Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Experiment in Criticism

We love CS Lewis for things like the Space Trilogy or The Abolition of Man, or the Screwtape Letters.  Oh, or Narnia.  But of course he was an English Professor, and he published a good deal in his own area of expertise.  One such work--one which must have been among the last things he published--is An Experiment in Criticism.  In this post, and one or two future posts, I will run through some of the ideas from this book and connect them to Rockwell criticism.

Lewis begins by distinguishing the few and the many.  "The few" are the literary sorts--Lewis's fellow scholars and critics and authors.  Needless to say, not all professional literary types are actually members of the few, and nor are all members of the few professional literary types.  But the book proceeds more or less on the supposition that its readers do, in fact, belong to the few.

"The many," then, are just the people who are not particularly literary.  It's not that the many don't read.  They may very well.  Although they probably read far less today than they did in 1961.  For one of the distinguishing marks of the many is that they tend to read only as a last resort: "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'."  (2.  All references are to the Cambridge edition linked above.)  Nowadays, people have their smart phones in front of them constantly, and so very rarely face the problem of not having any alternative pastime.  (I suppose it is just possible that some of these people with their faces in their phones are actually reading something other than facebook.  I wouldn't know.)

So the many may read, but they read differently than the few.  And their attitude towards reading is very different from the attitude of the few.  The few, for example, do not merely read when they have no alternative pastime.  They "are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention."  (2-3)

Another difference is that the few tend to have books that they return to frequently.  The many, however, don't read the same work twice.  "The sure mark of the unliterary man is that he considers 'I've read it already' to be a conclusive argument against reading a work."  (2)  More, the literary will be deeply moved or changed by their reading of some books: reading can, for them, be "an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison."  (3)  Not so, the many.  Last, the few often have literature at the front of their minds--they talk to one another about books, they speak beloved lines to themselves, they use scenes or characters from books as "a sort of iconography by which to interpret or sum up their own experience."  Again, not so the many.

So there are two types of readers.  Now, take a member of the few--Mary--and a member of the many--Bob.  We might say that Mary likes David Copperfield, and Bob likes The Pelican Brief.  But when we use the word "like" here, are we really using it univocally?  It sounds "as if likes...[has] the same meaning when applied to both; as if there were a single activity, though the objects to which it is directed are different.  But observation convinces me that this, at least usually, is untrue." (1)  If you imagine Bob complaining about Mary's liking of Dickens ("oh, he's so boring, how could she like that?!"), you might think he believes she likes the wrong books.  (She should see that Grisham is much more fun!)  But Lewis thinks there is a confusion here.  "The majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all.  We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal. Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts.  If like is the correct word for what they do to books, some other word must be found for what we do."  (3-4)

Now, this is CS Lewis here, and not just some snobby professor, enjoying the process of looking down on the unwashed masses.  In short, the point of the exercise is not to hold himself up as superior (I don't catch much of the scent of snobbery here, honestly).  The point is to make--as the title of the book suggests--an experiment.

"Literary criticism is traditionally employed in judging books.  Any judgement it implies about men's reading of books is a corollary from its judgement on the books themselves.  Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books.  I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process.  Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary.  Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another."  (1)

So the distinction between the few and the many is in service of this experiment.  It is a simple matter of observation that people read in different ways.  Let's see if we can distinguish between good and bad books based on which kind of reading they receive.

But the initial distinction between types of readers hasn't been quite fine-grained enough.  First--and here is part of why I say that there doesn't seem to be much snobbery involved--Lewis assures us that "the many" are not simply "the rabble."  Some critics accuse the many

"...of illiteracy, barbarism, 'crass', 'crude', and 'stock' responses which (it is suggested) must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilization.  It sometimes sounds as if the reading of 'popular' fiction involved moral turpitude.  I do not find this borne out by experience.  I have a notion that these 'many' include certain people who are equal or superior to some of the few in psychological health, in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.  And we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent."  (5-6)

So it won't do to try to distinguish the few and the many on the basis of moral virtue, educational background or other such thing.  Indeed, Lewis notes that there are no doubt many professional literary people--overworked book reviewers, or professors "at certain foreign universities who cannot 'hold down their jobs' unless they repeatedly publish articles each of which must say, or seem to say, something new about some literary work" (6-7)--who fall among the many.

Moreover, there are plenty of people who read the currently-fashionable works simply because of the status it conveys.  They want to be in the know.

