Monday, May 26, 2014

C.S. Lewis: Reading and "Escapism"

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1961):
[W]hat shall we say about the stigma of "escapism"?

Now there is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fictions. All such escape is from the same thing; immediate, concrete actuality. The important question is what we escape to. . . .

Escape, then, is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding -ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate, and thus neglecting real opportunities and evading real obligations. If so, we must judge each case on its merits. Escape is not necessarily joined to escapism. . . .

Since the charge of escapism against a very unrealistic work is sometimes varied or reinforced with that of childishness ... [t]wo points need to be made.

First, the association between fantasy and childhood, the belief that children are the proper readers for this sort of work or that it is the proper reading for children, is modern and local. Most of the great fantasies and fairy-tales were not addressed to children at all, but to everyone. . . . If few but children now read such stories, that is not because children, as such, have a special predilection for them, but because children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion. It is we, not they, whose taste needs explanation. And even to say this is to say too much. We ought, in strict truth, to say that some children, as well as some adults, like this genre, and that many children, like many adults, do not. For we must not be deceived by the contemporary practice of sorting books out according to the 'age-groups' for which they are supposed to be appropriate. That work is done by people who are not very curious about the real nature of literature nor very well acquainted with its history. . . .

Secondly, if we are to use the words childish and infantile as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing; not to those which every sane man would keep if he could and which some are fortunate for keeping. . . . [W]ho in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire? The process of growing up is to be value for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventure is no more a matter for congratulation that losing out teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes. . . .

When we accuse a work of infantilism we must, therefore, be careful what we mean. If we mean only that the taste for which it caters is one that usually appears early in life, that is nothing against the book. A taste is childish in the bad sense not because it develops at an early age but because, having some intrinsic defect in it, ought to disappear as soon as possible. We call such a taste 'childish' because only childhood can excuse it, not because childhood can often achieve it. . . . If you are going to call a taste for the marvellous childish in the same sense, you must similarly show its intrinsic badness. The dates at which our various traits develop are not a gauge of their value.

If they were, a very amusing result would follow. Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility. The eight-year-old despises the six-year-old and rejoices to be getting such a big boy; the schoolboy is very determined not to be a child, and the freshman not to be a schoolboy. If we are resolved to eradicate, without examining them on their merits, all the traits of our youth, we might begin with this – with youth’s characteristic chronological snobbery. And what then would become of the criticism which attaches so much importance to being adult and instills a fear and shame of any enjoyment we can share with the very young?
In On Three Ways of Writing for Children, Lewis - who wrote, as you may know, The Chronicles of Narnia (among many other books), mentions "that particular type of children's story which is dearest to my own taste, the fantasy or fairy tale":
Now the modern critical world uses 'adult' as a term of approval. . . . Hence a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development. If I spend some little time defending myself against these charges, this is not so much because it matters greatly whether I am scorned and pitied as because the defence is germane to my whole view of the fairy tale and even of literature in general. . . .

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?

1 comment:

laura k said...

This is wonderful.

I read a terrific book about reading, which I wrote about here, that addresses the "escapism" complaint. I wish I had a copy of the book handy so I could quote it. The researchers unpack the idea of reading as escapism and find a whole constellation of benefits. Reading reduces stress, increases knowledge of the world, increases empathy, makes people more tolerant, and so on - that is, reading makes us better people. And fantasy fiction, romances, or any other "escapist" novel builds these same strengths.