We read to know we’re not alone (aka An Experiment in Using an Experiment in Criticism)


Author Ryan “Smokey” Grube and Friends: The Architect, James “Buzz” Aldrich of Near NASA-Houston, Emperor Douglas Maximus Smokey Robinson the Orthodox, Gandalf the Chalky, Luke Mr. Walrus and The Egg Man* J.S. Myers

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekoCaaxgHUw

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. … in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.[1] – C.S. Lewis, Experiment in Criticism

csl exp cr2Literary criticism as an academic discipline changed so rapidly in the years following C.S. Lewis’s death that one could read An Experiment in Criticism (EIC) today without charging Lewis of practicing any criticism at all. He does not attempt to read Shakespeare ‘through a Marxist lens’ or to ‘apply a feminist critique’ to Jane Austen, for example. Also, the word “literary” is conspicuously absent from the title of his book. Yet given his long scholarly acquaintance with both philosophy and literature, Lewis was well prepared to expound some theory of literary criticism, which in EIC he does by reversing the normal order of operations for criticizing literature: Before making judgments about any given book, Lewis contends that we must begin by examining the reader, since how a reader ‘uses’ or ‘receives’ a book serves as an indicator of its literary value, a value that is not tied to cultural trends or academic fashions but is intrinsically spiritual in nature. For Lewis, books expose us to “experiences other than our own”[2] that enable us to “escape the illusions” of our individual perspective.[3] With literature, we do not merely understand but we inhabit other points of view, experiencing the entire gamut of human opinions and emotion. Ultimately, this provides an “enlargement of our being” through which we transcend the inherent loneliness of Self.[4] Lewis writes:

csl exp cr1Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. … in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.[1]

Seen in this light, it is not difficult to infer that Lewis understood literature as having a spiritual dimension. His concern that reading be an activity in which we ‘receive’ rather than ‘use’ literature is born of this awareness. Though in EIC he shows no overt apologetic ambitions, nevertheless his insight that literature is to be received as both logos (“something said”) and poiema (“something made”) provides a useful framework for understanding why literature possesses inherent apologetic potential.[5] A brief investigation of Lewis’s notion of good reading is therefore warranted, and will serve as a starting point from which to discuss his ideas about literature as well as to explore the ramifications of these ideas on apologetics, especially in the realm of literary apologetics.

ssblty                       ssmonsters

Logos (received)                 Poiema (re-made)

In seeking to identify good literature by first examining the reader, Lewis describes two broad categories: the majority of those who read are unliterary in their approach to books; whereas a minority of readers are literary. The former group much prefers other pastimes to reading, and only turn to it as a “last resort” when no other activity is available; when they do read a book, it changes them very little or not at all, either in terms of their outward behaviors or their inner psychology; and generally they will only read a book once.[6] Reading has little to no impact on the life of the unliterary. However, with the latter group such is not the case at all. Literary readers are greatly effected by books, and if they are denied adequate reading time they begin to “feel impoverished”; to them, even a first reading is often a momentous experience whereby “their whole consciousness is changed” and they begin to interpret life in light of the stories they experience and the characters encountered in them. Unlike their unliterary counterparts, the literary will often return to the same books again and again, because for them the reading experience is “a main ingredient in our well being.”[7]

Having briefly described these two types of readers, Lewis is quick to point out that people are not permanently fixed into one category or the other, and that any given individual will pass between camps at different times in life depending upon the circumstances.[8] In fact, the purpose of such characterizations is not to divide high class people from low class people at all, but instead to draw attention to the practice of reading itself, for as Lewis points out, “whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature.”[9] Focusing on the habits and mindset of the literary reader is thus the crux of Lewis’s experiment, because it is this kind of reader who properly ‘receives’ a book, and it is by way of reception that the transcendence of the self becomes possible. Consequently, he distinguishes between readers who ‘use’ and readers who ‘receive’ art.


Despite their Frolics through History, Bill S. Preston and Ted “Theodore” Logan are popularly considered to be Unliterary Figures

According to Lewis, the unliterary make their appreciation (and a poor one at that) of art by using it as a sort of crutch, a stepping stone whereby any consideration of an artist’s creative intentions gets bypassed in favor of fixing attention on an object of their own prior intentions. In this way art functions like a “hieroglyph” in that the awareness is quickly transferred away from the work itself to whatever ideas or feelings the work is made to represent.[10] Unfortunately, by restricting his scope of awareness, the unliterary user fails to notice most of what the artist has done and treats the creative work less like an objet d’art and more like a child’s toy or an ikon (for in play as well as in devotion, the goal is “to pass through the material image and go beyond.”)[11] When you “use” art, Lewis writes, “you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.”[12] Such an engagement cannot result in a transcendent experience, as the user’s focus of imagination is never expanded beyond his own subjective experiences.

