Archives For C.S. Lewis

Enriching Your Writing

December 7, 2017 — 5 Comments

lit crit

Writers find literature inspiring. That sounds self-evident—and cliché—when we think of the statement aesthetically. It seems to me, however, that the words are also true in a literal sense. The very act of reading inspires us to fashion our own creations, each of which is consciously or unconsciously indebted to all that we have read and learned during our lives.

This activity is sometimes called bricolage. I wrote about it recently. Skilled writers frequently use devices to enrich their work. Quotations, allusions, pastiche and parody are obvious examples. Some critics would even include plagiarism as an intertextual exercise, and in the strictest sense, it is. While unacknowledged direct quotations are inappropriate, many readers savor reading volumes filled with well-done allusions.

Our minds are a composite of all that to which we have been exposed. When we come up with fresh ideas, they are seldom “new” in a true sense. When they are genuinely novel, at best they offer a unique take on a subject. Still, our expression relies in many aspects on what we ourselves have read in the past. After all, there is nothing new under the sun.*

When we owe a large debt to another source, it is right to offer credit. Not doing so invites people who recognize the source to question our integrity. The exception being when the source is so familiar to the anticipated reader, that it would be redundant. For example, the final sentence in the previous paragraph did not require a citation. If it is not known from its original biblical source, it is recognized as a common proverb . . . or, perhaps, from the Pete Seeger song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

One of the striking things about C.S. Lewis is his powerful grasp of the vast breadth of literature he had read. As I wrote in the aforementioned post, “Lewis was generous in thanking thinkers to whom he was indebted, and only failed to do so when he assumed any educated reader would recognize the source of an image or phrase.”

So, what about those times when we have forgotten a source, or don’t even recall that a particular idea came from anywhere other than our own cranium?

Unintentional Bricolage

While teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, Lewis taught many individuals who achieved notoriety in their own right. J.A.W. Bennett, studied under Lewis at Oxford, and eventually replaced him as professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge.

In “The Humane Medievalist: An Inaugural Address,” Bennett describes how Lewis’ vast familiarity with diverse literature meant that his own creative work was permeated by the wisdom of others.

The whole man was in all his judgements and activities . . . and a discriminating zest for life, for “common life,” informs every page he wrote. “Grete Clerke” as he was, he was never wilfully esoteric: Quotations and allusions rose unbidden to the surface of his full and fertile mind, but whether they are to Tristram Shandy or James Thurber they elucidate, not decorate. His works are all of a piece: a book in one genre will correct, illumine or amplify what is latent in another.

As a reader who relishes allusions (especially to the Scriptures), I approach Lewis knowing I’ve been invited to a feast. With C.S. Lewis we find bricolage at its richest and most refined.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis describes two types of readers, literary and unliterary. He says the measure of a book is the extent to which it entices its literary readers to reread it.

In the following excerpt, Lewis mentions how the talented writer weaves together an elegant tapestry (via bricolage). Because literature is so complex and intricate, we benefit from rereading it. He also discusses how literature interacts with our preexisting thoughts and sometimes reshapes them.

Nevertheless, we have already seen that the literary sometimes fall into what I think bad modes of reading, and even that these are sometimes subtler forms of the same errors that the unliterary commit.

They may do so when reading poems. The literary sometimes ‘use’ poetry instead of ‘receiving’ it. They differ from the unliterary because they know very well what they are doing and are prepared to defend it. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘should I turn from a real and present experience—what the poem means to me, what happens to me when I read it—to inquiries about the poet’s intention or reconstructions, always uncertain, of what it may have meant to his contemporaries?’

There seem to be two answers. One is that the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations of Chaucer or misunderstandings of Donne may possibly not be so good as the work Chaucer or Donne actually made.

Secondly, why not have both? After enjoying what I made of it, why not go back to the text, this time looking up the hard words, puzzling out the allusions, and discovering that some metrical delights in my first experience were due to my fortunate mispronunciations, and see whether I can enjoy the poet’s poem, not necessarily instead of, but in addition to, my own one?

