Friday, November 22, 2013

The Allegory of Love

FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY, there passed one of the greats of the 20th century. But Clive Staples Lewis’ death went largely unnoticed, lost in the traumatic events of the day. Lewis was an apologist, novelist, popular writer, and essayist, beloved of Christians of all churches, denominations, and sects; but he was also an accomplished scholar.

Love and marriage are horribly confused, conflated, and misunderstood in our current age, which does not understand the forms and purposes of these things — or rather, our age doesn’t seem to understand the form and purpose of anything. It was on the topics of love and marriage that C.S. Lewis gained his academic fame, in his book The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, dating from 1936. It was this book that showed that the Medieval literature on love was worthy of serious academic study: and it remains the starting point of much of contemporary scholarship.

Marriage is a human institution, closely tied to the law and specific human circumstances — but it is rooted in human nature — while love is universal. How these two things interrelate is explored in great and even shocking depth in the Medieval literature.  It is said that one flaw in Lewis’ book is that he treats love as a literary phenomenon, and not as something real, which he later corrected in his more popular book The Four Loves. Another flaw in his book is his incorporation of modern literary theories, whose frameworks don’t quite fit the data, and today we likewise have ideological — Marxist, Darwinist, Postmodernist, or Calvinist — readings of the literature which might explain one or another narrow aspect of love fairly well, while failing to consider the entire whole in a satisfactory manner.

Studying Medieval love literature can be hazardous: its allegorical method can be overlooked, its explicit depictions may be shocking, its unromantic portrayals of romantic love can be disturbing, and its essential Catholicity is rejected by contemporary conservatives and liberals alike. But Lewis was onto something: understanding love in all of its aspects is of great value to us today, and in every age.

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