I’ve decided to spend some time looking carefully at the few surviving letters from Lewis’s time at Cherbourg. It was a key time in his life, especially religiously, because though his intellect and imagination began to revive itself while he was there, serious damage was done to his faith also. In fact, it was while he was here that he found himself “deliciously” lapsing into a warm haze of unbelief. Therefore, I will devote at least one post to each of the few surviving letters from Cherbourg. (I can’t keep that up for the rest of the project, of course, if I want to ever get it over with.)
This evening I’m going to take a step back and begin to work through Lewis’s account of his time there in Surprised By Joy for context. His own explanation of his atheism could be turned into a decent academic paper in and of itself, so I don’t want to try to tackle it all at once. I’ll pick up with the letters again as soon as I can, frustrating though the delay might be. I tend to get impatient, and I have to keep reminding myself that this project is the proverbial marathon for the sake of experience rather than a sprint to a particular publication deadline or conference presentation
Lewis referred to Cherbourg as “Chartres” in his autobiography, and he was only thirteen years old when he first arrived there with Warnie (who was attending nearby Malvern College). It was, he said, the “classic” period of their school days and a key time in their maturation. It certainly was key in his spiritual devolution:
The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. (58-59)
Jack has already begun to pick up some of the habits he would regret later in life–smoking in particular–but he notes that his intellectual revival began in earnest. In many ways, he was a typical schoolboy. For instance, though the food at the school was good, they “of course…grumbled at it” (58). It recalls to my mind the time in elementary school a transfer student yelled at a group of us when we were complaining about the otherwise good food at our own school in south Georgia. We were all taken aback. After all, aren’t school children obligated to complain about lunchroom food?
On the subject of his descent into atheism, Jack places a good bit of the blame for his fall from grace on a very well-meaning school matron, called Miss C. in SBJ (G. E. Cowie, in real life). She was searching and experimenting with her faith at that point her her life and, like many before and since, had begun to explore some of the “paths less trodden,” and that had led her into the occult. She introduced Lewis to the entrance to the confusing maze of “Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; [and] the whole Anglo-American Occultic tradition” (59). Unbeknownst to her, she was carrying a candle into a room “full of gunpowder” (59).
I had never heard of such things before; never except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, concieved of spirits other than God and men. I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf* had only flashed on my mind for a moment. [...] But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. (59-60)
I can understand the temptation. From my earliest years, I too have found all these things alluring. I have, for years now, kept accounts of the paranormal–ghosts, faeries (the real, frightening sort, not the Tinkerbell vulgarizations), and other unknown phenomena–on my regular private reading list. Oddly, I can carry on surprising intelligent conversations about a broad range of strange things. And it is always an open and dangerous question to know where to draw the lines in my studies. The whole subject has a unique, supernatural pull to it, and people that have never felt it usually don’t understand it. Those that have, Jack says, “will know what I mean” (60). All I can do is hope that it is this sense of wonder at the unknown that I apparently share with Jack will be a help to me with my own fiction writing rather than a spiritual hindrance, as Jack himself seemed to think it was.
Miss C never offered Lewis anything concrete, and that was the rub. She opened doors that encouraged him to search for what was conceivable rather what was true. This infected his view of theology, like a virus, and it turned the creed from something that was a certainty to a mere list of assumed possibilities. Of course, there is nothing binding in possiblities.
So, ironically, Jack’s first step away from his faith was toward the occult, and only by gradual degrees unmarked did he finally find himself an atheist.
*Earlier, in SBJ, Lewis recounted that after he left Campbell College, he was walking in the garden at Little Lea and “I was for a second not quite sure that a little man [a dwarf] had not run past me into the shrubbery” (55). This instance might be worth looking at by itself sometime, if to do nothing more than indulge my own fascination with Faerie.