THEY ASKED FOR A PAPER. By C.S. Lewis (1962).
C.S. LEWIS is not an obscure writer. Half the children in this country have read his Chronicles of Narnia -- or at least seen a TV special based on them. A quarter of the adults have read The Screwtape Letters -- or at least heard of it. Ninety-nine percent of the Renaissance scholars know Lewis' magisterial English Literature in the 16th Century, Excluding Drama.
But Lewis was so multi-talented, so various in what he did, that there are books of his almost no one knows about. Wonderful books. One of them is called They Asked for a Paper.
In no way is it a probable book. It's a collection of occasional pieces he wrote over a period of 20 years -- and that's usual enough. Every journalist who ever wrote a few dozen articles dreams of seeing the best of them collected between hard covers, and a good many achieve this dream. Clive James, the English critic, has made books out of his comments on TV shows.
But these books and their contents are like eggs in an egg carton or wine bottles in a case. The contents match. This volume is humorous newspaper columns, that one is political essays. Heloise's is household hints.
C.S. Lewis' is rather more miscellaneous. They Asked for a Paper contains 12 pieces. The first, and my favorite, is the inaugural lecture he gave at Cambridge, when that university succeeded in luring him from Oxford with a newly created chair. The last is a sermon he preached (as a layman, he was not in orders) at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. In between come all sorts of things. There's a "toast" -- a spectacularly long one, it runs to 4,000 words -- he gave at the annual dinner of the Sir Walter Scott Club of Edinburgh. Let others read scholarly articles on Scott, or consult encyclopedias. Standing up at that dinner, Lewis gave the best short account of who Scott was and why he matters that I have seen.
There's a paper he read at Westfield College (part of the University of London) back in 1941. It is called "Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism," and it is a masterpiece. It begins with the 23rd of Freud's Introductory Lectures, the one in which Freud argued that art is compensatory fantasy. Lewis does not attack Freud -- whose work he knows well, as he knew most major writing. He has no wish to attack a great pioneer. He merely shows that Freud's vision is incomplete.
There is no space here to summarize 20 pages of argument as densely packed as if it were by St. Thomas Aquinas. But I will just mention two points. Lewis makes a wonderfully useful distinction between two kinds of things that can happen when you get absorbed in a novel. One is called low identification. It's when you as your own real self identify with a character in the novel. You're a boy of 16; you identify with the dashing teen-age hero. You're a Chinese girl; you identify with the gorgeous Oriental heroine. The whole point is that if you were only smarter, richer, luckier, but still you, you might actually be that character in the book.
The other, of course, is called high identification, and now in reading you utterly forget who you are. As a boy of 16, you may identify with a talking dragon, even though there is no possible way you could ever be a dragon, and even if you were, you wouldn't be the elderly female dragon with green scales that your disembodied consciousness has identified with. It is high identification, Lewis brilliantly shows, that Freud's theory does not adequately deal with.
THE OTHER POINT I can take time for begins with a summary of Freud's 10th Introductory Lecture, the one in which Freud sets out the concept of universal symbols. In every subconscious, he says, journeys stand for death, gardens and flowers for the the female body, and so on. Lewis quotes Freud's famous question: "Does it not begin to dawn upon us that the many fairy tales which begin with the words 'once upon a time there were a king and queen' simply mean 'once upon a time there were a father and mother'?" And then he is able to show that no, the fairy tales don't simply mean that, which is to say, that and nothing more. They mean that plus much else. He is especially brilliant when he brings Freudian (and Jungian) symbols up against that great medieval poem The Romance of the Rose, where already the guarded garden stands for the female body, and the rose itself for the flower of virginity, and the 13th-century French authors knew that -- it was the concept they build the poem on -- but went far beyond it.
If I had 20 pages available, I would love to report what Lewis told the British Academy about Hamlet when they invited him to give the annual Shakespeare lecture. Becaue nothing else I've read about Kipling has an insight so interesting as the one Lewis offered the English Association in an address to them, I'd also like to put in a word about that. Most of all, I'd like to reprint word for word his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, called "De Descriptione Temporum." (The rest is in English.) Lewis came to hold the new chair in medieval and Renaissance literature. This gave him a reason to talk about historical periods, what they are and what they mean, starting with the Dark Ages. Robert Frost wrote a poem called "The Lesson for Today," in which he imagines a court poet in ninth-century France speaking to the poets of today on the same subject. That's the only comparable work I know that has even nearly the same power to move as Lewis' lecture. And Frost, of course, did not have Lewis' incredible learning.
I do have time to say one last thing. I dare to recommend Lewis in his scholarly role to the general reader because he is that rarity among great scholars, a person with a clear and extremely readable prose style. Other scholars have sometimes called him >too clear, meaning they think he oversimplified. And I confess that occasionally, like St. Thomas Aquinas, he will by sheer force of logic make what seems to be an overwhelming point; later, looking back, one suspects the evidence has been forced into a neater pattern than complex truth will bear.
But mostly Lewis is amazing in his ability to express the full complexity of a thing in language as clear and ringing as crystal.
Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth.
Note on availability: "They Asked for a Paper" has never been published in America. Six of its 12 pieces do appear in "Selected Literary Essays by C.S. Lewis," published by Cambridge University Press in 1969. That's out of print. But most good libraries have it.