.” The “great, obvious fact” is that Sohrab and Rustum appealed to Lewis because it is about a father and son who are separated (26-27). Wilson’s psychoanalytic method provides him with many other such “explanations” of Lewis’s literary tastes, including his fascination with George MacDonald’s Phantastes. According to Lewis, it was in this book that he first discovered holiness; in reading it, he claims, “my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized” (SbJ, 181). Again Wilson begs to differ: Lewis was attracted to MacDonald’s work because he is “the missing link between Spenser’s Faerie Queen and the writings of Freud and Jung” (46). As usual, Lewis got it wrong.

Example three: During the Christmas holiday of 1910 the Lewis brothers, then twelve and fifteen, were taken to see Peter Pan. Of what possible relevance is that? someone may ask. Hasn’t every child seen Peter Pan? According to Wilson, such questions betrays the fact that the questioner is not one of the elect to whom it is given to know the hidden meaning of these things. Yes, every child has seen Peter Pan, but not every child brings to the experience the psychological make-up of the young C. S. Lewis:

[T]here was no children’s story more apposite to his life than that of the little boy who could not grow up, and who had to win his immortality by an assertion of metaphysical improbabilities—in this case a belief in fairies. (26)

It seems, on the face of it, decidedly odd to fault someone who, in the course of telling the story of his religious conversion, fails to mention that he had seen Peter Pan forty years ago. Yet that is exactly what Wilson does. Lewis’s failure to mention this fact is one of “the Grand Conspicuous Omissions” of Surprised by Joy (26).

Wilson never makes the slightest attempt to justify these oracular pronouncements. But anyone who takes the trouble to recast them in argument form will discover that he is repeatedly guilty of the fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hocafter this, therefore because of this. Like many psychoanalytic theorists, Wilson thinks it is naïve to accept the reasons a person gives for his/her beliefs and conduct at face value. Such reasons, he thinks, are suspect and psychologically tainted at the source; indeed, in matters that touch a person deeply, they are not so much reasons as rationalizations—transparently unsuccessful after-the-fact attempts to justify on rational grounds beliefs and actions that are actually the result of irrational causes of which the person is typically unaware. Armed with this hermeneutical principle, Wilson effortlessly concludes that it is highly likely that Puritania is to be identified with northern Ireland and highly unlikely that Lewis loved the work of Arnold and MacDonald for the reasons he gave. He never acknowledges that Lewis’s reasons for his beliefs, literary tastes, and behavior constitute prima facie counterevidence to many of his own contentions. And he never explains why his explanations should be preferred to Lewis’s. It is not hard to see why. One of the enormous advantages of a biographical method like Wilson’s is that it guarantees in advance that there can be no counterevidence: his explanations are compatible with anything and everything. Confronted again and again with Lewis’s own testimony, he neither abandons nor modifies his claims; instead, he takes yet another plunge into Lewis’s psyche and surfaces clutching some still deeper irrational cause. He, in fact, seems prepared to say anything, however ad hoc or implausible, rather than acknowledge that Lewis’s reasons are genuine. The very fact that they are Lewis’s is sufficient to discredit them.

When Wilson is sure of his facts, he reports them without fanfare or warm-up rhetoric. When he is not so sure, he prefaces his claims with ostensibly reassuring but in fact empty epistemological verbiage: “It is clear that . . .,” “It is almost certainly the case that . . .,” “There are excellent reasons for supposing that . . .,” etc. But we would like better grounds than the mere statement “There are excellent reasons for supposing that . . .” In short, we would like the reasons themselves rather than the hearty assurance that reasons exist.

Nowhere are these tendencies more evident than in example four—Wilson’s libelous account of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore. In attaching himself to this “tyrannical” woman, Lewis subjected himself to “apparently cheerful domestic enslavement” (129). How is this to be explained? According to Mrs. Moore, her daughter Maureen, Warnie Lewis, and Lewis himself, he entered into this arrangement because he and Paddy Moore—Mrs. Moore’s son and Lewis’s roommate in a cadet battalion at Keble College—had made a mutual promise that, in the event only one of them returned from the war, he would assume responsibility for the parent of the other. Paddy Moore was killed in action; and, being an honorable man, Lewis kept his promise.

Wilson rejects this explanation out of hand. The “real” explanation is much more complex and much less noble. For one thing, the experience of being mothered for the first time since he was nine years old had made a deep impression on the mother-substitute-obsessed Lewis. Besides, by this time he was infatuated (and probably in love) with Mrs. Moore. And she reciprocated. In fact, according to Wilson, they were so jealous of their time together that on Sunday mornings they would pack the protesting Maureen off to church, leaving them alone “for a precious hour together” (66). Of course, everyone knows what a man and woman do the minute they are alone together.

