What Lewis almost said: some thoughts on quoting carefully

lewis-hamlet-quote
Detail of page 99, _Selected Literary Essays_, C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper. (Cambridge University Press, 1969).

I’ve ranted in the past about C. S. Lewis misquotes. So has the C.S. Lewis Foundation, Essential C. S. Lewis,  and a host of other Lewisians.

I’ve often wondered why I care about this so much, why it rankles me so deeply when someone tosses around a quote offhandedly – or heavy-handedly, as the case may be – and then takes special care to note that it is from none other than C. S. Lewis, implying that it (the quote) is nearly scriptural and therefore they (the quoters) are entirely trustworthy and authoritative.

Does it really matter?

I think so (for reasons mentioned here). I think it speaks to something about how we use language, words, and ideas, how we view authority, and how we tend to accept (often blindly) what we are offered by Those-Who-Know, whether in virtual conversations, printed text, or spoken word.

We often let others do our thinking for us. But to make it look like we’ve done our own thinking, we buttress it with a quote by Someone Really Important and Smart, like C. S. Lewis, or countless other dead people whose words have been dissected into convenient sound-bites that make us look good.

Sometimes the quote is nearly-right, as in the case of this popular one:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live among those who are.

This quotes gets almost 3 millions hits in a Google search. Bravo for Clive on being viral, a thousand times over.

Unlike many of Lewis’s other misattributed quotes (including: “Humility is not thinking of yourself less: it’s thinking less of yourself,” and, “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream,” and, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”), this one is almost spot on. What Lewis actually wrote was:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are: that good fortune I have enjoyed for nearly twenty years. (C. S. Lewis, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?”)

If the misquoters knew that the original included “in a circle of” as opposed to “among,” I suspect they would love it even more. We are all about circles these days – circles of friends, circles of life, circles of prayer, circles of circles.

[“Circle” is a very strange word if you look at or say it over and over and over again.]

The problem with this quote being used as it so often is – i. e. to say that if one’s friends have common sense and real-world wisdom, then so will you – is that Lewis wasn’t talking about that at all (which isn’t to say he wouldn’t agree).

This quote is from one of Lewis’s literary essays, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” You can find it in at least three places: Proceedings of the British Academy (Vol. 28, 1942), They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses (Geoffrey Bles, 1962) and Selected Literary Essays (ed. Walter Hooper, Cambridge University Press, 1969). It appears rather unexpectedly about two-thirds of the way into Lewis’s argument that Hamlet is best enjoyed for its poetic power and prowess rather than being critiqued along various theoretical and critical lines. He tips his hat to Owen Barfield, not for being a friend who helped Lewis navigate the difficulties of daily decision making (though perhaps he did do that) or for being a friend whose mere presence deepened and expanded Lewis’s own daily wisdom (though perhaps that did happen).

Instead, he tips his hat to Owen Barfield specifically and his other literary friends generally for being the kind of people who kept Lewis grounded as a reader and critic, for being people of deep intellect and smart ideas who challenged Lewis as a reader and critic, for being people who thought carefully and thoroughly and creatively before spouting off about nothing in particular.

For those who are interested, Lewis tends toward a reading style that embraces the poetry, the lyricism, the words, the essence, the donegality, and the visceral responses rather than a reading style that hacks and dismembers texts into lifeless blobs of intellectual blubber. Lewis believed that the many critics who had examined Hamlet’s character through every lens from every angle had missed something important. He warns that our own reading of Hamlet (should you choose to read it, which he would strongly recommend) will also miss something important if we approach it in the same clinically sterile way.

Perhaps I should rather say that it would miss as much if our behaviors when we are actually reading were not wiser than our criticism in cold blood. (“Hamlet: The Prince of the Poem?” in They Asked for a Paper, pp. 68-69; Selected Literary Essays, p. 103)

Lewis’s famous quote about wise friends is assuredly about wise friends – but not in the sense that most people use it.

And perhaps that’s not a very big deal at all. Perhaps if the quote is powerful and good and true, it has limitless applications.

But maybe it is a big deal. Maybe we need to be very careful about what we write and say and quote. Maybe knowing the context is as important as knowing the words.

If a writer doesn’t know absolutely certain where a quote is from (which includes almost every wildly popular [uncited] internet quote) but the words are good enough to stand on their own without the weight of Someone Really Important and Smart behind them, then simply say so. “As someone once said: … ”

Don’t claim the words as your own if they aren’t. At the same time, don’t attribute them to someone else if you have not checked and confirmed their source. Language is too important and powerful, too beautiful and poetic to be flung about lightly and carelessly.

