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Monday
Aug302010

An Experiment in Criticism

The inherent problem with evaluative criticism is that the evaluator is often a mouse and his subject just as often an elephant.  While we cannot simply have literati rank their ilk – they have, as it were, better things to do – the problem becomes magnified by the insecure critic who knows full well he is a mediocrity who could not even write a worthwhile sonnet.  From these herds most of modern literary criticism has sprung.  The postmodernist fraud who decides that he may analyze any text on his own ignorant terms is the most egregious violator, and he will rightly become the most forgotten by history.  Those who pursue very slanted agendas – especially on such topics as gender and colonialism, which can be derived from literature as diverse as cooking recipes and museum pamphlets – will not be castigated quite as severely, as their research often serves a sociological purpose and is occasionally fascinating, even if as literary criticism it remains a moribund, bitter cobweb of narrow passageways.  How are all these things distinguished?  The twentieth century's abundance of solipsistic rubbish shows us that it is the reader not the work that should be discussed.  After all, haven't we heard of soup cans as brilliant, avant-garde art?  Which brings us to this fine book.

Our author pushes an agenda that one has to admire, firstly because it is consistent and secondly because it is surely correct.  The agenda does laterally involve Lewis's Christian beliefs, and he understands and implies (without explicit condemnation) that a bad reader is as morally reprehensible as a murderer.  Who are bad readers?  Most of us, alas.  And for reasons that will become persuasively obvious, a bad reader does not like bad literature as much as let himself be carried away by his own private sentiments.  Indeed, the initial portrait of a bad reader could not really be any more accurate:

The majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading.   They turn to it as a last resource.  They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up.  It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called 'reading oneself to sleep.'  They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio.  But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention.  When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.

I include the last two sentences because I modestly admit to living and breathing them (how amusing that Lewis a half-century ago inculpates train travel, and now we have "airport novels"), but they also pave the path for the introduction of the good reader.  The good reader, we are informed, receives the work rather than projects into it.  In other words, if a bad reader may read a work by this master of plots and imagine himself and some loved ones as the cast, a good reader will understand that while wholesome entertainment, Dickson Carr is best left with the fondest memories of adolescence on a dusty shelf (I devoured all his works during my fifteenth summer and remember them with great joy).  Bad readers are drawn to the feelings that works – any works, from masterpieces to pulp – evoke within them, hence those of a prurient bent seeing sex in every fold and phrase, and others who hate inequality noting, and quite rightly that, with the possible exception of some wordless extras, in the history of literature no two characters in the same work have ever been truly equal.  That is enough, in the eyes of many, to see injustice at every retort and more and crueler injustice at every assent.

Extended to myth and realism, these reasonable conclusions do just as well.  Myth has been debased to the point of meaninglessness, so we are all the more delighted to see Lewis give it the brief yet succulent definition it merits:

The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise.  Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable .... [What is more] human sympathy is at a minimum.  We do not project ourselves at all strongly into the characters.  They are like shapes moving in another world.  We feel indeed that the pattern of their movements has a profound relevance to our own life, but we do not imaginatively transport ourselves into theirs.  The story of Orpheus makes us sad; but we are sad for all men rather than vividly sympathetic with him, as we are say, with Chaucer's Troilus ... Myth is always, in one sense of the word, 'fantastic.'  It deals with impossibles and preternaturals ... The experience may be sad or joyful but it is always grave.  Comic myth ... is impossible ... The experience is not only grave but awe-inspiring.  We feel it to be numinous.  It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to us.  The recurrent efforts of the mind to grasp we mean, chiefly, to conceptualize this something are seen in the persistent tendency of humanity to provide myths with allegorical explanations.  And after all allegories have been tried, the myth itself continues to feel more important than they.

Despite my minor omissions (mostly owing to Lewis's numerated layout), this is most likely the finest summation of myth's significance in the English language.  I had always thought this unforgettable film a modern myth, and it just so happens to meet all the criteria mentioned above: it is solemn, inevitable, and all-powerful, the dénouement and twists so perfect as to seem less like fiction and more like destiny.  But isn't myth rather the playing field of children, with their fairy tales and intuitive sense of omnipotence?  When we close our eyes and lay back our heads in repose, dreaming of kingdoms and princesses, are we not pandering to our most puerile instincts?  We are only if our aim is to return to the hearths of our childhood in search of comfort (unfortunately, such memories should be enjoyed outside the study of serious literature).  If we wish, however, to recapture the wonder with which such tales once afflicted us, then we have every right to think of the fairy tale as a realism:

The process of growing-up is to be valued for what we gain, not what we lose.  Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than losing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes.  Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility?

Not that we should all be deemed senile in the strict sense of the term (perhaps Lewis should have used "senescence"), but the matter is elucidated by the dichotomy of good and bad readers that our author prefers to judgments on the works themselves.  The irony being that anyone with his senses about him would not comment on An Experiment in Criticism but just desire its viability deep within his heart – and I have made enough confessions for one entry.    

Lewis, like this even greater writer, found his truth around the beginning of his fourth decade and utilized this truth to discover all other truths.  As a theologian, he made his points even if they were not always shod in the leather of prior workmen; but as an essayist and artist, he was undoubtedly a magnificent being.  Yet one must disagree, and vehemently, about Lewis's willingness to receive texts whose points of view he finds abominable.  We should not be willing to do so, nor indeed should we expect from them the slightest elucidation.  But we should also not rummage for affirmations of our own opinions as confronted by their opposites, because this is the easiest of all reading-related tasks.  The good reader, if we wish to continue with such terminology, will have very staunch values that will develop with the absorption of good writers; bad writers will show him nothing apart from the global preponderance and even thronging majority of mediocre authors.  His other claim that the denigrated of one generation may become the extolled of the next also must be repudiated.  A careless student of literature will wonder out loud as to why there are so few good works published today and so many good ones in the past.  What he may not realize is that there has always been a greedy market for the vile pulp and mindless romances that invade most bookstore shelves, but they have fallen into well-deserved oblivion (only to be replaced, I might add, with updated versions).  Curiously enough, and Lewis does not discuss this phenomenon, modern pictorial art and music have indeed gone the way of the trash heap, and no one really bothers to ask himself why.  I suspect the culprit is democratization taken to the unpleasant extreme of an equalization of tastes.  But then again, I am not looking over any other reader's shoulder. 

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