Feser on Lewis on transposition

Edward Feser, the distinguished Aristotelian–Thomist philosopher, has posted an excellent commentary on C. S. Lewis’s brilliant (and under-read) essay ‘Transposition’. It is hardly too much to say that Lewis’s essay describes one of the fundamental tools of thought, and Feser does much to make clear why this is necessarily so.

Lewis’s original essay:


Feser’s commentary:

‘Lewis on transposition’

A taste of Feser:

By “transposition,” Lewis has in mind the way in which a system which is richer or has more elements can be represented in a system that is poorer insofar as it has fewer elements.  The notion is best conveyed by means of his examples.  Consider, for instance, the way that the world of three dimensional colored objects can be represented in a two dimensional black and white line drawing; or the way that a piece of music scored for an orchestra might be adapted for piano; or the way something said in a language with many words at its disposal might be translated into a language containing far fewer words, if the relevant latter words have several senses.

As these examples indicate, in a transposition, the elements of the poorer system have to be susceptible of multiple interpretations if they are to capture what is contained in the richer system.  In a pen and ink drawing, black will have to represent not only objects that really are black, but also shadows and contours; white will have to represent not only objects that really are white, but also areas that are in bright light; a triangular shape will represent not only two dimensional objects, but also three dimensional objects like a road receding into the distance; and so on….

You cannot properly understand a transposition unless you understand something of both sides of it.  He asks us to consider a child born to a woman locked in a dungeon, who tries to teach the child about the outside world via black and white line drawings.  Through this medium “she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like” (p. 110).  For a time it seems that she is succeeding, but eventually something the child says indicates that he supposes that what exists outside the dungeon is a world filled with lines and other pencil marks.  The mother informs the child that this is not the case:

And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank.  For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it.  He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition… (Ibid.)

(Though Lewis does not note it, the parallel with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is obvious.)

… As Lewis points out, the notion of transposition is useful for understanding the relationship between mind and matter and the crudity of the errors made by materialists.

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Reasons for books

It occurs to me (in such a way that I may write a future essai about it, or then again I moutn’t) that there are four major, common, and abiding reasons why particular books get written, and that one can rank them by how likely they are to produce books that stand the test of time. From least to most likely:

1. Books written solely for money – often in a genre for which the author had no particular liking or affinity. (Such books are usually unpublishable. There is an art to being a successful hack, which the would-be get-rich-quick artist can seldom master.)

2. Books written chiefly to please the author’s fans. (This is a good and worthy motivation. The trouble is that so many fans want the same book again and again under different titles. Such work is seldom good to reread; and it is rereadable books that most often endure.)

3. Books written because the author had an itch to tell a certain story, and the itch would not go away. (Often these are the books that win large number of fans, who then clamour for more and give rise to category-2 sequels.)

4. Books written because the author very much wanted there to be a certain kind of book, and could not find it. Sometimes there is a book-shaped hole in human literature, and someone sets out to write a book to fill that hole.

(Note that a single writer’s oeuvre may span all four categories. Robert Silverberg has written seminal books of science fiction, and he also used to write quickie porn novels to pay the rent.)

The Inklings had an uncanny knack for finding book-shaped holes and filling them; which largely accounts for their enduring fame. Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction fills what was then a massive gap in literary theory. C. S. Lewis frankly admitted that he wrote his works of Christian apologetics only because none of the clergy (who he considered ought to have written them) were doing the job. And of course there is Tolkien, who found an entire genre-shaped hole and, not being immortal or infinitely productive, only got as far as to lay the book-shaped cornerstone of the wall that has since filled the gap.

I myself get all kinds of ideas for books, but they don’t stick with me unless I can at least delude myself that they fall into category #4. Nothing else seems worth my extremely limited working time and energy. (I have never even been tempted with #1 or #2: nobody has offered to buy my soul with money, fame, or even fan-letters. Whether I could resist such temptations is anybody’s guess.)

But then I feel ashamed for my presumption. If there is a book-shaped hole in literature, surely it is because better writers than I have tried and failed to fill it. Who am I to try what the real experts could not do?

