Archives For Writing

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.

yeats and lewis.jpg

Among Irish writers who left large imprints on literature, there were a peculiar pair who failed to impress one another when twice their paths crossed. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) met in Oxford, and both found their encounters less than inspiring.

Obviously, when the two of them met, Yeats was an internationally renowned pillar of poetry, and Lewis was a young man with a trifling reputation. Oddly enough, they were introduced by an American poet.

[Editorial Note: This is a longer post than most, but it is a fascinating subject that demands more comprehensive discussion.]

William Force Stead (1884-1967) had served in the United States Consular Service. Upon being posted to the United Kingdom, he studied at Queen’s College in Oxford, and was ordained a priest in the Church of England.

His religious life must have been curious, since he apparently explored some of the spiritualism common to that era. However, his ordination did allow for his employment in a convenient position. While Chaplain of Worcester College in Oxford, he baptized T.S. Eliot, who had become his friend.

He left the position when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. (Apparently it was a bit of a scandal.) At the outset of the Second World War, he returned to the United States where he pursued an academic life. One of his poems, “Sweet Wild April,” can be read in the supplemental notes below.

The Relationship Between Lewis and Stead

In his diary of his early life, published as All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a visit to his home made by Stead.

Sunday 8 July: After lunch I lay on the lawn reading Boswell while Harwood and Maureen played duets to their great satisfaction. Just before tea I had gone into the house when I saw someone at the hall door and opening it found Stead.

I talked to him in the drawing room for a few minutes and then brought him out and introduced him to Harwood and disappeared to get tea. He talked philosophy to Harwood and I threw in impertinent interruptions whenever I came out to put a cup or a cake on the table. . . .

Stead, fresh back from Venice and Rome, gave as his verdict that “Italy was a pleasant surprise to him. He had always imagined the Italians a degenerate people but found that they were really quite go ahead and up to date.”

They were also more patriotic than the English, for they were always waving flags and went mad over the name of Italy whereas “he had never found that Englishmen showed any great enthusiasm over the mention of England.” They and their landscape were, he said, hardy and vigorous whereas one always felt the softness of England.

Lewis’ next sentence expresses in eleven words an entire volume. It is followed by fascinating observations about the Italian fascism of the early twenties.

Stead is an American and has not been to the war. We also talked of Fascismo. We were all inclined to favour it except Harwood who said it was only a more successful version of the Ku Klux Klan and that Mussolini had the face of a villain.

Asked if he believed in Fascist atrocities, Stead said that they committed atrocities only when they were deserved.

Stead’s Introduction of Lewis to Yeats

Stead apparently possessed the type of personality that resonated with Yeats, who was captive to various Hermetic and Rosicrucian mythologies. Yeats must also have appreciated Stead’s poetry, since he included two of his poems in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1892-1935).

Stead was modest about his ability to contribute to the conversation as it was guided by the elder authority. With some frequency, he was invited to dine with Yeats and his wife (although it does not appear that his own wife accompanied him). Here is his description of the normal pattern for such evenings.

[It was] an easy and intimate little party, but I was often puzzled in the hours that followed when we retired to his study: Yeats, who mistook me for a philosopher and a man of learning, went voyaging off into regions with which I was wholly unfamiliar.

He was then reading the Catholic theologian, Baron von Hugel—and here I could offer a few comments; he was already interested in Byzantium, and I had a little knowledge of the Eastern Empire. But his range of interest–tho’ he was not a man of learning–went far beyond my boundaries. For instance, he would open a volume on Art, Apollo by Reinach, and ask me to compare the facial expressions in Greek and Roman sculpture, as representing the contrast between the subjective or instinctive life and the objective or rational life.

This led to a discussion of the difference between the Greek and Roman civilizations, and to subjective and objective periods during the Christian era.
Here I was invited to follow his involved system of intersecting cones, as the objective age or civilization was moving up into the subjective, and the subjective age or civilization was moving down into the objective.

