Month: April 2014

55 Classics Review #6 – On Stories And Other Essays On Literature by C.S. Lewis


When it comes to popular spiritual epigrams, C. S. Lewis has G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and maybe Jesus himself beat in terms of popular quotability. It seems impossible to browse any social media outlet without coming across a line from Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. That is what intrigues me the most about Lewis. A huge quanitity of the most enlightening statements he ever made came from the mouths of characters in fiction, rather than from any articles of non-fiction.

On Stories is therefore one of the greatest resources for getting behind this veil. In it we discover bits of the frame of mind capable of creating such original and timeless stories that seamlessly imply his deepest ideas about being human.

The book is a simple collection of essays, author dedications, op-ed pieces, and even a transcript of a conversation between Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss about the nature and value of science fiction as a genre. Many of the articles were never published, some merely scraps, unedited and unfinished.

On Stories cover a lot of ground, seeing Lewis address concepts and wrestle with idea which many of his popular quoters might find questionable or reproachable. He expresses interest in seeing good science fiction proposing a third gender, proposed that children’s literature shouldn’t shy away from being frightening, and emphatically endorses a lot of literature which some people might prefer to be banned. Overall, you are getting a much more rounded picture of the author’s ideas than you ever can from any piece or body of fiction.

The themes that come through most clearly are his strong opinions about fantasy and science fiction being absolutely valuable endeavors for both children and adults and his general rebuttals against the overwhelming academic ideas on literature from his day. He proves himself extremely well-read in everything from the classics (no surprise here as he was a world-class medievalist) to the science fiction paperbacks which were just gaining a huge foothold. He holds firmly that each has its own place of legitimate value to the reader.

One of my personal favorites was A Reply To Professor Haldane. A posthumously discovered response to the multiple, brutal assaults on his intellect by a professor of theoretical biology, this essay is at once precisely factual and sterile of any character assassinations. A discovered rough draft like this only highlights the immensity of logical preparation he puts into his ideas. He explains himself theoretically and through example while completely tearing down his opponent’s ideas without ridiculing the man. Indeed, it is easy to feel that Lewis has no emotional response to those who continually abused his character. Like Chesterton, one cannot help but admire his ability to let accusations roll off his back while taking the ideas involved quite seriously.

Overall, I highly suggest this title to any Lewis fan or general fan of science fiction and fantasy. If you’ve ever felt frustrated at those who don’t get why fairy tales or space travel stories are legitimate, you will find a friend in Lewis. I would also highly recommend this book if you’re interested in reading the more obscure works that have influenced modern fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi writing. Lewis is constantly referring to what he considered the classics of these genres.

Though you may not always agree with his conclusions on the issues he tackles, it is hard to fault the man for lack of thorough contemplation or sincerity in wrestling with all forms of literature.

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I’ll leave you with this delightful transcribed dialogue between Lewis and Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss.

 

“Lewis: Would you describe Abbott’s Flatland as science-fiction? There’s so little effort to bring it into any sensuous–well, you couldn’t do it, and it remains an intellectual theorem. Are you looking for an ashtray? Use the carpet.

Amis: I was looking for the Scotch, actually.

Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

 

Related Reading

————

C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic

C.S. Lewis On How Words Die

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien On Our Connection To The Land

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Author Quotes: Wendell Berry On Paths And Roads


“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

That first road from the site of New Castle to the mouth of the Kentucky River–lost now by obsolescence or metamorphosis–is now being crossed and to some extent replaced by its modern decendant known as I-71, and I have no wish to disturb the question of whether or not this road was needed. I only want to observe that it bears no relation whatever to the country it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built, not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmland and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it. A part of a hill near here that would have caused it to turn aside was simply cut down and disposed of as thoughtlessly as the pioneer road builders would have disposed of a tree. It’s form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety. It represents the ultimate in engineering sophistication, but the crudest possible valuation of life in this world. It is as adequate a symbol of our relation to our country now as that first road was of our relation to it in 1797.”

– Wendell Berry, excerpt from A Native Hill
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Berry’s words are potent, but they carry an extra weight for those have grown up on I-71 and can visualize its toll on the land. It’s true that the principle remains the same anywhere, but part of his point lies in relating to the land itself, and I can picture the very landscapes he has in mind.

A Native Hill is a wonderful and expansive essay covering Berry’s own flight from and eventual enlightened return to the Kentucky hillside his forefathers had long farmed.

55 Classics Review #5 – Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


As I was finishing Frankenstein I happened upon the cover of a children’s science magazine that said, “Should we bring extinct species back to life?” It is troubling to me that the imaginary science of Frankenstein is so dangerously close to what we find modern science capable of today and the moral obligations are still as foreign to those who practice now as they were to Frankenstein himself.