If I am a man of genius and uninhibited by false modesty I may still think my poem the better of the two. But I could not have discovered this without knowing both. Often, both are well worth retaining.

Do we not all still enjoy certain effects which passages in classical or foreign poets produced in us when we misunderstood them? We know better now.

We enjoy something, we trust, more like what Virgil or Ronsard meant to give us. This does not abolish or stain the old beauty. It is rather like revisiting a beautiful place we knew in childhood. We appraise the landscape with an adult eye; we also revive the pleasures—often very different—which it produced when we were small children.

Admittedly, we can never quite get out of our own skins. Whatever we do, something of our own and of our age’s making will remain in our experience of all literature.

Equally, I can never see anything exactly from the point of view even of those whom I know and love best. But I can make at least some progress towards it. I can eliminate at least the grosser illusions of perspective.

Literature helps me to do it with live people, and live people help me to do it with literature. If I can’t get out of the dungeon I shall at least look out through the bars. It is better than sinking back on the straw in the darkest corner. (An Experiment in Criticism)

An Experiment in Criticism may not be Lewis’ simplest essay to understand, but it is a rich one. In fact, I can almost guarantee that if you should reread the passage quoted above, you will gain new insights that you missed during your first reading.

And that dynamic interplay between our thoughts and the literature we read is exactly what Lewis is explaining, and illustrating.

When it comes to choosing between what we personally receive from a work, and what the author originally intended to say, I love Lewis’ solution: “why not have both?”

_____

* “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has been already in the ages before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10).

 

wedding.pngIf you know the meaning of bricolage and understand its application to C.S. Lewis, I doff my cap to you.

Since I’m not an artist (the field in which the word is most common), “bricolage” was foreign to me before I encountered it during my doctoral studies. I read there that it constitutes a valid “approach to qualitative research.”

The term “bricolage” was taken from the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1968), who used it to distinguish mythological from scientific thought. . . . Levi-Strauss described the bricoleur as someone who uses whatever tools and materials are at hand to complete a project.

The key idea is that rather than developing a logically consistent plan in advance and then systematically using the materials and tools that the plan and the norms of the community prescribe (as science is widely, though I think somewhat incorrectly, believed to do), the bricoleur spontaneously adapts to the situation, creatively employing the available tools and materials to come up with unique solutions to a problem. (Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach)

If you picked up on the “mythological” reference within the definition—and drew a connection to the creator of Narnia—you may have the makings of a fine bricoleur. (But don’t add it to your résumé quite yet.)

Lévi-Strauss contrasted this mythological approach with the technological dominance of modern thinking.

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual “bricolage.” (The Savage Mind)

Fordham University has a comparative literature journal entitled Bricolage, inspired by “literary bricoleurs [who] produced stories, ones with historical and cultural significance and unique relevance attached to them, that colored the past with intentional highlights and included questions, ideas, and voices that were never part of the frozen time period they wrote about, but always had the potential to be.”

If that makes sense to you, and even inspires you, they have a list of prompts on the website to guide your own submission to the periodical. (I particularly like open-ended: “Describe the problem.”)

They even solicit suggestions for future prompts, if you would like to game the system by suggesting a subject for which you already possess some bricoleurological notions.

I don’t wish to suggest that this literary journal does not include some genuinely insightful work. Consider the following, from “Imagination: An Internal Reality” by Brittany Gilmartin.

While reality is an external landscape for our bodies and senses, the imagination is an internal landscape for our minds and thoughts. A limitless realm that only we ourselves can control, the imagination is a space for us to think freely about the outside world and create a new reality inside of us.

This mental reality is a place that we can escape to when we are not satisfied with the real world, as in “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien, or find the real world too hard to bear, as in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce.

Some may argue that instead of escaping into the fantasy of our imaginations, we should focus on factual knowledge; however, the imagination can teach us about the facts in a new light. Indeed, L. Frank Baum, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and C. S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, use their imaginations to redefine their external realities through allegories, allowing their readers to gain a deeper understanding of these realities than they could have gained through a textbook.

