“You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

Before getting to his fullest expression of his peculiar theory of forgiveness, Tolkien first seeks to explain to Lewis and put into context his caustic remarks on the latter’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis had, in his reply to Tolkien’s initial letter of apology, referred to him as a “critic,” a title that Tolkien is adamant to disclaim: “I am not a critic. I do not want to be one. I am capable on occasion (after long pondering) of ‘criticism’, but I am not naturally a critical man” (Letters 126, emphasis Tolkien’s). In a note on this passage, Tolkien elaborates further on his view that formal literary criticism actually “get[s] in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say,” and compares the critic-qua-writer to a tightrope walker whose in-the-act theorizing about equilibrium may cost him his grace, if not his balance. He goes on hesitatingly to suggest that this is in fact one of Lewis’s shortcomings—that he is too much the critic and that it “gets in your way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are also a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader.”

In contrast (and in part due) to Lewis’s native analytic and critical bent, Tolkien says of himself that he has “been partly and in a sense unnaturally galvanized into it by the strongly ‘critical’ tendency of the brotherhood” (i.e., the Inklings). He again denies that he is “really ‘hyper-critical’” (presumably another term Lewis had used in his letter to describe him); instead, he writes,

I am usually only trying to express ‘liking’ not universally valid criticism. As a result I am in fact merely lost in a chartless alien sea. I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.

For Tolkien, his judgments are no mere academic exercise of the trained literary critic, but the stomach-rumbling (as it were) of a peculiar, even idiosyncratic literary taste and need for a certain kind of aesthetic and intellectual nourishment. Critics have palates that want teasing and pleasing; Tolkien, by contrast, admits simply to an intense spiritual hunger in need of satiation.

As he implies in the above passage, it is partly his failing to find adequate sustenance elsewhere, and partly his own artistic compulsion, that has fueled his own literary expression. His statement, moreover, that he has “something I deeply desire to make” should particularly call to mind the Vala Aulë from The Silmarillion, who, after Niggle, is perhaps Tolkien’s most autobiographical and self-parodying character (for more on Aulë, see here). Much like the author of the present letter, for example, in both Aulë and Niggle we have sub-creators whose preoccupation with the works of their own hands lead them (even if unintentionally) to neglect their duties toward, and to fall short in their love for, their nearest neighbors and friends. As for Aulë in particular, when caught by Ilúvatar in his misguided and hubristic attempt to make the Dwarves, he is asked if what he seeks is a lifeless corpse to dominate and manipulate at will—a perhaps not wholly inaccurate representation, it occurs to me, of Tolkien’s above views on the literary critic. In response to this chastisement Aulë humbly, penitently, yet boldly and not without some justification informs and reminds Ilúvatar that “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien as much as for Aristotle and St. Thomas, nature (because ultimately the Creator) does nothing in vain, meaning in this case that the compulsory (because ultimately divine) call of the sub-creative must be answered.

(To be continued….)

“Under Grace that Will Do Good”

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 2 (part 1)

As I summarized in the previous post, Tolkien had written a letter of apology to Lewis for his excessively critical review of Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis had replied to Tolkien’s letter apparently disclaiming having in fact been “offended,” and Tolkien had replied to Lewis reply noting that he had in fact changed “offended” to “pained,” explaining that “Pained we cannot help being by the painful.” Yet Tolkien’s implied distinction between taking offence and being pained is only the first of the advice and reminders he offers Lewis in putting into perspective not only Tolkien’s own, particular wrong-doing, but also the role of trials in our life more generally and the nature of forgiveness itself.

Tolkien concedes and assures Lewis that, indeed, “nothing in your speech or manner gave me any reason to suppose that you felt ‘offended’. Yet I could see that you felt–you would have been hardly human otherwise–and your letter shows how much.” In the previous post I said that Tolkien’s distinction between offence and pain seemed to be that whereas offence can be taken at something that is not necessarily intrinsically morally or personally offensive, one can be legitimately pained by anything that happens to be painful. Upon reflection, however, the above passage leads me to think that another, if not in fact differing, understanding is in view, one in which the feeling of offence is seen as a more particular, specified form of the more general feeling of pain. Lewis felt (i.e., pain), Tolkien insists, even if he didn’t feel offended specifically.

