CS Lewis and The Doctor


Lewis once wrote in a letter to his father in 1926 “Will you think me affected if I number a small illness among the minor pleasures of life?  Work is impossible and one can read all day for mere pleasure with a clear conscience.”

If the forest of the Wandering Tree has been quiet for the past near-month, it is simply due to creatures, myself included, needing to crouch in small lairs to ride out an infestation of feverish maladies which have crept in through the underbrush.  Unlike Lewis’s small illness of minor pleasure and conscience free reading, I’ve had to endure some downright hellish fevers and a persistant sinus infection, and a mood and outlook which would make a postmodern nihilist blush.   That I’ve continued to teach throughout may be marked by some as courage and fortitude, but the reality is that semester exams are upon us and I need to close out grades post haste.  Our current three day weekend has been a welcome respite, and provides a moment of reflection.  And, as my sickness abates, it has turned into that small illness of minor pleasure of which Lewis speaks.

I’ve found little to no peace in my state of mind over the past week, vacillating between frustration and anger at not being able to focus.  Yes, I know: when one is sick, one needs to chill.  But I so often give a perfunctory wave to this caveat , and a round of self bullying ensues, leaving me going on the round and round like St. Paul in Romans: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  Whereas Paul sees the reasonable out through Christ, I tend to stay on that merry-go-round until all my convictions are sufficiently blurred.

Therefore, I was happy to come across a literary prescription by Lewis in a letter he wrote to Arthur Greeves:

To his friend Arthur Greeves Lewis wrote about Samuel Johnson: “Isn’t it a magnificient style- the very essence of manliness and condensation.  I find Johnson very bracing when I am in my slack, self-pitying mood.”

Ah, Dr. Samuel Johnson.  A lion of literature from 18th Century England.   Hmmm.  So I pulled out my old battered Norton Anthology of English Literature, turned to page 2,674, and immersed myself in Johnson’s reflections on Spring, a distant future to most in the States, but a lingering image to a Floridian.  Johnson acknowledges the existence of those such as myself.

“It must be laid down as a position which will seldom deceive, that when a man cannot bear his own company there is something wrong.  He must fly from himself, either because he feels a tediousness in life from the equipoise of an empty mind, which, having no tendency to one motion more than another but as it impelled by some external power, must always have recourse to foreign objects; or he must be afraid of the intrusion of some unpleasing ideas, and perhaps, is struggling to escape from the remembrance of a loss, the fear of a calamity, or some other thought of greater horror.”

He then suggests that  very few men know how to take a walk, and that to reflect on nature affords an intellectual respite from self bullying, that “he that enlarges his curiousity after the works of nature, demonstrably multiplies the inlets to happiness.”

A walk is a bit out of the question now, with a jolly good Florida downpour beating against the window panes, but surely I must pause to remember how long it has actually been since I’ve taken a walk, and how the rhythm and pace of my feet hitting the sidewalk often bodes well for my well-being.

And, in the meantime, a recognition of gratitude, once again, to Lewis, who has a tendency, if not himself to bundle up our personal issues into a coherent ball, then to point us in a coherent direction to those who can.


The Man on Thursday 5: Ordinary Imagination

The whole object of real art, of real romance- and, above all, of real religion- is to prevent people from losing the humility and gratitude which are thankful for the daylight and daily bread; to prevent them from regarding daily life as dull or domestic life as narrow; to teach them to feel in the sunlight the song of Apollo and in the bread the epic of the plough.  What is now needed most is intensive imagination.  I mean t power to turn our imagination inwards, on the things we already have, and to make those things live.  It is not merely seeking new experiences, which rapidly become old experiences.  It is really learning how to experience our experiences.  It is learning to enjoy our enjoyments.

Why Read? Talk to Jack…

The first day back from Winter Break went rather well, I think.  Though we are still winding down the 1st semester (3rd marking period doesn’t technically start until Jan. 20th- I know, weird, right?), I broke out the new syllabus to share my objectives and expectations for the rest of the year with my students.  At the top of the page, I included this quote:

“Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own.  They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, or comic… My own eyes are not enough for me.  In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.  Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see.  Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself: and am never more myself than when I do.” – C.S. Lewis

When I came across these words by the immortal Jack, it sent the requisite chills down my spine.  I shared this quote with a colleague, who promptly said “Exactly.  This is the type of philosophy that our students need to hear.”  People will argue that there is no practical application to learning literature.  Practical be damned- it’s worth so much more than that.  In our consumer-oriented, me-me-me culture, where our kids grow up with the “the whole world revolves around me” mentality shoved down their throats, it’s refreshing to read an old dinosaur like C.S. Lewis, telling us it’s not about practicalities, it’s about Perspective.  A person with an expanded perspective lives in a larger universe than someone with a limited perspective.  In a later excerpt from the essay quoted above, Lewis noted that you can always tell an “unread” mind from a “read” mind: “Their world is always too small.”

Our job, as English teachers, is to make those worlds larger.  And to answer the argument that “Oh, Shakespeare doesn’t speak to this generation’s experience,”  I answer either “Are you sure?”  or if I think about that quote above, I say “Good.”