C.S. Lewis & Theoretical Determinism

In Through the Wardrobe, a book of essays about the Chronicles of Narnia, Lisa Papademetriou worries about C.S. Lewis's possible racist tendencies. This is in reference, specifically, to Lewis' treatment of Calormen society. Although I disagree with the charge, I can understand people who get uncomfortable or worried about seeming stereotypes of Arab culture. I always dislike when people stereotype others, including well-known fantasy and science-fiction authors.

To be fair, Papademetriou's essay "In the Kingdom of Calormen" is well-balanced. Papademetriou makes the excellent point that Lewis wanted story, especially the atmosphere of a story, to stand out in the reader's mind. He did this by relying on allusions. Allusions are not the same as stereotypes--stereotypes, I would argue, are the assumptions a writer presses onto a person or culture while allusions leave the door open for the reader's own knowledge/beliefs of a person or culture. (The difference can reside on a fine line.)

Papademetriou points out that Lewis "wanted readers to respond to his writing with their guts, not their minds. He often chose characters and settings that felt familiar in order to let the readers fill in the blanks with their own associations [such as One Thousand and One Nights]." However, she later makes a rather odd turnabout when she claims that since Lewis obviously thinks Calormen culture is completely corrupt, how could he create Emeth, who is honorable and not at all corrupt? By her own argument, however, the image of Calormen nobles as cultured and honorable would be part of the associations that Lewis relied on.

Papademetriou seems to have been caught not by environmental determinism but by theoretical determinism which is a tangled web indeed. Theoretical determinism is the way higher academic types (not Papademetriou) can feel superior about their education without acknowledging that feeling superior is one of those things that gets Western civilization into trouble in the first place (and without considering that Western civilization might actually have something to feel superior about). Theoretical determinism states that an Edwardian, Oxford (Christian) don writing in the 1950's MUST be sexist and racist (no matter what he says) and, therefore, his sexist/racist ideas MUST have been incorporated into his writing (no matter what the critics say) and his readers MUST be infected by those ideas (not matter what they say). It's an easy way to win an argument and almost impossible to refute, as Papademetriou seems to have discovered. (Theoretical determinists of this ilk never seem to wonder if they, at some future date, will be considered just as backward and unhealthy as the writers and thinkers they criticize.)

There is something to be said for Lewis being a product of his time. There is a great deal to be said for Lewis producing such a tough, responsible, intelligent female Calormen character. And, too, there is something to be said for Lewis being trained to see the Arab world from a very, very medieval point of view.

There is also a great deal to be said for modern-day theoretical determinists seeing stuff that simply isn't there.

When I read the Chronicles as a child, I did not make any connection between Calormen and Arabs. I grew up in the 1980's--my view of Arab culture, if anyone had bothered to ask, would have been fairly bland. If hard-pressed, I probably could have come up with "Islam," possibly "oil" and, once I reached college, "Kuwait." But I did not automatically associate Arab culture with terrorists (although I knew some terrorists were Arabs). Soviets were supposed to be the big scare of the 80's; since I grew up with no worries at all on that score (despite James Bond), I can't say I was ever all that susceptible to, or interested in, making theoretical connections between fictional characters and real life groups or people (I'm still not).

Neither did I assume from The Horse and His Boy that the entire Calormen culture was corrupt. Blame it on the libertarianism of my parents and siblings, but I treated the individual encounter between Aravis and Shasta as an individual encounter, rather than a theoretical cultural encounter. I never assumed (or thought that Lewis meant me to assume) that because Shasta's owner was a horrible human being, all Calormen fishermen were horrible human beings. Or that because the leaders of Calormen were obsequious and self-serving, all Calormens were obsequious and self-serving.

What I did pick up on was Lewis' loathing for a particularly type of relationship, one built on flattery, self-degredation, and entitlement (rather than merit). Oh, yes, I picked up on that! And yes, he attaches those qualities to the uppity-ups in Calormen society. He also attaches those qualities to Miraz and Miraz' cohorts. He also occasionally attaches those qualities to our heroes and heroines. (The worst, and most redeemed, character in these terms is Edmund. The second worst is Eustace.)

Lewis also discusses these qualities in his autobiography. In what place, out of all possible places, did Lewis find these hateful qualities in truly mind-numbing quantity?

English boys' schools.

Although his brother did well in all-male public boarding schools, Lewis-- well, "loathed" isn't quite strong enough to describe Lewis' feelings towards his public school experience. He describes his feelings in-depth in his autobiography. He also, in typical Lewis fashion, attempts to be objective, but the pen sure is struggling.

And yet, I've never heard of anyone, other than Warnie (Lewis' brother), arguing that C.S. Lewis made unfair comments about or had racist/sexist/classist attitudes towards English public boarding schools. There may be some anti-Lewis die-hards somewhere making those arguments, but in general, his intense dislike of public schools has not alerted any theoretical determinists.

Granted, English public boarding schools are usually on the end of the "stick to beat them with" of thereotical determinism. But if I can see Lewis struggling to be objective with a situation he loathed and yet perceive no insidious ideas in a book which he loved, I can't help but wonder how much racism and sexism theoretical determinists are bringing to C.S. Lewis. Why do they need racism/sexism to be there so badly? And what exactly are they discovering when they find it?

BOOKS

1 comment:

a Calvinist preacher said...

“Why do they need racism/sexism to be there so badly? And what exactly are they discovering when they find it?”

Earlier you state:

“Theoretical determinism is the way higher academic types (not Papademetriou) can feel superior about their education without acknowledging that feeling superior is one of those things that gets Western civilization into trouble in the first place (and without considering that Western civilization might actually have something to feel superior about).”

I think this rather answers the question of why they need racism/sexism to be there, and how much they bring to the subject at hand (C.S. Lewis in this instance, but any topic will do). Theoretical determinism along with the post-modernism and (non-classical) liberalism that tend to accompany it require a way to claim moral superiority and distance vis-à-vis the culture that has produced them.

Almost all leftist ideology hinges on a self-defeating determinism. The only out is to claim a moral, spiritual, intellectual, or some other form of superiority. Some how, some way, these paragons of virtue have managed to escape the very determinism that affects everyone else. Marxist’s are not affected by the economic class determinism that dictates every one else’s behavior and opinions. None of the Darwinian biological determinists believe what they believe merely because it seems conducive to survival of the species. And Theoretical Determinists alone have managed to grasp the Truth unimpeded by their own socio-cultural milieu. The sophistry engaged to support this self-contradiction can be quite amusing.