csl exp cr3In contrast to ‘use’, Lewis contends that a proper appreciation of art entails we adopt an attitude that can ‘receive’ what the artist has made. To ‘receive’ art involves abandoning our own inward purposes in order to discover the artist’s purpose, which lies outside of our perspective. “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”[13] While it may seem prima facie that reception is a passive undertaking, Lewis avers this is not the case. Both using and receiving demand our active involvement, but when we receive art we “exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist.”[14] Thus for a proper appreciation of art, we must respect the work as something made, we pay attention to its design, and we seek to understand the work as a whole in terms of that design. The artist’s intention in creating his work does not enter into consideration when we ‘use’ art, yet it is a major factor when we ‘receive’ it. Hence the distinction between ‘use’ and ‘receive’ naturally invites a deliberation over art in terms of its logos and poiema, for it is by appreciating both aspects of a work that the literary reader can properly receive literature.


Bob the Builder: More Poiema than Logos

Within his theory of literature, Lewis uses the term logos to denote the content and poiema to denote the form of a literary work. He admits that imposing these categories of analysis onto literature seems at times a “violent” abstraction, but the distinction is necessary as it ultimately bears on our judgement of literature vis-à-vis the practice of ‘good reading’. Lewis explains:

A work of literary art can be considered in two lights. It both means and is. It is both Logos (something said) and Poiema (something made). As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or rebukes or excites laughter. As Poiema, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d’art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction.[15]

portrait glasses

Abstracting in this way helps to clarify what takes place when a literate reader properly receives literature: A book without a story is useless, a contradiction in terms.[16] Just so, it is impossible that a literary work can exist without a logos because logos is the very subject matter communicated by the author through the medium of language. And while people can engage in different kinds of reading, a distinctive characteristic of literary reading is that “we need not believe or approve the Logos.”[17] Consequently, the receptive literary reader is one who can adopt the perspective presented by the author for him to inhabit. “He can enter, while he reads, into each author’s point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (what is harder) his belief.”[18] The logos is the primary object of awareness when we are engaged in ‘good reading’.

portrait orange

Yet a story told in and of itself does not qualify as literature unless it is formed according to a particular aesthetic, and the manner in which the author presents the logos is also important for the proper reception of a book. According to Lewis, “it is only by being also a Poiema that a Logos becomes a work of literary art at all.”[19] For Lewis, poiema encompasses everything from the basic blueprint of a story to the specific vocabulary employed by the author for rhetorical effect.[20] The internal consistency of the setting, the pacing of the narrative, the proportion of dialogue to exposition, etc., all combine to impress upon the reader a sense of this poiema, an effect which holds true at all levels of story composition, even down to the most granular level. As Lewis writes, “when a good writer leads you into a garden he either gives you a precise impression of that particular garden at that particular moment.”[21]

portrait dude

For these reasons the proper reception of literature in terms of its poiema involves the reader in a bifurcated awareness: on the one hand, the very design of a story is conducive to training our attention away from itself, making logos is the central object of our awareness. Yet on the other hand, the literary reader continues to be aware of the design elements present in the story, even as he ‘receives’ it. He remains peripherally conscious of the very techniques by which an author focuses his attention toward the logos. This double experience is “unquestionably a keen pleasure. Those who have had it want to have it again.”[22] In Lewis’s view, this peculiarly literary pleasure is connected with our temporal experience of the poiema as a sequence; it is much like participating in a choreographed dance. Having read a work, once we look back upon the experience, “we shall feel that we have been led through a pattern or arrangement of activities which our nature cried out for.”[23]

portrait cubist

Epistemologically, a ‘good reading’ takes place when a literary reader does not ‘use’ but ‘receives’ a literary work both in terms of what is said by the author as well as how the author says it.[24] Also, the impressions left upon the reader by the logos and poiema are almost simultaneous, involving him in a sort of dialectical vacillation between what Lewis elsewhere discusses as “enjoyment” and “contemplation” modes of consciousness.[25] Lewis describes this experience as follows:

