“Introduction” to Light on C. S. Lewis

Light on C. S. Lewis, Jocelyn Gibb (ed.). London: Geoffrey Bles, 1965. Transcribed and edited by Rory O’Connor for the Owen Barfield Literary Estate, 2022.

When I had finished devouring in typescript the seven chapters that follow, one of the things that most impressed me was the fact that Coghill’s, which tells us most about himself, is also the one that tells us most about Lewis. I have taken the hint seriously… so seriously that I have closed for the occasion the anti-exhibitionism department of the censor’s office, in order to put down some of the things that are uppermost in my mind about this most remarkable man.

Looking back over the last thirty years it appears to me that I have throughout all that time been thinking, pondering, wondering, puzzling over ― not exactly the ‘personality,’ but what I prefer to call the individual essence of my old friend. It will be understood that I have also had certain other matters to attend to ― and yet to say less than that would somehow be an understatement. I first met him in 1919, and the puzzlement has had to do above all with the great change that took place in him between the years 1930 and 1940 ― a change which roughly coincided with his conversion to Theism and then to Christianity, but which did not appear, and does not appear in retrospect, to be inevitably or even naturally connected with it.

I remember very well the occasion on which I first became aware of it. I was staying at the Kilns, and Lewis had handed me either the typed or the already printed version of his Open Letter to Dr Tillyard. It is now the third chapter of The Personal Heresy, but I am reminded by Mr Hooper’s princely Bibliography that it was first printed separately in 1934, so that pretty well fixes the date. I remember reading it with the admiration and pleasure with which I read nearly everything Lewis wrote, whether in prose or verse; but also with a certain underlying ― what is the word? ― restlessness, malaise, bewilderment ― that gradually increased until, when I came to the passage at the end:

As I glance through the letter again I notice that I have not been able, in the heat of argument, to express as clearly or continuously as I could have wished my sense that I am engaged with ‘an older and a better soldier’. But I have little fear that you will misunderstand me. We have both learnt our dialectic in the rough academic arena where knocks that would frighten the London literary coteries are given and taken in good part; and even where you may think me something too pert you will not suspect me of malice. If you honour me with a reply it will be in kind; and then, God defend the right!

I am, my dear Sir, with the greatest respect,
Your obedient servant,

I slapped down the book, or MS, and shouted: ‘I don’t believe it! It’s pastiche!’ I can’t recall what comment he made (he may have been pouring out a drink or something) and, although I had shouted, I was not sure enough of my own judgment to press the point. It was a long time before I became clearly enough aware of what I meant to formulate it as I am doing now.

One other memory from a much later period; in the 50s, I think: Lewis would usually send me any poem he wrote and I always responded with some sort of comment. I cannot identify the particular poem I am now referring to, but on this occasion, after generally praising it, I added as an afterthought that it left me with the impression, not of an ‘I say this’, but of a ‘This is the sort of thing a man might say’. Next time he wrote, he said this remark had raised an important question which we should have to discuss; he was not at all sure that the distinction could really be maintained. Incidentally I am not all that sure myself; and I do not recall that we ever in fact discussed it.

Perhaps these two recollections, taken together, sufficiently suggest the sort of thing I have pondered; and not less since his death than before it. Was there something, at least in his impressive, indeed splendid, literary personality, which was somehow ― and with no taint of insincerity ― voulu? So that, taken in conjunction with his immersion in the literature of the past and his imaginative power of vigorously re-animating it, there was something there that would justify my involuntary exclamation… some touch of a more than merely ad hoc pastiche?

From more than one observation in the chapters which follow it will appear that this was not the sort of question one could very well discuss with Lewis himself. I suspect it is one that raised issues he would have refused to contemplate. My close friendship with him did not however prevent me from continuing to puzzle and to ponder it; and, rightly or wrongly, I felt free to do so. As far as my own attitude is concerned, it seems to me that nothing could be less like impertinent curiosity and that my deep interest in him was, and is, one with my deep love for him.

