Quotations from all quarters on life, literature, and whatever else tickled my fancy. Browse and enjoy. —T. S.

C. S. L. on novelty and myth

C. S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost is not much read nowadays, as indeed Paradise Lost itself is not much read; and both we and our art are the poorer for it. Milton’s great epic contains much beauty and grandeur and not a little good sense. Lewis’s lectures on Milton (from which the Preface was constructed) are wanting in the beauty and the grandeur, which were not to his purpose anyway, but compensate for this by overflowing with a fount of good sense that is directed with deadly precision at the characteristic follies and errors of ‘literary’ people in our own age. Lewis was a survivor from the previous age (he once likened himself to a living dinosaur), and saw with painful clarity what necessary human qualities were being cast off with the old learning that he had acquired and his successors had not. We are still living recognizably in the age of those successors.

One of the follies of this age, which has only grown worse with time, is the tendency to ‘ironize’ or undercut anything archetypal or mythical, to make the gods and heroes ‘just folks’, to deflate, to take the heroism out of heroes and the importance out of villains, and make all the characters talk and act like bored and unreflective teenagers. The ideal of modern drama is the situation comedy, reduced to a troupe of stock characters making stock wisecracks at each other’s expense. The ideal of modern literature is either an impenetrable and meaningless jungle of very pretty words (for the Snobs), or a perfectly stylized and predictable melodrama that makes no demand whatever upon the imagination (for the Proles).

The idea that there are other kinds of people besides Snobs and Proles does not occur to the Snobs; they have not even thought of asking the Proles what they like or want. And as the Snobs have captured the citadel, the rest of us are supposed to be content with whatever books and drama they see fit to shove down our throats. The dire sales figures of recent fiction from the major publishers, and the collapse of one major film-franchise after another, shows what happens when the Snobs are put in charge of popular entertainment. They are neither entertaining nor popular.

One form that this takes (you see it in most of the Dreamworks animated films, and the formula is imitated to dire effect in cartoon franchises like Hotel Transylvania) is to turn all the creatures of fantasy, from elves and dragons to vampires and talking beasts, into sitcom parodies with exactly the same motivations and neuroses as stereotypical suburbanites in Los Angeles. (Sometimes, as in the Madagascar series, they have the neuroses of stereotypical Manhattanites instead. This is no great improvement.)

By this everything essential is lost, and only a twee appearance remains. A dragon without greed is no dragon at all, but only a giant cartoon lizard; there is not even any particular reason why it should be a lizard. A vampire that does not steal souls is only a morbid sex-symbol to tickle the fancy of the ‘goth’ crowd. In Zootopia we have seen the nadir of this approach: a city full of talking animals that all behave exactly like modern city-dwelling Americans, to the point where any realistic animal behaviour is considered a freak and an abomination. Half the plot of the film turns on the horror (oh, the horror!) of carnivorous animals actually reverting to type and eating meat. The idea that one species of animal is any different from another is represented as the most benighted racial bigotry.

Lewis, if anybody had troubled to heed him, warned us very early on against this kind of thematic degeneration. The whole point of using creatures different from men in a story is that they are indeed different; they are not Just Folks; they are brought in because they are not Just Folks, but at worst hypostasized qualities, or at best, thinking and feeling creatures that are nevertheless not human. Everyone in a modern story is alienated. The humans are alienated from their own human nature, and the aliens are alienated from being alien. One of the functions of fantasy, before it became morbid, was to recover the sense of the alien and of the human; to remind us what we were alienated from, as well as what was alien to us. We might not have lost that function so quickly or so thoroughly if we had troubled to listen to this passage:

There is, furthermore, a special reason why mythical poetry ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients. What it does with the ingredients may be as novel as you please. But giants, dragons, paradises, gods, and the like are themselves the expression of certain basic elements in man’s spiritual experience. In that sense they are more like words – the words of a language which speaks the else unspeakable – than they are like the people and places of a novel. To give them radically new characters is not so much original as ungrammatical. 

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.

But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, ch. 8

The World State

Oh, how I love Humanity,
With love so pure and pringlish,
And how I hate the horrid French,
Who never will be English!

The International Idea,
The largest and the clearest,
Is welding all the nations now,
Except the one that’s nearest.

This compromise has long been known,
This scheme of partial pardons,
In ethical societies
And small suburban gardens—

The villas and the chapels where
I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbour.

