altAn Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1961)

This book was not written for me; the author himself said so: I am writing about literary practice and experience from within, for I claim to be a literary person myself and I address other literary people. (p. 130)

I am a literate person. I read, and what's more I write, but any of my English teachers could assure you that I've never been a literary person. I've always loved reading books, but loathed analyzing them—at least in the way English teachers require. And most of the examples Lewis discusses here go 'way over my head.

Nonetheless, I found this to be a valuable book, largely because I don't think Lewis could discuss buttered toast without touching on interesting subjects.

The first time I read An Experiment in Criticism (unfathomable years ago), I marked interesting passages with blue highlighting. (That's how I know it was a very long time ago; it has been decades since I gave up desecrating the pages of a book with anything but light pencil.) This time I used my now-traditional sticky notes. They are far fewer, not because the highlighted passages are no longer interesting to me, but because I didn't want to type them up for the review. But I present a few:

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (p. 19)

Without some degree of realism in content—a degree proportional to the reader's intelligence—no deception will occur at all. No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women's magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the KalevalaBeowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious "comment on life." For some at least of such comments must be false. To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author's point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (which is harder) his belief. (pp. 67-68)

The danger of realistic fiction deserves a post of its own; I believe it has profound implications for our mass-media-drenched society. Let's just say I'm feeling better about female cops who manage to run down bad guys while wearing heels, and computer specialists who can hack into the Pentagon faster than my computer can boot.

We must not be deceived by the contemporary practice of sorting books out according to the "age-groups" for which they are supposed to be appropriate. That work is done by people who are not very curious about the real nature of literature nor very well acquainted with its history. It is a rough rule of thumb for the convenience of schoolteachers, librarians, and the publicity departments in publishers' offices. Even as such it is very fallible. Instances that contradict it (in both directions) occur daily. (p. 71)

When my pupils have talked to me about Tragedy (they have talked much less often uncompelled, about tragedies), I have sometimes discovered a belief that it is valuable, is worth witnessing or reading, chiefly because it communicates something called the tragic "view" or "sense" or "philosophy" of "life." This content is variously described, but in the most widely diffused version it seems to consist of two propositions: (1) That great miseries result from a flaw in the principle sufferer. (2) That these miseries, pushed to the extreme, reveal to us a certain splendour in man, or even in the universe. Though the anguish is great, it is at least not sordid, meaningless, or merely depressing.

No one denies that miseries with such a cause and such a close can occur in real life. But if tragedy is taken as a comment on life in the sense that we are meant to conclude from it "This is the typical or usual, or ultimate, form of human misery," then tragedy becomes wishful moonshine. Flaws in character do cause suffering; but bombs and bayonets, cancer and polio, dictators and roadhogs, fluctuations in the value of money or in employment, and mere meaningless coincidence, cause a great deal more. Tribulation falls on the integrated and well adjusted and prudent as readily as on anyone else. Nor do real miseries often end with a curtain and a roll of drums "in calm of mind, all passion spent." The dying seldom make magnificent last speeches. And we who watch them die do not, I think, behave very like the minor characters in a tragic death-scene. For unfortunately the play is not over. We have no exeunt omnes. The real story does not end: it proceeds to ringing up undertakers, paying bills, getting death certificates, finding and proving a will, answering letters of condolence. There is no grandeur and no finality. Real sorrow ends neither with a bang nor a whimper. Sometimes, after a spiritual journey like Dante’s, down to the centre and then, terrace by terrace, up the mountain of accepted pain, it may rise into peace—but a peace hardly less severe than itself. Sometimes it remains for life, a puddle in the mind which grows always wider, shallower, and more unwholesome. Sometimes it just peters out, as other moods do. One of these alternatives has grandeur, but not tragic grandeur. The other two—ugly, slow, bathetic, unimpressive—would be of no use at all to a dramatist. The tragedian dare not present the totality of suffering as it usually is in its uncouth mixture of agony with littleness, all the indignities and (save for pity) the uninterestingness, of grief. It would ruin his play. It would be merely dull and depressing. He selects from the reality just what his art needs; and what it needs is the exceptional. Conversely, to approach anyone in real sorrow with these ideas about tragic grandeur ... would be worse than imbecile: it would be odious. (pp 77-79)

As I have said, more than once:  Romantic tragedy makes great opera, but a lousy life. And the point about the artist extracting only the exceptional from reality because that's what his art needs? C. S. Lewis, prophet of the evening news!

In good reading there ought to be no "problem of belief." I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either. A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates. (p. 86)

No poem will give up its secret to a reader who enters it regarding the poet as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken in. We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything. The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone. (p. 94, emphasis mine)

At some schools children are taught to write out poetry they have learned for repetition not according to the lines but in "speech-groups." The purpose is to cure them of what is called "sing-song." This seems a very short-sighted policy. If these children are going to be lovers of poetry when they grow up, sing-song will cure itself in due time, and if they are not it doesn't matter. In childhood sing-song is not a defect. It is simply the first form of rhythmical sensibility; crude itself, but a good symptom not a bad one. This metronomic regularity, this sway of the whole body to the metre simply as metre, is the basis which makes possible all later variations and subtleties. For there are no variations except for those who know a norm, and no subtleties for those who have not grasped the obvious. Again, it is possible that those who are now young have met vers libre too early in life. When this is real poetry, its aural effects are of extreme delicacy and demand for their appreciation an ear long trained on metrical poetry. Those who think they can receive vers libre without a metrical training are, I submit, deceiving themselves; trying to run before they can walk. (p. 103)

If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him. (p. 124)

To take a man up very sharp, to demand sternly that he shall explain himself, to dodge to and fro with your questions, to pounce on every apparent inconsistency, may be a good way of exposing a false witness or a malingerer. Unfortunately, it is also the way of making sure that if a shy or tongue-tied man has a true and difficult tale to tell you will never learn it. (p. 128, emphasis mine)

None of these quotations gives you a proper feel for the book, which is about good and bad ways of reading, and judging a book by the kind of reading it invites. Lewis's ideas are interesting and often compelling, but what I really wish is that somebody better than I would take these ideas and apply them to recent generations, who have by and large given up reading of any sort in favor of other media.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 21, 2020 at 8:44 am | Edit
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