Fire all Canons

by Circle or Line

A Christian literary critic has said:

Among stamp collectors, letter-writers are not always welcome. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.

Now, blogging is more like scrap-booking than writing, but, in more detailed fashion here, I have a confession to make. I am a heretic. I do not believe in C.S. Lewis.

Another confession: I have not read the Narnia books. I saw the first movie and the effect was like being drowned by having my head shoved into a bucket of syrup. I am somehow suspicious that the fiction may have dated about as well as George MacDonald’s.

This hyperglycemic shock however is replaced with something a little more subtle when I read his “apologetic” works. Or rather something that used to be subtle, like a seed, but which grew into a full blooming revulsion.

First, C.S. Lewis is smug. He is the smuggiest smug that ever smugged a smug. I recently tried to read The Screwtape Letters for the third time. This time I made it about thirty pages before I shrieked. Take this for example:

Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious. You must bring him to a condition in which he can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office.

I mean, sorry, but if you can make it through that kind of sanctimony without trying to crawl out of your skin well then – you must be English.

Second – everyone talks like he’s this awesome apologist, right? Well, no. Not so much.

On 2nd February 1948, Elizabeth Anscombe read a paper criticising the third chapter of C.S Lewis’s Miracles to the Oxford Socratic Club. Anscombe was a student of Wittgenstein, a student of philosophy but also a convert to Catholicism. At the Socratic Club debate, she argued against Lewis’s position: she was not attacking his faith, but the philosophical validity of his argument. Lewis must have accepted the criticisms, since he later rewrote the chapter: changing the title from “Naturalism is Self-Refuting” to the less ambitious “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism.”

According to George Sayer, Lewis’s friend and biographer, Lewis regarded the debate as a defeat, and felt humiliated by it:

“He told me that he had been proved wrong, and that his argument for the existence of God had been demolished. …The debate had been a humiliating experience, but perhaps it was ultimately good for him. In the past, he had been too proud of his logical ability. Now he was humbled ….’I can never write another book of that sort’ he said to me of Miracles. And he never did. He also never wrote another theological book. Reflections on the Psalms is really devotional and literary; Letters to Malcolm is also a devotional book, a series of reflections on prayer, without contentious arguments.”

Derek Brewer goes even further, saying that Lewis recalled the meeting “with real horror” was “deeply disturbed by it” and described it in terms of “the retreat of infantry thrown back under heavy attack.”

To understand this myself, as an amateur toe-dipper in such matters, is not difficult. Take Lewis’ famous trilemma in Mere Christianity:

I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse … I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

Is it necessary to enumerate the Christian scholars who have shredded this, or even point out that these are not the only three logical alternatives?

Now why is it necessary to do all this vulgar dancing on poor Professor Lewis’ grave? It can’t be denied that Lewis is both an encouraging and friendly read for those to whom he is suited. I don’t think my reaction is a Catholic thing. And I’ll tell you why. Couple of reasons. First, the kids are not alright, but they’re not dumb either, despite what you may have been told:

i loathe CS Lewis. The only book i have ever hurled across the room was Lewis’ disgusting Mere Christianity; as Longsword at the now defunct Dark Age blog called it, “Christianity for Dummies”. The insufferably smug and self-satisfied “now, are we all sitting comfortably?” tone of Lewis – a rotund, pompous schoolmaster giving Sunday School lessons to retarded children, patting his belly and wagging his finger and chortling at his own jokes. A sample of Lewis’ idiocy – in The Great Divorce, the “answer” to an Origen-like belief that all living beings are redeemable (and hence, there is no need for Hell), is that if rotters and cads and scoundrels were allowed into Heaven they would only ruin it for everyone else, so we need Hell. It does not occur to Lewis that, for example, an omnipotent god could arrange Heaven so rotters and cads and scoundrels cannot interfere with anyone else; or that, for example, being in Heaven might itself work a spiritual transformation, so that even the worst bounders, those of unspeakable evil (e.g. fellows who play cards, or drink white wine at room temperature, or interrupt a chap when he’s trying to eat his plum pudding in peace, or say “damn” in front of ladies, or return their library books late, or have been to Paris, or wear red ties) might be changed, that such transformations might be possible (one could regard Heaven not as the place where good people go, but as the place which makes people good).

