Sunday, March 12, 2006

Owning Authors

Last week, I received an e-mail from an old friend telling me that she had had a conversation with someone in which they told her that CS Lewis was anti-Catholic (my friend is an adult convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, and very interested in Catholic issues). She wrote to ask me if it was true. I responded that it was true, though given the compatability of Lewis with Catholic thought, I thought it had more to do with an anti-Irish Catholic sentiment than anything else. Curious, I asked in what context the conversation had taken. She replied:
The original topic was actually Harry Potter and someone said that Rowling was
another Tolkien or Lewis---personally, I don't think so, but to each his (or in
this case, her) own. Someone tried to defend Rowling by saying that Lewis was
anticatholic and we could therefore say that he was not appropriate to read (for
Catholics anyway) either. I don't like Harry Potter for many reasons, mostly the
poor writing and there is just much better literature out there. It seems
to me that some of Lewis' theology (through his writing) is Very Catholic, even
if he had reservations/social issues with the Catholic faith.

I've been thinking about the subtext of my friend's conversation over the weekend. The interlocutor (I don't know who it was), seems to have two basic points: Catholics should not read writing by anti-Catholics, and the Rowling is appropriate reading (in part) because she is not anti-Catholic.

For the sake of argument, let's give the assumptions: Lewis=anti-Catholic, Rowling=pro-Catholic. Yes, I'm very skeptical of these assumptions (and apparently so is the Pope, whom I've heard is somewhat of an authority on Catholic matters), but I'll grant them here so we can move on to the point.

Here we have someone struggling with an interesting question: collective ownership of an author. Ignoring Lewis's non-fiction writing (I assume they were comparing fantasy fiction -- if they were jumping genres, I've got no idea what they were thinking), I can't see any way that The Narnia Chronicles could be considered anti-Catholic; indeed, that does not even seem to be the argument. Instead, the interlocutor is saying that the author was himself anti-Catholic, and therefore all of his writings are to be avoided. Since Lewis is dead, this doesn't sound like a drive to send a message through boycott. It sounds more like they are saying that we can't claim ownership fo the author, and therefore we can't claim his ideas.

Rowling, on the other hand, can be owned by Catholics. Again, the interlocutor does not attempt to defend the ideas presented in the books, but rather the identity of the author as being pro-Catholic (or at least non-anti-Catholic). So long as the author can be at least nominally identified with the group, she can (should?) be read.

I'm trying to think of other examples of this phenomenon -- people judging the merits of works by the identities of the author -- and outside of the occasional hometown author or political writer, I can't think of any. You've got the occasional Henry James (who abandoned America for British citizenship), but I see Americans and Brits both claiming him. If James were in this mode, Americans would reject him as "not one of us."

Surely this must happen all the time. Why can't I think of any other examples?


  1. The one example I can think of off the top of my head is the situation in Israel, where -- as far as I know -- Wagner is generally never performed (there was an uproar a few years ago when Barenboim conducted something of Wagner's, wasn't there?). But I suppose that's an example of people refusing to *consider* the merits of the work because of the identity of the author, and, in any event, it's kind of a special case.

    It's an interesting question, though. I'm Catholic and I love C.S. Lewis, and I would never judge the merits of the work because of the author's personal animus against Catholicism. I must admit, though, that I have been especially interested in some authors/poets partly because of the fact of their Catholicism -- Tolkien (who I didn't know was Catholic until after I had fallen desperately in love with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and Gerard Manley Hopkins come to mind. Maybe it's a kind of tribal pride thing -- like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who is obsessed with all the words that derived from Greek, and all the famous people who are Greek, etc.

  2. Anonymous6:43 AM

    In Ireland, the two main cultures -one catholic and republican, the other protestant and unionist, are defined mostly in opposition to eachother.

    Religion and politics match almost exactly, and Lewis was, culturally speaking, a northern Irish protestant.

