…I remember the first time an American university lecturer remarked to me innocently, “I teach Auden.” My impulse was to reply, “Yes? And what d’you teach him?”
That was 30 years ago. I would not have that impulse today, when we are all taught and “done” and bundled up and handed out as part of a package of Education.
Does it matter? Yes, because the air of duty is less healthy to breathe than the air of innocent enjoyment. The qualities that make a book easily discussible — worse still, easily teachable — are not always, or often, the same as those that make it just a good book. Criticism is a difficult art and the easiest way to talk about a book is to “explicate” it, to clear up its “difficulties.”
Many of the world’s greatest books are not mysterious other than as life is mysterious. Their meaning is plain, if the meaning of experience is plain. You respond to them shallowly, if you have a shallow nature, deeply if you have a deep nature, but in either case without need of explanations. They make nonsense of the absurd modern notion that the best book is the one that needs the most explanation, that is, gives the teacher the most easily graspable work.
Recently I read an article by a critic named, ominously, Terry Teachout (yes!), in which he attacked Sallinger’s Catcher in the Rye for its “lazy symbolism”. His article was in the American monthly Commentary, but the attitude has taken root just as deeply in England. Give me back the old Book Club days, when, if symbolism was present in a story (and it nearly always is), it was allowed to work subliminally, without being noticed.
John Wain, once an Inkling, wrote about Lewis in his 1962 book Sprightly Running, in 1964 in Encounter, and in Steve Schofield’s 1983 book In Search of C.S. Lewis (181-184). In his last six years he reportedly suffered from diabetes, failing eyesight, and financial need.