Other biographers tread cautiously here, uncertain whether Lewis and Mrs. Moore were actually lovers. Wilson concedes that the attraction between them was not exclusively sexual, but his voyeuristic account is dominated by explicitly sexual considerations. Although he grudgingly acknowledges that we do not know for sure that they were lovers, he obviously believes that they were and insists that the burden of proof is on those who think they were not (58). Having ransacked Surprised by Joy for evidence, all he can come up with is Lewis’s cryptic remark that, upon returning to Oxford in 1919, his earlier hostility to the emotions “was very fully and variously avenged” (SbJ, 198)—scanty evidence, at best, and rendered even scantier by the adverb “variously,” which hardly suggests monogamy. Yet Wilson is confident that his prize sentence is an oblique allusion to Mrs. Moore.

It is singularly odd that Wilson, who routinely cites Lewis’s explanations of his beliefs and conduct only to malign them as lamentable specimens of self-deception, should pounce on this remark and regard it as so authoritative as to settle the matter. If Lewis cannot be trusted in general, why should he be trusted about this? Odder still, having momentarily ventured into the exposed territory of textual evidence, Wilson furtively tiptoes back into the protective thicket of psychoanalysis and reinstates his temporarily suspended policy of discounting everything Lewis says. If we follow him into the thicket and ask why Lewis omitted Mrs. Moore from Surprised by Joy, we learn that there is not only an obvious reason for this omission, but also an illuminating parallel between it and the equally revealing omission of his father’s death: Lewis “continued, throughout life, to be obsessed not only by his father, but also by the possibility that his life could be interpreted in a purely Freudian way” (110). In short, he omitted his father’s death not, as the now non-authoritative Lewis explains, because it was irrelevant to the conversion story; but because he feared that hostile readers would explain his conversion on Freudian grounds and claim that he could only come to terms “with a heavenly Father of his own projection when he had seen the last of his earthly father,” thus achieving “redemption by parricide” (111). As for Mrs. Moore, Lewis omitted her not, as he explains, because she was irrelevant to the conversion story too, but because, like Hippolytus in Euripides’ play, he had by this time rejected and suppressed erotic love directed towards mother substitutes.

Unlike other biographers, Wilson views Surprised by Joy as a highly unreliable source of information about Lewis’s life in general and about his religious conversion in particular. As he sees it, this book reveals Lewis’s “tremendous capacity” for thinking that he “saw human situations extremely clearly, but actually getting them plumb wrong” (255). For “a handful of obvious reasons” Lewis “draws a veil” over “the two greatest facts of his emotional history”—his relationship with his father and with Mrs. Moore. By the time he wrote the book, his picture of life had become so “idiosyncratic” that he was unable too see the significance of these relationships in his religious and emotional development:

So of his falling in love with Mrs. Moore we are merely informed that “even if I were free to tell the story, I doubt if it has much to do with the subject of this book,” and of his father’s death in the late summer of 1929 that this “does not really come into the story I am telling.” (106)

Wilson does not believe any of this for a minute:

If either is these sentences were true, the story would not have been worth telling, since the conversion would have been a purely fanciful affair which bore no resemblance to Lewis at the deepest levels of his being. (106-07)

Although Wilson acknowledges that it would be “far too glib” to suggest that Lewis consciously embraced Christianity “merely to give himself an excuse to abandon sexual relations with Mrs. Moore” (128), he cannot resist savoring the possibility. Nor can he resist complaining that since Lewis “buried these secrets” about his father and Mrs. Moore, “first from himself and then from others,” there is “not much hope” that readers will be able to “follow the story of his conversion”—which is, for the most part, “‘paper logic’ followed by a paragraph or two describing some of [his] religious experiences” (107).

It is perhaps worth emphasizing that I am not denying that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers, thereby rendering myself a promising candidate for induction into Walter Hooper’s Cult of “the Perpetual Virginity of C. S. Lewis” which allegedly flourishes at the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society (xv-xvi). vi I am simply pointing out that, given the available evidence, we cannot know that they were. Since no further facts are likely to turn up, the only reasonable position is permanent agnosticism. There is no burden of proof on anyone. Indeed, except for zealots and gossips, there is nothing to prove.

Wilson is weak on many aspects of Lewis’s life, but he is perhaps weakest on the sexual aspect. Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore is not the only area on which he beams his invasive floodlight. He is also positively delighted to report that, apparently unlike any other adolescent in the known world, Lewis engaged in masturbation; and he enthusiastically directs us to passages in Lewis’s letters to Arthur Greeves in which he discusses “It” together with “some of his more bizarre sexual preferences and fantasies” (49).