    As such, I would certainly not reject out of hand a hypothesis proposing that his thought was influenced by the Protestant / Unionist milieu in which he was raised.

    On the other hand, Lewis was apparently an atheist of sorts, and only converted to Christianity in adulthood.

    Anyway, he seems to me to have been more of a Christian philosopher than anything, albeit one who, unfortunately for him, inherited a reflexive and rather petty dislike of Catholicism and, particularly, Irish Catholics.

    Its more incongruous than anything - there are dozens of authors who've had dogdy 'political' opinions - but the work, as always, stands way above, and wholly outside the man.

    PS: Funnily enough, Tolkien, a Catholic, a friend of Lewis and a fellow 'Inkling' (a literary movement) at Oxford, didn't think the Narnia books were any good - although he did feel able to read them!

  3. Anonymous10:32 AM

    People judging the merits of works by the identities of the author? An obvious one -- try Mein Kampf.

    However, I'm not talking about those who would think that the book is repellent because of its connection with Hitler (for obvious reasons), but those who instantly think that it's "literary gold" because of its connection with Hitler.

    By the way, I'm sure you could clear something up for me, Dr. Nokes -- did C.S. Lewis, in his last book, basically state that any person with a good heart gained entrance to heaven, whether or not they were a Christian? I haven't read the books -- I've just heard.

  4. I can think of several examples in politics. But I wanted to say that if I were to limit my writing to only pro-Catholics/not anti-Catholics (and I am Catholic) I would have missed out on Milton entirely and that would have been a tragedy.

    As for Tolkien's complaint with Narnia, it wasn't about the quality of narrative or prose. Tolkien's complaint was that Lewis was borrowing from too many, often imcompatible, mythos in the creation of Narnia (the place). Tolkien would have prefered a consistant mythic world, a world in which Satyrs and St. Nicholas existed was too much for a man who created a mytholigically consistant world like Middle Earth.

    Interesting enough, Greg Stafford wrote an article about this very kind of disagreement, which he termed "genera vs. generic," in modern roleplaying games. I wrote about it on my blog.

    To give one example, that isn't in the Stafford article, many roleplayers argue that Call of Cthulhu is the best horror rpg ever. I usually disagree because I find the mechanics to be less than satisfactory. But I will agree that the genera of Call is one of the best available. The consistent "mythology" of Lovecraft makes for a wonderful setting.

    Anyway, I ramble.

  5. Anonymous3:48 PM

    I believe that Tolkien's major problem with the Narnia books is that they are rather heavy handed Christian allegories, unlike his own independt but consistent works.

    Furthermore, he also felt them to be pastiches of conflicting mythologies.

    I think he's right up to a point - Narnia does not have the same sophistication and depth as Middle Earth - which is a superior creation in my opinion.

  6. Anonymous10:42 AM

    I can see, just off-hand, several possible meanings for "Lewis was anti-Catholic."

    1) Lewis was a Protestant, so whatever he said was un-Catholic, and implicitly anti-Catholic.

    I think we can leave it out of the picture, barring direct evidence that this is what is actually meant. This would be an objection which, if offered, would put the shoe on the other foot.

    2) Lewis consistently expressed open hostility to Catholic teachings, to the Catholic Church as an institution, and to individual Catholics, as such.

    This is simply false.

    3) Lewis sometimes expressed opposition to particular teachings of the Catholic Church (for example, on divorce).

    This is certainly true, but seems to stretch the definition of "anti-Catholic."

    4) Lewis sometimes made statements that suggested an unreflecting disdain for Catholics, and especially Irish Catholics, that was common in Northern Ireland and England when he was growing up.

    I think this is true, but I would have to search for examples. I am sure there are instances that are more obvious to Catholics than they are to me.

    It should be pointed out that there are those who are sure that Lewis was a "closet Papist," because he quoted Catholic theologians. (Some of them are also sure he was a Satanist and a Taoist -- they seem have heard of the "The Screwtape Letters," and perhaps have seen a page of "The Abolition of Man.")