Great writers, such as the Inklings, did not bring newborn imaginations to the task of writing their diverse works. They were nourished and stirred by their lifelong consumption of a rich banquet of literature. And the way in which these themes are intentionally (and accidentally) woven into new texts displays their great talent.

Intertextuality as a Tool for the Bricoleur

Skilled writers frequently use devices to enrich their work. Quotations, allusions, pastiche and parody are obvious examples. Some critics would even include plagiarism as an intertextual exercise, and in the strictest sense, it is. While unacknowledged direct quotations are inappropriate, many readers savor reading volumes filled with well-done allusions.

By their very nature, shaped as they are by each culture’s history and ethos, fairy tales provide fertile soil for bricolage.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that fairy tales don’t have to be great works of fiction, or even especially well written, to be unforgettable. . . . The libretti of ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and many others invent this and borrow that, crystallizing various elements from national folklore (Russian folk tales) and literary classics (Perrault, E.T.A. Hoffmann).

The raw materials are not, however, always readily identifiable, but have been transformed freely by the creators’ imagination: The Firebird and Giselle are original dramatic works in their own right.

Yet they are also essentially fairy tales, composed by bricolage with features that define the genre: supernatural and mysterious beings, a prevailing atmosphere of enchantment and vulnerability to destiny, and opening to another, imaginary world that is only accessible through the work of art. (Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale)

When the Bricoleur Denies External Influences

Many, if not most, examples of intertextual dependence or allusion are intentional. And, since few of us possess perfect memory, there will be cases where we “borrow” from other works unconsciously.

Many writers find their path to success by following well-worn paths and adding some new twist of their own. To be called “derivative” is not flattering, but carrying bags full of cash to the bank can take the sting out of the label.

In any case, it is disingenuous to deny the influence of others on your work—when their voice is recognizable to all.

The Harry Potter books are, without question, the outstanding British literary phenomenon of the last twenty years. Not everybody likes them, though. . . .  surely nobody can deny that, when it comes to her prose, Rowling is not remotely in the same league as, say, T.H. White or J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone Kenneth Grahame or Edith Nesbit.

So, why are her books so successful? The obvious answer is that, as the critic Wendy Doniger puts it, Rowling “is a wizard herself at the magic art of bricolage: new stores crafted out of recycled pieces of old stories.”

Long after she had become a multi-millionaire, Rowling tried to play down her borrowings from earlier authors, insisting that she was “not a huge fan of fantasy,” had never finished The Lord of the Rings and had a “big problem” with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which she had never finished either.

Perhaps her memory was playing her false, though, for in earlier interviews she had talked warmly of her affections for The Lord of the Rings . . . In 1998 she even told an interviewer that she “loved” C.S. Lewis, whom she considered a “genius,” and actively reread his Narnia books.

None of this, though, would surprise an attentive reader of her work. Indeed, I suspect much of the attraction of the Harry Potter stories is the fun of spotting the allusions, as well as the nostalgic reassurance of seeing old devices and even familiar characters in a new context. (The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination)

On the opposite end of the humility spectrum, consider C.S. Lewis. Although his Chronicles of Narnia were in many ways groundbreaking, he readily offered gratitude to his various sources of inspiration.

Lewis was generous in thanking thinkers to whom he was indebted, and only failed to do so when he assumed any educated reader would recognize the source of an image or phrase.

With the contemporary state of literary education, this is an assumption modern writers are unwise to share. Sadly, this ignorance of formerly pervasive ideas and expressions is most visible in the realm of biblical literacy. But that is a subject for another day.

Stay Tuned

Our next post will consider an aspect of “unintentional bricolage” that C.S. Lewis found quite entertaining. I suspect many of us will agree.

doodlingDo you doodle? If you do, you’re in good company. Many creative and highly intelligent people doodle.

I’m not just saying this because I happen to be a journeyman doodler myself.

