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C.S. Lewis vs. Roy Lichtenstein: On why the great books bore us

Instead of the slow, world-building, multi-layered, atmosphere-rendering art described by Lewis, Lichtenstein gives us something we’re more comfortable with.

Left: The Mourne Wall on Slieve Donard, in the Mourne Mountains in northern Ireland, which provided inspiration for "The Chronicles of Narnia". (Image: Slieve Donard/Wikipedia); right: Detail from "Interior with mirrored wall" (1991) by Roy Lichtenstein (Image:

Strange as it may sound, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) hated cars. And newspapers. And zippers. Really.

What are for most of us the banal and indispensable necessities of daily life, were, for Lewis, icons of modernity. In a remarkable passage in Surprised by Joy, Lewis described the blessing of not growing up in the world of automobiles:

The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room.’ The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’ It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.

This was a big deal for Lewis, because it was this sense of “slow time” that touched on the very heart of his sense of vocation. He loved the metaphor of “atmosphere” to describe both what he was after as a reader, as well as what he wanted to create as a writer. He sometimes called it “climate” or “weather” or “landscape,” but it was the single most important thing that literature could do, and that which set it apart from every other form of serious human inquiry. We find him confessing in a March 1951 letter that he did not read novels “for the characters. It’s more that for me a novel, or any work of art, is primarily a Thing, an Object, enjoyed for its color, proportions, atmosphere, its flavor—the Odyssey-ishness of the Odyssey or the Learishness of K[ing] Lear” (Letters 3, 102).

Similarly, if a boy reads Fenimore Cooper, he speculated in his essay “On Stories”, he was not necessarily after danger and excitement, but rather elementally pure “story,” which he considered the most elusive and underappreciated aspect of literature: “take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for a tomahawk, and what would be left? For I wanted not the momentary suspense, but that whole world to which it belonged… The one lay a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves.” In contrast, The Three Musketeers, he loathed, because it was nothing but a string of action moments: “[it] makes no appeal to me at all. The total lack of atmosphere repels me. There is no country in the book—save as a storehouse of inns and ambushes. There is no weather.”

When I think about Lewis’s desire to create such literary worlds, I cannot help but think, by contrast, of the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97). Although classically trained, Lichtenstein rejected traditional painterly conventions that he thought had become stale. Why pretend? And instead of the slow, world-building, multi-layered, atmosphere-rendering art described by Lewis, Lichtenstein gives us something we’re more comfortable with: those very automobiles, ripping through landscapes, obliterating space, and outrunning meaning. Like an old master, Lichtenstein painted monumentally on large canvases, but, unlike traditional painters, he intentionally adopted a popular style of representation, used for tabloids, advertisements, and comic books: the so-called dot-matrix system.

And armed with this popularizing technique, he set about to reform every major genre of painting: a weighty still life of a basket of fruit by Cezanne becomes, for Lichtenstein, a glass of water with lemon; Van Eyck’s warm interiors (like that in the Arnolfini Wedding), in which author proudly paints himself in a convex mirror, become vacant, clean Manhattan apartments, with mirrors, reflecting nothing; the traditional portrait becomes an image of some young woman receiving devastating news, while projecting a calm exterior; he also vernacularized Picasso and Jackson Pollock, who don’t look nearly so angsty when executed in the dot-matrix style.

But more to my purpose, look at his Whaam! Lichtenstein knew that old, slow paintings don’t move us: but amped up action exploding under the ironic gaze a detached observer, do. Lichtenstein frequently portrays macho men, expressing their primal masculinity by operating heavy machinery. His wilting females—frail, passive, emotional–also fit into the stereotypes of modernity.

Lichtenstein is often called a painter of “amplification,” but his persuasiveness comes from the fact that these displays of amped-up speed and force are consonant with the “metaphysics” of his backgrounds: this is, he gives a “cosmic imaginary” made up of empty space, in which bits of passive matter are moved by external energy into collisions in which objects breaks down and recombine. On the other hand, we have invulnerable, emotionally distant violent men, who speed through life and their melodramatic relationships with irony. If I’m right, Lichtenstein is the apotheosis of Cartesian dualistic modernity. His Whaam! is Charles Taylor’s seven hundred-page A Secular Age, reduced to an image.

