What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Historical Thinking

LewisOver at his thoughtful blog Faith and History, Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College offers some insight into the nature of historical thinking from the writings of C.S. Lewis.

Here is a taste of his post:

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…

…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.

One thought on “What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Historical Thinking

  1. Reblogged this on Ministry Through the Lens of History and commented:
    I have, in the last few weeks, come to doubt my memory. It is not that I am losing anything. It is that I am not sure I ever had it. Most of the time I carry on as though what I remember is actually real. But I have come to suspect such certainty.

    A few weeks ago I took my car into the shop to get inspected. While it was there I asked my mechanic to check the spark plug wires and to see if he could figure out why I have to get them replaced every time I bring the car in. I had, six months earlier, replaced them myself when the car was running terribly and it cleared right up, just as in the past when my mechanic had replaced the wires. So why did this keep happening? Except that it wasn’t, and hadn’t happened. He said he never replaced the spark plug wires on this car. I said he had indeed. Then he pulls up on the computer all the invoices going back to when I had purchased the car from him. Nope. No spark plug wires. Now I keep my own records too, so I quickly looked in them, which I had on my phone in Evernote. Nope. No spark plug wires. I have such a clear and distinct memory of him changing the wires several times. Enough so that I came to the conclusion six months before that that was the way to fix the rough running of the engine.

    This shook me, honestly. If I could be so spectacularly wrong about something so clear in my mind, what else was I plain wrong about.

    So reading this article here about memory and history, and grief, sure strikes a nerve.

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