An Experiment in Criticism by CS Lewis **** (or Why You’re a Pleb, t. CS Lewis)

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal. Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts. If like is the correct word for what they do to books, some other word must be found for what we do. Or, conversely, if we like our kind of book we must not say that they like any book. If the few have ‘good taste’, then we may have to say that no such thing as ‘bad taste’ exists: for the inclination which the many have to their sort of reading is not the same thing and, if the word were univocally used, would not be called taste at all.

Not even ten pages in and Lewis has already performed a minor revolution in my consciousness. Why the fuck can’t they give us this shit in uni? Instead of tedious quasi-comprehensible Neo-Marxist drivel with no “insights” to offer except bad and false ones?

When the young person in question is an agnostic whose ancestors were Puritans, you get a very regrettable state of mind. The Puritan conscience works on without the Puritan theology—like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers. The unhappy youth applies to literature all the scruples, the rigorism, the self-examination, the distrust of pleasure, which his forebears applied to the spiritual life; and perhaps soon all the intolerance and self-righteousness.

What breathtaking prescience. This is the entirety of modern literary criticism and female youth reading culture, as evinced on GoodReads, except without the scruples, rigour or self-examination (or self-awareness). Only the intolerance and self-righteousness remains.

…the majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

Hmm. It seems I belong to the ranks of the barbarians because in the vast majority of cases I only read books once. (I’ve since discovered Tolkien was by his own admission the same way. I wonder if CS Lewis knew that?) Partly because, given time is limited, and therefore the number of books I will be able to read in my life is finite, I’d rather read something new. And partly because only the very best books, in my experience, reward rereading. Some, like Sanderson’s Way of Kings, were a 5/5 the first time through, and then a straight-up DNF the second. I think it might partly come down to plot vs. prose. A compelling plot will keep you turning pages, even if everything else is nothing much to speak of. But once you know the story, have solved the mystery, turned all the twists, you’ve exhausted the book’s appeal. Only books which are superb in a subtler grain are worth reading again.

Once the emotional response is well aroused it begets imaginings. Dim ideas of inconsolable sorrows, brilliant revelry, or well-fought fields, arise. Increasingly it is these that we really enjoy.

I think I’m at this stage.

The result proves the excellence of the means. The clarity of the object proves that the lens we saw it through is good.

This is why modernist and postmodernist visual art is categorically and universally bad–not because all non-representational art is bad, but because good abstract art does not require a plaque or a professor to tell you what it means, or that it means something at all. Nor does this alleged and externally imposed meaning replace beauty as the justification for its existence. Art is whatever does not need to be designated as such. It announces itself. You know it when you see it. If you wouldn’t know it was art if it wasn’t in an art gallery, it’s not art.

I must notice that there is another sort of reader who attends to them far too much and in the wrong way. I am thinking of what I call Stylemongers. On taking up a book, these people concentrate on what they call its ‘style’ or its ‘English’. They judge this neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules. Their reading is a perpetual witch hunt for Americanisms, Gallicisms, split infinitives, and sentences that end with a preposition.

One of the unexpected and underrated pleasures of reading older writers (with the breadth of Lewis) is when they dip unintentionally into a kind of intellectual anthropology, preserving like extinct species of insects in the glowing amber of his discourse schools of thought and socio-philosophical factions that have now passed away entirely from the earth. Significant portions of the book, as with many of Lewis’ works, are devoted to contending with movements and philosophies the march of progress have lo, jousting with dragons long died out. They help to render the texture of the people we were 5 minutes ago, which those who are not spiritually in touch with the past (leftists, liberals and most self-identified conservatives, even allegedly well-educated ones) miss entirely. They really reinforce just how much the past was a foreign country, and also jog my alt-historical imagination about a world where such movements had survived, and even become dominant.

a confusion between life and art, even a failure to allow for the existence of art at all…the belief that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us ‘truths’ about ‘life’. Dramatists and novelists are praised as if they were doing, essentially, what used to be expected of theologians and philosophers, and the qualities which belong to their works as inventions and as designs are neglected. They are reverenced as teachers and insufficiently appreciated as artists.