Our own judgement of a man’s style, word by word and phrase by phrase, seems to us to be instantaneous; but it must always in reality be subsequent, by however infinitesimal an interval, to the effect the words and phrases have on us. Reading in Milton ‘chequered shade’ we find ourselves imagining a certain distribution of lights and shadows with unusual vividness, ease, and pleasure. We therefore conclude that ‘chequered shade’ is good writing. The result proves the excellence of the means. The clarity of the object proves that the lens we saw it through is good.[26]

portrait library portrait korean

Lewis ties his assessment of good reading to the question of what makes a good book, and ultimately this leads him back to a critique of literary criticism as an academic enterprise. He questions its value as an aid to developing one’s actual literary experience, and advocates an approach to literature that is less concerned about setting a pecking order of books that meet with cultural approval and is instead focused on maximizing the number of occasions where those he terms ‘literary readers’ experience what he calls ‘good reading’. For him, literary criticism ought to be centered upon the reader, and the value of literature is to be located in its effect on the soul, not in its academic utility. Here we begin to see how a Lewisian engagement with literature could bear fruit as an apologetic enterprise. Having discussed Lewis’s theoretical framework, what remains is to explore how we might apply his notions of logos and poiema to the practice of a specifically literary form of apologetics.

The sole task of apologetics is to defend the Christian faith. Traditionally conceived, this is relatively straightforward: apologists make philosophical arguments in support of Christian beliefs while defusing philosophical arguments against Christian beliefs. Unfortunately, philosophical apologetics is by nature limited in its scope. Such an activity does involve some sense of design, but here poiema is limited by the formal constraints of argument. At best one can adopt a style that is efficient, elegant, and engagingly dispassionate, because logical argument is necessarily dialectical and works best in debate settings.

portrait bradportrait 1953portrait dvd

Contrastingly, literary apologetics is rhetorical by nature and therefore it suffers from no such restrictions as to acceptable formats or design. It is a curious fact that the universally agreed upon source document from which all Christians derive the tenets of their faith bears much more resemblance to literary books than it does to books on logic or systematic philosophy. This is probably no coincidence. Christians have long appreciated the power of biblical narrative to enable a transcendent “enlargement of our being.”[27] This is the power of a literary poiema perfectly designed to match its logos — the Logos.[28] Rightly received, literature presents us with a very rough analog to the religious experience. A weaker form of transcendence though it is, literature extends to the unbeliever a chance to experience via mimesis how plausible Christianity can seem. That this takes place in an imaginative space through the activity of good reading is an attractive thought to reluctant unbelievers, for literature is a much more inviting atmosphere than the debate arena — it seems like neutral ground.

portrait dog

Great literary works are sui generis by nature; thus the literary apologist has a much broader palette available to him, both in terms of what he conveys about the Christian faith and how he conveys it. A literary reader will approach a book in a posture of surrender, and willingly imbibe the perspective devised by its author; he will dance according to the sequence of story as choreographed by the author. In these ways the reader will expand his horizons by way of ‘good reading’ and transcend himself: he will consider concepts from other points of view, vicariously experience the emotions and opinions of personalities not his own, and inhabit worldviews tacitly embedded in the very structure of the literary work. Thus the poiema of story has a direct bearing on apologetics, especially as we consider that while it insinuates the logos upon the psyche it is simultaneously exerting its own pressure on the reader’s perception of overall design.


This can later be turned to good effect should the nonbeliever (who is also a literary reader) begin to practice literary criticism. Lewis points out, “criticism normally casts a retrospective light on what we have already read.”[29] The books which have compellingly conveyed truth, beauty, or goodness will elicit curiosity about why such things are so compelling. For that matter, the method of abstracting from a literary work its logos and poiema leads to questions concerning design and communication, which in turn calls attention what these imply; namely, the existence of a designer, and the captivating quality of story. Such lines of thinking can be quite dangerous for the unbeliever, as Lewis himself attested, “in reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.”[30]


Traps Everywhere, Indeed


[1] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015), 139.

[2] Ibid., 139.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Ibid., 139.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] Ibid., 2-3.

[7] Ibid. 2-3.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 104.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] Ibid., 17-18.

[12] Ibid., 16-17.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Ibid., 88.

[15] Ibid., 132.

[16] Unless you get the kind with the cut-out pages. Those are useful for hiding liquor / hoarding cash.

[17] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 136.

[18] Ibid., 68.

[19] Ibid., 135-136.

[20] Ibid., 90. “Good reading is always aural as well as visual.” Likewise for good writing.

[21] Ibid., 34.

[22] Ibid., 132.

[23] Ibid., 134.

[24] Technically, Lewis understands that in order to read in the first place, we must in a sense ‘use’ the written word in order to get beyond it to the logos. cf. p. 27. “To be … carried through and beyond words into something non-verbal and non-literary is not a wrong way of reading. It is simply reading.”

[25] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 218.

[26] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 31.

[27] Ibid., 137.

[28] Col. 1.17; cf. Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), 226. As Ward points out, Lewis is paraphrasing Colossians in Miracles by writing of “the all-pervasive principle of concretion or cohesion whereby the universe holds together.”

[29] Ibid., 123.

[30] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 191.

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