Friday, February 14, 2014

C.S. Lewis and the Invention of Love

C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition

Before he gained international renown as a Christian fantasist, philosopher, and part-time scold, England knew Clive Staples Lewis primarily as a medievalist and literary schoolman. Recent pushes by academic presses and Lewis loyalists have seen his scholarship reissued for millennial readers, and this latest will surely please both Lewis’ Christian partisans and secular academics. But clear your calendar, and don’t mistake it for easy reading.

Sometime around the late Eleventh Century CE, French poets invented the concept of “Courtly Love,” a baroque code by which men venerate women, but only at great remove. You must love, for such is the human soul’s substance. But love happens in ways we’d consider scandalous. A man cannot love his wife, the code demands, because a man must love a lady. And your wife is no lady, she’s a woman.

At that time, European poetry was mired in preachy Christian allegory, and poets, at least those who set their verse on paper, strove to wed ancient Greco-Roman grandeur with schoolmarmish treatises on virtue.The result, Lewis demonstrates, was persistently dreary. There’s a reason you never encounter Tenth Century poets in literature classes: they’d devolved into high-handed, imitative epics that sound tin-earred beside Sophocles or Ovid.

Poets like Chr├ętien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris, and Geoffrey Chaucer broke this death spiral with verse novels that, superficially, extol adultery, virility, and romance. These troubadours renounced constricting public pietism, favoring stories of chivalrous exploits, courtly intrigue, and sexual indulgence. Many poems involved King Arthur’s court, and explored themes Lewis’ drinking chum, JRR Tolkien, would immediately recognize as heroic mythmaking in primordial dreamscapes.

If you’ve been in love in Europe or America, you’ve felt these poets’ echo. The idea of venerating women, proving manfulness to earn your lover’s hand, and classic white weddings, come from these poets. But their primitive Nicholas Sparks ethos conceals deeper metaphorical ambitions. While these troubadours revised what it means to love your spouse or lover, they subtly also revised what we mean by loving friends, strangers, and God.

That is, these poets didn’t just push their stories. They pushed a moral framework seemingly built on Christian agape, but elaborated through powerfully sensual contexts. This framework evolved, Lewis shows, sometimes growing more explicit and allegorical, other times vanishingly indirect. If early Christian theology sounds strange today, celebrating love while not always showing what looks loving to us, it’s because we understand love through these poets’ lenses.

Reading Lewis’ explication feels pleasingly like a marathon. He stuffs very long chapters with very long paragraphs, writing in a willfully erudite manner that invites readers to pace themselves. Commencing from Chr├ętien’s fairly straightforward chivalric romances, Lewis leads readers through famed authors, like Chaucer and Spenser, and obscure but influential voices like Guillaume de Lorris and Thomas Usk. We finish, winded but exhilarated, feeling we’ve seen a whole new world.

This work probably wouldn’t get written today. Not only is its physical length imposing (at over 450 pages, it’s twice the length of most scholarly books currently published), Lewis’ long, scholarly digressions, including one hundred pages on declining allegorical literature in Late Antiquity, could alienate generalists. Long blocks of untranslated Latin, Greek, and Occitan demand literate audiences prepared for copious supporting research. Remember, this was published before Google.

Yet these qualities recommend Lewis to modern audiences. Freed from current limitations, like the need to placate tenure committees and private donors, Lewis boldly assails an intensely specialized topic with rigor and aplomb. We witness a great mind subjecting ideas to acute Socratic analysis, elevating some conclusions, discarding others. He’s operatic, opinionated, and free of false humility. And Lewis keeps his long, polysyllabic inquiry moving with unexpected moments of dry, biting humor.

Lewis has his own limitations, to which he often remains blind. He extols these truly mammoth poems, some running over twenty thousand lines, and claims modern readers must struggle with literature written for a “scholastic and aristocratic age.” In sum, Lewis clearly thinks everyone in pre-Renaissance Europe had leisure and literacy sufficient to sit around reading sensual metaphysical epics. This foretells the idealistic anti-modernism pervading his didactic novels.

Synopsizing this study feels cheapening, because any recap necessarily omits vast quantities of information. Lewis writes with great intellectual curiosity and accomplishment, clearly expecting readers who share his ambition. Yet there’s nothing like seeing great minds in action, and the dialectic between Lewis and his classic sources rewards mindful reading. Take your time, because Lewis has prepared an intense, thoroughgoing journey, and you don’t want to miss any of it.

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