As to what I mean by ‘a more than merely ad hoc pastiche’: Dr Farrer speaks here of Lewis’s ‘detachment from passing fashions’ and adds later that ‘he was never quite at home in what we may call our post-positivist era’. I remember, too, Alan Watts’s (to my mind justified) comment in his book Behold the Spirit: ‘a certain ill-concealed glee in adopting an old-fashioned and unpopular position…’

But what I have in mind goes deeper than all this ― so deep that it has long been inextricably entangled in my own mind with the whole relation between human feeling and human will… with the very meaning of terms like, personality, persona, literary personality, spontaneity, sincerity, grace, talent, genius. The tangle pulls both ways. If I think of Lewis, I tend to start thinking of these things ― or some of them ― but neither can I think long of these things without his almost at once putting in an appearance in my reflections. And as, about the one, so about the other, I never succeed in arriving at any satisfactory conclusion.

I must add, I think, that I do not rule out the possibility of my being on the wrong track altogether; making it all needlessly complicated. Perhaps after all what I have been indulging in is no more than a common bit of over-elaborated psychologism à la mode, our twentieth-century rococo. On that view what happened around 1934 was, quite simply, that Lewis’s genius came into its own, as it emerged for the first time from the husk of his previous immaturity. Anyone may take that view, and perhaps I should be rather relieved than distressed to have it conclusively demonstrated to me that he was right. In what I have said already, and in what follows, I am not advancing a thesis or making a case, but rather recording a piece of my own biography, because that may be judged relevant to a full understanding of CSL.

During the same period there were other external and circumstantial changes. For some years down to 1930 I had been living, in a village near Oxford, a life of occupational freedom, and we could meet and talk much more frequently than was ever afterwards possible. Moreover, when, at the end of that year, I entered the law and went to live in London, I had written and published two books which, in their limited sphere, could both be regarded as successes. He on the other hand had only Spirits in Bondage and Dymer to his credit and, if my puny sales were only in four figures, his were still in three. This remained the position until the Pilgrim’s Regress appeared in 1935, after which he never looked back, but appeared to my dazzled eyes to go on for the rest of his life writing more and more successful books at shorter and shorter intervals.

These changes however only served to emphasize the changeless element in our friendship. As to his growing reputation and the fact that he was quickly becoming a well-known public figure ― let me record for the sheer pleasure of it that throughout the whole of his life I never recall a single remark, a single word or silence, a single look, the lightest flicker of an eyelid or hemi-demi-semitone of alteration in the pitch of his voice, which would go to suggest that he felt his opinion entitled to more respect than that of old friends he was talking with because, unlike theirs, it had won the ear of tens or hundreds of thousands wherever the English language is spoken and in a good many places where it is not. I wonder how many famous men there have been of whom this could truthfully be said.

My move to London and into captivity meant only the substitution of a regular termly visit to Oxford for the older more casual and more frequent intercourse. It became by custom a long week-end, with Friday night in his rooms at Magdalen and Saturday afternoon and Sunday at the Kilns, in Headington Quarry, his private home. We no longer argued intensively, but in some ways this long stretch was the best of all in our friendship; and we continued, throughout, our earlier practice of reading together. We had finished the Paradiso before my move and we now went back to the Inferno and the Purgatorio and read also the Iliad, some Greek plays, most of the Aeneid, and much else; we were half-way through the Odyssey when the Second World War broke out. It was only the Second World War, moreover, that put an end to a custom dating back to the 20s ― the annual spring walking-tour, in company with one or more of the following: A. C. Harwood, W. E. Beckett (afterwards Sir Eric Beckett, Legal Adviser to the Foreign Office), Leo Baker, Walter Field, Colonel Hanbury-Sparrow, Professor Tolkien, and (on one occasion) Lewis’s former pupil, Griffiths (afterwards Dom Bede Griffiths).