 

“We Have No Right to Happiness” – C. S. Lewis’s final words of caution

53 years ago (November 22, 1963), John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX shortly after noon. Less than an hour earlier, C. S. Lewis had collapsed and died at his home in Oxford. The news of his death was quite overshadowed by the American tragedy.

On the day he died, the December 21st issue of The Saturday Evening Post was heading to press. In it were the last words written by Lewis for publication, a short opinion piece titled “We Have No Right to Happiness.” It could have been written today, and certainly should be read today. There are a few unsettling moments, typical of Lewis, that may cause some women to bristle (whether he was insensitive, obtuse, unaware, or misunderstood by readers is a discussion for another time). Regardless, his message is critical to this moment in human history, just as it was in 1963, just as it was in 1982 when SEP reran it, just as it will be next year, and just as it will be for the remainder of human history.

The article lays out a scenario in which person A divorces person B in order to marry person C, who has recently divorced person D. A and B were unhappy together (in A’s opinion, at least), as were C and D (per C, anyway), whereas A and C are head-over-heels-happy as a couple and obviously meant to be together.

They, in fact, have a right – perhaps even a duty – to use whatever means and follow whatever path that will help them fully realize their happiness. It isn’t just for their own good: it is for the good of humanity at large.

That’s a paraphrase, but you get the idea.

In typical Lewis fashion, he’ll have none of this weak and faulty logic.

“At first, [‘a right to happiness’] sounds to me as odd as a right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school of moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.”

And yet, we do expect that many things out of our control should and ought to be in our control. And we are not afraid to say so or to manipulate the system (or the doctrine) accordingly.

Recently, several highly visible and influential people have thrown off the fetters that have thoroughly strained and prevented their happiness. Convinced of their own insight and rightness, they are encouraging others to do the same. They firmly believe (or at least firmly feel) that any moral or orthodox restraints that tamper with one’s own inclinations and one’s own sense of well-being and happiness are optional.

Morality is malleable. Orthodoxy is not obligatory.

It does not much matter at this point who is most recently blaring this message. It was someone else last week. It will be someone else next week. There will always be someone saying 1) you deserve what you desire and 2) you alone are in charge of setting your own moral compass.

We all want to define our own morality and grasp for whatever makes us happy. We truly feel we deserve this, regardless of the cost or fallout to other people. That persons B and D may not have felt the same way about the dissolution of their respective covenantal marriages as did A and C does not figure into the blissful narrative. B and D’s happiness is not of concern.

Simply put, persons A and C (in this particular Lewis scenario) are quite certain that they deserve happiness – but that B and D likely do not.

This is basically how all of humanity functions. We would like God to step in and stop all the madness, lying, greed, destruction, and other bad behavior by forcing the human race to behave as they ought (which is the only way such uniform and long-lasting good behavior would ever happen). But there is a caveat: we expect Him to leave us alone. No forced good behavior for yours truly, thank you very much.

And therein is perhaps the most obvious reason why none of us has a right to happiness, or in fact to anything at all. We are hopelessly and helplessly fallen creatures who put on a good show of righteous indignation about desiring universal peace and bliss – but we insist that our own decisions and choices be off-limits from God’s powerful control.

In classic Lewis fashion, this final article of his ends with a reminder that one misstep will logically lead to another. Demanding personal happiness in the realm of relationship, specifically sexual and romantic relationship, is merely one step towards a greater evil.

“The fatal principle [that one deserves happiness], once allowed in that department [i.e. the sexual impulse], must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skills may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’ – be swept away.”

One of the most engaging and alluring voices of today is currently saying some alarming things in regards to recent life events:

“Feels like the world could use all the love it can get right now. So today, I’m going to share with you my new love … I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing – that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are. I want you to refuse to betray yourself. Not just for you. For ALL OF US. Because what the world needs — in order to grow, in order to relax, in order to find peace, in order to become brave — is to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation. The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is not explain herself.”

I would respond with this:

  • The world does absolutely need all the love it can get right now. Thus has it been since the first humans said “no” to God and “yes” to their desires. That is why Jesus came as a babe, died as Savior, and was resurrected as Lord – to show us the only Love that can change life.
  • My own joy, freedom, and integrity are real and significant only insofar as they flow out of Christ’s presence and strength in my life.
  • We only live once on this earth; in some ways, this absolutely is a dress rehearsal for the life to come – which doesn’t mean we are allowed to carelessly muddle things or intentionally toss it all off as inconsequential or meaningless.
  • If “betraying myself” means giving up my rights to me, dying to myself each day, carrying my cross, and following Jesus into the difficult places where he will lead, then I will not refuse that (as much as I may wish to). It is the only hope for transformation, growth, and discovering the depth of God’s love and grace.
  • In order to grow, relax, find peace, and become brave, the world does not need to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation. Indeed not. Rather, the world needs to embrace the Incarnate Lord who not only lived  his truth but was Truth, and who voluntarily offered himself as the only sacrifice that could bring us forgiveness, hope, and life.
  • The most revolutionary thing a woman (or man) can do is to surrender herself – fully, deeply, humbly, painfully, and helplessly. Only then can she (or he) truly live.

