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.

 

 

 

 

Sorry, but C. S. Lewis never said that there (in which I begrudge the alarming glut of authoritative misquotes)

Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different… – “Prince Caspian”

This pithy quote, attributed to the pages of Prince Caspian, the second installment of C. S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles (that’s right, second, no matter what HarperCollins says),* appears all over the authoritative world wide web.

And when I say all over I mean ALL OVER. 

And when I say ALL OVER, I mean ALLTHEFREAKINGOVER!

Pinterest. Tumblr. Facebook. Goodreads. Yahoo answers. Etsy. Twitter. Finance blogs. Focus on the Family. Amazon. Numerous self-published books.

And approximately 6 million other pages.

It is quoted in mainstream publications. It is quoted in AP History presentations. It is quoted by pastors. It is quoted on every Lewis-loving-blogger’s blog known to humankind. (I hyperbolize.) It is quoted on every quote site in existence. (I exaggerate.) It is even quoted by C. S. Lewis himself on his personal Twitter account. (I joke not.)

At the risk of bringing down all the authoritative walls of Jericho, Google, Yahoo, and Bing in one fell swoop, I regret to inform all the many millions of people who have lauded this quote as meaningful, life-changing, heart-warming, wise, inspiring, eloquent, and other empty blathery things, that C. S. Lewis did not write these words in Prince Caspian, or any of the other Narnian Chronicles.**

It’s true that when Shasta, Aravis, Bree and Hwin race against time across the desert, the view behind them seems to stay the same no matter how long they trot-walk-trot-walk-trot-walk.

It’s also true that when Pole, Scrubb, Puddleglum, Snowflake and Coalblack climb up from the underworld, the view behind them seems to stay the same no matter how long they clop-clop-clop-clop carefully uphill and underground.

And when Caspian, Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, Reepicheep and the others are on the last leg of their outbound voyage, it seems that little changes except for the inherent essence of the sun.

Too, when Peter, Susan, and Edmund are finally wise enough to follow Lucy who is following Aslan who is invisible to all but her, it seems like forever until the other three finally see his golden self walking in front of them.

But the confidently posted, quoted, blogged, tumbled, tweeted, grammed, and pinned quote is no quote at all. Not Lewis’s quote, anyway.**

Still, it has become a 6-million-hits-authoritative fact. No one questions it. No one bothers to look it up. No one takes the time to confirm or fact check or wonder if just maybe – since the quote is never referenced by a page number or given a context or framed within a larger narrative, it might be, well, FAKE – FALSE – UNTRUE – MADE UP – CONTRIVED – NONSENSE  – BLATHERY FOO FOO.***

Confession: I do admire Lewis and love his books, and can tend to get unreasonably bothered and bent out of shape when people toss around his words and ideas without ever having read more than a handful of his 50-plus books and countless articles, notes, letters, reviews, and other writings. (“I’ve read Amos and Jude. Let me tell you everything you wanted to know about God.”)

But this isn’t about Lewis. (Okay, maybe it is a little – but not mostly.)

This is about language and thought and reason and creativity and honor and intellect and caution and so many other things.

It’s about how quickly and carelessly something becomes accepted fact.

It’s about how quickly and carelessly we swallow what the Information Age grazers and snackers share with us.

It’s about how quickly and carelessly we jump on whatever train is currently barreling down the cyber track.

It’s about how quickly and carelessly we discard and surrender our brains, assuming someone else has already done the necessary thinking for us.

Wrong. No. Bad form. Dumb idea. Stop it. Now.

All of us. Just stop it. Else our brains, rather than making thoughtful, adventurous, mindful, and exhilarating use of the vast knowledge now at our fingertips, will simply shut down and take a snooze that soon eclipses mere laziness and instead threatens our very ability to reason, to think, and therefore to be.

Quite frankly, as much as it irritates me, a wildly popular Lewis misquote is nothing more than a symptom of something much deeper, something that should worry us all.

And when I say worry us I mean worry us greatly.

Greatly, indeed.

© 2015 Crystal Kirgiss

* Reading order (also known as “publication order for as long as Lewis lived and beyond”):
Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe
Prince Caspian
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Silver Chair
Horse and His Boy
Magician’s Nephew
Last Battle

** I am 99% certain that I have never seen this phrase in any of Lewis’s books. To be fair, there are some I have read only once (English Literature in the 16th Century, Excluding Drama, for example). I would happily stand corrected about this quote, by way of a specific title (including publication date, edition, and page number), which would then force me to self-rant about the dangers of publishing a blog post without first meticulously reading and exhausting every possible counter-response.

***Dishearteningly, I have even found uploaded book report about Prince Caspian that include this quote. Dear me.