These again were symbolised by the dark of the moon as the objective, and the light or full moon as the subjective, and the transition as the gradual rounding out of the dark into the light, and vice versa.

I was often quite lost, and even the poet himself, to whom this reading of character and history had come as a revelation—partly thro’ his wife, who had pronounced psychic powers—even the poet would pause at times, drop his glasses, dangle them at the end of their ribbon, look round and say: “It is all very difficult.”

Stead offers a suggestion as to why his company may have been valued by the famous poet.

I must have been useless as a source of information and ideas, but Yeats was lonely and felt rather neglected in Oxford; his was not the academic type of mind, and learned ladies bored him by asking, “Mr. Yeats, what is your subject?” as though he were a don, with some narrow field of research.

He soon adopted a blunt reply—“Astrology,” and that floored them. As a matter of fact, it was one of his many interests in occultism. . . .

Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief. He craved the supernatural. It was the only air he could live and breathe in.  (“Oxford Poets” by David Bradshaw in Yeats’s Mask)

Lewis’ Introduction to Yeats

Lewis could hardly believe his good fortune when his acquaintance invited him to meet Yeats. However, it was the poet’s peculiarities, rather than his talents, that left the deepest impression.

In a lengthy letter to his brother Warren, Lewis describes in detail these events. He begins with the receipt of the invitation, and includes a humorously critical evaluation of Stead’s poetry.

I received this morning a letter from my obliging friend Stead. Stead is rather a punt: I think you saw me stop to speak to him one day in the Corn. 36 He is an undergraduate but also curate of a parish in Oxford. He writes poetry. The annoying thing is that it’s exactly like mine, only like the bad parts of mine: this was my own original opinion and it has been confirmed by others. Perhaps you can imagine the sensation I experienced in reading it.

Stead’s letter was to say that he had mentioned to Yeats–whom he knows–“my double claim to distinction as an Irishman and a poet” and would I come along this evening and see him?

The letter continues with a description of the evening.

I accordingly repaired after dinner to Stead’s lodging in Canterbury Street. He is a married man: his wife is an American: she is the sister of a woman who is married to a brother of Mrs Moore’s.

She was a woman of implacable sullenness who refused even to say good evening to me: beside her at the fire sat an American gentleman who was apparently left to console her for the absence of her husband.

This was a very amiable person: he was ‘studyin’ when I entered, but politely laid his book down. You know the sort of face in which a long promontory of nose (eagle build) projects from between two rounded hills of cheek (cherub build)? Picture this surmounted by a pair of horn spectacles and made of a texture rather like cod’s roe: then add that this face beams but can contribute to the crack only by saying ‘That’s right’ at the end of everyone’s remark.

In these rather nasty surroundings Stead was finishing a very nasty meal of cold fish and cocoa: but he soon put on his coat and after asking his lady why there were no stamps in the house and receiving no answer, swung out with me into the usual Oxford theatrical night. Trusting soul to leave his wife unguarded in such society!

Yeats lives at the end of Broad St, the first house on your right as you leave the town. I can assure you I felt a veritable Bozzy as I reflected that I was now to meet at last WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS! But enough of that.

We were shown up a long stairway lined with rather wicked pictures by Blake–all devils and monsters–and finally into the presence chamber, lit by tall candles, with orange coloured curtains and full of things which I can’t describe because I don’t know their names.

The poet was very big, about sixty years of age: “awful” as Bozzy says: grey haired, clean shaven. When he first began to speak I would have thought him French, but the Irish sounds through after a time.

Before the fire was a circle of hard antique chairs. Present were the poet’s wife, a little man who never spoke all evening, and Father Martindale. Father M. is a Catholic Priest, a little twinkling man like a bird, or like Puck, whom I take to be an atheistical dog. I used to go to his lectures in the old days: he is a mocker.

Everyone got up as we came in: after the formalities I was humbly preparing to sink into the outlying chair leaving the more honourable to Stead, but the poet sternly and silently motioned us into other ones. The meaning of this I have not fathomed: ’twas very Pumble-chookian.