There was so much I loved and some I hated in these pages, but before I get into what I have to say I must state that there is probably no work of fiction more greatly abused by film adaptations than Frankenstein.

There is no groaning ghoul, there are no pitchfork-welding villagers, there is no accidental murder, and no animalistic fear of fire. The film adaptations of this story are literally their own works of fiction entirely. Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein is about as close to the text as any other film I’ve yet happened upon.

This actually made Frankenstein a delightful read. The sheer foreignness of the story kept me on the edge of my seat. The original text is surprisingly readable even though it was published in 1818 and it reminded me a lot of the writing style Bram Stoker put into Dracula nearly a century later. Shelley employs a series of letters and story-within-story retelling to add depth and believability to her tale. While the characters can become a little wordy in their impassioned monologues, I was ultimately very pleased with the writing style.

The great thing that I never knew about Frankenstein is the complexity of implied and directly addressed questions of the brokenness and disconnections of humanity. Both Frankenstein and his creation are constantly reflecting on their own powers for good, enjoyment of natural beauty, and horrifying capabilities toward evils.

The story is told through the interactions of a fearless young explorer who encounters Frankenstein, and it would be easy to take the story as a treatise against morally questionable science practices if the main characters weren’t constantly oscillating between cursing Frankenstein’s blind science power trip and priding themselves in their own capabilities as fearless leaders. Frankenstein, his monster, and the narrator quickly fall back and forth between horror at the careless evil he committed and confidence in the powers of men to overcome the world.

Here we come to the part I didn’t like about the story. From a purely narrative perspective, I have always been easily annoyed by characters who see miscommunication happening and do nothing to rectify it. Perhaps I’m a bit of an over communicator, but I hate stories where nothing is done to clear up simple and tragic misunderstands. Frankenstein himself spends the majority of his life after the creation of the monster watching in silent horror as the repercussions of his creation play out, doing nothing or far too little too late. He refuses to confess his action to all those closest to him, despite the increasing toll it takes. The only time he decides to take any really decisive action is when he desires to kill the monster. The monster is similar, originally eager to see beauty, family, and community. When he can’t get these, he rages and eagerly pursues the greatest opposing horrors.

This aspect of the story does not ruin the story by any means, but it does provide a defeatist tone. It is full of terror, but maybe the greatest tragedy is how little any character is actually willing to pursue the good, beauty, and truth which they so eagerly live for, but each is more than happy to act on every violent impulse which provokes them.

As I read the story I began to feel strongly that Frankenstein is a grandfather text to both surrealist and science fiction genres. The story is classic science fiction and the character’s monologues feel like a precursory stepping stone to what Kafka would write a century later.

The book does a wonderful job of exploring the philosophical questions surrounding moral obligations in science, what it is to be human, the beauty and evils of mankind, and the terror of total ostracism from relationship. The violent and self-destructive tone does not destroy the power of the story, but it does leave us without a real protagonist, with ultimately confused and powerfully nihilistic characters.

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!


We see it almost every day. Whether its a government cover-up, corporate fraud, or a religious group’s controversial public statements, we are bombarded more than every by a constant stream of articles and headlines about the latest controversies. Thanks to social media, we are becoming the ones who are most responsible for determining what issues gain steam and become headlines. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of feeling required to chime in and make sure other people hear my opinions on the current big issue. We find it necessary to identify ourselves as being for or against these brands.

Brands, you may ask? Why yes, every political candidate, Hollywood star, and non-profit organization is, at its core, simply a brand. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social media world of likes, retweets, and reposting sensationalized articles. We recognize and either endorse or condemn nearly every public entity as a brand to be consumed or blacklisted in our modern online context.

But what most of us really want is to make the world a better place, right? I mean, isn’t that what we think we want somewhere deep down? Isn’t that in some dysfunctional way connected to the root motivation of many of our pins and tweets and likes and posts? How can we begin to actually make this world a better place to live? By liking statuses and reposting inspirational memes?

Here’s the fact:  We are hiding behind our ideas of good and bad when we should be acting upon them. We’re trying to decide what to endorse when we should be asking ourselves how to take action and relate.

Relate? Yes, as in a relationship, where two beings enter into actually knowing one another personally and, often, in person. True, this does require more work than scrolling through a newsfeed and often it will entail sharing our own hopes, dreams, mistakes, and brokenness, but I will promise you something. If you do this often, it will prove to be worth your time.

What if we stopped investing so much of our time into reading articles about group’s stances and started reaching out to tell our friends what encourages us about them? What if we stopped trying to decide where to point the finger and started lifting one to help a new neighbor move in? Supporting a non-profit that helps the hungry in the third world is really important and hugely valuable, but helping the homeless in your own city has a greater impact on you and builds an actual, ongoing relationship between you and the people your helping.