Looking at things in this manner, I am morosely convinced that this dissonance or antinomy accounts for a good deal of the writer’s block with which I am so often afflicted.


In other news, I have been tired and unwell yesterday and today. No new writing of any account, alas. I think I shall try to get some extra sleep and see if that helps.

The exceptional in fiction

Just as all except bores relate in conversation not what is normal but what is exceptional – you mention having seen a giraffe in Petty Cury, but don’t mention having seen an undergraduate – so authors told of the exceptional. Earlier audiences would not have seen the point of a story about anything else. Faced with such matters as we get in Middlemarch or Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale, they would have said ‘But this is all perfectly ordinary. This is what happens every day. If these people and their fortunes were so unremarkable, why are you telling us about them at all?’

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

How not to take criticism

Then Victoriana took a little toy harp and began. The noises of the toy harp were so strange that John could not think of them as music at all. Then, when she sang, he had a picture in his mind which was a little like the Island, but he saw at once that it was not the Island. And presently he saw people who looked rather like his father, and the Steward and old Mr. Halfways, dressed up as clowns and doing a stiff sort of dance. Then there was a columbine, and some sort of love-story. But suddenly the whole Island turned into an aspidistra in a pot and the song was over.

‘Priceless,’ said the Clevers.

‘I hope you like it,’ said Gus to John.

‘Well,’ began John doubtfully, for he hardly knew what to say: but he got no further, for at that moment he had a very great surprise. Victoriana had thrown her mask away and walked up to him and slapped him in the face twice, as hard as she could.

‘That’s right,’ said the Clevers, ‘Victoriana has courage. We may not all agree with you, Vikky dear, but we admire your courage.’

‘You may persecute me as much as you like,’ said Victoriana to John. ‘No doubt to see me thus with my back to the wall, wakes the hunting lust in you. You will always follow the cry of the majority. But I will fight to the end. So there,’ and she began to cry.

‘I am extremely sorry,’ said John. ‘But—’

‘And I know it was a good song,’ sobbed Victoriana, ‘because all great singers are persecuted in their lifetime – and I’m per-persecuted – and therefore I must be a great singer.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

‘The Island’, in this particular allegory, is the particular experience, partly aesthetic and partly religious, that Lewis referred to elsewhere as ‘Joy’. If you want to inspire Joy in your audience, and you fail, I can heartily dis-recommend this method of dealing with it.


C. S. L. on reading old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

—C. S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

C. S. L. on slavery

Fifty years and a couple of days after he departed from the Shadowlands.

Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

—C. S. Lewis, ‘Equality’ (collected in Present Concerns)

To the end of the world (and back again)

This past Friday I received two books from Amazon, and passed the whole night and most of Saturday morning in an orgy of reading. First, as an hors d’oeuvre, I read C. S. Lewis’s collection The Weight of Glory, which is much less known than it ought to be; it contains some of Lewis’s best work. The main course was The Last Dark, the tenth and absolutely last of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books.

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C. S. Lewis on radical change

The Guide laughed. ‘You are falling into their own error,’ he said, ‘the change is not radical, nor will it be permanent. That idea depends on a curious disease which they have all caught — an inability to dis-believe advertisements. To be sure, if the machines did what they promised, the change would be very deep indeed. Their next war, for example, would change the state of their country from disease to death. They are afraid of this themselves — though most of them are old enough to know by experience that a gun is no more likely than a toothpaste or a cosmetic to do the things its makers say it will do. It is the same with all their machines. Their labour-saving devices multiply drudgery; their aphrodisiacs make them impotent: their amusements bore them: their rapid production of food leaves half of them starving, and their devices for saving time have banished leisure from their country. There will be no radical change.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

‘A Confession’, by C. S. Lewis

I have sometimes been asked why I write old-fashioned epic fantasy instead of something Edgy and Hip and Relevant and Commercial. I have also sometimes been asked (not always by the same people) why I write trivial and childish epic fantasy instead of something Deep and Meaningful and Artistic and Literary. To both those questions I have to give the same answer, which is a poem by the inimitable C. S. Lewis:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.