We musn’t fret that this most recent round of false gospel is something that will finally tumble humanity beyond redemption. Every false gospel is equally dangerous.

At the same time, we mustn’t brush off this most recent round of false gospel as just another weightless and non-substantial folly. All folly is dangerous, and the closer it sounds to the True Gospel, the more dangerous it is.

Read carefully. Listen thoughtfully. Do not be seduced by sweet words that promise life and happiness but in the end deliver emptiness and despair.

We have no right to happiness – or anything else, for that matter – and yet God offers us his love and hope anyway. Grab them – and only them – and then settle in for a life that only He can provide.

 

 

 

 

Dads in the back with the babies

There’s a lot of shouting these days. Also marching, crying, worrying, reflecting, considering, thinking, wondering, praying, celebrating, spewing, planning, mourning, hating, hoping – all kinds of “ing” going on in the heads and hearts of people, “ing” from every hidden nook and cranny of the emotional landscape.

I’m processing the previous months’ events and all the current “ing” privately. There’s much I could say, but there’s far more that I need to hear, contemplate, and think on.

In the meantime, I find great reason to hope – and the reason lies far outside the realm of most of the current rhetoric.

It lies – to be precise – in the back of my church where on Sunday morning, a group of dads were wearing their babies. The picture’s a bit fuzzy, I know – maybe because it’s not often that a dad wearing a baby snaps a selfie with other dads also wearing babies. It’s not the standard fare of Virtual Stardom. Nor does it jive with the current discursive landscape.

Notice they are all smiling – dads-in-back-with-the-babies

Gracious, it surely does make my heart sing, my soul hope, my spirit rejoice, my mind relax, and my face break into a grin.

Dads in the back with their babies – not just with their babies, but wearing their babies. That’s an “ing” I’m going to dance about all week long. That’s an “ing” I’m all for.

[Coda: We closed the Sunday service reciting the well-known prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, everyone holding hands, across the seats and across the aisles – a room of people who assuredly have different views about all the recent “ing”s. We did it with full hearts, deep trust, abiding hope, and utter faith in the Father of us all, who not only made us and knows us but also wears us tightly bound to his chest. Even when all seems not well, all that matters is very well indeed. Amen.]

Electoral maps do not define me

[I wrote the below post exactly four years ago, which happened to be “the morning after” rather than “election eve.” Even so, the point remains important: that we are not merely tally pinpricks on an electoral map, who may seriously doubt the value of our single vote, but rather we are Imago Dei pinpricks within an infinite cosmos, who can be assured of our present and eternal value. The final voting percentages listed below may be off from this years, but the truthful premise is not.]

Wednesday, 7 November, 2012:

I’m not a political activist, pundit, or powerhouse. That’s why after voting yesterday, I wrote that the precious freedom to vote is of less significance than the precious truth that we are human.

This morning, 51.5% of voters are euphoric (to varying degrees) and 48.5% are despondent (on various levels) based solely on their personal answer to this single question:

Who did you vote for?

Several hours ago, the political map of our country looked like this:

2012 Electoral Map – 11.07.12

For entirely non-political reasons, I hate this map. Everything about it screams division and dissent. The non-United States of America.

I prefer this map:

United States

A person has to really scrunch up their eyes to pinpoint “my” place. The color scheme has an artistic air about it. The division lines are faint, more like the marks on a master blueprint than the “cut” lines on a butcher diagram.

This map is even better:

This one is better yet:

And this is the best of all:

I vote because I can. Because I have been given that right.  Because voting matters – on a temporal level, that is.

But I am not a pinpoint on a blue/red electoral map, defined primarily by my political leanings or judged by my voting record.

I am, rather, a pinpoint in a vast, immeasurable universe. I breathe because I live. I have been granted that miracle. Pinpoints matter – in spite of their smallness – solely because they are defined by their imago Dei and judged by undeserved grace.

The real question (for today) is not Who did you vote for?

The real question (for beyond days) is Who do you live for?