Archives For Advice to Readers

C.S. Lewis and Libraries

December 18, 2019 — 9 Comments

Do you suppose that if we gathered together all of the volumes written by the Inklings, along with all of the books and articles written about these gifted authors, we could fill a library? I am uncertain, but I think the effort would prove a quite enjoyable undertaking.

Libraries have always been important to Christians. The preservation of documents during the so-called “dark ages” was one of the major duties assumed by monasteries. It’s no accident the oldest continuously operating library is found in a monastery. The library at Saint Catherine Monastery contains “3,300 manuscripts, and some 8,000 early printed books, together with 5,000 new books.”

When Egeria visited the Sinai in 383-384, she wrote approvingly of the way the monks read to her the scriptural accounts concerning the various events that had taken place there. Thus we can speak of manuscripts at Sinai in the fourth century.

It is written of Saint John Climacus that, while living as a hermit, he spent much time in prayer and in the copying of books. This is evidence of manuscript production at Sinai in the sixth century. The library at the Holy Monastery of Sinai is thus the inheritor of texts and of traditions that date to the earliest years of a monastic presence in the Sinai.

It comes as no surprise that libraries played a prominent role in the life of C.S. Lewis. The three volumes of his letters include well over a hundred references to them. I offer just a small sampling to illustrate.

In 1914, Jack (at boarding school in England) wrote his father about some renovation work being done in their Northern Ireland home. He refers to the existence of two libraries. The second was the one the boys, Jack and his brother Warnie, shared.

I hope that by the time this letter reaches you, the study wall will have been replaced and the stately hall of Leeborough will smile upon guest and inhabitant with its pristine splendour and hospitality. Of course in restoring the ‘main library’ you are careful to alter the appearance of the room as little as possible. It would be a pity if I came home to a strange house. In the meantime I hope that the small library has been  allowed to remain untouched?

The next year he wrote to his father, apparently in response to an accounting of the collection in the “small library.” One wonders how his father responded to his comment about the octavo book format. After all, he was himself an educated man, a solicitor. But then, most of the legal publications with which he was acquainted would have published in such a format. [See the video* below for an explanation of book sizes.]

The state of our library at Leeborough must be perfectly appalling: how such a collection of ignorances and carelessnesses could have got together on the shelves of our room passes my comprehension. As well, where is the beautiful quarto edition? What is a quarto? I don’t believe you have the vaguest idea, and should not be surprised if the edition in question is merely an 8vo., (no, that doesn’t mean ‘in eight volumes,’ though I too thought so once.)

Meanwhile, Lewis spent considerable time in the library of his school, Malvern College. The library was not only a valued place of learning and reflection. It also served as a refuge from the bullying that was a daily reality at the boarding school. (As we know, the tormenting of vulnerable students is not restricted to schools that double as temporary homes; it seems to be endemic to educational settings for children and adolescents.)

[In a letter to his father, Lewis wrote:] The worst part of the summer term is the fact that we have to keep out of doors nearly all our time; but here one notices the great advantage of being in the Upper School, and therefore allowed to go into the Grundy Library at all hours of the day—it proves a great refuge when the ‘house’ is out of bounds.

In 1915 he chided his close friend, Arthur Greeves, about treating businesses like libraries. I offer an extended passage since it offers a rare insight into Lewis’ musical interests.

Odeon records are the most fascinating and delusive bait on the Gramaphone market. Cheap, classical, performed by good artistes, they present a jolly attractive list: but they wear out in a month.

Of course there are exceptions, and I can play you some selections from Lohengrin which I have on that make, and which have worn well. On the whole however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to get Odeon records, as a short-lived record is one of the most disappointing of things.

I foresee, by the way, that your way of getting records is like Jane McNeil’s way of getting books—that is you use a shop like a free library: whenever a record is worn out, back it goes to the shop, and you have a new one in its place.

The same year, in another letter to the same friend, Lewis displays a bit of prejudice in exactly what sort of volume belongs in a library. “Your little edition [of Faerie Queene] is very nice, but rather too small, and not enough of a library-looking book.” In the same context he later bemoans paying to have a volume professionally bound.