Then the talk began. It was all of magic and cabbalism and “the Hermetic knowledge.” The great man talked while the priest and Mrs Yeats fed him with judicious questions.

The matter I admit was either mediaeval or modern, but the manner was so XVIII Century that I lost my morale.

I understood how it is possible for a man to terrify a room into silence: and I had a ghastly presentment that something would presently impel me to up like that “unknown curate” and say “Were not Vale Owen’s revelations, Sir, addressed to the passions?”

And then as Max Beerbohm says “Bang” the suddenness of it! However I remembered that Johnson WAS really dead and controlled myself. Indeed some good angel guided me: for presently I really had something to say–a case mentioned by Coleridge which was most apposite and indeed crying for quotation on something just said.

But thank God I didn’t: for a minute later the priest did. YEATS (thumping his chair): “Yes–yes–the old woman in Coleridge. That story was published by Coleridge without the slightest evidence. Andrew Lang exposed it. I’ve never had a conversation on the subject that SOMEONE didn’t bring in Coleridge’s old woman. It is anonymous in the first place and every one has taken it over without question. It just shows that there’s no limit to the unscrupulousness that a sceptical man will go to–”

MARTINDALE: “Oh surely Mr Yeats–”

YEATS: “Yes! There is a Professor living in Oxford at this moment who is the greatest sceptic in print. The same man has told me that he entered a laboratory where X (some woman whose name I didn’t catch) was doing experiments: saw the table floating near the ceiling with X sitting on it: vomited: gave orders that no further experiments were to be done in the laboratories–and refused to let the story be known.”

But it would be only ridiculous to record it all: I should give you the insanity of the man without his eloquence and presence, which are very great. I could never have believed that he was so exactly like his own poetry.

One more joke must be recorded. Stead presently told us a dream he had had: it was so good that I thought it a lie. YEATS (looking to his wife): “Have you anything to say about that, Georgie?” Apparently Stead’s transcendental self, not important enough for the poet, has been committed to Mrs Yeats as a kind of ersatz or secondary magician.

Finally we are given sherry or vermouth in long and curiously shaped glasses, except Martindale who has whiskey out of an even longer and more curiously shaped glass, and the orgy is at an end.

Try to mix Pumblechook, the lunatic we met at the Mitre, Dr Johnson, the most eloquent drunk Irishman you know, and Yeats’s own poetry, all up into one composite figure, and you will have the best impression I can give you.

A week later Lewis records, in the same missive, a description of their encore gathering.

Having met Stead yesterday in the Broad with his wife and of course with our friend of the nose, I was told that the great man had expressed himself sorry not to have been able to see more of me owing to his argument with the priest, and would I come again with Stead [the] next night?

This night we were shown to a study up in the ceiling and entertained by him alone: and, would you believe it, he was almost quite sane, and talked about books and things, still eloquently and quite intelligently? Of course we got on to magic in the end—that was only to be expected.

It was really my fault, for I mentioned Bergson. “Ah yes,” said he, “Bergson. It was his sister who taught me magic.” The effect of this statement on Aunt Suffern (already in paroxysms of contempt over what I had already told her about Yeats) ought to be amusing.

We spoke of Andrew Lang. YEATS: “I met him once—at a dinner somewhere. He never said a word. When we began to talk afterwards, he just got up and took his chair into a corner of the room and sat down facing the wall. He stayed there all the evening.” Perhaps Lang didn’t like wizards!

Of the “great Victorians” he said: “The most interesting thing about the Victorian period was their penchant for selecting one typical great man in each department—Tennyson, THE poet, Roberts, THE soldier: and then these types were made into myths. You never heard of anyone else: if you spoke of medicine it meant—(some ‘THE Doctor’ whose name I’ve forgotten): if you spoke of politics it was Gladstone.” This is especially interesting to us as explaining the mental growth of a certain bird we wot of. (“Well all said and done boys, he was a GREAT man.”)

