08 August 2010

The Perfect Imitatio: C.S. Lewis, Hagiography, & Literature



A couple of months ago, I mentioned a promising book by Thomas J. Heffernan entitled, Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, I still have not read it through, but I continue to find good things throughout the first chapter, ‘From Logos to Canon: The Making of a Saint’s Life’. Here is one of Heffernan’s many insightful comments on the hagiographic tradition:


The author must also construe a life which will illustrate the exemplary behavior of the subject—what we should call the ethical dimension—to a community which has definite expectations concerning the outcome of this biographical record. . . . Thus, the new sacred model reclaims past models and in turn is authenticated by them as these past lives are reintroduced in the present. By virtue of this constitutive or ethical imperative, the individual sacred biography continually renews for the faithful a tradition of great antiquity. . . . In this pattern of figural repetitions the singular character of sacred biography—what makes it different from, say, the way Dante uses Vergil—lies in the medieval understanding that the saint’s life is the perfect imitatio Christi. Hence these repetitive mimetic patterns have as one of their primary objects the reconstitution of the divine in new historical dress. [1]

The Saint’s life as ‘the perfect imitatio Christi’, of course, reminded me of St Justin of Chelje’s ‘Introduction to the Lives of the Saints’: ‘Therefore, the Lives of the Saints are nothing else but the life of the Lord Christ, repeated in every saint to a greater or lesser degree in this or that form.’ [2] But the literary dimension of Heffernan’s comments in this passage reminded me of an underappreciated [3] essay of C.S. Lewis entitled, ‘Christianity & Literature’. Observing that in the New Testament—including St Paul’s teaching in I Thess. 1:6 that Christians are ‘to imitate St Paul and the Lord’ and in I Cor. 11:1 that they are ‘to imitate St Paul as he in turn imitates Christ’—‘the art of life itself is an art of imitation’, Lewis asks, ‘can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being “creative,” “original,” and “spontaneous”’? [4] He then goes on, courageously, to observe:


Applying this principle to literature, in its greatest generality, we should get as the basis of all critical theory the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom. Our criticism would therefore from the beginning group itself with some existing theories of poetry against others. It would have affinities with the primitive or Homeric theory in which the poet is the mere pensioner of the Muse. It would have affinities with the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent Form partly imitable on earth; and remoter affinities with the Aristotelian doctrine of μίμησις and the Augustan doctrine about the imitation of Nature and the Ancients. It would be opposed to the theory of genius as, perhaps, generally understood; and above all it would be opposed to the idea that literature is self-expression. [5]


[1] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (NY: Oxford U, 1992), p. 20.

[2] St Justin (Popovich), ‘Introduction to the Lives of the Saints’, tr. M.J., Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, tr. & ed. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al. (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994), p. 36.

[3] At least by Leland Ryken: he calls it ‘an inferior essay’ with no explanation (Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979], p. 225).

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Literature’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 176.

[4] Ibid., p. 177.

5 comments:

Garrett said...

I just read "Christianity and Literature" a couple of months ago and I was trying to explain to somebody how Lewis believed Medieval art excelled because it was not consciously "original" and was well aware that, in the end, there is really only one story to be told, one Truth to be expressed. My friend simply could not understand how originality was not conceived a goal. Such is the attitude of today! Lewis's notion strikes me as very true, and it seems a Aristotle, whom he acknowledges.

Taylor said...

Perhaps this is a mundane comment, but isn't it true that current definitions of copyright and intellectual property seem to encourage this emphasis on 'originality'? Does the school and university system as well, which insists that students come up with an 'original' research thesis long before they are capable of mature thought?

James said...

Taylor: yes and yes.

aaronandbrighid said...

Garrett> Yeah, it's funny how people can't even grasp a different approach to such things. Current presuppositions go so thoroughly unquestioned!

Taylor> I think you're right. They are both symptoms of and contributions to the problem. I'm afraid though that unless we are seriously going to cultivate a major revolution in reading, writing, and our relationship with books, to some degree or another the current practices have to be maintained. The Ivan Illich book, coupled with the little bit of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong I've been reading, have given me a new appreciation of the deep-rootedness but at the same time of the temporality of the way of doing things we are used to. As Illich and Ong point out, we are already well into the process of transitioning into a new culture surrounding the reading and authorship of 'texts'.

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