Never, never get a book bound. You will gather from this that ‘Tristan’ has arrived and is a complete and absolute failure. When I told them to bind it in brown leather, with corner pieces etc., I imagined that it would look something like Kelsie’s Dickens . . . Well as a matter of fact, though in a sense they have done what I told them, yet the total effect, instead of being booky and library like, is somehow exactly like a bank book or a ledger.

The following year he informs Greeves about his current reading. Due to his unhappiness at Malvern, his father had transferred him to be tutored by William Kirkpatrick. Lewis was fifteen when he moved to Gaston. His two and a half years there were intellectually stimulating, but spiritually deadening.

Talking of books—you might ask, when do I talk of anything else—I have read and finished ‘The Green Knight,’ which is absolutely top-hole: in fact the only fault I have to find with it is that it is too short—in itself a compliment. . . .

Since finishing it I have started—don’t be surprised—‘Rob Roy,’ which I suppose you have read long ago. I really don’t know how I came to open it: I was just looking for a book in the horribly scanty library of Gastons, and this caught my eye. I must admit that it was a very lucky choice, as I am now revelling in it.

Next it was off to University College at Oxford, where Lewis celebrated an amazing library. Once again, these letters were written to Greeves.

The book shops here are rather adorable, and also our college library. Still better is the Library of the Union Society (a club everyone belongs to) where I spent this morning turning over one book after another and enjoying myself hugely.

13 May 1917
So about 11.30 we arrived back at college and I am come straight thence to the Union. ‘The Union’ is a club to which nearly everyone in the varsity belongs. It has a writing room of strictest silence, where I am scribbling this, and an admirable library where I have already passed many happy hours and hope to pass many more. Oh, Galahad,⁑ you simply must come up after the war.

Lewis not only pursued focused research in the library at his college. He also explored.

I have also been spending more time than usual in the College Library, dipping here and there. Did I tell you that there was a queer little volume in Latin by Cornelius Agrippa⁂ the great magician . . ?

Unfortunately the print is so execrable and the worms have done their work so well that I cannot make much of it: but I love to have it in my hands, and think of all the wizards who have centred their hopes on it—perhaps on this very copy, for it is some 300 years old.

In 1919, Lewis visited the historic Dr. Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin. He described the memorable visit to Greeves.

We had quite a pleasant day in Dublin. I liked Warnie’s friend, who is house-surgeon in Steeven’s hospital where he has a very pleasing little set of rooms. Have you ever been in Steeven’s? There is a fine little library—despite some shocking portraits—containing some letters of Swift’s. This letter begins to read like a guide book, so I will pass on.

In 1924, Lewis’ father apparently inquired into the amount of money he was spending on books. That is a quite natural question from a parent supporting a graduate student. Jack explained:

The book bill was naturally increased by my turning to a new subject. I try to use the libraries as much as possible: but when one is reading for a particular exam there are over a hundred other people taking the same books out of the libraries–and of course there are some things one must have at command. My expenditure on books will be less in future.

 I’m confident Lewis kept his word, and cut back on his book purchases in 1925. However, true bibliophiles will ultimately find a way, even when it’s a choice between books and food. Lewis continued to build an impressive personal library in the years that followed.

A Final Thought about Our Personal Libraries

Wouldn’t you enjoy only a book that came from the personal library of someone you admire? I certainly would. C.S. Lewis did, as well. In 1953 Lewis received a copy of In Brief Authority from his fellow Inkling, Roger Lancelyn Green.

My dear Roger
Oh angel! What a lovely present, and all the more valuable for being the copy from that enchanted place your own library. I re-read it at once. It is perhaps the most complete of his books: as funny, or very nearly as funny, as Vice Versa but with a beauty which V.V. did not attempt. The ogre is somehow a very real character. Very, very many thanks.

The Wade Center at Wheaton College owns almost 400 books from C.S. Lewis’ personal library. Some are undergoing conservation treatment, but the others are available to visitors. However, “requests to view books from the Author Libraries should be placed at least 24-hours in advance.”