While there is technically a difference between scribbling out simple “sketches” and doodling, they bear much in common.

C.S. Lewis, for example, drew rather simple sketches, including his initial draft for the map of Narnia. I have written in the past about how he would sometimes include a small sketch in a piece of correspondence. And, of course, we have the delightful sketches that were designed to illustrate his childhood stories about the land of Boxen.

Not all of Lewis’ sketching was limited to amateur illustrations of literature. As the second quotation below shows, he also sketched “studies” that caught his fancy, while he was at his studies.

Even during his youth, Lewis held no exaggerated impressions of his own modest skills. In 1914 he wrote to his close friend Arthur Greeves about drawing.

I sympathize with your difficulty in drawing a horse, as I have often made the attempt in the days when I fancied myself in that line. But of course that counts for nothing: as the easiest of your sketches would be impossible for me. But there are heaps of pictures in which you need not introduce the animal.

The following year he addresses the same subject, offering more encouragement to his friend. He also describes his own “scribblings.”

I am glad to hear that you are keeping up the ‘illustrative’ side of your art, and shall want you to do some for my lyric poems. You can begin a picture of my ‘dream garden’ where the ‘West winds blow.’ As directions I inform you it is ‘girt about with mists,’ and is in ‘the shadowy country neither life nor sleep,’ and is the home of ‘faint dreams.’

With this Bädekers guide* to it, you can start a picture. You remember, I scribble at pen and ink sketches a bit, and have begun to practise female faces which have always been my difficulty. I am improving a very little I think, and the margins of my old Greek lexicon as well as my pocket book now swarm with ‘studies.’

Is Doodling Normal Behavior?

My siblings made fun of me for doodling as we grew up. The odd fact is, that I find it much easier to concentrate on a conversation when I have a pen in my hand and I can scribble as I listen. My notes from college and seminary attest to this fact.

For those who don’t experience this phenomenon, it’s counterintuitive. They think that if you are concentrating on your drawing, you are by obvious fact, not concentrating on the conversation. I understand that rationale, and it seems to me that the problem distills down to  exactly what we mean by “concentrating.”

Fortunately, there is recent research that proves doodling helps some people with their concentration.

On the Discover Magazine blog, they have a short introduction to the discovery that doodling can be a very good thing.

Doodling isn’t the distraction it’s commonly thought to be, researchers say–in fact, it aids concentration, and memory. A new study suggests that doodling takes up just enough attention to keep the brain from wandering further afield.

On a discussion forum about this subject, I recently read the following comments—with which I completely identify.

In high school and college I never wanted to loan anyone my lecture notes because they were so marked up.

In my professional life I’ve been told that it looks like I’m not paying attention in meetings, etc. (and, of course, sometimes I’m not) but more often that’s the only way I can focus on what’s being said. If I have to sit in a meeting and just listen, my mind goes in 47 different directions . . .

And, from a second individual:

During meetings, when I’m on the phone, in lectures, you name it. if I have a pen in my hand, I can’t help myself.

I really think it helps me concentrate. I think my brain prefers to do more than one thing at once, so if I make it draw, I can usually concentrate on what the speaker’s saying without getting distracted. It’s almost like I create a distraction for myself so I don’t get further districted.

One of the participants in the discussion recommended a recent book related to this subject, Fidget to Focus. From the description in the book, I suppose I may be ADD, even though the “disorder” was invented when I was too old to receive the label.

The book includes some strategies on how to cope with associated problems. I particularly like this one, because it affirms the activity I intuitively devised.

Let’s imagine a college student who is struggling to pay attention during a lecture. If he were to choose putting on his headphone and listening to his favorite CD as his strategy . . . It would fail because the strategy would be competing for, not supporting, the sensory activity or modality required for the primary activity . . .

However, if he pulled out his PDA and started playing a game, would this match what he needed? Yes, possibly. It would depend upon whether the game became his primary interest. . . .

An even better strategy would be to doodle on his notes while he listened. By using either of these visual-motor fidgets, he would likely be able to stay focused and remember a larger majority of the lecture material.

