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?
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).