Every Western female and/or non-heterosexual Goodreads user under the age of fifty should have to memorise this passage by heart.

The passage on Tragedy and tragedies from 78-9 was just a magnificent bit of nonfiction prose.

In good reading there ought to be no ‘problem of belief’. I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either. A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates.

This is very true, and something I strive to do in my own reviews, though I am tempted not to when I see how few on the other side of the aisle hold themselves to such scruples.

Here Lewis outlines my basic problem with modern literary criticism, the kind that, unable to offer genuine fresh insight into the canonical works, focuses instead on scrutinising them through various distorting ‘lenses’ and schools of interpretation:

…it may well impede future receptions of the work itself. We may go back to it chiefly to find further confirmation for our belief that it teaches this or that, rather than for a fresh immersion in what it is.

…since a text is ‘but a cheverel glove’ to a determined critic—since everything can be a symbol, or an irony, or an ambiguity—we shall easily find what we want. The supreme objection to this is that which lies against the popular use of all the arts. We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.

I read literary criticism because I want to understand the author’s thoughts, ideas and philosophy, not the critic’s. Because I’m actually interested in what, say, CS Lewis has to say–the opinions of some obscure CultMarx academic, less so. But very few modern critics seem to (want to) understand this. Indeed, given how few genuine intellects there are among them, they have a vested interest in not understanding it.

What is the reason for this sorry state of affairs? Simple: the desperate need of University English departments (of which I hope someday to become a member, more fool me) to conceal that their existence is essentially unjustifiable, that, all serious angles of critical inquiry having been mined out over the decades, all that’s left is what can most accurately, and charitably, be described as bullshit: choosing arbitrary and irrelevant frames of reference, grounded in the critic’s own politics or personal idiosyncrasies (such as being some flavour of racial minority or sexual degenerate) and contorting the text to fit them. Anyone who’s had to write an undergraduate English essay knows exactly what I’m talking about. One thing writing bullshit of this kind has taught me is that you can make a text say literally anything you want, if you’re lazy and unscrupulous enough. Just comb through the text for cherries that fit your pie, pick them out, pop them in, bung it in the oven and turn up the jargon, and voila, you have one steaming pile of scholarly horseshit, ready to serve up to whomever has the unhappy task of marking it (because no one else will ever read it). Figuring out what the text actually means is much harder–for one thing it requires a genuine intimacy with the zeitgeist of the author and its weltenschaung, a kind of mental atavism, a reaching back into the collective psyche of the past, that in my experience most modern Western leftists, trapped in the solipsism of their own era and ideology, are totally incapable of. Because they either physically do not share, or spiritually have denied, their own genetic connection with the dead generations who went before, they’re like foreign tourists blundering through the country of the past with a defective guidebook. You simply can’t understand Victorian, or Edwardian, or Mediæval Christian literature, unless you are in some measure sympathetic to the Victorian or Mediaeval Christian mindset–unless you know and feel these people to be your own relations, not some fascinating but alien extinct tribe. That means that basically you must be right-wing. We cannot speak the language of our ancestors until we realise that it is our own language; we cannot speak truthfully about the lives and works of our ancestors unless we love them. The lack of this understanding that comes only from belonging is what leads to so many of the elementary and catastrophic misreadings I encounter.

