The Non-Repressive Nature of C.S. Lewis

There are two movie versions of Shadowlands, a book by Brian Sibley about the marriage of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. The 1985 version, starring the excellent Joss Ackland as C.S. Lewis and Claire Bloom as Joy Davidman is far superior to the 1993 version starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. The 1993 portrayal of Lewis is grossly misleading.

The fault does not lie with Anthony Hopkins. In an interview given when the movie came out, Hopkins tried to explain that Lewis was not repressed, that he was not some Christian conservative, woman-phobic, frigid Oxford don. He was a conservative Christian with, as far as I can tell, indifferent politics (if anything, he was probably vaguely socialist). He had lived most of his grown life in a household with an older woman who may or may not have been his lover during his youth. He fought in WWI (and was wounded by friendly fire). He drank beer, talked loud and loved hiking. He was an excessively energetic, opinionated, confident Oxford don (who later moved to Cambridge). He could be as dogmatic and self-important as any college professor but he was ruthlessly honest with himself and, more importantly, had a great sense of humor. A colleague once described him, I hope I get this right, as the most unself-conscious self-analyst he'd ever met. Or something like that. Lewis could be devastatingly critical of himself, but he took the Christian injunction to "lose himself" seriously and subsequently, talked as little as possible about himself. He was incredibly generous (much more generous than people realized at the time). He claimed to not get along with children, but when he dealt with them, he treated them seriously. When Joy Davidman was diagnosed with cancer, Lewis not only insisted that she know her condition (atypical for that day and age) but that her boys be told as well. (His own mother had died of cancer--suddenly, in Lewis' eyes.) He had a huge correspondence, much of it with women. He was a multifaceted man who had a nodding acquaintance with the majority of the Christian sins. He often defined himself as a "Christianized pagan" since, despite being confirmed into the Anglican fold as a child, he never truly believed in God until his adulthood.

And yet the 1993 version of Shadowlands portrays this in-your-face, boisterous, paunchy man as a repressed guy who is only drawn out of his sheltered life by a brash, American woman.

Now, Joy Davidman was brash. By the time she meet Lewis, she was an ex-communist, married Christian Jew, mother of two young boys. Her husband was a philanderer who had a tendency to get drunk and hit his kids. Joy Davidman kind of worshipped Lewis, at least at first, and she came to England to seek his advice regarding her marriage. Many people believe that she set her sights on him even before she set foot on British soil. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do think Joy knew what she wanted, and once she met Lewis, she knew she wanted him. He was a little less sure. (On top of which, Joy really bugged his donnish friends). But the growing friendship of Lewis and Joy is easily understand if one realizes that Joy's brash, outspoken nature didn't "release" Lewis' inner self. She was like Lewis. What Lewis got in Joy was the kind of give-and-take, argumentative, highly intellectual, witty conversation, replete with stingers, that he had usually associated only with his male friends. With Joy, he got all the pleasure of loud, obnoxious opinions plus warm fuzzy sexual attraction to boot.

My opinion is that Lewis (somewhat shell-shocked by his life with the shrewish but to be pitied Mrs. Moore) didn't see the point of marriage unless it was with an equal. He was a bit of a misogynist (which isn't exactly the same thing as being a chauvinistic or being repressed) since he didn't believe that the hearty, give-and-take equality he liked was possible with a woman, and I have to confess that on paper the marriage of Lewis and Joy looks odd in the extreme. I mean, what are the chances? But there is no doubt whatsoever that despite the shaky ground on which the relationship started, he was passionately in love with Joy when she died, and it is to his enormous credit that the man who had extolled the necessity of accepting life's pain with life's good ended by determining that all the pain of loss was worth the love he had enjoyed. The point of this post is that the capacity to do so was not something Joy created in Lewis. He always had it.

The 1985 version also more faithfully details Lewis' religious crisis after Joy's death. The 1993 version winds down with Lewis' doubts (oh, he loved her SOOOO much, he even doubted God). But Lewis himself claimed that it was only as his self-obsessive grief subsided that he remembered Joy accurately and could ask himself "Would we call the dead back?" Lewis advocated something that I think gets lost in most analysis of his writing: he believed that passionate feeling, spiritual or otherwise, can accompany a cold, clear intellectual response. He was suspicious of overfrought nerves and blustering emotion, and it is only our post-70s goopy self-love that labels such suspicion "repressed." As Dr. House points out, what's the point of all the emotional upheavel? it won't get the patient better any faster. (In other words, you can care deeply for something or someone without throwing tantrums and drowning in emotional goo.) "She smiled [on her death bed] but not at me," Lewis wrote and for a man completing a journal about the loss of an adored wife, it is a remarkable statement.

There are many people who believe that religion is some kind of safety net, protection, comfort zone for believers. The stunning thing about A Grief Observed (Lewis's journal after Joy's death) is that his reconciliation with God was not accompanied by any particularly comforting beliefs. He repudiated entirely the idea "this is what she would really want" and in so doing faced the reality of Joy's death more honestly than those people who insist that the dead live on in our thoughts, we can live for them, blah, blah, blah. Although Lewis believed in Joy's eternal soul and that he might meet her on the other side, he accepted (in accordance with traditional Christianity and, for that matter, his marriage vows) that she would no longer be his wife in heaven.

For Lewis, true belief and true love stem, eventually, from honest, clear-headed acceptance. He never bought into the "there are no atheists in foxholes" argument. So you get all emotional in a crisis, so what? It was when the head has cleared, when one stops pounding the door, when one is quiet and at peace and the richoeting, self-important emotions have died that God speaks. It's a refreshing view in face of the demands for constant emotional highs that occur in our current political and religious landscapes.

The 1985 version captures all this much better. I highly recommend it, although Debra Winger's depiction of Joy is probably more accurate than Bloom's.


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