And so, it’s of all the more interesting that we like him so much (I have an indelible memory of watching a single young woman walking out of an art exhibit with a print of an interior of an apartment to go hang on the wall of her minimalist Chicago apartment). By reducing the number of colors and the delicacy of balance, Lichtenstein gives us a landscape that reflects back to us only what our emotions bring (look at his Sunset). But, at the same time, his paintings feel so comfortable. They are so much more familiar than Rubens. In fact, when I show these paintings to my students, side by side—even my students!—they all admit that, although the Rubens possesses a noticeable complexity of figure and color and layers of background, it feels strangely “flat” and “dull” next to Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein’s paintings are plugged into an electrical outlet. And next to the glowing screen, Rubens seems dull. Like Mendelsohn next to Calvin Harris.

But back to Lewis.

What’s extraordinary is that every critic’s favorite word for describing this modern aesthetic—“amplification”—was used long before modernity, and, in facet, was considered the finest quality a poem or painting could possess in antiquity or the Middle ages. But for our pre-modern ancestors, “amplification” was different: it unfolded within space as opposed to within time. Amplification was not the increase of frequency in time—a hyping up, an acceleration of mass, a force, an increase of momentum—but rather the attempt to render a vision “full” or “ample,” generous, abundant, charged with a density, alive beyond any expectation.

And it is that aesthetic experience that Lewis was after in his reading. Indeed, in Surprised by Joy, Lewis continually uses landscapes to describe reading experiences, or reading experiences to get at landscapes. For instance, when living in Surrey, he learned not to compare landscapes but to love each in its particularity:

What delighted me in Surrey was its intricacy. My Irish walks commanded large horizons and the general lie of land and sea could be taken in at a glance… But in Surrey the contours were so tortuous, the little valleys so narrow, there was so much timber, so many villages concealed in woods or hollows, so many field paths, sunk lanes, dingles, copses… [To] walk in it daily gave one the same sort of pleasure that there is in the labyrinthine complexity of Malory or the Faerie Queene” (SBJ, 72).

And it is also why Lewis thought there was an “invisible wall” between us and our non-mechanized ancestors:

We must picture them growing up from boyhood in a world of ‘prettie epanorthosis,’ paranomasia, isocolon, and similiter cadentia. Nor were these, like many subjects in a modern school, things dear to the masters but mocked or languidly regarded by the parents. Your father, your grown-up brother, your admired elder schoolfellow, all loved rhetoric. Therefore, you loved it, too. You adored sweet Tully and were as concerned about asyndeton and chiasmus as a modern schoolboy is about country cricketers, or types of aeroplane (English Lit., 61).

We can see Lewis’s command of the tradition, the ease with which he half-heartedly tosses off a half dozen technical terms from the rhetorical tradition! But Lewis’s intuition is as keen as his ability to conduct technical reasoning: he feels that, for our ancestors, beauty was “slow” and “spacious.” They tried to arrest the incessant flight of time, to open hearts out into eternity. But we? We prefer Hemingway to Milton: speed, power, force, physics. And cars. And, definitely, zippers.

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About Jason M. Baxter 3 Articles
Jason M. Baxter is a college professor, speaker, and author of five books, including The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis and A Beginner's Guide to Dante's "Comedy". He currently teaches Great Books at Notre Dame and is a curricular consultant for St. Thomas More Academy in South Bend, Indiana.


  1. I am sorry. Most of my career was as a truck driver. If someone would have looked out the window of my truck and said, “Wow! There is a guy carrying a package, on foot, on the I 90 freeway shoulder, from Chicago to Seattle!” (he is doing it to give him more ‘space’), I would have said, “What an idiot!!”.

    You might think that the trucking profession is not a very spiritual profession. However, once a driver trains their cerebellum to drive the truck, your mind is free to pray, contemplate scriptures, or whatever you want to do with your mind, spiritual or worldly. As a professional driver, you literally train your cerebellum to check the mirrors every twenty seconds, and take over all the menial tasks of driving. You still have to be awake, sober, and eyes on the road.

