Lately I’ve been reading The Allegory of Love, hoping that it would give me some insight both into Lewis’ perspective on literature, writing, and literary criticism, and into some of the pieces that influenced him personally and as a writer. I have not been disappointed. I’m working through the chapter on The Romance of the Rose, which covers both the original unfinished work by Guillaume de Lorris, and a sequel by Jean de Meun. Lewis criticizes the sequel because of its enormous and frequent digressions from the main allegory, and says that some people excuse it by saying it’s just typical of the period. Lewis argues,
I admit no such defence. Unity of interest is not ‘classical’; it is not foreign to any art that has ever existed or ever can exist in the world. Unity in diversity if possible – failing that, mere unity, as a second best – these are the norms for all human work, given, not by the ancients, but by the nature of consciousness itself. When schools of criticism or poetry break this rule, this rule breaks them. If medieval works often lack unity, they lack it not because they are medieval, but because they are, so far, bad. . . . It is true that medieval art offends in this respect more often than most art. But this is its disease, not its essence. It failed of unity because it attempted vast designs with inadequate resources. When the design was modest – as in Gawaine and the Green Knight or in some Norman parish churches – or when the resources were adequate – as in Salisbury Cathedral and the Divine Comedy – then medieval art attains a unity to the highest order, because it embraces the greatest diversity of subordinated detail.
Unity in diversity. It brought to mind the conversation I had with a colleague about the Ransom Trilogy in general, and That Hideous Strength in particular. We were talking about how Lewis described that book as a fleshing out of the ideas presented directly in The Abolition of Man – and it clearly does that. There are characters that seem to embody various philosophical positions from various eras, and Mark’s education in particular is frequently commented upon. And yet, in my area of interest, there is another current continuing through the book from the previous two about gender. And yet Lewis weaves these themes together in such a way as to make them inseparable and integral to the story. After all, he indicated in Perelandra in the Great Dance that he saw everything as interconnected. One’s education and philosophy is bound to affect one’s understanding of everything, including gender. The colleague said after reading my blog that if I was right about Lewis’ weaving of gender into the trilogy, it just added another layer to our understanding of Lewis’ intellect and the depth of his writing.
I love that confirmation that he saw artistic greatness as partly consisting in the ability to bring together seemingly disparate themes (Dante’s Divine Comedy, his literary example of unity in diversity, brings together Christian theology and politics and Classical mythology and various other branches of learning) into one cohesive, unified, beautiful story. So why wouldn’t Lewis attempt the same, with some key issues of his day; not necessarily as an allegory, but as a story whose details hid important messages for those willing to seek them out?
So it makes sense to me that Lewis would bring those themes – the history of philosophy in general, more particularly a philosophy of education, and the nature of gender, and probably a dozen or so other themes I haven’t noticed, yet – together in one novel. Apparently his resources were adequate to the task!
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