So home to bed more pleased with our poet than I had been on the last occasion: and rather thankful that L’Oiseau Pomme de Terre hadn’t been there to explain that “you can see he’s a disappointed man” after every adverse criticism on any living writer. Oh, before I leave it, Stead told me he had shown Yeats a poem: Yeats said he thought “IT WOULD DO VERY WELL” to set to music! Stead thinks this is a compliment. H’mh!

A moment ago we heard Stead’s appraisal of Yeats, which ended with a declaration of his interest in the supernatural. Stead said “Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief.” Well, that is not quite true. As the passage continues, he reveals Yeats’ discomfort with those who might challenge his affinity for occultic phenomena.

Once when I had brought an undergraduate with me, Yeats gave us a long discourse on re-incarnation. At the end my young friend ventured to observe that the theory of re-incarnation “bristles with difficulties.”

Yeats passed it off in sullen silence, but several times later on referred indignantly to “that young man who said re-incarnation bristles with difficulties.” (“Oxford Poets”)

The young man who dared suggest to Yeats that reincarnation was a flawed philosophy was none other than C.S. Lewis.

It is little surprise that the relationship between the two Irish poets never grew close.


Below you will find poems written by Lewis’ acquaintances mentioned in this column. The first is by Stead, and reflects a truly carefree spirit. The second is one of Yeats’ most famous works, penned in the aftermath of WWI.

Sweet Wild April

O sweet wild April
Came over the hills,
He skipped with the winds
And he tripped with the rills;
His raiment was all
Of the daffodils.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April
Came down the lea,
Dancing along
With his sisters three:
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
On pastoral quill
Came piping in moonlight
By hollow and hill,
In starlight at midnight,
By dingle and rill.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

Where sweet wild April
His melody played,
Trooped cowslip, and primrose,
And iris, the maid,
And silver narcissus,
A star in the shade.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

When sweet wild April
Dipped down the dale,
Pale cuckoopint brightened,
And windflower trail,
And white-thorn, the wood-bride,
In virginal veil.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

When sweet wild April
Through deep woods pressed,
Sang cuckoo above him,
And lark on his crest,
And Philomel fluttered
Close under his breast.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
Wherever you went
The bondage of winter
Was broken and rent,
Sank elfin ice-city
And frost-goblin’s tent.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

Yet sweet wild April,
The blithe, the brave,
Fell asleep in the fields
By a windless wave
And Jack-in-the-Pulpit
Preached over his grave.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
Farewell to thee!
And a deep sweet sleep
To thy sisters three, –
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

editors wants

The goal of most writers is to become published writers. In his diary, C.S. Lewis describes a rather peculiar route to publication followed by one of his acquaintances at Oxford.

During his prolific career, Lewis dealt with many different editors. Some experiences were positive, while others were less so.

In the diary entry which follows, Lewis expresses his befuddlement at the criteria some editors use to make their decisions.

“Stead” was William Stead, an American poet who came to England as a diplomat, became an Anglican priest, baptized T.S. Eliot, and returned to the States prior to WWII. Stead also introduced Lewis to W.B. Yeats, a curious encounter I will be writing about quite soon.

Wednesday 5 April: Started revising Greek History today. At first I found my notes etc. in great confusion, but when that was straightened out I worked with more interest and pleasure than I had expected. . . .

I also got the two poems (typed v. accurately for I/-)* and saw Stead in order to get the address of the London Mercury.

He told me with a solemn face and admirable naivety how he had got his accepted. Two or three were sent back by return post, whereupon he went up to London and called on the Editor, saying, “Look here Mr Squire, you haven’t taken these poems of mine and I want to know what’s wrong with them!!”

If the story ended there, it would be merely a side light on Stead, but the joke is that Squire said, “I’m glad you’ve come to talk it over: that’s just what I want people to do” and actually accepted what he’d formerly refused. Truly the ways of editors are past finding out! (All My Road Before Me)

Anyone who has submitted their work for publication consideration can relate to Lewis’ incredulity. Long ago I resigned myself to their arbitrariness and irrationality. They are, after all, simply human beings, and as such, inescapably subjective.