    One time I was pulling a set (tractor pulling double trailers) up I-5 into Seattle Metro. I was deep in prayer contemplating our Lord’s Word. All of a sudden my cerebellum is throwing off all kinds of, ‘Danger!’, ‘Problems exist!’, “evasive action needed!”. My driving cerebellum tells me that there were nine vehicles in the right lane next to me, which I needed to merge into, and only eight vehicles are accounted for. So my brain takes over control of the truck. I slow down to see if a car pops into my right mirror. Then I speed up to see if a car pops into my right mirror. Nothing! So, I put my blinker on and wait an extended period of time. Then I start to proceed into the next right lane over. All of a sudden there is a car there and it is swerving from one direction to the other. I immediately check my left mirror for cars in my present lane. I see none and immediately pull my rig back into my original, still occupied, lane. I never made contact with the car on my right side, but still the car went into the ditch without contact. The investigating officer told me, yes she saw you speed up. Yes! She saw you slow down. Yes! She saw you put your blinker on. Yes! When you saw her you immediately pulled back into your original lane without hitting her. Good luck in court.

    I also had a situation where my cerebellum actually put my foot on the brake, while driving through a Seattle downtown alley. I had to get out of the truck and look, to see why my cerebellum stopped the truck. It turns out there was a fire escape within a foot of hitting the top of my van truck box. This was, by the time my cerebellum hit the brakes, out of my brain’s line of vision. I am always amazed at the driving capabilities of a person’s cerebellum.

    So, the gist of C.S. Lewis, in thinking that he had hoped that the combustion engine had never been invented, for the purpose of slowing down society, is rubbish. I delivered freight most of my career as a Seattle metro pick up and delivery semi driver. Some say that traffic in Seattle Metro is fourth worst in the nation. I believe it. I actually had two careers in one. This is all because of the driving capabilities of my cerebellum, which could literally drive the truck, as I quietly prayed and contemplated my Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ’s, Words, Actions and Will.

  2. Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, who popularized (wrong word) the Great Books program, took a similar approach beginning in the 1930s when critiquing the American education system as it had deteriorated into vocational training and babysitting. Hutchins seemed particularly annoyed at colleges offering remedial reading as early as the 1940s, along with the attitude that once you’re out of school you have been “educated.”

    For both Hutchins and Adler, “schooling” was something that was supposed to teach you how to learn, it was not itself learning. Leisure was something to be used to advance the work of civilization, not mindless driving about in cars, being entertained, listening to radio (and, later, watching television — which Hutchins satirized in an animated cartoon, “Zuckerkandle!”, in which he voiced his own character Adler made a similar point in his bestselling “How to Read a Book”.

    The problem, as both men saw it, was getting education away from the need to worry about money. Hutchins complained about political interference in education, but then thought that money for education should come from government. Adler joined with Louis Kelso (at least for a while) and thought that widespread capital ownership that would generate a “second income” to supplement and in some cases replace labor income was the answer, but didn’t pay too much attention to how to finance it, which was Kelso’s forte (Kelso invented the ESOP to enable workers to purchase shares in the companies that employ them without using savings or reducing pay or benefits, but his vision was for everyone to own, as Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum).

    Without a feasible method of financing widespread ownership, what we get are proposals like Klaus Schwab’s “Great Reset,” which is basically Fabian socialism without the wage system; instead of everyone having a job, everyone has an income. Unfortunately, true education and becoming a virtuous adult requires that people work, and being given everything means you remain a permanent child. Fortunately, there is a feasible plan not merely to counter the Great Reset and the “Nanny State” that Lewis excoriated, but to implement the vision of Leo XIII in which “as many as possible of the people prefer to own.” Our latest book from TAN Books, “The Greater Reset” Reclaiming Personal Sovereignty Under Natural Law, presents such a plan, as well as relating how we got into this mess in the first place:

  3. Interesting stuff.

    At one point I liked Lichtenstein’s work in a black humor sort of way. It exaggerated and held up to inspection cultural tendencies that restrict our sense of the transcendent and so make the world seem like something that can be fully expressed in an unimaginative comic strip.

    The response to that situation though has been to destroy whatever residual ideals remained – masculinity, femininity, courage, beauty, struggle – because of the cartoonish appearance they had acquired. That didn’t fix the problem.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. C.S. Lewis vs. Roy Lichtenstein: On why the great books bore us | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. C.S. Lewis vs. Roy Lichtenstein: On why the great books bore us | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya

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