I’m still occasionally struck by the irony that the person who has helped me most in thinking through the nature of history wasn’t himself a historian. But the irony that C. S. Lewis has frequently been my guide is more apparent than real. Lewis was a scholar of ancient and medieval literature, and that gave him both an appreciation for the past and a language for expressing it that few historians have equaled.
Lewis rarely taught on literary works less than half a millennium old. Of necessity, he spent much of his career trying to convince skeptical undergraduates that they should care about the world before they were born. Few scholars have been more adept in exposing the arrogance that underlies “chronological snobbery” and the blindness that presentism perpetuates. But he was also a master of metaphor and story, and he understood something we academics are prone to forget: namely, that when it comes to conveying complex truths, word pictures are often more effective than abstract theorizing. Among his many intellectual gifts, Lewis’s greatest may have been his talent for translation, by which I mean his ability to make complicated concepts accessible to broad audiences.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning. They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen. I listened to A Grief Observed on tape while driving to see my father over spring break, and then I re-read it in hard copy once I returned to Wheaton. It’s not a fun read, but it’s honest, convicting, and ultimately encouraging. I recommend it.
Surely most of the readers who pick up A Grief Observed aren’t thinking about history at all. They open its pages to see how Lewis dealt with death, perhaps to think about the ways that loss can challenge faith. That’s as it should be. But hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day. When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the past “come alive.” This, then, becomes my challenge if I want to connect with them. What they find engaging, I should strive to model. Unfortunately, it’s impossible.
Only God resurrects the dead.
What do we really mean when we say that a particular work of history makes the past “come alive”? Sometimes all we mean is that it entertains us, but often we have in mind much more than that. With the historian as our guide, we have the sensation of traveling into the past; we imagine ourselves in another time. Soon the historian fades into the background and we observe the drama in solitude, directly observing the historical figures that the historian has made to “come alive” for our benefit.
Early in A Grief Observed, Lewis bluntly dispels such misleading figures of speech. Listen in as he talks with himself about advice that he should think less about himself and more about Helen (or “H”) as he deals with his grief:
Yes, that sounds very well. But there’s a snag. I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.
Here Lewis confronts us with a disturbing reality. Despite the clichés with which materialists comfort themselves—the dead do not live on in the memory of the living. “What pitiable cant,” Lewis snorts. Although Lewis loved Helen dearly and knew her intimately, he knows also that his memories of her are imperfect and selective. And though it is heart-wrenching for him to acknowledge, he knows that the Helen who “lives” in his memory will be “more and more imaginary.”
Lewis elaborates his point by relating how he had recently met a man whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. Although he thought that he had remembered this acquaintance quite accurately, it took only five minutes of real conversation with the fellow to shatter that delusion. “How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.?” Lewis asks with palpable anguish. “That it is not happening already?”
Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.
What a remarkable illustration! And how does this help us to understand the body of knowledge we call “history”? History, as John Lukacs puts is, is not the past itself but the “remembered past.” And just as with Lewis’s memories of his late wife, the past as we remember it will always bear an imperfect resemblance to past reality. We can magnify the disparity through sloppiness or dishonesty, but even in our best moments—when we labor to recreate the past with the utmost integrity—we always fall short.
Like Lewis, we can strive to immerse ourselves in the facts, we will (hopefully) purpose to invent no details, but the necessity of selecting, grouping, and interpreting the facts—figuratively breathing life into them—inescapably remains. This means that to some degree we always remake the past subjectively. “Little flakes” of us are perpetually, inexorably settling down on the past to obscure its real form.
So what are we to do with this truth? Shall we throw up our hands and say the whole quest is futile, that there’s no point in pretending that we can learn anything about the past or from the past? Absolutely not! But if we take Lewis’s insight to heart, we’ll be more humble in the claims that we make to historical knowledge. The exciting news is that God regularly pulls aside the curtain and grants us precious glimpses into the past. The humbling news is that we always peer into the past “as through a glass, darkly.”