The essays collected in God in the Dock include a peculiar little piece, entitled “Scraps.” The article, which was originally published in 1945, describes four brief scenes. The first describes the nature of our heavenly library.

“Yes,” my friend said. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.”
“Which?” I asked.
“The ones you gave away or lent.”
“I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I.
“Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”

Reading these words renewed my enthusiasm for lending out my books. As you know, sharing one’s library is much like the biblical injunction about extending aid: “and if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? . . . do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return . . .” (Luke 6:34-35)

C.S. Lewis employs this same illustration in a 1947 letter to one of his correspondents. The context for his remark is how deeply the woman misses the house from which she had recently moved. I’m no philosopher, but Lewis’ argument for how the essential essence of a thing can last, reminds me of Plato’s conception of forms.

I think that about Houses the answer is this. Nothing rises again which has not died. The natural and possessive love for a house if it has been crucified, if it has become disinterested, if it has submitted to sacrifice, will rise again: i.e. the love for a house you were willing to give up will rise again.

The willful, grasping love will not—or only rise as a horror. About the house itself, if the love rises, then all that is necessary to bless it will, I believe, be there. It may not be very like what you would now call ‘a house:’ but you’ll see then that it was what you really meant by the house.

But the whole point is that you can keep forever only what you give up: beginning with the thing it is hardest to give up—one’s self. What you grab you lose: what you offer freely and patiently to God or your neighbour, you will have. (Your heavenly library will contain only the books you have given or lent! And the dirty thumb marks on the latter will have turned into beautiful marginal decorations—I’m joking of course, but to illustrate a serious principle.)

A love of libraries is something shared by most of us “readers.” We can only imagine with joyous anticipation the collection of biographies and stories of adventures, sacrifice, tribulation, rescue, and resurrection that await us in the New Jerusalem. And we’ve already savored a foretaste of that banquet, since the Bible itself is a library in its own right.


* This short video explains different sizes for books. For a comprehensive listing of the options, see this chart at AbeBooks.

⁑ Galahad was C.S. Lewis’ nickname for his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. It was inspired by Greeves’ “idealistic turn of mind.” (Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles)

⁂ Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) was a brilliant German who excelled in a number of fields. He served as a soldier, physician and lawyer. He even became a Professor of Theology at the University of Dôle for a time, and later lectured on theology at the University of Turin.

Most curiously, he wrote several books on the magic and the occult. If your Latin is competent, you can read some of his magical writing here. Or, you may find the first English translation more accessible.

Of potentially greater interest is a proto-feminist volume he dedicated to Margaret of Austria. Declamatio de nobilitate et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex) defended the equality of the sexes and attributed women’s inferior social status to cultural traditions, inequality in access to education, and the domination of men.

As for Agrippa’s confused bonds with the occult and Christian theology, consider this repudiation of the occult written near the end of his life.

But of magic I wrote whilst I was very young three large books, which I called Of Occult Philosophy, in which what was then through the curiosity of my youth erroneous, I now being more advised, am willing to have retracted, by this recantation; I formerly spent much time and costs in these vanities. At last I grew so wise as to be able to dissuade others from this destruction.

For whosoever do not in the truth, nor in the power of God, but in the deceits of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits presume to divine and prophesy, and practising through magical vanities, exorcisms, incantations and other demoniacal works and deceits of idolatry, boasting of delusions, and phantasms, presently ceasing, brag that they can do miracles, I say all these shall with Jannes, and Jambres, and Simon Magus, be destined to the torments of eternal fire.

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

bold cmu.png

It is sad that a lie spoken with conviction can often mislead, while truths communicated timidly are frequently overlooked or doubted.

It was 20 July 1940. C.S. Lewis wrote to his brother Warnie about his thoughts after listening to one of Hitler’s many speeches. The German Army had already occupied the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Unbeknownst to the two veterans of World War One, just four days before Lewis wrote this letter, Hitler issued Führer Directive #16, setting into motion Operation Sea Lion—initiating planning for the invasion of Britain itself.