Well that’s one pagan that won’t be coming back to the buffet. And it’s not for lack of intellect.

Second, though, is my own particular beef. I keep hearing from conservatives that Western Civilization sprung from Homer and Aristotle, Moses and Christ, from Greece and Jerusalem. And of course, they’re right. And, we’re told, it has since produced a cornucopia of delights such as scholasticism, Roman law, the humanistic arts, etc.

Now if this is the case, why is it, I wonder, that we Christians read C.S. Lewis as if we’re a band of half-starved beggars desperate for scraps of magic, while the rest of modern literature remains like this deconstructed wasteland? At what point did the cornucopia begin barfing out turds instead of roses?

See, I suspect that it isn’t so. Comrades, the revolution can no more shake off the West than a human being can shake off its own body. You don’t need to be a card carrying Derrida reading deconstructionist to be a Marxist and you don’t need to be a Marxist to be an atheist and you don’t need to be an atheist to be a postmodernist. The Sokal hoax and the postmodern bullshit generator prove that all these links eventually are deconstructed from themselves.

By all of which I intend to mean, I am not an atheist. But I am also living in a postmodern society. So what am I supposed to do, wear tweed and smoke a pipe?

Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, Don DeLillo, Pynchon, Nabakov, Borges. Read Harold Bloom for cryin out loud – the “school of resentment” is so, like, 1979. Since 1980, Northrop Frye would at least get a hearing at the academy again.

But the whole point is that it needn’t even stop with any standard list. The canon is not a moralist’s recitation – get it? It’s not a legal document, or a scientific description, or a theory. It’s a conversation. It has dialogue. It develops. A line in the sand makes no words. And we fall right into the hole the postmodernists prepared for us by arguing against their theories – the result was like someone trying to push a mound of jello uphill. So we ignore Sisyphus, and just go on. We just go on wearing our own critical lenses and examining particular works one at a time.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Shock! Horror! Modern art! My toddler could paint that crap!

Not so fast.

[I]t is sometimes overlooked that for the artists who undertook this search, there was more at stake than the discovery of the ‘truth’ of art. For some, abstraction was a path to another goal. Both Mondrian and Kandinsky were keenly interested in the spiritual and believed that art should serve as a guide to, or an inspiration for, or perhaps help to rekindle in, the spectator the spiritual dimension which they and others felt was being lost in the increasingly materialist contemporary world. Abstraction involved a sort of stripping away of the material world and had the potential of revealing, or describing, or merely alluding to the world of the spirit.

Or try my favorite, Rothko:

[W]ith the waning of belief, art no longer had recourse to a pictorial language or subject matter with which to respond to contemporary life. Rothko acknowledged as much in a brief 1947 essay, “The Romantics Were Prompted”: “Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama: art’s most profound moments express this frustration. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy.”

As one Anglican vicar told the Times of London a few years ago when the Tate Modern mounted an exhibition of Rothko’s late work, “For me the paintings are the tablets of stone of Mount Sinai, but with the commandments lost. They are icons of the absence of God.”

While the paintings are completely emptied of narrative content, Rothko insisted they were not formally abstract. “I’m not an abstractionist,” he said in an interview in 1956. “I’m not interested in relationships of colors or forms or anything else. I’m interested in only expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions.”

“The people who weep before my pictures,” he added, “are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

So, haters gonna hate. But it’s so easy to get your ducks lined up in a row when those ducks are your assumptions. You see, this:

When called a moralist, Ray Bradbury accepts the impeachment willingly. Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things.

is tedious. I mean, okay William Bennett, what’s the “moral” of Macbeth? Is Romeo and Juliet “pro-suicide”? Etc. But this:

Ultimately my fullest appreciation goes to literature that pleases me, not only by its imaginative beauty, but also by its truth. Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination.

gets it. One might almost say, against the moralist critics, something like: a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Or: It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious. And speaking of Oscar Wilde – one might be surprised to learn that even that champion of Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic stage” has come under the wing of the champion of the “moral stage”:

In a glowing review of a new study of Wilde by the Italian writer Paolo Gulisano, L’Osservatore Romano – the Vatican’s official newspaper – praises the Irish playwright for being “an aesthete and a lover of the ephemeral”.

