Book Review: The Personal Heresy: a controversy.

The Personal Heresy: A ControversyThe Personal Heresy: A Controversy by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a debate between two great 20th century scholars of English Literature, C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard, conducted in the form of a series of essays on the subject of what Lewis dubbed “The Personal Heresy.” Simply put, this is the assertion that literary criticism (and by extension the criticism of other arts, although they are not deeply addressed) should aim at a contact with the personality of the writer (or artist), and that the corpus of a writer’s works, taken as a whole, may be said to be an indication of the writer’s personality. Dr. Tillyard wrote in defense of this proposition, and Mr. Lewis wrote in opposition to it.

Tillyard’s arguments revolved around defining what he meant by personality (“A fixed pattern of mind”) and showing by various examples that this could be observed in poetry. He then argued that the “fixed pattern of mind” of poets and other great personalities, such as artists, statesmen, etc. were demonstrably higher and more worthy than that of most ordinary men, and that the purpose of reading great literature was to spend time in the company of such outlooks and patterns of thought, so that by extension, imitation and perhaps just mere contact, the personalities of common folk might come to resemble those of greater minds.

Lewis’ argued to the contrary that the purpose of a work of literature was that literature itself and had nothing to do with the artist’s biography or pattern of mind. The work of art existed to communicate an idea, usually something ineffable and resistant to ordinary means of communication. The writer, and more specifically the poetic writer, captures this idea, or experience, or emotion by the use of the techniques and skills proper to the craft, so that it may be apprehended and grasped by others. From this he argued two propositions: firstly that it was not the poet or his state of mind that was the object to be communicated, but rather some third thing. Thus, when most nearly approximating the poet’s point of view, the reader is most definitely not looking at the poet, but rather through the poet’s eyes at whatever the poet is looking at, seeing it the way the poet does.But it was the thing looked at, the object of the poem, that was the main thing, and criticism ought to be concerned with how well or ill the poem expressed the thing. He also argued that a poet’s outlook, personality and “pattern of thought” was not a fixed part of his personality, but a technique that the poet used, partly through learning, partly through instinct, and partly through trial and error. It was not some quirk of the poet that was expressed but rather something common to all, some feeling or experience or idea that all or most people have, but which they are usually unable to express. (Lewis did allow for the ability of poets to create a reaction, thought or outlook in the reader de novo, but again as the sharing of some object rather than as a sharing of personality.

After reading the book I agree with some points of both. I agree in the main with Lewis, that art is, or rather ought to be, an act of communication of some third thing with a reader or viewer. Because of this, when we see most clearly what the artist is seeing, we are seeing him least. However, sometimes one of the things that the artist may be looking at is himself. I would argue that this is an inferior sort of art. The higher the art, the higher the object looked at, and the more the self of the artist vanishes in the appreciation, communication or even the adoration (in the case of religious and/or erotic art) of the thing looked at. However, Tillyard’s positions have become a self-fulfilling prophesy in a sense. If critics look for the personality behind the works, that is, look for the artist, and teach the average reader to do the same, then eventually artists begin to think that that is what is proper to art (I am speaking in gross generalizations here) and begin to create art whose purpose is to “express themselves.”

Finally, I agree with Tillyard that one of the main purposes of exposure to fine art is to shape one’s mind and personality by contact with that art. This has been a theme at least since Plato’s Republic. Where I would differ with Tillyard is in identifying the poet per se as the one that we wish to be in contact with rather than with his or her ideas. Thus, one can appreciate the poetry and art of a thoroughgoing rotter, and even be enobled by it, without the least bit of approbation for their misdeeds or mistaken beliefs. The plays of Robert Bolt come to mind as an example of someone whose philosophies might have been mistaken, but whose communication of an object (i.e. St. Thomas More) was so faithful and loving that it is uplifting and ennobling. In this view the artist is reduced (in the logical rather than the pejorative sense) to a vehicle for something greater than himself and it is that something else that we attend to when we read the art, rather than the artist.

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