The fact that both men recognized the malignancy* that was Adolf Hitler, makes Lewis’ candid comment which follows, all the more powerful.

Humphrey came up to see me last night (not in his medical capacity) and we listened to Hitler’s speech together. [The BBC offered a running translation.] I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people: but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little.

I should be useless as a schoolmaster or a policeman. Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me, at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly.

The same weakness is why I am a slow examiner: if a candidate with a bold, mature handwriting attributed Paradise Lost to Wordsworth, I should feel a tendency to go and look it up for fear he might be right after all.

Lewis recognized as a flaw his particular susceptibility to implicitly trusting boldly made statements.

This human vulnerability lies at the heart of the infamous declaration of another demagogue, Vladimir Lenin, that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

I suspect many of us share this inclination to trust words we hear spoken with conviction. At the same time, we are probably much less vulnerable to their manipulation than Lewis was, if for no other reason than because our modern ears have become dulled to the incessant and strident lies flooding the public forum.

A Note for Christian Writers

Skillfully treading the line between the modern deities of Pluralism and Tolerance becomes more challenging each day.

The temptation is to temper our message, to timidly whisper what we know to be true. Thus, we dilute Jesus’ clear declaration that he is the Truth (John 14:6), by adding qualifiers such as “at least, he’s the truth for me.”

Speaking boldly is not arrogant. It has been a vital quality of apostolic preaching since the beginning. Peter and John were seized for preaching the Gospel.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. . . . So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

[After their release, they prayed:] “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness . . .” (Acts 4, ESV).

Just so, we who know Christ “cannot but speak” about how he is at work in the world and in our lives.

Though our boldness is tempered by humility arising from our awareness that we have no righteousness of our own, we must still offer the truth we know, with confidence. “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7, NASB).


* There is evidence Adolf Hitler did not appreciate C.S. Lewis’ wartime service.

 

Enriching Your Writing

December 7, 2017 — 6 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).

 

rididule

C.S. Lewis seldom kept a secret his low opinion of poor writers. This wasn’t because he was a literary snob, it’s because he was a literary critic.

Actually, the breadth of Lewis’ literary tastes was extraordinary. He didn’t expect texts to be more than what they purported to be, and could even enjoy the pulp fiction of his day. Still, Lewis had an eye for pretentious and anemic writing, and he sometimes penned cutting commentary

One of his lifelong friendships began with a discussion about poor writers. More about Lewis’ friendship with Oxford Classics scholar Nan Vance Dunbar (1928-2005) in a moment.

There are some contemporary voices that argue Lewis was misogynistic. Many of these complainants are non-Christian, and eager to see Lewis’ influence diminished. The truth is he possessed a strong traditional respect for women. And, while he unapologetically enjoyed the company of men—no surprise for a longtime bachelor—he counted a number of women scholars among his close friends.

My friend Brenton Dickieson has an excellent column on the subject of women in Lewis’ life, in which he persuasively argues that Lewis “was hardly the insular, sexist, Oxford bachelor that some would make him out to be.”

Professor Dunbar was a devout Christian, of the Presbyterian persuasion (no surprise, since she was Scottish). She attended one of Lewis’ lectures in 1955, and respectfully challenged in correspondence, his interpretation of the Roman poet Statius.

Their friendship grew, although they never agreed upon the status of Statius. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes a biography of Dunbar which describes how the subject even brought her some peace when she was grieving Lewis’ death.

Lewis’s final letter to her, on 21 November 1963–possibly the last he wrote–was to arrange for a visit in December. When he died the next day, Nan was beside herself with grief.

She was consoled by the theologian, Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Professor Chadwick reminded her that she would some day die. “And when you get to Heaven,” he said, “you will be met by Lewis. He will have got there before you, and he’ll have his arm firmly around a small man in a toga, who is being dragged along to meet you. ‘All right,’ Lewis will be saying to the ancient Roman–“Tell her!! Tell her!!”’