So, if you doodle to concentrate, take heart. You are not alone. And if you are a harasser of doodlers, give them a break. They aren’t ignoring you. In fact, they are working hard to give you all the attention you deserve.

Postscript: Do Not Fail to Visit this Site

One of the most creative and thought-provoking sites on the internet is coincidentally called C.S. Lewis Doodle.

I’ve written about it in the past, and strongly encourage you to check it out!

____________________

* Baedeker Guides are travel guide books which have been published by a German firm since the 1830s. If you would like a free digital copy of one of the popular guides illustrating the sites that would be visited by the erudite European in the late nineteenth century, they are available here.

When the Angel is a Demon

October 26, 2017 — 9 Comments

devil tatoo

Not every supernatural being claiming to be an angel really is.

C.S. Lewis’ most familiar discussion of fallen angels (also refered to as demons) appears in The Screwtape Letters. In the preface, he describes the equally disastrous errors people can fall into when pondering the occult.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

In a separate discussion, Lewis acknowledges the different opinions Christians can have on the subject, and he notes that it is not a salvific concern.

No reference to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such beings exist, but that is my own affair. Supposing there to be such beings, the degree to which humans were conscious of their presence would presumably vary very much.

I mean, the more a man was in the Devil’s power, the less he would be aware of it, on the principle that a man is still fairly sober as long as he knows he’s drunk. It is the people who are fully awake and trying hard to be good who would be most aware of the Devil . . .

Of course, they don’t want you to believe in the Devil. If devils exist, their first aim is to give you an anaesthetic—to put you off your guard. Only if that fails, do you become aware of them. (“Answers to Questions on Christianity”)

I have mentioned in the past one of my seminary professors who served in Madagascar as a medical missionary. He had since become a successful psychiatrist. When he left for Africa, he did not believe in the existence of demons.

A final observation about demons, or devils as he typically refers to them: they act in a manner opposite to God. In That Hideous Strength, he includes the observation that, “In fighting those who serve devils one always has this on one’s side; their Masters hate them as much as they hate us.”

This echoes a truthful dialectic.

God loves everyone, even those who hate him. While Lucifer hates everyone, even those who love him.

An Ancient Illustration

I’ve been reading recently wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They left ancient Roman cities to pursue spiritual growth as hermits and monks beginning in the middle of the third century.

The history of Christian monasticism is fascinating. All the way up to our own day, male and female monastics of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions have pursued holiness by this particular path.

A common occurrence for desert monks involved waging spiritual warfare of a more intense nature than most of us ever experience. I particularly enjoyed the following encounter (which reminded me of Martin Luther’s advice about ridiculing Satan and his minions). The following episode comes from an ancient collection of Desert sayings.

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

Good riddance, C.S. Lewis and I would agree.


The image above is of a tattoo whose “wearer” will one day experience great remorse.

bennett

Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.


The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

babble.jpg

With civil discourse in such short supply today, it may be beneficial to consider some wisdom from the past about disagreeing calmly.

If you’re a thoughtful person, and you interact with other rational people, it’s inevitable that you will sometimes disagree. These differences of opinion are not bad things, in and of themselves. They help us sharpen our thinking and occasionally result in someone (from either side) recognizing the errors in their opinions.

There are times, however, when disagreements are not handled respectfully. In such situations, they seldom result in a positive end. In cases where quarrels arise, people don’t persuade others. They do the opposite—they motivate them to entrench themselves and hide behind mental and verbal barricades that reinforce their “errors.”

You can go all the way back to the Scriptures to find the recognition that this sort of debate is destructive. Here is the counsel of the apostle Paul to his protégée Timothy, a young pastor:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14-17)

In the second century, Tertullian, a brilliant North African Christian scholar, penned one of my favorite passages in all of patristic literature.

I might be bringing forward this objection from a want of confidence, or from a wish to enter upon the case in dispute in a different manner from the heretics, were not a reason to be found at the outset in that our Faith owes obedience to the Apostle who forbids us to enter into questionings, or to lend our ears to novel sayings, or to associate with a heretic after one admonition—he does not say after discussion.