One of these is seeing the past and its denizens as ‘Other’ to the point that one suspends basic common sense in accounting for the psychology of their actions. A spicy example would be those Papua New Guinean tribes where the men feed little boys their semen to ‘help them grow into men’. Now, when these men have this young boys fellate them, they do not seriously believe, deep-down, that all they’re doing is a disinterested act of spiritual benevolence. I can say that with full confidence, despite having never spoken to one of them, nor being an anthropologist who has heavily studied them. No, they know exactly what it is that they’re doing— they do it because they enjoy it and want to continue doing it, and thus have constructed and maintain a useful fiction that will allow them to continue doing it. To suggest otherwise is unreal. These are human beings we are talking about, not Cytherean slime-people. Some of the basic human urges and thought patterns are common to all cultures. Sometimes to ask ‘well, what would I be thinking in this situation’ is a perfectly valid archaeo-historical/literary technique, especially when one is investigating the history of one’s own culture.

The other end of the fallacy, probably more deliberate and pernicious, is to employ notions such as ‘class’, ‘equality’, ‘gender’ or ‘rights’ or even more egregiously, ‘colonialism’, ‘queerness’, ‘racism’ and ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’, unexamined and unquestioned, as if they were inherently and eternally valid concepts, rather than highly ideological, subjective, and usually very recent ones. Or, when such terms did exist at the time, to assume they had the same meaning then as they do now.

Thus the normal and given is rendered strange and vexed, while the fringe and contested is taken for granted. But that is of course the basic deconstructionist strategy. Not just subversion but inversion, always. Orwell was more right than he himself could see, wedded as he was to the iron curtains of Marxism that blinkered his vision.

What it boils down to is this: the study of English literature, and literary criticism, can only be justified if they are teaching us more about English literature, not about the intricacies of our current reigning ideology; otherwise we might as well abolish the English faculties, or at the very least relabel them as the political propaganda factories they are.

Or, as Lewis puts it:

If literary scholarship and criticism are regarded as activities ancillary to literature, then their sole function is to multiply, prolong, and safeguard experiences of good reading. A system which heads us off from abstraction by being centred on literature in operation is what we need.

Once again, no brakes on the call-out train:

The ‘user’ wants to use this content—as pastime for a dull or torturing hour, as a puzzle, as a help to castle-building, or perhaps as a source for ‘philosophies of life’. The ‘recipient’ wants to rest in it. It is for him, at least temporarily, an end. That way, it may be compared (upward) with religious contemplation or (downward) with a game.

The problem is, since becoming an aspiring writer myself I have found myself both reading more widely than before, and also more intentionally.  I now read things not just because they look fun or interesting, but because I want to write in that genre, or create a story in that place/time, with a protagonist of that profession/culture, etc.. I’m always either ‘using’ the author’s prose to improve my own, or their content as a source for research for my own stories. GoodReads probably hasn’t helped either. Having to write something about every book I read has, I believe, helped me think more critically about them, but probably does harm my uninterrupted ‘reception’ of the text. It’s hard to simply let the text work on you when you’re constantly thinking of snarky things to say about it. I’m too busy reading as a writer, or as a reviewer, to read the proper way, according to Lewis: simply as a reader. This is a real paradox of the serious literatchik, and not one I can see a solution for, honestly. 

It has been maintained that the attraction of Trollope or even Jane Austen for many readers is the imaginative truancy into an age when their class, or the class they identify with theirs, was more secure and fortunate than now.

Hmm. It mostly seems to be middle-class women people who read and squee over Austen these days. (Nobody, so far as I am aware, reads Trollope.) It seems to me the wish-fulfillment is more in identifying with a class that is not their own. I don’t know, what do the upper classes like to read in the 21st century? The American entrepreneurial elite seem mostly to read self-improvement books, pop science and memoirs, all written by others of their class. The British (and Colonial) urban upper-middles I imagine as reading whatever’s winning the prizes that year–that’s literature as status symbol, one of the uses Lewis mentioned. I have no idea what the genuine landed gentry read, or if they do so at all. The young lasses and lads of means I don’t picture as reading much of anything, except social media and stock listings, respectively. But like I said, I really have no clue.

