An Experiment in Charity: Reflections on C.S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism”


“Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself and to wake up to the world of others. It says: ‘Look at this, listen to this, study this – for here is something more important than you.’”  ~ Sir Roger Scruton

Can a book on literary criticism hold any value for Christian apologetics?  Insofar as the apologetics in question involves culture, yes, it can.  Where can we turn to find such a pairing of literary theory and theology?  Nowhere better than to a mature Cambridge professor at the end of a distinguished career, reflecting back on his life-long love of reading.  Enter C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, writer, medievalist, and literary scholar, and his book An Experiment in Criticism.  Here, we see Lewis offering a more personal approach to judging a book than the standard theoretical ones.  These theories tend to reduce what constitutes good literature to their particulars and uses, thereby putting it on the “quicksand” of subjective opinion.[1] For Lewis, this is the kind of modern analysis that becomes a “basilisk which kills what it sees and sees by killing.”[2]  He turns this approach on its head, proposing to “judge a book” not by its constituent parts, but by its effects on the good reader, the latter representing more “solid ground” than the ever-shifting phenomenon of taste.[3]  He writes that we should define “good literature as that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading.”[4]  In this, we see Lewis not only making a defense for the irreducible value of literary beauty, but also demonstrating how to be receptive to its positive effects.  Lewis makes the case for why we should avoid dismissive vigilantism when it comes to secular writing.  Instead, he encourages us to seek to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men”, refraining from the easier project of reducing the work to a message we might find problematic.[5]  As Christian apologists, we are encouraged to keep our own basilisks at bay.  Indeed, one could argue that Lewis’s experiment has ramifications that extend beyond the act of reading, as it involves principles that we should take into all of our endeavors as apologists, artists, and followers of Christ.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis appears to be taking on yet another realm of modern life where the existence of differences with which some engage in certain activities has been mistaken for a general principle, namely that the activities themselves must, therefore, be entirely subjective.  As in The Abolition of Man, he is resisting such oversimplifications because they end up destroying the very activities they analyze, whether they are moral duties or literary beauties.  Lewis was an avid lover of great literature, and here we see him protecting the books he spent a lifetime loving from being relegated to the obscurity of subjective taste.  What is good in literary art is real, and the existence of this goodness is not dependent upon opinion and perhaps not easily quantified, as well.

When literary merit is thus exposed to the winds of whatever the “prevalent view of the literary world” happens to be at the moment, what is accepted as good literature becomes “mainly a chronological phenomenon.”[6]  From the knowledge of the date of one’s birth, Lewis claims that he could “make a shrewd guess whether they prefer Hopkins or Housman, Hardy or Lawrence.”[7]  For example, the modern world has an inordinate taste for literature that is “true to life.”  Yet our ancestors’ taste was quite different, and they would find such realism in literature unappealingly obvious and prosaic.  Which is the better taste?  Because of this disagreement, must we conclude that literary taste is subjective, after all?  This is the inference that he wants to invalidate.  Lewis notes that the same “difference of attitude is displayed about the other arts and about natural beauty.”[8]  This false inference is even extended beyond beauty to other realities such virtue and morality, as he describes in The Abolition of Man.

Lewis proposes a more excellent way:  let the kind of reading a work produces in its readers be the measure of its literary value.  This protects such a multifaceted and living thing as a work of great literature from the necessary oversimplifications that must accompany a more direct criticism of the work itself.  Just as we cannot see “trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams,” so too with literary beauty.[9] The emphasis here is on the concrete and personal aspects of literature.  It homes in on how readers themselves interact with the text in question.  It is important to note that his experiment does not fix its attention on the readers’ tastes, but on the “act of reading” itself that is produced in them.[10]  “Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis” to determine what books are good, rather than by embarking on picking apart the multitude of various ingredients contained in the books themselves.[11]  Admittedly, he writes, this makes “critical condemnation” of literature a “laborious task” but considering all that might be lost with hasty dismissal, Lewis sees this as a good thing.  Such dismissals are “now too easy.”[12]

It is, therefore, important to distinguish between types of readers and how they interact with books if we are to proceed to judge literary value in this manner.  Lewis begins to assemble the tools needed for his experiment by detailing these.   He distinguishes between what he calls “the few” and “the many” or the “literary” and the “unliterary”, the primary characteristic differentiating them being the attitude with which these readers approach reading.