Thus, there was on the one hand a serene, unbroken continuity in our friendship and on the other, the two personal changes (one of them being his ‘conversion’), of which I have spoken. This brought about a curious result. From about 1935 onwards (though here again it was only much later that I so formulated it) I had the impression of living with, not one, but two Lewises; and this was so as well when I was enjoying his company as when I was absent from him. Mostly, of course, I was absent. But either way there was both a friend and the memory of a friend; sometimes they were close together and nearly coalesced; sometimes they seemed very far apart. This experience gradually became something like an obsession with me, and it must have been somewhere about 1950 (when I was still concerned to write verse) that I made it part of the emotional base for a long narrative poem. There were other things I felt the need of unloading as well, and I ended by meditating at some length, and ultimately writing, a sort of extension and combination of two well-known Greek myths in such a way that the characters and events should symbolize, at different levels, a good many matters which I liked to think were still at a ‘pre-logical’ stage in my mind… questions to which I did not yet know the answers and knew that, for the purposes of the poem, it was better that I should not know them.

Among the various themes, or experiences, which underlay this effusion or were woven together in it, the thread that ran most clearly through it all, which I rarely lost sight of altogether in the writing, and which most effectively determined the structure of the whole oeuvre, was the fact that two of the characters loosely and archetypally represented for me ‘my’ two Lewises. They suffered very different fates. The one (Perseus), after going through a great many difficulties arising out of a preference he had developed for dealing with the reflections of things rather than with the things themselves (the objective correlative here was an excessive use, for administrative purposes, of the mirror which had once enabled him to slay the Gorgon), made peace with what Professor Wilson Knight or Sir Herbert Read would probably call his ‘creative eros’ (Andromeda) and was ultimately constellated, along with Andromeda and Pegasus, in the heavens. The other (Bellerophon), after slaying the monster Chimera, declined an invitation to ascend to heaven on the back of Pegasus, who had been his mount in the fateful contest, on the ground of impiety. He was thrown by Pegasus and ended his days in increasing obscurity as a kind of aging, grumbling, earth-bound, guilt-oppressed laudator temporis acti.

These were the hard bones of the story ― but of course there was a lot of incidental fun (especially with Pegasus), and I recall that I invented a new stanza for the job. In accordance with established custom I showed the poem to Lewis both while it was writing and after it was finished, but I said nothing at first of its personal connection with himself. A year or two later, however, I seized an occasion for disclosing this also, having some idea that my insight, if such it was, might just conceivably be of some service to him ― and that this was the most delicate way of placing it at his disposal in case that should be so. I have already emphasized that it was not the sort of thing one could discuss directly with him. But now comes the main point of the anecdote. Five or six years later still (I think it would be) in some connection or other I pointed out to him that I had once written a long poem ‘about’ him. He had completely forgotten!

A simple and mildly comic explanation at once suggests itself. But it will not hold water. It was not the poem he had forgotten; not only had he thought well of it, but there never was a man like him for remembering his friends’ verse, whether published or unpublished. He would quote, in middle or near-old age, a line from juvenilia dating back to the twenties, which they had long lost sight of themselves; I even found a line and a half of my own in the last of the posthumous Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. What he had forgotten was the poem’s avowed connection with himself.