In admitting the harm he has done to Lewis in this manner, however, Tolkien’s purpose is not the kind of self-pity that takes perverse pleasure in wallowing in its own guilt–far from it, his confession has the air of a free man who knows he can presume on the good will and love of both his friend and of his God, before whose eyes all our moral failings–both in wronging and being wronged–take place. I have already noted Tolkien’s assurance to Lewis that he knew the latter would never grow resentful; bolder still is Tolkien’s matter-of-fact confidence when he remarks about the whole experience, “I daresay under grace that will do good rather than harm, but that is between you and God.” Tolkien regrets what he had said, has made his apologies, and leaves the rest to Lewis and his God.

(To be continued….)

“Make me a present of the pains I have caused”: Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness

In a 1948 letter Tolkien apologizes to his friend C.S. Lewis for what he admits to have been some unduly caustic remarks he had made on a piece of Lewis’s work (Humphrey Carpenter speculates it to be his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century). More than a mere apology, however, Tolkien’s letter to Lewis contains a unique insight into the very human relationship between these two friends who would each become literary giants in their own right, into Tolkien’s views on himself as a writer and literary critic, and finally, into Tolkien’s at once peculiar and yet profound theology of grace in forgiveness.

The internal evidence of the letter suggests the following chain of events. Subsequent to the above incident, Tolkien had felt some remorse for responding to Lewis’s work in so acerbic a manner, and so sent him some verses and an initial (apparently unpreserved) letter of apology. Lewis replied to this letter, and the letter here in question is Tolkien’s response to that reply.

Tolkien begins by observing to Lewis that “you write largely on ‘offence’; though surely I amended ‘offended’ in my letter to ‘pained’? Pained we cannot help being by the painful” (Letters 125). The implied distinction here between paining someone and offending him is an interesting and I think pastorally helpful one. The difference, to Tolkien’s mind, seems to be that, whereas someone can take offence at something that is not (or need not be) offensive, someone is pained, by contrast, by something that is objectively painful. And that is what Tolkien here wants to insist his original criticism of Lewis’s work to have been–unnecessarily and unjustifiably painful–and so it was reasonable for Lewis to have been hurt accordingly by it. Tolkien continues by assuring Lewis, however, that he also “knew well enough” that the latter would not allow his pain to “grow into resentment,” but implies that he was nevertheless at fault for having provided the occasion or cause for such resentment: “Woe to him,” Tolkien writes, “by whom the temptations come.”

Tolkien goes on to explain the source of his remorse at being so harsh in his criticisms of Lewis’s piece of writing, namely the pain–inevitable and necessary, he acknowledges–he himself has had to suffer as a published author, followed by his awareness of having now perpetrated the same treatment on someone for whom he has “deep affection and sympathy.” The opening paragraph of the letter concludes with Tolkien also confessing that his remarks may have also been somewhat retaliatory, as he was bristling under a “half-patronizing half-mocking lash” Lewis himself had made previously to Tolkien’s original criticisms and which “the small things of my heart made the mere excuse for verbal butchery.” While one might be tempted to detect here a hint of blame-shifting or passive aggression in Tolkien’s mentioning here–in the context of his apology to Lewis–Lewis’s own provocation of Tolkien, yet given what we know generally about their personalities and the history of their relationship, it seems the case that Tolkien was in fact “pained” by Lewis far more often than the reverse. If so, this fact makes Tolkien’s counsel to Lewis on forgiveness in this letter, about which more anon, all the more fascinating in its irony.

(To be continued….)

Lewis’s Baconian reading of Bacon

In his Novum OrganumFrancis Bacon sought to establish modern natural science on an altogether new, experimental foundation and method of discovery. In doing so, however, Bacon deemed it necessary that science be once and for all freed from any interferences, limits, or distractions coming from the direction of theology. To this end, Bacon found himself reinterpreting Scripture in a way that would marginalize theology’s authority and guidance where the study of the natural world was concerned, and argued that this allegedly modest and humble position was the authentic teaching of the Bible itself. For Bacon, in short, the Bible’s own teaching was (effectively) that the Bible was irrelevant to a proper understanding of the natural world.