Indeed, he forbade discussion by fixing on admonition as the reason for meeting a heretic. And he mentions this one admonition, because a heretic is not a Christian, and . . . because argumentative contests about the Scriptures profit nothing, save of course to upset the stomach or the brain.

This or that heresy rejects certain of the Scriptures, and those which it receives it perverts both by additions and excisions to agree with its own teaching. For even when it receives them it does not receive them entire, and if it does in some cases receive them entire, it none the less perverts them by fabricating heterodox interpretations.

A spurious interpretation injures the Truth quite as much as a tampered text. Baseless presumptions naturally refuse to acknowledge the means of their own refutation. They rely on passages which they have fraudulently rearranged or received because of their obscurity.

What wilt thou effect, though thou art most skilled in the Scriptures, if what thou maintainest is rejected by the other side and what thou rejectest is maintained? Thou wilt indeed lose nothing—save thy voice in the dispute; and gain nothing—save indignation at the blasphemy. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 16-17)

If you would like to read a fascinating scholarly article on this passage you can download one here. In “Accusing Philosophy of Causing Headaches: Tertullian’s Use of a Comedic Topos,” J. Albert Harrill writes:

Among the most famous passages in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (ca. 203) is what appears to be nothing more than a throwaway line. After declaring that ‘heretics’ have no right to use Christian Scripture, he writes, ‘Besides, arguments over Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache.’

Previous scholarship has assumed the protest to epitomize Tertullian’s fideism and general anti-intellectualism. However, I argue that the line evokes a comedic stereotype within a medical topos about ‘excessive’ mental activity causing disease in the body, going back to Plato and Aristophanes.

The passage is, therefore, not a throwaway line but an important part of Tertullian’s attempt to caricature his opponents with diseased superstitio (excessive care and ‘curiosity’).

More Recent Variations of this Theme

Those who have attempted serious, rational argument with someone who is unserious or irrational know very well what Tertullian was describing. If you are earnest and calm in your advocacy, only to have your counterpart act flippant or ignorantly obstinate, it really can make one feel nauseous.

G.K. Chesterton, who was an articulate defender of Christianity during the beginning of the twentieth century, described the frustration in a predictably entertaining manner.

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.

Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

As Chesterton suggests, the madman has retained his ability to reason, but is no longer inhibited by reason itself. I would liken it to retaining the appearance of reasoning, bereft of its essence. It parallels what we read in 2 Timothy 3.

In the last days . . . people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (Italics added.)

C.S. Lewis also addresses the inability of many who are wrong to conduct rational conversations. Whenever they meet a reasoned argument, they are disarmed.

Unfortunately, their lack of logic does not prevent them from charging into the disputation. They assume their passion or their appeal to subjectivity (i.e. that “everyone” is right) will win the day.

Lewis grew so frustrated by the phenomenon that he coined a new word to identify it. He regrets the passing of the day when you persuade someone of their error before you could legitimately explain why your own position is correct on a given issue.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – `Oh you say that because you are a man.’

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

“Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable able parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it.

I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. . . . I see Bulverism at work in every political argument.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. (“‘Bulverism:’ Or the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought”)

So, there we have it. We may derive some comfort from the fact that irrational arguing has frequently displaced civil discourse since the dawn of human communication.

As for me, I intend to avoid the Bulverites as much as possible. The last thing I need is a migraine or a serious case of indigestion.

How One Speaks to Royalty

September 20, 2017 — 6 Comments

bowing

How does your voice subtly alter as you are introduced to foreign royalty? When you kneel before your sovereign, if you summon the courage to speak, does your voice crack, or assume the volume of a whisper.

A recent study argues that “Non-verbal behaviours, including voice characteristics during speech, are an important way to communicate social status.”

The research involved interviews with potential employers (most likely because too few individuals with royal blood were available).

We found that vocal modulations were apparent between responses to the neutral and high-status targets, with participants . . . increasing fundamental frequency.