Before proceeding further, I trust that no one will think me naïve or prudish for saying that I find it utterly appalling that almost forty-five years after the death of the one of the most distinguished literary historians of his age and one of the most celebrated Christian apologists of any age, we should be chattering about his known masturbation, alleged sexual perversions, suspected sexual liaisons, and (according to Wilson) probable premarital sexual involvement with Joy Davidman Gresham (256-57). If there were any way to avoid all this, I would (like Lewis at the prospect of pain) “crawl through sewers to find it.” As things stand, however, we must crawl through sewers to escape it. No one can come to terms with this aspect of Wilson’s biography without trying to deal with these matters as delicately and honorably as he has indelicately and dishonorably.

According to him, Lewis’s “more bizarre sexual preferences and fantasies” are clearly discernible in his relationship with Mrs. Moore. Indeed, his (apparently extraordinarily satisfying) immersion in the mundane details of domestic life betrays distinctly “sado-masochistic tendencies” (129). To feel the full impact of Wilson’s contention, let us assume for the sake of argument what I am unwilling to assert as a fact—namely, that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers. The question then arises: Why, after their affair had ended, would Lewis prolong his “domestic enslavement,”[vii] voluntarily (and, from all reports, good-naturedly) leaving his desk to run errands, serve tea to her friends, and perform menial household chores? Whatever answer we give, it cannot be Wilson’s whose comments are so scurrilous that, lest I be suspected of tendentious (and even malicious) paraphrase, I will quote his very words:

There are some men who pay prostitutes not only for overtly sexual favors, but for humiliation of the most humdrum kind. Such people, caught in a strange web of masochism, find their emotional fulfillment not in acts of love but in being made to scrub kitchen floors or scour out pans. “He was as good as an extra maid,” said [Mrs. Moore]. (128)

It is the most chilling passage in the book and one of the most demeaning remarks I have ever read in any book. My first reaction was to register a resounding protest—to complain that Wilson does not offer this as the clinical diagnosis of a professional psychoanalyst after years of intimate association with a patient, but simply tosses it out as an undocumented assertion of an amateur psychologist about a person he had never even met.

But my first reaction was too hasty. If you reread the passage carefully, you will discover that Wilson does not advance this as an undocumented assertion. Indeed, he does not assert it at all; and, hence, a fortiori he does not assert it about Lewis. He merely reports that there are “some men” who find emotional fulfillment in being made to perform menial chores, and then quotes Mrs. Moore saying that Lewis was as good as an extra maid. The connection between sado-masochistically motivated floor-scrubbers and C. S. Lewis, the floor-scrubber, is never explicitly made. It is, of course, implied; but that is another matter. Wilson leaves it to the reader to make the connection. Like his use of “one,” “a Christian,” “the visitor,” and “the resident,” it is yet another example of saying and not saying, of insinuating that something is true without asserting that it is true or even, if pressed, refusing to endorse the connection once it has been made by someone else—like the editor of a scandalous tabloid responding to irate criticism by benignly observing, “Well, I never quite said that, did I?” And he is probably right. He probably never quite did say that. But he wants his readers to believe it. And so, I suspect, does Wilson. Here, as elsewhere, his book is a paradigmatic example of what Robert Gidding calls “the biography of denigration.”[viii While reading it, I continually found myself wondering what had become of the C. S. Lewis who “deserves our honour.”

Example five: Joy Davidman Lewis. A great deal has been written about Lewis’s wife, much of it unflattering. She has been described as possessive, scheming, hard, loud, and abrasive. Informed sources report that many of Lewis’s friends did not like her and that some actively disliked her. Wilson says that Lewis was hurt by this and, on the social level, genuinely perplexed; but he adds that in his “cooler, more rational moments” Lewis understood the reasons and could spell them out “with all his old merciless analytical power” (272). As “evidence,” he quotes a few lines from The Four Loves—which he describes as “not so much a treatise as a piece of oblique autobiography” (274)—in which Lewis deplores the non-intellectual woman who invades the intellectual male circle and replaces conversation with “an endless prattling ‘Jolly’”:

She can never really enter the circle because the circle ceases to be itself when she enters it . . . By learning to drink and smoke and tell risqué stories, she has not . . . drawn one inch nearer to the men . . . whose evenings she has spoiled. (108-09)

Wilson claims that all this was “profoundly true” of the “low-brow,” “rude,” “strident,” “bad-tempered,” “self-assertive,” “profane,” and “obscene” Joy Davidman Lewis (240, 273). According to him, this passage is not only a thinly disguised allusion to Lewis’s wife, but also the “obituary” of his old friendships that she had ruined (273).

