Helen Watanabe- O'Kelly on C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love .
It all comes back to me - the physical excitement, felt somewhere in the digestive tract, of sitting in the Aula Maxima in University College, Cork, and reading. It was a highly conscious process that included inhaling the magic smell of the leather bindings all around, admiring the light from the mock Gothic windows, listening to the rustle of other readers, perusing the book with a pensive frown in the manner of the would-be intellectual. The wearing business of being 18 was inextricably intertwined with the physical and mental act of reading.
What was I reading? It might, on a given day, have been Erich Auerbach or T. S. Eliot or Percy Lubbock or E. M. Forster or E. M. W. Tillyard. I loved ideas and sweep and epigrammatic wisdom and magisterial language. And more than anything I loved a good argument. It was no good reading people and agreeing with them. As a member of an argumentative Irish academic family I knew that, in conversation, you accorded your interlocutors the courtesy of taking their ideas seriously and testing them against your own. Why be less courteous towards a book? Equally, what would be the point in arguing with someone who knew as little and thought as slowly as you did yourself? Punching above your weight, that was the fun of the thing. So the externals of reading - the furrowed brow and all that - were a cloak for the most fascinated drinking in of the argument presented on the page, with every so often a mental "Hang on a moment, T. S. (or E. M. or E. M. W. (the initials made me feel I was talking to Martians), I thought you said on page 1 that I" The book I really remember, however, was by C. S. Lewis's. The Allegory of Love was first published in 1936 and into its 11th printing by 1967. This had everything. It had ideas about allegory, about medieval chastity, about marriage, love and loyalty - and they were presented as having the most vibrant significance for the present-day reader. It had sweep - from Chretien de Troyes to Ariosto to Spenser and back. It had epigrammatic wisdom - "Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind." It had magisterial language - "The Romance of the Rose is one of the most 'successful' books, in the vulgar sense, that have ever been written". In the vulgar sense - wow. And, of course, it had learning. Immense learning based on close reading and lively curiosity and full of the most enlivening prejudice to which the author does his best to draw your attention. And the point of the learning is to understand a far-off fascinating world on its own terms, to confront its ideas, particularly those that repel you and relate them to your own.
I did not know then that C.S. Lewis was an Irishman. I did know that he was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. If it had said he was a little green man with antennae on his head, this could not have been more mysterious or exotic.
Well, I became an early modernist, though, with a primary focus on German, not English, and was elected many years later to an Oxford fellowship, though at a different college. I still think it is rude not to argue with people, I still love the small of libraries and, when I reread The Allegory of Love, I am still punching way above my weight.
Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly is a fellow, Exeter College, Oxford, and a lecturer in German, University of Oxford.