If it is true that Lewis was not much interested in depth-psychology, it is not true that he had never thought about it. As a young man, for instance, he had been quite aware of the technique of diagnosing the psyche in terms of its latent perversion ― and quite capable of applying this technique to himself, and incidentally to me. What I think is true is, that at a certain stage in his life he deliberately ceased to take any interest in himself except as a kind of spiritual alumnus taking his moral finals. I think this was part of the change to which I have referred; and I suggest that what began as deliberate choice became at length (as he had no doubt always intended that it should) an ingrained and effortless habit of soul. Self-knowledge, for him, had come to mean recognition of his own weaknesses and shortcomings and nothing more. Anything beyond that he sharply suspected, both in himself and in others, as a symptom of spiritual megalomania. At best, there was so much else, in letters and in life, that he found much more interesting! As far as I am able to judge, it was this that lay behind that distinctive combination of an almost supreme intellectual and ‘phantastic’ maturity, laced with moral energy, on the one hand, with ― I can find no other phrase for it ― a certain psychic or spiritual immaturity on the other, which is detectable in some of his religiousand theological writings; and occasionally elsewhere: for example, in the undergraduate humour of Weston and Devine’s humiliation before Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet and the opera-bouffe climax of That Hideous Strength… is this Kathleen Raine’s ‘a kind of boyish greatness’? No doubt one is on dangerous ground here, where every word begs a question, and no doubt his definition of maturity and that of many of his followers would differ somewhat from my own. But, if I were arguing it with him personally, I should endeavour to short-circuit all that by putting forward as my example of spiritual maturity his own master, George MacDonald.

Thinking, feeling, and willing… the true relation between them… talent… genius… greatness… C. S. Lewis… where (I am always potentially asking myself) shall I find more light on them all? Only the other day the questions again actualized itself as I was reading one of Coleridge’s annotations to his copy of Southey’s Life of Wesley:

I am persuaded that Wesley never rose above the region of logic and strong volition. The moment an idea presents itself to him, his understanding intervenes to eclipse it, and he substitutes a conception by some process of deduction. Nothing is immediate to him. Nor could it be otherwise with a mind so ambitious, so constitutionally ― if not a commanding ― yet a ruling genius; i.e. no genius at all, but a height of talent with unusual strength and activity of individual will.

This acute analysis of John Wesley’s mental temper seems to me to have some bearing on Lewis’s; though I wonder if the great drawer-of-the-line between fancy and imagination had not forgotten for a moment that there is more than one kind of genius ― that there is a genius of the will (Napoleon, Loyola, Augustine) as well as of the imagination. One recalls, too, his own definition of genius in the chapter on Shakespeare’s verse in the Biographia Literaria… ‘possessing the spirit, not possessed by it’. In particular, knowing what the term idea signified to Coleridge, the two phrases ‘an idea presents itself to him’ and ‘nothing is immediate to him’ were resonant in me to the main issue between Lewis and myself during that period before the change, when the ‘Great War’, as he calls it in Surprised by Joy, was still going on between us. It is the issue that underlies the four drawings (he could draw well and amusingly when he wanted to) included in a letter he sent me at that time, which were intended to illustrate our respective philosophical positions. They were labelled: What you think you are doing; What I think you are doing; What you think I am doing; What I think I am doing.

At that time the obsession had been, for a short space, the other way round. ‘I am often surprised,’ he had written me not long before, apologizing for some brusqueness in argument, which he had probably imagined ― of which I had certainly not complained, ‘at the extent to which your views occupy my mind when I am not with you and at the animosity I feel towards them’. And it was about the same time, or a little later, that he further expressed his own position in the form of a short story about a man born blind, who recovered his sight by an operation. The result was disastrous for the protagonist, because he insisted on trying to see the mysterious thing he had heard people calling ‘light’; whereas you do not see light itself, but only the objects it illumines.1

Light is what you see by; it is not anything you see, or ever can or will see… for me, precisely this dilemma ― of the light being in the world and the world ‘knowing’ it not, because it is within it ― had become the very thing which the Baptist pointed to, and the overcoming of it, the very thing which Christ was born and died to bring about. For him it was S. W. Alexander’s ineluctable contradiction between ‘enjoyment’ and ‘contemplation’ in Space, Time and Deity. Lewis was not yet a believing Christian, and even after he became one I was never sure how seriously he took the opening lines of St John’s Gospel. We argued it (as we argued most things that we argued at all) on his ground rather than mine ― psychological, philosophical, aesthetic ― with myself stammeringly, incoherently, and with his help, maintaining that the fundamental ‘law of thought’ (contradictories cannot both be true), in which he educated me and which I amused him by calling ‘Cox and Box’, requires as its correlative, if it is not to reduce all thinking to sterility and ultimately to tautology or nonsense, the no less fundamental imagination of the polarity of contraries (Coleridge’s ‘polar logic’). Without the one, he pointed out, no communication… ‘we might as well give up talking altogether’! Without the other, I strugglingly groped towards replying, no expression, no meaning to communicate, no life. But I wish very much that I had been able to focus the difference between us as clearly then as I hope I am doing now.