And then there is the "devotee of culture," who wishes to improve himself.  "This worthy man may be, in the sense I am concerned with, no true lover of literature at all.  He may be as far from that as a man who does exercises with dumb-bells every morning may be from a lover of games."  (8-9)

The devotee of culture may often become strongly puritanical, and not accidentally, Lewis thinks.  Making literature a subject at school has the unfortunate result of suggesting to the young that

"the reading of great authors is...something meritorious.  When the young person in question is an agnostic whose ancestors were Puritans, you get a very regrettable state of mind.  The Puritan conscience works on without the Puritan theology--like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers.  The unhappy youth applies to literature all the scruples, the rigorism, the self-examination, the distrust of pleasure, which his forbears applies to the spiritual life; and perhaps soon all the intolerance and self-righteousness."  (10)

The existence of these literary puritans prevents the distinction between the few and the many from being drawn in virtue of the seriousness of the reading.  The puritans may well be deeply serious readers, yet without exemplifying the type of reading that Lewis is looking for.

"After a lecture of my own, I have been accompanied from Mill Lane to Magdalene by a young man protesting with real anguish and horror against my wounding, my vulgar, my irreverent, suggestion that The Miller's Tale was written to make people laugh.  And I have heard of another who finds Twelfth Night a penetrating study of the individual's relation to society."  (12)

They can't have just been good comedies, thinks the Puritan for that's just not serious.

But "the true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can."  (11)  Receptivity is essential to a good reading.  The good reader "will read 'in the same spirit that the author writ'.  What is meant lightly he will take lightly, what is meant gravely, gravely."  (11)

Lewis assumes that we can figure out enough about the author's intention (at least, generally speaking) to determine the spirit in which the author writ.  I tend to agree.  He also assumes that authorial intention is essential to the meaning of the work.  I agree with this, as well.  That's all controversial, but it's also true, so let's just get on with it.

The upshot here is that we still don't have a fully clear account of the difference between types of readers.  Moreover, we can't simply go with a description like "mature," because Lewis thinks--and I suspect he's right about this, as well--that it's false that we all begin reading as the many do (immaturely), and then some people progress to reading as the few (maturely).  No, the only way to get a grip on the distinction is to try to actually enter into the mind of the readers.  This may be profitably approached, though, by starting with other arts than literature.  We may be in the many as far as painting goes, even if we're in the literary few.  Or vice versa.  Or perhaps we're musically many while literarily few.  And so forth.  So in the next post, we'll look at "how the few and the many use pictures and music."

There is no point in closing this post, however, without talking about the obvious point.  Readers will no doubt recognize that Norman Rockwell has always been in the province of "the many" in the world of painting.  His fans are very often the people who admittedly know nothing about art, but who like his work.  (Rockwell found it to be just a touch annoying when people would tell this to him.  Wouldn't it be nice, he thought, if occasionally someone who did know something about art would admit to liking him?)  The arsty people have always hated Rockwell.  The conclusion, then, might seem obvious: if good art is art that is liked by the few, then Rockwell isn't good art.

But notice, already, the kinds of problems such a conclusion faces.  First, it is transparently obvious that many of the critical condemnations of Rockwell back in his own day came from highly puritanical critics--critics who cannot be trusted to have been at all serious (in the relevant sense) about Rockwell's art; critics who were clearly not receptive in any way.  Marxists, etc.

Second, the status seekers and the devotees of culture would have had overwhelming pressure to denounce Rockwell, or at least to ignore him.  A knowledge or, or liking of, Rockwell's art surely didn't convey any "cultural" status, nor was Rockwell recognized by the critics (see above) as an important (or "real") artist.

Third, Rockwell has been slowly gaining some critical respect.

But this is an observation to be very careful with, since I've just pointed out that art critics were unreliable on Rockwell earlier on.  So it wouldn't make sense for me to assume that now they have become reliable.  And in fact I don't think that at all.  Some of these Rockwell critics are obviously wholly unreliable.  Nor would it help Rockwell's standing as an artist if the only way he were able to become appreciated by the few would be for them to turn his art into something it is not.  (Roger Reed expressed this worry about critical treatments of Rockwell.)  But there are some critics and artists out there who are taking Rockwell's work seriously, and who are actually being receptive to it.  Karal Ann Marling stands out here as the best instance of this.  Laura Claridge is another good example.

There will be more to say, of course, about how Lewis's experiment connects up to Rockwell.  We'll get there.  (I hope!)  For now, this was just some groundwork.  The next post will get us closer.

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