Surprised by his job?

by I.A. Isherwood

We are finishing C.S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy. I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve read this book – the first was in 1994/5 or thereabouts and the last time five minutes ago – so it is a text I have reconsidered at many points along my own journey. We read books differently at different ages, an obvious but important point, and one that in this instance simply means that what I took from the book as a teenager is much different than what I am getting from it now. As a teenager, I reflected more upon Lewis’s childhood and schoolboy years because that’s the world that was nearest to my own. Now, I am more interested in his early career (surprise) as a University tutor.

In his early career, a career which it should be added he struggled to secure, he had many little revelations that later added up to something very big. The first was a rejection of what he called ‘chronological snobbery’ or the ‘assumption that whatever had gone out of date is on that account discredited’ (207). This revelation caused Lewis no small degree of humility as he began to view people of the past not as primitive superstitious dupes, but people very similar to himself, who operated in a world that was different than ours. One of the goals of scholarship is to consider which ‘fashions’ in the past have continued and which ones did not. I hope that we can bat this idea around in class tomorrow.

The second revelation was, perhaps, more important to Lewis. It concerned his spiritual life and would lead eventually to his conversion to Christianity. Now, religion is a great turn-off for many, and I want to make it clear that I am not writing in the spirit (pun intended) of evangelism. But to understand Lewis’s work one has to examine the way in which he philosophically approached religion, reluctantly converted, and then spent the next three decades writing books and articles on faith.

So what did I find in his revelation so revealing? Lewis was a young Oxford don navigating an early career as a scholar. He had lived through the First World War and in the 1920s had focused his energies on earning an academic appointment. His days were spent reading, writing, tutoring, marking, etc., a busy but fulfilling academic life drawn in many different directions. And then one day he found himself on a bus thinking about the idea of a god. He decided to put more thought into the subject, with the following results:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion. (226)

Woah. It should be noted that he had not converted to Christianity, not yet, but was just thinking a bit about the possibility of the existence of a divine being and this is what (he recalled) happening.

It would be really easy to read into this the typical sort of conversion narrative: person sins, person converts, person repents, person finds joy. I don’t think this is exactly what is going on here.

While flirting with religion, Lewis was undergoing an intellectual and professional process of trying to ‘make his way’. His first revelation came predictably through scholarship: as he deepened his knowledge, he realized his own limitations, no doubt, contributing to feelings of humility. Ask any most early career academics about this feeling and they will understand what Lewis was writing about. The second was a product of his spiritual mulling: Lewis turned his lens inward, examined himself as a moral human being, and didn’t like what he saw. Christianity became a means of realignment – a true North for him – but we’ve all been there, whether religious or not.

As I was finishing the book, I began thinking about academia and one’s soul.  In the last two or three months there have been many pieces written by fed-up  academics who either want to, or have left, the world of higher education for many reasons. Our world is very different than that of 1920s Britain, but I wonder how much the hypercritical and hyper-competitive nature of academic appointments and scholarship played into Lewis’s self-examination and revelation.