It is one of those tasty ironies, accordingly, that C.S. Lewis, in his Miraclesshould be found reading Bacon by means of Bacon’s own, dubious hermeneutic. After arguing for Reason’s distinction from, and even transcendence over, the world of Nature, in his chapter on “Nature and Supernature” Lewis makes the case for Nature’s resulting openness to the transforming agency of Reason. Anticipating an objection, Lewis suggests that the repugnance many moderns (among whom–in another Baconian sleight of hand–Lewis says that he numbers himself) feel toward such a picture of Nature’s vulnerability stems less from reason than it does from a certain emotional or aesthetic preference. As Lewis continues, “I know that the hankering for a universe which is all of a piece, and in which everything is the same sort of thing as everything else–a continuity, a seamless web, a democratic universe–is very deep-seated in the modern heart: in mine, no less than in yours.” Now, this democratic, anti-hierarchical view of reality is precisely one of Bacon’s great legacies to modern thought, as Lewis was well aware. Yet who should Lewis invoke in his effort to topple this modern, Baconian naïveté concerning the uniformity and inalterability of nature?

But have we any real assurance that things are like that? Are we mistaking for an intrinsic probability what is really a human desire for tidiness and harmony? Bacon warned us long ago that “the human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist. Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles” (Novum Organum, I, 45). I think Bacon was right. 

Against the naturalist’s Baconian assumption of an unalterable uniformity of nature, Lewis wryly pits Bacon’s own caution against the human penchant for finding more “order and regularity” than we really have evidence for.

But Lewis’s citation of this particular passage by Bacon in this particular context seems to be more audacious still. More than a mere invocation of something Bacon says in one place in order to undermine what he says in another, Lewis quotes Bacon to support a claim that is almost diametrically opposed to the one Bacon himself is trying to make. The target of Bacon’s remarks, after all, was the premodern and specifically scholastic tendency to anthropomorphize (as he interpreted it) nature by taking purposes or ends–which have their proper home in human thinking and action only–and projecting them onto what Bacon interpreted as an otherwise intrinsically non-teleological or purposeless Nature composed ultimately of nothing more than matter in motion. For its author, therefore, the above quote was originally intended as a statement calculated to relativize human reason, to chasten its confidence in the legitimacy of its own, every-day, common-sense modes of operation, and so to subordinate it to and discipline it under a conception of nature understood to operate according to the very different, even alien principles of materialism and mechanism. In Lewis’s hands, however, Bacon’s quote gets deployed in defense of the absolute character of human reason and the corresponding porosity or permeability of nature in the face of Reason, a relationship, moreover, that will turn out later to be a mere creaturely analogy to Nature’s much more profound, feminine vulnerability to the divine Reason of “Supernature.”

How, finally, might we interpret Lewis’s rather un-Baconian use of Bacon? Ineptitude? Doubtful. Disingenuous? Perhaps, but such a pietistic response, as I’ve already hinted, doesn’t reckon with the arguable duplicity involved in Bacon’s own use of Christian and biblical rhetoric to undermine the influence of the Bible and Christian doctrine on modern natural science. A third option suggests itself: in Lewis’s Miracles we see the premodern, “discarded image” tradition’s revenge on Bacon as it turns against him the very (and otherwise questionable) methods of persuasion by which Bacon and the moderns in general sought to subvert and replace that tradition.

Lewis on elves in medieval thought

For St. Thomas, according to Chesterton, the question of angels was, in part, the question of whether there could be creatures “between” men and God. As Peter Kreeft has observed, the question for Tolkien is the related one of, “Could there be creatures between men and angels, such as Elves?” (The Philosophy of Tolkien 78). As Kreeft also points out, Tolkien’s question was not original to him but was also of medieval origin. Kreeft cites a passage from The Discarded Image by Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis in which Lewis makes much the same point about the intermediary and cosmological-aesthetic function served by Elves (the Longaevi or “longlivers”) in medieval literature, as Chesterton and others have made on behalf of St. Thomas’s angels. As Lewis writes of the medieval conception of the Elves: “Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design…” (Lewis, The Discarded Image, 122). Kreeft goes further to suggest that “[t]he same philosophical arguments for the existence of angels” that Lewis makes in his treatise on Miracles “could also be used as probable arguments for the possible existence of Elves or other species between the human and the angelic” (Kreeft 80).