‘Barfield’, he wrote towards the end of his life in a letter to an American who was thinking of visiting this country, ‘cannot talk on any subject without illuminating it’.2 And I record this for two reasons. First, it underlies the enigmatic significance of my anecdote about the poem, since it indicates that he thought me less than a fool. If he had been even a tenth as much interested as, rightly or wrongly, most of us are in ourselves and the figure we cut, he could never have forgotten its connection with himself, as he did. Secondly, because it affords some justification for the attempt I have been making here to illuminate one subject, which has long been as full of interest to many others as it was insipid to himself. It is one particular beam from one particular source, and there may well be darkness in it as well. Nevertheless I thought I had better try.

If I have done nothing else, I must have succeeded in showing why I turned with so much interest and pleasure to the essays of which this book is composed. The reader will compare them for himself with what I have written, and it is well that he should do so. There is, for instance, the question I left open at the beginning: whether I have been making a great deal of psychological fuss about very little. I would think that Stella Gibbons’s contribution, and possibly Dr Walsh’s and Professor Bennett’s might well suggest that I have; and certainly I have no wish to persuade anyone to the contrary. On the other hand some of the observations in Professor Coghill’s and Professor Lawlor’s essays ― perhaps also in Dr Farrer’s (I wonder by the way whether our era is quite so ‘post-positivist’ as he assumes) ― may gain something in depth from what I have attempted to add.

It is an attempt I should never have made at all unless in that context and with that encouragement. For these other contributors give body to all I have left unsaid except in my casual reference to Lewis’s ‘almost supreme’ maturity. They will emphasize for me that, in saying that, I meant exactly what I said and no less. It was not only Mr Lawlor, in his youth, who felt in his conversations with Lewis that he was wielding a peashooter against a howitzer. I have felt much the same all my life. Or was it more like trying to run along beside a motorcar in top gear? In other respects, too, I could confirm nearly all they say. I only have a very small quarrel here and there… with Professor Lawlor, for instance, for affirming that ‘Lewis had not the least conception of Eliot’s view that we need the past in order to understand the present’, unless the words ‘Eliot’s view’ are to be taken as so operative that the rest hardly count… and with Professor Bennett for describing Till We Have Faces as an ‘allegory’. It is in my opinion the most muscular and powerful product of Lewis’s imagination, as certainly as The Abolition of Man is his most powerful essay in discursive argument. It is much more a myth in its own right than it is an allegory: and if he had not previously written both a book about allegory and an avowed allegory of his own, it might have been properly appraised as such.

I am fairly often approached for general comment on C. S. Lewis or for an ‘explanation’ of his attitude to this or that. This used to be so even during his life. Such requests always make me feel both embarrassed and fraudulent. As if I could explain anything! He stood before me as a mystery as solidly as he stood besides me as a friend. It is mainly because of his not infrequent, and always generous, allusions to myself in his published writings that I have thought it well, while there is still time, to get all this written into the record ― and with the maximum of candour.

Owen Barfield

1 As far as I know, this was never published. He told me afterwards he had been informed by an expert that the acquisition of sight by a blind adult was not in fact the shattering experience he had imagined for the purposes of his story. Years later I found in one of Sir Julian Huxley’s books an allusion to the initial results of such an operation, which suggested that Lewis had in fact imagined them pretty accurately. Return.

2 I am indebted for this quotation to Professor Clyde S. Kilby, of Wheaton College, Illinois, author of The Christian World of C. S. Lewis. Wm Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1964. Return.