While we could all agree on circular filing** submissions filled with typos or misspellings, they sometimes reject what is excellent and embrace what is maudlin. The stories of best sellers that were repeatedly rejected are common.

It’s true that some publications have pretty exhaustive stylebooks, but when it comes to the content of what they publish, it frequently appears to be based on momentary whim.

After many years of writing, and a handful of years as an editor myself, I have come to believe the decisions are purely subjective. Subjective and arbitrary, depending on the mood, time of day, weather, status of family relations and digestion of the editor.

A Postscript on C.S. Lewis and Stead

After the diary excerpt cited above, Lewis continues with a bit more about the brash American.

Stead gave me the proof of his new book, The Sweet Miracle, wh. I took away. So far it seems rather dull. Worked for the rest of the day, except for a nightcap of Repington.

If you would like to assess for yourself the “dullness” of Stead’s poetry, you can download a copy of The Sweet Miracle and Other Poems via Hathitrust.

The book Lewis refers to as his “nightcap” was a history of the First World War, in which he had personally served. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington, a war correspondent. Both volumes are available for your bedtime reading (volume one, volume two).


* “Typed very accurately for one pound.”

** Also referred to as the “round file.”

 

 

 

 

self-impressed

Most writers are saturated with humility, especially those who actively submit their work and courageously collect rejections. Accepting this lack of reinforcement as an inevitable aspect of the writing life, they reveal a maturity that is literarily unpretentious.

On the other hand, there are some who publicly tout the most modest of accomplishments as great feats. By their own account, you would think it’s merely a matter of time before they’re polishing their Pulitzer or Nobel Prize in Literature.

The following notes on humility are for the benefit of the latter category of authors.

C.S. Lewis was a scholar abundantly acquainted with literary pride. He was also a Christian saint (in that biblical sense wherein it applies to all who place their faith in Jesus). As a disciple of Christ, Lewis recognized pride is toxic.

He wrote much about the subjects of pride and humility. Among his wisdom on the subject, is the observation that we must not allow our circumstances to shape our character in negative ways. In “Williams and the Arthuriad,” he illustrates this by discussing different sorts of roles in a play. His comment about “false modesty” is particularly astute.

What but to thank God for the “excellent absurdity” which enables us, if it so happen, to play great parts without pride and little ones without dejection, rejecting nothing through that false modesty which is only another form of pride, and never, when we occupy for a moment the centre of the stage, forgetting that the play would have gone off just as well without us . . .

Lewis also offers an antidote to pride. One that well suits the title of this column. “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” (Mere Christianity)

A 500 Year Old Prescription

Nearly a half millennia ago, Martin Luther reluctantly allowed his writings to be gathered together into a collection, for which he wrote a preface. It was that introduction I recently encountered.

He elaborates on the proper way to study theology, based on principles in Psalm 119. After reminding readers that we must possess humility to submit ourselves to God’s word, he tacks on a vivid warning. It is quintessential Luther.

These words apply not only to theologians, or even to those addressing “religious” subjects. They should be of interest to all who consider themselves writers.

If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.

Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.”

That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels.

To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [I Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.

Thank you, Doctor Luther, for the warning to periodically check my ears. And thank you as well, Doctor Lewis, for your inspirational modeling of humility.

An Important Exception

While humility remains important, in unbalanced doses it can make individuals vulnerable. The story of Puzzle the donkey in The Last Battle illustrates this fact well.

There were very few Talking Beasts or Men or Dwarfs, or people of any sort, in that part of the wood, but Shift had one friend and neighbor who was a donkey called Puzzle.

At least they both said they were friends, but from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend. He did all the work.

When they went together to the river, Shift filled the big skin bottles with water but it was Puzzle who carried them back. When they wanted anything from the towns further down the river it was Puzzle who went down with empty panniers on his back and came back with the panniers full and heavy.

