C.S. Lewis, Modernism, and the Great War
The War to End All Wars
The nineteenth century was the age of optimism and change. Inventions such as the telephone, the light bulb, and the automobile were quickly adopted all over the world. As Lewis and Clark set out west, Manifest Destiny, the doctrine of American expansionism, was in full flight. Prized works of literature, such as Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, embodied the Western spirit. Although these examples of change inevitably spurred devastation, the tone of the cheerful nineteenth century greatly contrasted that of the somber twentieth.
The First World War brought an end to the optimism of the nineteenth century. The “Great War” was the disastrous culmination of eighteenth-century tactics—charge and short-range assaults—and nineteenth-century mechanization. Military expositions were often characterized by the use of advanced weaponry, such as machine guns and flamethrowers, and unsophisticated assaults on the enemy. Trench warfare had drastic effects on human health and mind. The muddied conditions of the trenches were often responsible for causing infections and tragic diseases, including mental debilitations.
The unfortunate irony is this: The same technological advances that propelled the West into a golden age of optimism and progress were transformed into the weapons that shattered the human psyche.
Modernism: A Reaction to Horror
Modernism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that sought to make sense of the First World War and other tragic realities. In literature, modernism was tethered to the “Lost Generation” of poets and novelists. They were deemed “lost” due to their propensity to behave apathetically, fixating all desires on the reckless accumulation of wealth.
One of the most specific attributes of literary modernism was nihilism, the rejection of all religious and moral principles. Novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises are quintessential works of modernism and nihilism, as the main characters throw themselves into a slough of hedonistic parties and pleasures. Rather than promoting personal creativity, modernists believed that traditional morality restricted human emotion. Instead of submitting to the historical understandings of morality and religion that are, assumably, rooted in hypocrisy, humans must trust their own inclinations—inclinations of natural expression and subjective moral standards—if they are truly to be happy.
Modernism, also, was a radical approach to understanding the corruptibility of Western society—a corruptibility that was tethered to the vitalization of technology and change. As the twentieth century made incredible progress in the areas of science, automation, and mechanization, many sought to adopt philosophies that made sense of contemporary innovation, as well as the horrors of that innovation. Many believed that Christianity was not fit to access contemporary issues, nor could it adapt to the progress of the twentieth century.
C.S. Lewis: From Nihilism to Joy
It is silly to suggest that Lewis did not succumb to the intellectual tension of his day. The young Lewis had his own encounter with the conflict that facilitated these existential anxieties. In the trenches, the boy from Belfast wrote poetry. Lewis’ wartime poems, Spirits in Bondage, reflect the modernist attitude towards moral authority and his cynical, albeit atheistic, outlook on nature:
I am Nature, the Mighty Mother,
I am the law: ye have none other.
I am the battle’s filth and strain,
I am the widow’s empty pain.
I am the sea to smother your breath,
I am the bomb, the falling death.
Lewis’ career in wartime poetry would soon come to an end. On the offensive, Lewis witnessed the gruesome death of a fellow sergeant, while also taking shrapnel to his wrist, upper ribs, and left lung. He was deemed critically wounded and sent back to England.
Lewis’ near-death experience would not make an insincere convert. His journey to faith, like that of St. Augustine, would be a long one. Lewis, the formidable Oxford scholar, was grounded in the atheism of his teenage years and invigorated by his academic stature. Despite his egotism, the “Hound of Heaven,” as Lewis called God, would have His way. Soon, Lewis was the most “dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”
The Fight Against Modernism
Lewis used his remarkable wit and creative talent to fight modernism and the hedonistic tone of the literature of his day. The modernist belief, as we have previously discussed, is that traditional forms of morality restricted emotion, freedom, and the human spirit. Christianity could not keep up with the times, as it was believed to limit natural expression. During his period of atheism, Lewis concluded that imagination and reason were at odds. Imagination was edging him onto belief, while reason suppressed that belief. Lewis reflects upon this tension in his autobiography:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
One of Lewis’ greatest rejections of modernism, along with the truth that brought him to faith, was that imagination and reason are not mutually exclusive realities—they inform one another. Lewis argues that reason is the vessel of truth and the “imagination is the organ of meaning.” We cannot fully grasp the meaning of a concept until an image is applied to that concept. Lewis affirmed that it is the same with the gospel message, as we see with Christ’s use of parables. The Chronicles of Narnia provide images of Christ’s death and resurrection, via the character of Aslan, to bolster our perception of Christ, while also fighting the ultra-rationalism of the time. The Chronicles, not exclusively, intermix traditional Christianity with creativity and expression—challenging the modernist idea that morality negates expression.
In combating the nihilistic attitudes of his fellow novelists, Lewis combines hope and truth. Take, for example, the most important scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise—a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate. “I—I feel afraid to turn round,” said Susan; “something awful is happening.” The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan… They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane stood Aslan himself.
It is Lewis’s belief that the spiritual lens of a child will reveal truths, in a way, that our aged perspectives cannot. One of his many solutions to the problem of modernistic-nihilism is the appeal to youthful fantasy. We often forget that there is great wonder in appreciating the simplicity of childhood, and Lewis reminds us of this truth better than anyone. His theological fantasies, especially this very scene, appeal to imaginative faculties that our mundane rationalizations fail to excite. By tethering the emotions of the reader to the spirit of his characters, Lewis instills in us the truth that the creative soul and theological orthodoxy do not negate one another.
Walk as Children
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states:
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me…”
We are called to be of the spirit of children, says the Lord. We often forget that Christ, being the embodiment of what he says, is the ultimate representation of childlikeness. While fighting the cynicism—cynicism being the opposite of childlikeness—of the twentieth century, Lewis harkens back to the simplicity of the gospel message, and he delivers this message in the form of imaginative, childlike fantasies.
In the preface to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis says, “But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” The irony is this: No matter how old we grow, we should never outgrow being spiritual children.