Thursday, September 25, 2008

Biographica critica

In biographical criticism, the critic attempts to relate the life of an author to their works. C S Lewis hated biographical criticism of others, and would have deplored any attempt at biographical criticism of his own writing. The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, is a biographical criticism of C S Lewis's own writing. There is a difficulty here! For one thing, Carpenter finds himself in disagreement with Lewis himself:

Lewis's attack was partially justified. In its extreme form this 'biographical' tendency in criticism is objectionable. Yet there are also grounds for supposing that Lewis's attitude to it grew from something deep-seated in his own personality.

Realising the evident irony here, Carpenter immediately backtracks and attempts to justify his argument:

In saying this one is of course falling into the very Personal Heresy that he attacked.

But the justification that he attempts in the next sentence turns out to be no justification at all:

Nevertheless it needs to be said.

One of the advantages of writing about the dead of course is that they so very rarely argue back. But you encourage other scurrilous critics (or bloggers) to do the very same thing about yourself when you're dead. (Hi Humphrey! Hi future readers!)

In other respects, The Inklings is a very good book, detailing the history of Lewis, his literary friends, and their regular meetings that took place during and after the war. Of course, some of the best passages are quotes from Lewis and his friends themselves (the book would be only one-third the size minus the quotes). Often these quotes seem to be taken out of context - I suspect that Carpenter may have taken the words of Inkling Charles Williams to heart:

... he chanted lines of verse almost as if they were magical formulae. They were not always lines that made any great sense out of context - 'And thus the Filial Godhead answering spake' from Paradise Lost and 'Felt in the blood and felt along the heart' from Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' were among his favourites - but he did not believe that the actual meaning of such lines was especially important. 'There has been a great deal too much talking of what the poets mean,' he wrote in The English Poetic Mind. And in another context he said: ' It isn't what poetry says, it is what poetry is.'

Writerly squib for those interested in such things: when he started writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien apparently referred to Strider/Aragorn as 'Trotter'.

UPDATE - Of course, the best biography of C S Lewis was written by C S Lewis himself - Surprised by Joy.

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