The unliterary see reading as a means to some particular end, therefore, Lewis writes, they use literature as a “self-starter for … imaginative and emotional activities” unrelated to the literary value of the work itself.[13]  When we use literature in this way, it becomes a conduit through which we pass on to other activities.  It cannot be said that the art has been truly entered and enjoyed, for it has only been seen from outside, like a house that we drive past too quickly.  Because of our impatience and self-focus, we attend “very inadequately”[14] to the scene before us, catching only enough of a glance through a window to set our minds thinking back on the things in our own little world.  The interior of the house and its priceless inhabitants are never given a second thought.  In fact, Lewis notes that what we most often see in the window when we are “using” a book in this way is a reflection of ourselves.  “We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us.”[15]  Here, as in other forms of art, we have “let loose our own subjectivity upon” the work, turning it into little more than a vehicle for self-reflection.[16] “But,” writes Lewis, “the chief operation of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude” of autonomy.[17]  “It heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”[18]  But first, we must get ourselves out of the way.

Lewis continues by contrasting the ‘use’ of literature to its reception.  He writes that “’using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”[19]  When we are truly receptive, we allow literature to work on us instead.  He writes that “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender.”[20]  That we will always have some pre-conditions is inevitable.  Yet, we must initially set them aside and have “ears to hear”, so to speak, before we can determine if the work in question lives up to our demands.  Such demands may end up hindering our receptivity if we allow them to produce in us a hyper-skepticism.  After all, we strive not to pre-judge people in this manner, do we not?  Granted people are far more complex, but still, there is enough of a correspondence to take care that we do not reduce a work of art unnecessarily.

Lewis notes that this receptiveness is not passive, either; this is an important distinction, for we might set up these pre-conditions as a sort of self-protection, tacitly acknowledging the power of great literature to persuade in often unwanted ways.  Lewis allows for this reality in his essay “Christianity and Culture”, noting that culture of this sort is not harmless and that it is most certainly a “two-edged sword.”  The road to Jerusalem runs both ways.[21] What Lewis is encouraging us towards is more subtle: We are simply to begin with patient obedience, giving the work enough of our focused attention and time so that we can truly understand the author’s “orders,” he writes.  We must enter into the created world of the author with a charity that we should strive for in our personal interactions.  Once these “orders” have been “fully grasped,” we can then decide if they are worthy of our obedience.[22]  Otherwise, we might miss an opportunity for the kind of “enlargement of our being” that enables us to be “more than ourselves.”[23]  Of course, it must be kept in mind that “there is no work in which holes can’t be picked”, but we must start from a place of reception before evaluating it, for “otherwise, we have nothing to evaluate.”[24],[25]  Like Lewis’s warnings from Abolition, we “can’t go on ‘seeing through’ things forever” for “to ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”[26]  Receptiveness with literary art, indeed all art, requires us to refrain from such a priori judgments as much as possible (of course, this will not be entirely possible and not entirely desirable considering certain obviously flawed and deliberately repulsive, offensive, or obscene works).

Lewis also goes to some pains here and in his essay “Christianity and Culture” to highlight the distinction between literary virtue and moral virtues.  They are simply not the same.  Lewis writes that he suspects that there are many among the unliterary that are as virtuous, and many most certainly more virtuous, than the literary.  Also, that the two sets of readers “are not cut off by immovable barriers.”[27]  Finally, it might the case that those who are among the literary few may be on the popular level as regards to other arts.  In the end, there can be no Pharisaism when it comes to literary endeavors, for that itself turns into a self-defeating “use” of literature.