Having never met Lewis’s wife, I do not know whether, or to what extent, Wilson’s description of her is accurate. What I do know is that it is hard to reconcile his withering denunciation of her with the bereaved Lewis’s touching tribute to her as “my trusty comrade, friend, ship-mate, fellow-soldier . . . all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more” (AGO, 39). These are not the grumblings of a resentful man whose wife had spoiled his evenings by afflicting him and his male friends with “endless prattling ‘Jolly’” that left him longing for the old days.

Example six: the Lewis-Anscombe debate. On February 2, 1948 G. E. M. Anscombe, then a tutor at Somerville College, read a paper to the Oxford Socratic Club in which she presented a critique of Lewis’s argument against naturalism as set forth in chapter three of Miracles. Reputable authorities disagree about whether Lewis was bested in the discussion that followed, but several eye-witnesses report that they certainly thought so and that Lewis did too, ruefully acknowledging that he was unequipped to cross swords with a professional philosopher. Their opinion was summed up in Humphrey Carpenter’s remark that Lewis had “learnt his lesson” and wrote no further books on Christian apologetics.ix

Predictably, Wilson goes much further. Before turning to his account, however, let us linger for a while over Carpenter’s claim. Four points are important. First, the debate with Anscombe was by no means Lewis’s first exposure to a professional philosopher. He had read Greats, had lived among philosophers all his life, and had even taught philosophy for a while. Second, it is simply untrue that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics. In 1960 he published a second edition of Miracles in which he revised the argument of chapter three, thereby replying to Anscombe. Third, most printed discussions of the debate, my 1985 edition of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion included, fail to mention that Anscombe herself complimented Lewis’s revised argument on the ground that it is “much more serious” and “far less slick” than its predecessor. Finally, the myth that Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics also overlooks the fact that Lewis published several post-Anscombe articles, among them “Is Theism Important?” (1952)—a discussion of Christianity and theism that touches on philosophical proofs for God’s existence and their relevance to the religious life—and “On Obstinacy in Belief” (1955)—in which he defends the rationality of continuing to believe in God in the face of apparently contrary evidence (which was the issue in philosophical theology during the late 1950s and early 1960s). It is rhetorically effective to announce that the post-Anscombe Lewis “wrote no further books” about Christian apologetics, but it is pure fiction. Even if it were true, what would this Argument from Abandoned Subjects prove? He wrote no further books about Paradise Lost either.

Wilson not only perpetuates the myth that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics; his account implies that it did not take a G. E. M. Anscombe to demolish the argument of Miracles. Reading Wilson’s account, I got the distinct impression that had he been present, he could have trounced Lewis himself. He writes: “Any dispassionate observer can at once see many flaws in Lewis’s arguments” (212). But the worst is yet to come. What happened that night at the Socratic Club was “no mere intellectual brawl.” It was also an “emotionally depleting” experience that proved to be yet another of Wilson’s “great landmarks” (211) in Lewis’s emotional development. It “awakened all sorts of deeply seated fears in Lewis, not least his fear of women” (214):

Once the bullying hero of the hour had been cut down to size, he became a child, a little boy who was being degraded and shaken by a figure who, in his imagination, took on witch-like dimensions. He felt that he was arguing so coherently for the existence of that Other World . . . [a]nd now here was a grown-up who was not convinced. (214)

To recover, Lewis had to persuade himself that the “brutal and cerebral” way “in which grown-ups come to conclusions is not the only way” and that “make-believe” gives us access to another world which “opens up to the Dreamer through a piece of bedroom furniture. The seeds of the first Narnia story were dawning in his mind.” (214).

So “profound” was Anscombe’s effect on Lewis that he not only a child but was also reduced to writing books for children in which he abandoned the “cerebral and superficial defence of religion of the kind attempted at the Socratic Club” and retreated “into the recesses of . . . his own emotional history, his own most deeply felt psychological needs and vulnerabilities” (228). Forgetting that Anscombe was a Roman Catholic, Wilson carelessly asserts that the episode in The Silver Chair where the white witch traps the children underground and tries to persuade them that there is no other world is “a nursery nightmare version” of the Lewis-Anscombe debate and that the witch is none other than G. E. M. Anscombe (226-27)! Amid all this melodrama, Wilson neglects to mention that just a few days after the debate Lewis miraculously overcame his “deeply seated” fear of women long enough to enjoy a pleasant dinner with the witch at the home of his physician Dr. Robert Havard. Wilson’s account of the debate itself is highly exaggerated, and his description of its psychological impact on Lewis borders on self-parody.