And all the nicest things that Puzzle brought back were eaten by Shift; for as Shift said, “You see, Puzzle, I can’t eat grass and thistles like you, so it’s only fair I should make it up in other ways.”

And Puzzle always said, “Of course, Shift, of course. I see that.” Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all.

And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now, Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.”

And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.

Fortunately, Puzzle’s simple humility is ultimately vindicated. Even while he is the instrument of a terrible hoax, his guileless trust in Aslan preserves his innocence. It is a powerful story, worth reading even if you have never touched the Chronicles of Narnia.

In the same way, God watches over his children who are humble. He becomes our champion and delivers us from those who would do us harm. Blessed indeed, are the meek.

Travel Pictures Ltd

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.

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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)

 

robot.png

No robots were involved in the writing of this column.

That’s not to say that robots aren’t writing a considerable amount of what you might come across today on the internet.

A recent article, entitled “Robots Wrote this Story,” describes how “in 2013, AI-powered journalism was in its infancy . . . [but today it] identifies the relevant data, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions across different platforms.”

The various artificial intelligences writing the news for us have interesting names. Among them are Wibbitz (USA Today), News Tracer (Reuters), Buzzbot (open source), and Heliograf (Washington Post). Rumors are that Skynet may be on the horizon.

A Washington Post reporter optimistically says, “We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings. But this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.”

So far.

Lewis certainly wasn’t overly impressed by the robot in a classic science fiction film released in 1956.

Before leaving home [for a trip to Northern Ireland] I saw the film of The Forbidden Planet, a post-civilisation version of the Tempest with a Robot for Caliban . . . The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most.*

Count me as a member of C.S. Lewis’ camp. He possessed little to no fear of robots. He was far more suspicious about a future shaped by the devotees of scientism.

Scientism is that warped theory that, in the words of one Professor of Biological Sciences, surrenders to the “temptation to overreach.”

When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived.

But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable. (Emphasis added.)

Scientism, not robotics, is clearly the danger. However . . . what if the disciples of scientism intend to use robots to further their misanthropic plans?

I suspect taking over our news sources may only be the first stage of the robot blueprint for humanity’s future ruin.

Where are we prepared to draw the line in terms of robots displacing humanity. Apparently, not even in the realm of spiritual matters and worship. I have previously written about a curious, presumably docile, robot. It is, in fact, a Buddhist monk, and presumably a moderately successful evangelist.

A Greater Danger

A futuristic threat that once fell in the domain of science fiction has become science fact. Scientific American has reported that “some of the brightest minds in science and tech think we need a plan to keep humans safe from supersmart machines.”

C.S. Lewis identified a much more ominous alternative than robots seeking to lord it over humans. Lewis worried about the danger of human beings devolving into robots. Well, not robots per se, but beings who have suppressed the qualities that make us who we are, and forfeited our humanity.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures describe an event that must have stunned the angels in heaven. God deigned to create humanity, men and women, in his own image.

It is precisely when we choose to disobey God’s leading, and further distort that divine image, that we become less human.

When I was a child, I wondered why God would create people capable of disobedience. Not only capable but, as the Lord knew in his omniscience, beings who would disobey him. To a more mature mind, the answer seems obvious. No automaton, guided by its programming, can truly love. Lewis explores this dilemma in Mere Christianity.

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot.

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.

A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.

The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. . . .

If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.

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* The Forbidden Planet received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. It is also received the honor of being selected to be preserved for posterity by America’s National Film Preservation Board.

Along with its literary influence, highly influential special effects and visual style, the film also pushed the boundaries of cinematic science fiction. For the first time, all action happened intergalatically (not on Earth) and humans are depicted as space travelers, regularly jetting off to the far reaches of the cosmos. Additionally, Forbidden Planet is remembered for its innovative score—or lack thereof. No music exists on the film’s soundtrack; instead, all ambient sounds are “electronic tonalities.”

forbidden planet.jpg