C. S. Lewis on Why You Should Read Fiction: Get In and Get Out

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CSL reading in chairC. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961):

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being.

We want to be more than ourselves.

Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—­would be lunacy. . . .

[W]e want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . .  We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three.

In love we escape from our self into one other.

In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity.

In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are.

The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself.

The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.

In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’. (pp. 137-38)

Lewis goes on:

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. . . .

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . .

[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (140-41)

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