Losing Self in Great Literature


The Bodleian Library in Oxford

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”  – C.S. Lewis

It is often said that reading literature helps cultivate empathy.  In particular, literary fiction is said to be of great importance in this regard:  “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy -The types of books we read may affect how we relate to others”

I love it when modern science spends time and money to “prove” knowledge that human cultures have already intuitively grasped for centuries.  Just another example of what “chronological snobbery” will get you, I guess.

C.S. Lewis would agree about the snobbery and, more importantly, about the value and power of great literature.  I have been reading a bit from his collection of essays in An Experiment in Criticism for my graduate work.  Below is a passage that resonated deeply with me.  As a child, my parents encouraged us to read and they made sure to have a host of great books about the house from which to choose.  I am so thankful for this. My husband and I are trying to continue that wonderful tradition for our daughters.

Lewis wrote that “those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.”  So much of who I am is a result of the books I have been exposed to throughout my life.  Here is Lewis:

“What then is the good of- what is even the defence for -occupying our hearts with stories that never happened and entering into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist – on Dante’s earthly paradise, Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles, Chaucer’s or Spenser’s Lady Nature, or the Mariner’s skeleton ship?  

… the nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we see an enlargement of our being.  We want to be more than ourselves …we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels … we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.” ― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 1961

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One thought on “Losing Self in Great Literature

  1. Pingback: Reflections on “I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love” by Tim Muehlhoff | Along the Beam

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