—G. K. Chesterton
(Here in Canada, in these enlightened times, it is de rigueur to love Humanity, and hate the horrid Americans. —Ed.)

Asparagus

By G. K. Chesterton. First published in New Witness, 18 June 1914.


At about twenty-one minutes past two today I suddenly saw that asparagus is the secret of aristocracy. I was trying to put long limp stalks into my mouth, when the idea came into my head; and the stalk failed to do so.

[Read more…]

Find a need and… waitaminute

If there is any safe generalization in literary history it is this: that the desire for a certain kind of product does not necessarily beget the power to produce it, while it does tend to beget the illusion that it has been produced.

—C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love

Fflewddur’s harp

The bard did not answer. For a long moment he held the harp lovingly in his hands and gently touched the strings, then with a quick motion raised the beautiful instrument and smashed it across his knee.

Taran cried out in anguish as the wood shattered into splinters and the harp strings tore loose with a discordant burst of sound. Fflewddur let the broken fragments drop from his hands.

“Burn it,” he said. “It is wood well-seasoned.”

[Read more…]

You can’t win with insults

[D. H.] Lawrence tells me that because I have been to a public school I am a eunuch. Well, what about it? I can produce medical evidence to the contrary, but what good will that do? Lawrence’s condemnation remains. If you tell me I am a scoundrel I may mend my ways, but if you tell me I am a eunuch you are tempting me to hit back in any way that seems feasible. If you want to make an enemy of a man, tell him that his ills are incurable.

—George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

The editor at work

Now, if I could just get my internal editor to knock off doing that quite so thoroughly…

G. K. C. on grandmothers

A commenter on another blog recently wrote two comments, which I here telescope together, as the second was explicitly written as a correction to the first:

If we are to have a stable, functional society, women can have equal rights and political participation, or they can have a functional exemption from moral consequences. They cannot have both.

The disjunction is true and logical, and not only of women, but of human beings generally. But ‘a stable, functional society’ has nothing to do with the case. It is a red herring, and a red herring of a particularly insidious type, because it amounts to denying that the question is one of morals at all. Chesterton made the point very neatly a century ago:

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong. Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage. Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before. Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter. The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else – mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Boy’ (in All Things Considered)

The only real point worth mentioning about ‘functional exemptions from moral consequences’ is that it is morally wrong to exempt anyone from moral standards, which, in so far as they are moral, must be universal if they are not meaningless. Stable and functional societies have been built upon chattel slavery, helotry, human sacrifice, and any number of other wicked and revolting practices. That does not mean that it was either wise or right to do so, or to exempt those societies from the particular moral standards that were outraged by their customs.

Dr. Samuel Johnson observed, as a good Tory opposed to the American war of independence, that the people who yapped the loudest about liberty were the slaveholding planters of Virginia. The inconsistency had to be paid for; and it was, within a century, when the accounts were squared with a million gallons of blood. Yet those slaveholders were paragons of the moral law compared to a good many of our modern opinion-makers and cultural leaders. They should be opposed because they are wrong, for they are wrong; not because they cannot succeed, for they manifestly do succeed.

A little bit wrong

Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine.
(For a little error in the beginning is a great error in the end.)

—St. Thomas Aquinas, opening line of De ente et essentia

Most modern people have a dangerous and deplorable habit of jumping into arguments in medias res, not bothering to inquire into the basic assumptions made by either side. Their most fiercely held opinions are apt to be based on someone else’s errors, and they don’t even know it. The people who made those mistakes were a little bit wrong; the people who take their conclusions on trust go wrong on the titanic scale.


Today I am setting out to continue work on ‘The Little Charter’. I hope I have not made a ‘little error’ in the first chapter this time. Things go pear-shaped so fast when I do.

Wodehouse submits to an Editor

In my recent illness, I have been reading large quantities or gobs of the early P. G. Wodehouse. A few years ago, Golgotha Press, a firm of whose existence I until recently remained culpably unaware, released a vast compendium of thirty-odd Wodehouse books which had fallen into the public domain, for the derisory price of a dollar. (You can find them on iTunes if you search for Wodehouse, but the collection does not appear to be available on Amazon.) Under U.S. copyright law, I am told, anything published before 1923 is fair game, and I have been dining these many days on aged roast Wodehouse.

If anybody wants to know what it was like for Wodehouse, as a short-story writer in the early years of the twentieth century, to submit his work to a magazine, the process was essentially the same as it is today. Observe the following account: [Read more…]