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C.S. Lewis on Being a Literary Person

C.S. Lewis on Being a Literary Person

C.S. Lewis begins his work An Experiment in Criticism by highlighting the differences between the literary and the unliterary persons. One of the first things Lewis notices is the differences in approach to literature taken by an unliterary person compared to that of the literary person. Lewis notes that an unliterary person approaches literature from a primarily pragmatic origin.

For the unliterary person, reading is often something done when there is nothing else to do. Reading might also be an activity undertaken to help the unliterary person fall asleep at night. Further, the unliterary person sees no use in reading the same work of literature twice.

Conversely, Lewis paints the literary person’s approach to works of literature in a very different light. To the literary person, time to spend reading is sought out rather than used as a last ditch effort to avoid boredom. Further, the literary person aims to give his whole self to the task of reading, laying himself open to the work before him with the goal of soaking up all that the author has offered in the text. To the literary person, a first encounter with a work of literature is a momentous experience:

“The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary [person], an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers [unliterary persons]. Whey they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them. (pg. 3)

Works of literature have an affective influence on a literary person. They have refused to approach a work of literature with ulterior motives and, duely, they have reaped what they could not have reaped otherwise. The story has become a part of them and they have become apart of the story.

This is something very difficult for the pragmatic minds of modern westerners to grasp. On our best days we approach literature to gain knowledge or to grasp a “point” or a moral. We can hardly finish a book before asking, “What was the message the author was trying to convey?”

No doubt there are many morals and messages held in the great works of literature. However, to approach a work of literature with the sole intention of mining these things is to approach literature as an unliterary person. In the case of the literary person, they approach a great work with the main intention to sit under the author’s tutelage. In this posture they receive from the author what the author is offering. What the literary person finds is that the author is offering much more than the unliterary person could ever imagine.

Lewis compares an unliterary person’s approach to literature to a person who approaches sports with the mere intention of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. There are many who will play a sport with the mere intention of getting a workout and, as such, will miss much of what the sport has to offer them.

Lewis puts forth the example of a man who plays football [read “soccer”] with only the intention of getting a good workout. This man will care very little about the score and will not understand the joy or agony the true “footballers” experience throughout the game. This man will entirely miss what football has to offer him because his main intention is to get a workout. On the other hand, the real footballers will glory in the beautiful game while also getting a good workout.

When one approaches literature to “learn the message” they are like the man approaching soccer to “get a workout.” They often miss the story altogether.

Food for thought.


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