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SUMMER 1994 ISSUE VOLUME EIGHT, NUMBER THREE
C. S. LEWIS (1898-1963): A STUDY IN GIFTED SENSIBILITY
BY MICHAEL E. WALTERS
NEW YORK CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
"The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it." (from An Experiment in Criticism, 1961).
A highly acclaimed film, Shadowlands (1994), has brought into focus the life and work of the British writer, C. S. Lewis. His literary life typifies the content of sensibility. As one experiences both the individual and his work, every aspect of his literary production reflects his most outstanding quality -- the sensibility of giftedness.
Lewis's professional career was concerned with scholarship and teaching at Oxford and Cambridge universities. His scholarship not only involved interpretive analysis of the major writers in the English language, but also an examination of the act of reading itself. His expertise mainly included the Mediaeval and Renaissance English literary imagination, and he was especially fond of John Milton (1608-74). His approach to literary criticism combined both the cognitive and affective realms of the imagination, i.e., he examined both aspects to produce a comprehensive study of a writer's work and creativeness. Clearly, an important trait of gifted individuals is their ability to analyze and combine these two aspects of thinking and personality.
Lewis wrote a small and wonderful treatise on reading literature, An Experiment in Criticism (1961). In this essay, he analyzed with splendid, sparse and simple prose the differences between types of readers. This book should be used in all courses on teaching the gifted because he describes the sensibility of the gifted reader as contrasted with the non-gifted reader. The style is an antidote to "dumb-brightness" (i.e., having a high level of technical knowledge but little understanding of it implications) because it eschews technical jargon. It is also one of the best modern examples of expository writing. His style is epigrammatic with echoes of Montaigne (1533-92), a French Renaissance essayist. This French writer described the essay as an experiment in thinking. The gifted sensibility includes the ability to enjoy and derive pleasure from reflective thinking.
Everything C. S. Lewis wrote had a keen reflective quality. As a result of studying the great English poets (e.g., Edmund Spenser, 1552-99, and John Milton, 1608-74), he wrote about such topics as allegorical descriptions, concepts of love, religion, philosophy and psychological excavations of the mind. One of Lewis's most famous books was The Screwtape Letters (1942). It has developed a worldwide following and has been translated into every major language. The hallmark of a great writer is that although one may disagree with his major premise -- in this book, a defense of traditional Christian thought -- there is great respect and appreciation for his work. In The Screwtape Letters, this was due to the high quality of his writing and sensibility. Many gifted individuals read for deep personal meaning and self-actualization. In fact, this quest for self-actualization through reading is the primary mode of entertainment for many gifted students. This and other excellent books by Lewis will help them to fulfill this higher level need.
Lewis developed a charming and poetic approach for reaching gifted children through his fantasy and science fiction books. The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), a series of fantasies, have a continuous attraction for gifted children because the sensibilites expressed in these books represent reflective philosophy in the context of children's fantasy literature. A close analysis of all of Lewis's books for children will show that they contain the same concerns as his adult writings. His science fiction works include the same themes of the great British writers such as Milton. What is especially significant is that he wrote science fiction as early as 1943, before this genre was very popular. Another trait of the gifted sensibility is to combine interdisciplinary aspects of science and literature. Lewis's science fiction (e.g., That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, 1945) will appeal to gifted students because it stresses both aspects.
C. S. Lewis's masterpiece is another detailed essay, A Grief Observed (1961). It was written after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman Lewis, an American woman poet from the Bronx, New York. It is one of the most important prose works in the last thirty years, and becomes more relevant as the factory of pseudo self-help books pour out of publishers' assembly lines. This essay is an intense personal conversation with the reader. Many gifted students possess a similar trait of attempting to come to terms with life's profound experiences such as the death of a loved one. For Lewis, who had a strong religious commitment, he needed to face the impact of grief honestly, and in all its psychological dimensions. Although he was a traditional Christian, his sensibility was similar to what Freud expressed in Mourning and Melancholia (1917). C. S. Lewis's gifted sensibility gave his writing and thought a universality that transcends national boundaries, religions, and intellectual ideologies. "Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection . . . the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer." (from A Grief Observed, 1961).
Copyright (c) 1994 by Gifted Education Press
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