Nan had no doubt that Lewis would be in heaven, and she roared with laughter at the thought of Statius waiting there to rebuke her. Perhaps such thoughts gave her comfort when she confronted her own death.

The two had grown quite close. “Everyone would agree that Nan Dunbar–with her erudition, her common sense, her Christian faith, her lively conversation–would have been the ideal daughter for Lewis. Indeed, years later, in his letter of 18 November 1963, he spoke of her as ‘the liveliest and learnedest of my daughters.’” (Collected Letters).

Their Discussion about Bad Writers

Diplomas are not required for people to criticize books and writers. Wherever readers gather it is possible to find discussions about favorite, and least favorite writers.

Some literary reputations are so notorious they have awards devoted to them. Each year, for example, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws thousands of entrants. Their motto is quite inviting: “Where WWW Means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’”

The event honors the great author whose opening line in 1830 also enriches every story ever begun by Charles Schulz’ canine novelist Snoopy.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)

It is unknown whether B-L’s name arose in the following conversation, but we do find references to two other “notorious” writers.

Dunbar met Lewis for the first time at a dinner in Girton College, probably on 25 January 1956. On finally meeting his critic, Lewis said: “Ah! Miss Dunbar! I’m glad to find you actually exist–I’d thought perhaps you were only the personification of my conscience!”

Lewis was charmed by this delightful Scottish woman, whose wonderful talk and Glaswegian accent made one think she had stepped out of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Dunbar remembered that over dinner she talked to Lewis about the Scottish writer William McGonagall (1825–1902), said to be the world’s worst poet, while Lewis introduced her to the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939), known as the world’s worst novelist. (Collected Letters).

If you care to read anything written by the writers Lewis and Dunbar mentioned in their dinner conversation, refer to the links below. While on its surface their repartee may appear uncharitable, it was certainly not intended to be.

After all, if our own writing brings some measure of joy and entertainment to others, most writers would welcome that. Similarly, to have one’s name associated in history with truly talented writers (even in such an unflattering manner) is by far preferable to the anonymity which is the swift destiny of all but a few.

_____

To learn more about McGonagall and Ros, you may wish to download the following free volumes: 

“He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and of bad.” (Scottish Eccentrics)

“Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn. Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.” (Irene Iddesleigh by Amanda McKittrick Ros)

 

capital key

Today’s lesson will be . . . wait a second, we don’t post “lessons” here at Mere Inkling. We hope many of our columns are thought-provoking, and it would be nice to think a moderate share of them are entertaining.

However, if there’s any learning to be done, it’s incidental.

This post, though, verges on being educational. It addresses a subject readers and writers encounter every day. A subject about which there is frequent disagreement.

The question of which words should be capitalized is a major inspiration for writing Style Guides. (Oh no, I probably shouldn’t have capitalized that genre title.)

I am not alluding here to the style guides that major companies invest big bucks in designing to present their preferred image to the world. You can see some stunning examples of those here.

I’m interested in literary style guides. If you’ve ever written for publication, you’re likely familiar with the type of single sheet guidelines magazines create for prospective writers. The last thing you want, after wetting the manuscript’s pages with sweat and tears, is to have it discarded without review because you violated some editor’s pet peeves.

A standard stylebook that was required knowledge back in my college Journalism* days is the AP Stylebook. AP, of course, stands for “Associated Press.” And, where would the world of Academia be without the Chicago Manual of Style?

An even older stylebook that continues to play an important role is The Elements of Style written by William Strunk, Jr. Modern editions are attributed to “Strunk and White,” since it was revised and enlarged in 1959 by E.B. White. (Yes, that E.B. White, who authored Charlotte’s Web and other children’s classics.)

You can download a free copy of The Elements of Style at the Internet Archives, but it might be a tad risky to rely on the style described in Strunk’s first edition, since it was penned during the First World War.

It should be noted that not everyone is quite as enamored with the book as Mr. and Mrs. William Strunk, Sr. probably were. The author of one particularly haughty essay alleges that “the book’s contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don’t apply to them.”