There is an established literary genre that serves as a precedent for biographies like Wilson’s and nicely accommodates them—namely, anecdotal history. Wilson’s life of C. S. Lewis belongs on the same shelf with Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers—an indistinguishable blend of fact and fiction: highly opinionated, often gossipy, occasionally offensive, interesting enough to keep us turning pages but not judicious enough to win our confidence. Like Diogenes’ Lives, it is a book whose authority diminishes with every rereading. If Griffin’s biography is the idealization of Lewis’s life, surely Wilson’s is its vulgarization.

Of course, it is not wholly without merit. Wilson is capable of flashes of insight, e.g., the striking differences he sees between Lewis the literary critic of extraordinary sensitivity and Lewis the Christian apologist who “sometimes oversimplifies” and tends to be a bit “breezy.” He occasionally spots weaknesses in Lewis’s arguments, e.g., the Either God or Bad Man Dilemma. He is very good on Lewis’s literary criticism—in particular, The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image—and he makes some trenchant observations about Lewis as a literary critic, e.g., his often militantly traditionalist stance and tendency to justify his ignorance of “modern” writers on ideological rather than aesthetic grounds. He is also capable of genuine compassion—for Lewis’s lovable brother, Warnie, and, above all, for his admittedly inept but well-intentioned father whom Lewis never tires of subjecting to heartless ridicule.Yet, in spite of these incidental merits, Wilson’s biography is a patronizing and, ultimately, cruel book in which Lewis’s true stature and nobility are sabotaged and replaced by an all-but-unrecognizable, if not positively deviant, figure whose pseudo-identity will be uncritically assimilated by many who will never seriously read him.

Wilson has not sufficiently pondered Robert Gitting’s arresting remark that biography is never just an exploration of one’s subject, but always and inescapably also an exploration of oneself. x After publishing a book of verse whose title-poem, Wentworth Place, recorded a series of impressions of the two years Keats spent at the Hampstead house of the same name, Gittings experienced “some stirrings of artistic conscience” that “made me question my own right to present Keat’s life in this way, without having ascertained the truth on which my poetic assumptions were based. Did the Keats I conceived ever exist?”xi A. N Wilson should ask himself the same question about C. S. Lewis.


This essay is a revised version of a paper I presented to the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society on July 25, 1990. I am grateful to Walter Hooper who arranged for me to spend the summer of 1990 in Lewis’s Oxford home, the Kilns; and to David Dodds and Clive Tolley who warmly welcomed me, graciously invited me to read this paper, listened to an earlier draft, and offered helpful criticism.

[ii] “Introduction,” in Jocelyn Gibb, ed. Light on C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, 1965), p. 21.

[iii] George Sayer, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Life and Times (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 17.

ivSee “Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,” in They Asked for a Paper: Essays and Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), p. 120.

v“Bulverism,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 271-72.

viThis remark is very unfair to Hooper who as early as 1974 acknowledged that Lewis “may very well” have been sexually involved with Mrs. Moore (Green and Hooper, p. 56) and who more recently has stated that “the notion of sexual intimacy between the two must be regarded as likely,” although he adds that the situation in which they found themselves—which combined motive, means, and opportunity—“invites, though it does not demand, the conclusion that [they] were lovers (All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927 (New York: Harcourt, 1991), p. 9

[vii] For Lewis’s almost day-by-day—and very different—account of life with Mrs. Moore, see his now published diary—All My Road Before Me—a valuable source that, according to Owen Barfield, “will do much to rectify the false picture that has been painted of her as a kind of baneful stepmother and inexorable taskmistress” [quoted by Hooper, C. S. Lewis: Companion and Guide (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), p. 715].

Robert Giddings, The Nature of Biography (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), p. 21.

ix Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (Boston: Houghton, 1979), p. 217. Carpenter’s full claim is that Lewis “wrote no further books of Christian apologetics for ten years, apart from a collection of sermons; and when he did publish another apologetic work, Reflections on the Psalms, it was notably quieter in tone and did not attempt any further intellectual proofs of theism or Christianity.” This is inaccurate. Lewis did write more works about Christian apologetics, but Reflections on the Psalms is not one of them. As he himself points out in the preface: “[T]his is not what is called an ‘apologetic’ work. I am nowhere trying to convince unbelievers that Christianity is true . . . A man can’t be always defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it” (p. 6).

[x] Giddings, p. 10

xi] Ibid., p. 10.

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