There are other pitfalls that the literary can fall into in their enjoyment of reading.  One in particular “cuts right across” the “distinction between the literary and unliterary.”[28] This fault arises when we believe “that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge” and “teach us truths about life.”[29]  Writers are thus turned into little more than theologians and philosophers, while “qualities which belong to their” craft as artists are disregarded.[30]  This error of ‘using’ is more subtle among the literary, therefore, more insidious.  Here, we neglect the fact that a good writer, as a subcreator, is involved in constructing a world “out of the stuff” of this one that results in an “addition to life rather than comments on it.”[31]  This addition Lewis refers to as “the omnipresent flavor or feel” that is breathed out of a work from which we may be able to draw “many psychological truths and profound … reflections”, but these truths are inextricably linked, even ancillary to the artistic invention.[32] When the message, or ‘something said’, is divorced from the medium of the ‘something made’, much is lost, and we are once again faced with the problem of ‘using’ literature rather ‘receiving.’  Lewis names this ‘something made’ as the work’s poiema, while the ‘something said’ he refers to as its logos.  It is precisely this poiema of a work of art that defies being reduced to a philosophy or mere logos.  The poiema requires of us a different type of knowing, best described by the French verb connaître that denotes a sort of personal familiarity.  This is opposed to the type of knowing that is savoir, or more impersonal and removed.

At this point, it might be helpful to inquire a bit deeper into what these types of ‘knowing’ meant for Lewis and how he might have transposed these ideas into his understanding of what a great work of literary art demands of us.  Lewis believed that our intellect is “incurably abstract”[33], and because of this, there exists a terrible tendency to explain away important realities like “religion, love, morality, honor, and the like,” all of these being profoundly personal and concrete at their core.[34] Lewis found an antidote to this in the idea of dividing our conscious thought lives into two processes called Contemplation and Enjoyment (these being ideas he was first exposed to through the work of the philosopher Samuel Alexander).  He developed a helpful metaphor for this idea in his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed.”  This metaphor compares the knowledge we gain from contemplation versus that which we gain from enjoyment as the difference between observing a beam of light streaming through a darkened toolshed and what we experience when we step into that beam and look along it, following its path out of the shed and to the world beyond.  When in the contemplation mode, we are “seeing the beam, not seeing things by it”[35] and the information that we gain is “abstract, external, impersonal, uninvolved knowledge.”[36]  When we look along the beam, our experience changes and we no longer can see the beam but are “seeing things by it.”[37]  This is the enjoyment mode of conscious thought, and the knowledge we gain here is “participant, inhabited, personal, committed knowledge.”[38] Lewis saw this distinction as an “indispensable tool of thought”, and indeed, one can see evidence of its employment across much of his writing.[39]

When considering the notions of poiema and logos, one can detect this difference between “looking along the beam” of a piece of literature versus “looking at it.”  Lewis even refers to these notions as “two lights.”[40] Lewis would most certainly not attempt to value one way of seeing over the other, for both have their advantages.  Yet it does appear that he is encouraging us to begin our literary journey with an author from “along the beam” of his creation.  If we remain in our darkened toolshed, we cannot truly make any sort of pronouncements on the value of its art, for its poiema is left untasted.   It is only through the poiema that we enter into the artist’s craft, allowing him to direct us through what is best likened to a “choric dance.”[41]  When skillfully choreographed, “the rests and movements, the quickenings and slowings, the easier and more arduous passages, will come exactly as we need them”, and when all is said and done, we will invariably feel like we have ended “on the right note.”[42] This is where Lewis’s experiment takes on a personal tone, and this is where it best parallels the dance that occurs in all of our relationships and even our religious lives.

All of this is not to overlook the logos of any given work.  Lewis tells us that “these two characters in the work of literary art are separated by an abstraction” by the necessity of our need to express them through language yet, “the better the work is, the more violent the abstraction is felt to be.”[43]  Poiema and logos have a mutual dependence and inextricability that increase in proportion to the artist’s skill.  The poiema of a piece harmonizes with the inner experience it creates in us (the dance) that powerfully compels us towards the “something said” rather than beats us over the head with it.  The logos then forms a part of the final resting note that is so pleasurable for us.  That Lewis was sensitive to the advantage of such a latent and hidden logos is evidenced by the fact that he quietly imbued his Narniad with the influences of medieval cosmology with such skill that it has only been recently discovered, decades after their publication and despite unceasing popularity.