Oh, look, I pre-empted him:

The effect must precede the judgement on the effect. The same is true of a whole work. Ideally, we must receive it first and then evaluate it. Otherwise, we have nothing to evaluate. Unfortunately this ideal is progressively less and less realised the longer we live in a literary profession or in literary circles. It occurs, magnificently, in young readers. At a first reading of some great work, they are ‘knocked flat’. Criticise it? No, by God, but read it again. The judgement ‘This must be a great work’ may be long delayed. But in later life we can hardly help evaluating as we go along; it has become a habit. We thus fail of that inner silence, that emptying out of ourselves, by which we ought to make room for the total reception of the work. The failure is greatly aggravated if, while we read, we know that we are under some obligation to express a judgement; as when we read a book in order to review it, or a friend’s MS. in order to advise him. Then the pencil gets to work on the margin and phrases of censure or approval begin forming themselves in our mind. All this activity impedes reception.

I know exactly what he means about being ‘knocked flat’. It’s why my favourite books don’t have reviews (by me). And the delay of judgement he alludes to is why my opinion of The Secret History and Brokeback Mountain changed so dramatically between the first notes I posted on them and the last.

So maybe I should stop doing status updates? But then, I wouldn’t have anything to say except vagaries (I know that’s not what that means, but I’m using it to mean what it sounds like it should mean) when it came time to finally write my reviews. So maybe I should leave it to the re-read? But I don’t have time to read every book twice, nor does every book warrant, or reward it. So, again, I don’t see a way out of this dilemma.

The arts, as they develop, grow further apart. Once, song, poetry, and dance were all parts of a single dromenon. Each has become what it now is by separation from the others, and this has involved great losses and great gains. Within the single art of literature, the same process has taken place. Poetry has differentiated itself more and more from prose.

Again, I’d never thought about this, but it’s truer now then when Lewis wrote it. Poetry having gone the way if all modern arts,  a ‘poem’ today need not necessarily involve words, or even letters, at all. Prose, on the other hand, seems to have largely got over the experimentation of the last century, And its formal requirements are more strict than ever, because prose, unlike poetry, is still something you can make money from, and the Market is a more ruthless master than the Academy.

A few here and there, all women and mostly old women, may embarrass us by repeating the verses of Ella Wheeler Wilcox or Patience Strong. The poetry they like is always gnomic and thus, very literally, a comment on life. They use it rather as their grandmothers would have used proverbs or biblical texts. Their feelings are not much engaged; their imagination, I believe, not at all.

Except these days it’s mostly young women, and “poets” like Rupi Kaur don’t bother with even the rudimentary rigour of verse.

Once again Lewis is so spot-on I just want to quote the whole blimmin chapter:

The story of The Rape of the Lock, sylphs and all, could have been told, though not so effectively, in prose. The Odyssey and the Comedy have something to say that could have been said well, though not equally well, without verse. Most of the qualities Aristotle demands of a tragedy could occur in a prose play. Poetry and prose, however different in language, overlapped, almost coincided, in content. But modern poetry, if it ‘says’ anything at all, if it aspires to ‘mean’ as well as to ‘be’, says what prose could not say in any fashion. To read the old poetry involved learning a slightly different language; to read the new involves the unmaking of your mind, the abandonment of all the logical and narrative connections which you use in reading prose or in conversation. You must achieve a trance-like condition in which images, associations, and sounds operate without these. Thus the common ground between poetry and any other use of words is reduced almost to zero. In that way poetry is now more quintessentially poetical than ever before; ‘purer’ in the negative sense. It not only does (like all good poetry) what prose can’t do: it deliberately refrains from doing anything that prose can do.