That means that when people talked to those they considered more powerful or prestigious than themselves, their voices got higher and squeakier. [Note: the study itself does not refer explicitly to the squeakiness quotient.]

C.S. Lewis was a gifted orator, who could well have served as the prestigious participant in a study such as this. “Lewis had a rich, deep, booming voice,” notes a recent volume.

This may be one reason that Adolf Hitler rued Lewis’ contribution to the Allied war effort.

There are a bevy of studies related to how all manner of things exert a subconscious effect on our vocal pitch. For example, you may not be aware that “Japanese women modify their pitch when reading English sentences, producing speech in a slightly lower pitch range” (Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology).

Another fact of which you may be unaware, is that on the Supreme Court of the United States, “when male justices respond to female justices, they are more likely to raise their pitch.” What’s more, as the years pass, “female justices lower their voice pitch over time, whereas male justices raise their voice pitch over time.” What do we make of that?

In an article about how “study after study has suggested that low voices, ‘masculine’ voices, are an asset to those seeking leadership roles, in politics and beyond,” we discover how this relates to women, as well.

We perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be more attractive and physically stronger–and also more competent and more trustworthy—than their less burly-voiced peers. And we perceive women with lower-pitched voices along the same lines (though we also tend to perceive them, tellingly, as less attractive than their Betty Boop-y counterparts).

C.S. Lewis and the Idea of Voice

Accustomed as he was to an academic world constructed on the scaffolding of lecture and debate, Lewis was well acquainted with the power of “voice.” In fact, in one of his most creative essays, “Two Lectures,” Lewis describes hearing a predictable lecture on the subject of “evolution, development, the slow struggle upwards and onwards from crude and inchoate beginnings towards ever-increasing perfection . . .”

He then describes a “dream” that very night in which all of the lecturers presuppositions are reversed, raising the question of whether it might be “equally reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?”

The portion of the essay which is pertinent to the subject of the current column is the way he introduces the Dream Lecturer, but praising the “voice and figure” of its human precursor.

None of this [i.e. the evolution lecture], of course, was new to me or to anyone else in the audience. But it was put very well (much better than it appears in my reproduction) and the whole voice and figure of the lecturer were impressive. At least they must have impressed me, for otherwise I cannot account for the curious dream I had that night.

In “The Decline of Religion,” Lewis praises open and uninhibited conversations about faith. In contrast, he describes an earlier age of superficial religiosity in which Christianity, “if it had to be spoken of, it was spoken of in a hushed, medical voice.” Ah, the medical voice. We who have been around hospitals and sickbeds (for those seriously ill) are quite familiar with that somber and muted tone.

In “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis illustrates the distinction between studying something and peering more deeply into it. His description of the voice of one’s beloved is quite poetic.

A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes’ casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. [Italics added.]

Reading these words, I am reminded of the Song of Solomon.

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. (2:14)

The Voice of C.S. Lewis

Fortunately, we possess a small number of recordings of Lewis’ voice. Sadly, however, many more were lost.

During WWII, the BBC used twelve-inch metal disks coated with acetate for recordings. But because metal was in short supply, those disks were primarily reserved for field recording, so only one of Lewis’s WWII talks was preserved.

If a sufficient number of recordings had survived, an analysis of Lewis’ voice pitch might have earned a modern graduate their PhD.

It is fitting to close these thoughts with a thoroughly Lewisian quotation. Lewis was a deeply charitable man. In his writings he mentions a number of times how he strove to put the best face on the words and actions of others.

In a letter to one of his regular correspondents who is extremely “distraught” at another’s behavior, he urges patience. In doing so he mentions how we can become so prejudiced toward others that their very voice becomes a bludgeon. But read on and see how he makes his gracious point.

It is a pity he ‘gets on your nerves’ but you are, rightly, controlling your reactions. I know well how a person’s very voice, looks, and mannerisms may grate on one! I always try to remember that mine probably do the same to him—and of course I never hear or see myself.