Christians & Capitalization

Religious writers vary in their capitalization of particular words. This variation crosses faith boundaries and is sometimes referred to as “reverential capitalization.”

The most obvious example in English literature is the question of whether or not the divine pronoun should be capitalized. This issue is encountered when a pronoun refers to God. The New American Standard Bible translation, for example, follows the traditional practice.

Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face continually. Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels and the judgments uttered by His mouth . . . (Psalm 105:4-5)

My own practice of not capitalizing divine pronouns has occasionally scandalized members of critique groups to which I have belonged.*** A very few appear incapable of recognizing it’s a grammatical consideration, rather than a spiritual one. (Sadly, this sort of reaction often presages an individual’s departure from the writing support community, even when they are precisely the type of person who could best benefit from joining in.)

It should come as no surprise to learn that C.S. Lewis capitalized divine pronouns. Typical of his writing is this profound excerpt from Weight of Glory.

I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.

Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style acknowledges that “The capitalization of pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity has been a matter of debate for many decades.” They go so far as to state that doing so can impede our ability to communicate with “modern readers.”

Because capitalizing the deity pronoun, as well as a vast number of other religious terms, was the predominant style in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing, it gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of complete irrelevance to modern readers.

Capitonyms are a subgroup of homonyms. Their meaning changes on the basis of whether or not they are capitalized. A simple example would be distinguishing between a farmer’s concern for the quality of the earth in his fields and his regard for the planet on which he resides. Speaking of the Earth, we talk about the moons circling Jupiter, but all recognize that the Moon is the satellite that orbits 1.28 light-seconds above the surface of our planet.

In some Christian traditions, certain doctrines and events are capitalized while the very same words are not capitalized in a different sense. For example, many Christians would consider the following sentence correct.

It was the Resurrection of the only begotten Son of God that prepares the way for the resurrection of all those who take up their own cross and follow him.

The obvious difference is that the first use of the word refers to the singular miraculous event that transpired on Easter, while the latter points to its generalized definition.

In my most recent post I referred to the Gospels, as a genre unique to the writings about the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth. As literary works, individually or collectively, the Gospels are capitalized, even when they do not include their full title [e.g. the Gospel According to Luke]. Most writers do not, however, capitalize gospel when used in a general sense, such as “every modern-day guru claims to possess a gospel of their own.” Just to make matters more interesting, some traditions capitalize Gospel when it refers to God’s love as embodied in the sacrificial death of Christ for the forgiveness of humanity’s sin.

One witty blogger chides the Church*** for over-capitalization.

I may just be cynical, and I’m definitely a literary snob, but it seems sometimes as though American Christians capitalize words related to Christianity just to make them seem holier.

For example, hymns and worship songs never refer to God and his mercy. It’s evidently more holy to capitalize the divine pronoun and refer to God and His mercy.

And if we capitalize mercy, which is a divine attribute, it makes the hymn or worship song even holier. I mean, God and His Mercy is clearly holier than God and his mercy, isn’t it?

So sermons are full of Grace, Goodness, Predestination, Prophecy, Agape, Apostles, Epistles, Pre-Millennialism, Mid-Millennialism, Post-Millennialism and the Millennium Falcon. All right, maybe not that last one.

Additional Insights from Lewis

One online writer offers a curious contrast between Lewis and e.e. cummings.

The writers who taught me the exponential value of capitalization: C.S Lewis and e.e. cummings. You know the rules of capitalization . . . Lewis and Cummings allow the capital letter to go deeper in its responsibility in communicating to the reader. . . .

For Lewis, capitalization often serves as a signpost of spiritual realities. He uses it to name a reality [as in The Screwtape Letters:] “We of course see the connecting link, which is Hatred.”

The most disorienting example of capitalization by Screwtape is his reference to God as the “Enemy.” It is a startling reversal of the true enemy, whose various names are commonly capitalized: Lucifer, Satan, Adversary, the Beast, Father of Lies and Evil One. Not to mention devils, which is sometimes used to refer to evil spirits (also known as demons or fallen angels), in contrast to the Devil himself who is also known by the aforementioned titles.

