by I.A. Isherwood
I am teaching a new First Year Seminar in the fall on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. First year seminars are opportunities for instructors to teach on a subject of passion, but one that is not necessarily within their expertise. Lewis has always been a subject of fascination for me since I wrote my first serious research paper in eleventh grade English on him. Recently, I have greatly enjoyed getting to know this material again.
In between grading this week, I have been thumbing through Lewis’s short novel The Great Divorce. It is a purgatorial novel where the dead, defined as ghosts, take a bus ride to heaven and are met by the ‘bright people’, people known to the ghosts in their temporal lives on earth, but now function as shepherds guiding souls toward heaven. Like much of Lewis’s theological writing, the book is interesting because the conversations between the bright people and the ghosts expose human failings like pride, pettiness, cruelty, etc.
One of these conversations in the book really spoke to me because it hit on an exposed nerve. One ghost was formerly a famous painter. The painter talks to one of the bright people about how he wishes he had his paints to capture the beauty of heaven. The bright person tells him that he doesn’t need paints and to remember the time before he was a painter. What the ghost really loved was not painting, the bright person said, but light. ‘Light itself was your first love; you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’ (81)
The bright person indicates that all artists are ‘drawn away from love of the thing he tells’ until they are not really interested in their art, but instead: ‘They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.’ (81)
Why did I find this exchange moving enough to write a post about? It is easy to see how someone who loves something and is given significant gifts towards that love can become a being distracted by vanity – here defined as one’s career and reputation. At some point all of us in academe were attracted to our disciplines because of curiosity and love of the material we study. Graduate education develops our knowledge and critical thinking skills, but it also has a dark side – career and reputation centered-ness – where we spend more time plotting and fretting about the future instead of practicing our craft.
In my students, I see a lot of real love for history, real enthusiasm and earnestness about learning and discovery. This section of Lewis’s book made me reexamine my own mindset, to look at their exploration a bit differently, and to think about what I really like about what I do. As some of my students move on from Gettysburg College, I would encourage them to pick up this little book someday when they’re feeling a little cynical about the world around. It might help them to remember a time before they learned to paint.
Source: C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Macmillan).