Unfortunately, but inevitably, this process is accompanied by a steady diminution in the number of its readers. Some have blamed the poets for this, and some the people. I am not sure that there need be any question of blame. The more any instrument is refined and perfected for some particular function, the fewer those who have the skill, or the occasion, to handle it must of course become. Many use ordinary knives and few use surgeons’ scalpels. The scalpel is better for operations, but it is no good for anything else. Poetry confines itself more and more to what only poetry can do; but this turns out to be something which not many people want done. Nor, of course, could they receive it if they did. Modern poetry is too difficult for them. It is idle to complain; poetry so pure as this must be difficult. But neither must the poets complain if they are unread. When the art of reading poetry requires talents hardly less exalted than the art of writing it, readers cannot be much more numerous than poets.

The explication of poetry is already well entrenched as a scholastic and academic exercise. The intention to keep it there, to make proficiency in it the indispensable qualification for white-collared jobs, and thus to secure for poets and their explicators a large and permanent (because a conscript) audience, is avowed. It may possibly succeed. Without coming home any more than it now does to the ‘business and bosoms’ of most men, poetry may, in this fashion, reign for a millennium; providing material for the explication which teachers will praise as an incomparable discipline and pupils will accept as a necessary moyen de parvenir. But this is speculation.

Not anymore, it isn’t. Modern poetry, like all modern ‘high’ culture, lives (if you can call it that) only in the academy, and in classrooms resounding with the sighs of long-suffering students. It is a hothouse plant, bearing no more relation to the verse that was the lifeblood of the people ‘than a California orange wrapped in cellophane … has to an orange on a tree. ‘ If it is to burst once more into the glorious, terrible, epoch-altering life of which it is capable, it must first break free; literature must be liberated from the ossified claws of the Institutional Left. We must bombard the headquarters of the Cultural Revolution with desperate courage and storm the barricades of knowledge! We have nothing to lose but our jobs!

…what was I talking about? Oh yeah, ‘white collar’ seems to have a different meaning in Lewis’ time (or maybe just to Lewis) than it does to us. He seems to think it has something to do with academic (as opposed to office) attire?

There is a kind of poignancy in how Lewis makes casual reference to dozens of writers I have never heard of. In his day it was taken for granted a reader would know them by surname only; today they have vanished with their works into the oblivion of obscurity. Though I must thank him for introducing me to the gut-busting hilarity of the inimitable Amanda (McKittrick) Ros(s). (Google her, but first put away any small animals or children likely to be alarmed when you explode into raucous peals of laughter)

On Arnoldian criticism:

Evaluation plays a minor part in Arnold’s conception of criticism. Criticism is for him ‘essentially’ the exercise of curiosity, which he defines as the ‘disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all subjects for its own sake’. The important thing is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. It matters more to see precisely what sort of poet Homer is than to tell the world how much it ought to like that sort of poet. The best value judgement is that ‘which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowledge.’

We are to show others the work they claim to admire or despise as it really is; to describe, almost to define, its character, and then leave them to their own (now better informed) reactions.

I will admit he lost me (or rather, I lost him) somewhat in the Epilogue. Whenever capitalised Greek terms are introduced one is in for a rough time.

Never mind, he found me again. He ends on a true note: one of the best summaries of why we read books I have ever read.

…we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … 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’. … Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. 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. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. … Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in 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.

Without doubt the best work of literary criticism I can remember reading (I cannot remember reading much of it). Very brief, and therefore necessarily quite abstract and general. More specificity would have been enjoyable, but the lack of it was not a malus. I read this with a view to my own English essays but, as I say, it wasn’t specific enough to be of much use in that regard (I of course now realise I was making the mistake of reading the text in a ‘utilitarian’ rather than ‘receptive’ manner). But this made for a good primer text; it’s the sort of thing I should have read before I started writing reviews. It’s the sort of thing all book reviewers, critics and scholars should be required to read at the beginning of their career. Which is why it’s rather sad that (as with most of Lewis’ non-fiction non-Christian work) almost nobody seems to be reading it at all. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars was, despite it’s brilliance (there was a gem on practically every page, and often several pages together were one continuous piece of glittering jewelwork), it didn’t leave me with the sensation of slightly benumbed awe I expect from a true masterpiece.

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