With so many alternatives when it comes to capitalization, the key is to follow the example of C.S. Lewis. It’s two-fold. First, have a reason why you select the option you do. Then, be consistent. Most readers readily adapt to different usages. What they can’t forgive, is inconsistency and literary chaos.

_____

* “Journalism” is capitalized here because it refers specifically to an academic college and degree program in many universities.

** The conservative Lutheran denomination to which I belong includes in its Stylebook for Authors and Editors the following guidance.

Gospel   Uppercase when referring to the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Also uppercase when referring to one of the four New Testament Gospels.

The second rule indicates that one would use lowercase to refer to pseudepigraphical or heretical gospels. However, if the entire title of the text is used—precisely because it is a text, it would be capitalized (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas).

*** My wife occasionally finds time in her hectic schedule to proofread my posts before publication. (These would be the ones that appear without mistakes.) Well, Delores kindly pointed out just now that she too is scandalized by my irreverent failure to capitalize divine pronouns. After forty years of mostly-blissful marriage you would think she might have overlooked saying that… but, then again, when they’re truly scandalized how could someone be expected to remain silent?

**** I prefer to capitalize “Church” when it refers to the whole Body of Christ, but not when it references a congregation, denomination or a building . . . unless it’s part of a formal name such as the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.

Typing is Not Writing

February 21, 2017 — 8 Comments

chimp

How is this for an absurd waste of time? A foolish man wanted “to feel what it was like to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald.” So, what did he do? Take writing classes? No, he had a better idea. He sat down at the keyboard and proceeded to type out a verbatim copy of The Great Gatsby.

Some of you may have heard this story, from the life of Hunter S. Thompson. He founded the “gonzo journalism” movement which dispenses with the pretense of objectivity. Sarcasm, humor and even profanity abound in this type of writing.

Thompson was apparently well suited to gonzoism, summarizing his life philosophy in this way: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Which is, presumably, a personal endorsement, rather than advocacy.

Apparently, typing the same words as literary icons also “worked” for Thompson. He also retyped Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to learn how to emulate his style.

I wonder what C.S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings would think of this approach to learning how to write. Lewis, of course, treasured good writing and recognized wide reading as a valuable inspiration for successful writing.

Nevertheless, if Lewis and Tolkien heard about Thompson’s exercise, I imagine they would enjoy a good laugh.

Reproducing typed facsimilies cannot be considered writing. Even an utterly illiterate person (or probably even a chimpanzee) could be trained to reproduce an original, key stroke by key stroke. (The monkey would probably benefit from a keyboard tailored to its particularly physiology.)

Emulating is Writing

When a lesser writer seeks to imitate the style of a renowned author, using their own creative skills and not plagiarizing, they are composing something original. There are several considerations to keep in mind.

Copyright restrictions may bar the work from publication. For example, it’s not yet legal for people to publish new Narnia stories.

Trademarks can also limit options for such works. Speaking of which, you don’t need to register a trademark to use TM in the United States, as we at MereInkling(TM) recently learned.

If registered with the USPTO, use the ® symbol after your mark.  If not yet registered, you may use TM for goods or SM for services, to indicate that you have adopted this as a “common law” trademark or service mark.

Works written as an homage—without any compensation or profit—is typically allowed. Thus we see innumerable variations on the Screwtape Letters. I have contributed to that mountain myself.

Basing a piece on the themes or voice of a masterpiece is altogether different from plagiarism.

There is one more critical point to make about a legitimate literary “tribute.” It can be based on the most anointed writing of the most impressive author . . . and still not be worth reading at all.

Which returns us to the typescripts reproduced by Thompson. Assuming he reproduced them faithfully, he is immune at least to the charge that the product of his typewriter is inferior to the original text.

That said, I find the two minutes I just invested in writing the following modest haiku more beneficial to my creativity than the hundreds of hours I might have spent literally copying a book I prize.

Retyping fixed words

Rather than shaping one’s own

Is a game for fools.