Scant attention is paid to Wilde’s well-publicised relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and the ensuing sodomy trial which sentenced him to two years’ hard labour in Reading prison. Instead the paper’s review eulogises Wilde for his “lucid analysis of the modern world” and his eventual conversion to Catholicism as he lay on his death bed.

Labelling Wilde as “one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects”, L’Osservatore’s writers say a different side of Wilde’s life must be taken into account.

“[He was] not just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England,” the paper writes, “[he was also] a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false.”

The side of the story of Wilde that is rarely told. One of life’s little ironies:

On November 28,1900, as Wilde lay dying on his bed in Paris, Robbie Ross called in a priest, an English Passionist, Father Dunne. Wilde was given conditional Baptism and was anointed. For a short time he emerged from delirium into lucidity, and Father Dunne, examining him, was satisfied that Wilde freely desired reception into the Church. Wilde died a Catholic on November 30.

The poet’s great antagonist, the Marquis of Queensberry, died in the same year. On his deathbed he too was received into the Catholic Church.

Turn Wilde into proto-gay-martyr or Catholic-moral-allegory all you want, I don’t care. The point I’m trying to make is that we can read him with both sets of glasses – and more.

But if we can’t simplify Oscar Wilde for our own convenience we are left asking — what was he then?

All of these: writer, wit, voluptuary, gay man, failed father and husband, sensitive soul, laughing stock, broken heart, eleventh hour Catholic convert.

Yes, and even more than that – all those things, bundled up into one single man, and perhaps his writings, can only themselves be understood within a culture and tradition that is to its core, its very heart and soul, a Judeo-Christian culture which took root in Greece and Jerusalem and then spread throughout the West, with all of its attendant virtues – and caprices.

But you see these days we’ve lost our reason. Maybe we shouldn’t read Oscar Wilde. Because, you know, we’re Christians in the middle of a culture war, and he was gay. And so we need C.S. Lewis to spoon-feed us our magic. Who needs reason? All we need is the line in the sand. It doesn’t matter that we’ve forgotten that the line in the sand was drawn by our opponents in the first place.

See, the old Catholic missionaries knew what they were doing. Did they go around European peasant villages in the dark ages screaming “solstice tree bad, solstice tree bad”? No, they said “hm, that’s an interesting looking tree, now let me tell you all about it from my perspective, I’ve figured it all out already, listen chillenz …”

But since we all know those sinister, wacky, torture lovin, scholastic pushin Papists are really Satan worshipping Zionist lizardoids bent on world domination, perhaps, just perhaps, we can point one teeny weeny little pinky finger of blame at American Protestantism here?

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but – more frequently than not – struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. Martin Luther, Colloquia Mensalia, ‘On Baptism,’.

Sounds like a line in the sand to me.

The truth is that we cannot know what books will be sent off to the happy hunting grounds once the fog of the culture wars clears. But we do know this – that there are a billion reasons why the angels are jealous of us. And one of those reasons is that there is no irony in heaven.

Can Jews enjoy Wagner? Well, it depends who’s listening, as Larry David finds out in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. After whistling the first few bars of Siegfried Idyll to his wife as they queue for cinema tickets, he is accosted by a frothing witness, who asks: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

Larry is taken aback – and, in so many words, offers to prove that he has been circumcised. His antagonist spits: “I want to know what a Jew is whistling Wagner for, when he was one of the great anti-Semites of the world.” He then accuses Larry of being a self-loathing Jew. “I do hate myself,” protests Larry, “but it has nothing to do with being Jewish, okay?”

You see:

Anything, even a sin, which has the total effect of moving close up to the Enemy makes against us in the long run.

Ah, irony. It can save us after all.

Back to your stamp-collecting now.