For Christian apologists, the implications of Lewis’s literary experiment are profound and far-reaching.  First of all, dare we say it, An Experiment in Criticism compels and invites us to take care in how we approach the work of secular artists.  All too often, we are too busy with the dissector’s scalpel to notice the life we are killing in the process.  We enroll into what Lewis called “the Vigilant school of critics” if we enter into an author’s literary creation with the view to battle its heresies.  “Finding at every turn of expression the symptom of attitudes which it is a matter of life or death to accept or resist” will blind us to the potential aesthetic value, which is more real than the doctrines with which we might disagree.[44]  We move from “receiving” to “using” literature as a means to make our own commentaries on culture.  In reducing art to mere message, we miss the poiema and probably a great deal of the logos, as a result, especially in the better works in which they are more inextricably mixed.

As Christian artists, we are reminded to refrain from turning our art into mere message.  We can be so motivated to use literature to convey Christian truths and to change society for good that we end up overstating our logos at the expense of a beautifully crafted poiema.  Our art can no longer compel and invite with a respect for the reader’s ability to accept or reject, but it bludgeons and assaults, and therefore repels.  It becomes overbearing, suffocating, and impersonal.  In the end, we too destroy that which we reduce.  Literary beauty is forfeited for the sake of what feels like mere propaganda.  Lewis reminds us that we must seek to imbue our art with as much charity for our audience as we do in our personal interactions.

In the end, great literary works are “complex and carefully made objects” that demand of us very close attention and receptivity.[45]  Lewis makes an important point that a “fully formed” philosophy or theory of what constitutes literary beauty (or good) may actually hinder our ability to fully enter into and enjoy reading by inhibiting the reception that great literature demands of us.[46]  This echoes similar ideas that he expressed elsewhere that theology presents us with abstractions that are a lesser language than the “language more adequate”[47] of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.  If we remain content to stay within the parameters of this lesser language, we cannot fully enter into that most important of relationships with our Creator.  Still, finite creatures that we are, we need our categories and boxes to help us understand, in a savoir sense, the infinite.  We have to set complex realities in the little box of our experiments in theology, philosophy, morality, and literary criticism.  But as we contemplate them, we must not confuse them for the whole of reality or we might forget that it is teeming with a Life and Personality far beyond our categories.  And, just as the knowing that is truly connaitre of the infinite Creator must come from “along the beam”, so also must we approach something as personal as the subcreation of our fellow man.  After all, if there is goodness to be found in a work of literature, it is derived from Him Who is goodness itself, “the all-pervasive principle of concretion” from Whom all acts of subcreation are derived.  It must therefore be extremely relational, as Lewis’s experiment reveals and we should expect it to defy reduction.  Could this be another grace?  Is God giving us an opportunity to taste, albeit in lesser form, the incredible joy of that ultimate surrender through our experiences of literary beauty?  Here, we can exercise that most needed muscle for relating with Him in stepping out of our abstractions and into a joyful surrender.

[1] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 105.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 91.

[3] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 105.

[4] Ibid., 104.

[5] Ibid., 85.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 7.

[10] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 104.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Ibid., 107.

[13] Ibid., 16.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] Ibid., 85.

[16] Ibid., 18.

[17] Ibid., 85.

[18] Ibid., 140.

[19] Ibid., 88.

[20] Ibid., 19.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture”, (New York: Inspirational Press), 188.

[22] Ibid., 19.

[23] Ibid., 137.

[24] Ibid., 116.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Lewis, The Abolition of Man,

[27] Ibid., 6.

[28] Ibid., 74.\

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 81.

[32] Ibid., 82.

[33] C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact”, (New York: Inspirational Press), 342.

[34] Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed, 443.

[35] Ibid., 442.

[36] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 17.

[37] Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed, 442.

[38] Ward, Planet Narnia, 17.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 132.

[41] Ibid., 134.

[42] Ibid., 134.

[43] Ibid., 132.

[44] Ibid., 126.

[45] Ibid., 82.

[46] Ibid., 131.

[47] Ward, Planet Narnia, 160.

One thought on “An Experiment in Charity: Reflections on C.S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism”

  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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