So get out there! Be a great dad. Be a great mom. Be a great dad or mom to someone even if you have no children of your own. Make meals for people you don’t know well. It’s okay that it might be awkward the first time. Share a beer on your porch with the guy next door after work. Write a letter, on paper, and mail it to someone you highly value. Start investing into the real people all around you.

You might just find that pointing out the bad has never been as rewarding as doing the good.

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Related:

– On the dangers of being Optimistic

– Poetry and Children and War

– How does the Common Core Standard hold up?

Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb.


Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wife awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!–whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?–
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.
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– John Keats, Addressed To Haydon, 1816

I never got poetry. When I was in elementary school my younger brother and I collected a binder full of our own attempts at poetry, but the only goal was to write simple, silly verses that rhymed. Apart from thoroughly enjoying complex rhymes, I never understood the draw of poetry. Even in school I never understood the enjoyment of poetry and the basic concepts involved didn’t make me excited. I couldn’t force iambic pentameter to mean anything on paper and I was without a passionate poet, so it bored me thoroughly. I was never really sure what to make of free verse.

Now, a decade later, I’m starting to really think there might be something I missed in this poetry stuff. I mean, I always assumed it must truly interest many people, but I wasn’t one of them. After realizing that so many people I respect were either heavily fashioned by poetry or were poets themselves, I have become somewhat determined to invest myself in understanding its enjoyment.

The three things I’ve come to understand about poetry thus far are that it is best read slowly, aloud, and indulgently.

Perhaps what I mean is that, in my experience, poetry is only enjoyable when it is paired with a slow lifestyle. When I was a child I assumed it was simply about rhyming. In school I never understood how the more complicated terminology explained any enjoyment. Now I am starting to realize that the poetry itself lies in the audible flow of the words.

I’ve always greatly appreciated prose. A witty or profound sentence full of large or interesting words is sure to be a delight. Now I’m starting to realize that poetry carries a similar intoxicant which is meant for sipping. Poetry is for re-reading, for memorization even, both skills that seems to have mostly fallen out of vogue. Memorization for pleasure rather than duty.

I have started slowly with the mostly free verse of Wendell Berry. His wonderful prose requires slow reading, and the transition to his poetry is a smooth one. From there I have begun to dabble in Keats, and I hope to eventually build up an appetite for modern poetry like Elliot and the old epic poems like La Morte D’Arthur, Spenser, and Milton.

My goal in this busy world is to slow down, so I think poetry is all the more worthy a pursuit. Like Keats says, if we slow down enough to take it all in, perhaps we will be able to stay quiet for a bit.

If you love poetry, please tell me why, and by whom.

Author Quotes: Masanobu Fukuoka and The Philosophy Behind The Science


“Before researchers become researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. . .

Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experiences. The results are arranged for the convenience of research, not according to the needs of the farmer. To think that these conclusions can be put to use with invariable success in the farmer’s field is a big mistake.
Recently Professor Tsuno of Ehime University wrote a lengthy book on the relationship of plant metabolism to rice harvests. This professor often comes to my field, digs down a few feet to check the soil, brings students along to measure the angle of sunlight and shade and whatnot, and takes plant specimens back to the lab for analysis. I often ask him, ‘When you come back, are you going to try non-cultivation direct seeding?’ He laughingly answers, ‘No, I’ll leave the application to you. I’m going to stick to research!’
So that is how it is. You study the function of the plant’s metabolism and its ability to absorb nutrients from the soil, write a book, and get a doctorate in agricultural science. But do not ask if your theory of assimilation is going to be relevant to the yield.”

– Masanobu Fukuoka, from the essay “Limits of the Scientific Method” in “The One-Straw Revolution.” Translated from the original Japanese.
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I have spoken briefly about Fukuoka here before, but the man really deserves a greater deal of credit for the things he revealed in his lifetime. A trained scientist and researcher himself, his contributions came not in any scientific field but through over half a century of rehabilitating fields and orchards that had been utterly sapped.

Fukuoka realized, simply, that when we live outside of the order and systems of nature, which replenishes its own resources, we are building a false reality. Based on this premise, he quit his scientific research and went to discern how to cultivate the land while altering nature as little as possible. He learned to do less alteration than any other form of farming while producing comparable or increased harvests. The only requirement was to spend a few years getting to know the land, weather, and the nature of the plants being propagated.

I usually read his work with my mouth hanging open. The man worked hard in his fields and orchards for around 70 years, devoting his old age to researching solutions to fight desertification. In his lifetime he perfected completely natural farming of all kinds of grains, vegetables, and citrus. Yet somehow, his work goes unnoticed by those who don’t seek it out.