Lewis: The Abolition of Man

October 17, 2019

The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis
(Fount, 1978) [1943]
63 p.

Lewis mounts a critique of the view that moral judgements are not objective, and defends what he calls the Tao: the basic, objective moral order that underwrites and secures our practical moral reasoning.

His argument is partly empirical, inasmuch as he compiles a raft of citations from texts, philosophical and religious, from Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, and Indian cultures to argue for cross-cultural agreement on basic moral norms regarding beneficence, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, justice, truth-telling, mercy, and magnanimity. These we may, for the sake of the argument at least, take as the content of “the Tao”, although not exhaustive. Synonyms in world traditions for this body of moral norms are “Natural Law”, “First Principles of Practical Reason”, or “First Platitudes”. The Tao consists of the axioms of moral reasoning, on which all moral judgments ultimately rest.

His main line of argument, however, is not just that the Tao is common, but that the Tao is inescapable, and that attempts to deny it are secretly relying on it at a deeper level. (He thus accuses moral relativists of committing a particular fallacy — denying your opponent a premise that you yourself rely on — that I’m sure must have a name, but that I cannot think of.) Those who profess to debunk objective values themselves harbour values that they think immune to debunking. To be sure, their values are not always precisely those which they deny, but Lewis contends that all the first principles of moral reasoning are equally self-evident, and that therefore every effort to pit one against another can be motivated only be desire, not by reason. The Tao is a unity that stands or falls together.

This is not to say that criticism of the Tao is not possible, but he distinguishes two types: from within and from without. Criticism from within he compares to a poet using the resources of a language to enrich it. Distinctions are made; understanding is refined. Criticism from without is mere “debunking”: a clumsy exercise in arbitrariness and a failure to understand what is being destroyed, for “only those who are practicing the Tao will understand it”.

His point is that moral judgments of any kind rely on there being a moral reality: the kingdom of “ought”, the realm of obligation. This is the Tao. Without it, there can be nothing obligatory at all, nothing properly moral. We cannot derive it from any consideration of utility or appeal to instinct, for these cannot generate an “ought” without implicitly relying on one. We can’t get here from there. Any “ought” — including the claim that we ought not to make moral judgments, or that we ought not to believe things that are not true — affirms the Tao and the objectivity of value. Those who try to escape it have nowhere to go:

“Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.”

The only course, therefore, open to those at war with the Tao — and there are, of course, many — is the total refusal of it, an abandonment of a relationship between reason and action, exile from the kingdom of ought. What remains to them is only strength and will — a will, ex hypothesi, bereft of any reference to “good” or “bad”, and therefore either arbitrary or governed by appetite. In human society, this would devolve to some class of persons exercising power over the others, conditioning the populace, using techniques savvy or crude, for its own purposes, a world of social engineering and the reduction of human persons to artefacts:

“Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

If this is so, I should be motivated to honour and uphold the Tao. I should acknowledge the objectivity of moral judgments — not always their correctness, of course, but even incorrectness only makes sense within a realm of objectivity. The horizon of the good is the background against which my moral life is lived out; I should respect and love it, for the intelligibility of my moral life depends on it. Paraphrasing Lewis: things merit, and do not merely receive, my reverence or contempt. I should abandon the pretence that my will can define what is right or wrong. In our time, we fall under a particular obligation to clear the mind of cant.

Indeed, the nature of the interior moral life is dramatically dependent on whether or not one accepts the objectivity of the Tao. St Augustine — who lived under the Tao — defined virtue as ordo amoris, ordered love. Ordered to what? To real value. The moral life is loving more worthy things more and less worthy things less, and progress in the moral life consists in conforming ourselves more and more to this objective order, so that we live in greater harmony with it, rather than trying to bend it to our will.

Augustine’s framing of the moral life in terms of love — rather than, say, duty — is important, because virtue consists not merely in thinking rightly about goodness and badness, but in feeling rightly about them. Moral education, in fact, consists largely, and maybe preeminently, in training ourselves to have the right sorts of emotions about things: love and affection for good things, and repulsion and disgust for bad things. And this is the consistent testimony of our pre-modern inheritance:

Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

I am going to pause and read that again.

Apart from the Tao, our emotions cannot be fitting or just, and we cannot have reasons (real rational reasons, not just desires) to prefer them in ourselves or encourage them in our children. But without just and fitting healthy emotions, human beings have a tendency to fall apart: some into their heads, where they suffer that particular lunacy which, as Chesterton said, “consists in losing everything but their reason”, and others into their bellies, the realm of appetite. It’s all there in the Republic:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

This image is the origin of Lewis’ famous coinage, from this book’s magnificent first chapter, of “men without chests”, meaning those without appropriate emotional responses rooted ultimately in respect for what is real.

**

Two apparent weaknesses in the argument deserve some scrutiny. One is the claim that the moral realm is entirely distinct from the realm of “fact”, and that no bridge between them is possible. No “is” implies an “ought”. But Aristotelian moral philosophy, based on the virtues, seems to be an effort to establish such a bridge, and an impressive one. For Aristotle, morals are derived from observation of what is good for human beings, what allows us to flourish as the kind of thing we are, together with the premise that we “ought” to do those things — a very modest premise which all other creatures endeavour to follow naturally. It does rely on some conception of what is good for us, but Aristotle, I believe, thinks this can be discerned by a careful study of our nature. It is not clear that this moral theory can survive a thoroughly materialist Darwinism, but, averting that course of hari-kari, seems to me a challenger to Lewis’ general account of things. Perhaps he is right, though, that Aristotelianism moral counsels never do quite rise to the level of obligation, but are always counsels of prudence, and, if so, this does seem to be a weakness.

The second weakness is his claim that the Tao, consisting of a set of basic moral premises, is indivisible and one, such that one cannot use one part of it to deny some other part. In logic, of course, it is always possible to reduce the number of independent premises one reasons from, so his claim cannot be strictly logical. His principal justification for the claim is that the basic premises are equally self-evident, and so there can be no rational grounds for pitting one against another, or for accepting one and denying another. But are they equally self-evident? How many basic premises are there? (St Thomas thought that the basic moral premise was “Seek good and avoid evil.” Lewis seems to think the Tao is more elaborate and specific than that.) How do we know that a particular moral principle is truly basic and therefore immune to further analysis? At what deductive distance from the basic premises do moral counsels become susceptible of doubt and scrutiny? None of these questions are really addressed by Lewis, but I suspect he would answer that such is the subject matter of moral philosophy. Indeed, if we peer into St Thomas we might well discover the answers we seek.

**

Lewis argues that if the Tao be rejected then the consequence, at a societal level, must devolve to the exercise of power of a few over the many: a tyranny of social engineering. But this is to see it from the point of view of the few, who see and understand what they are doing. But what would it look like, and feel like, to the many? This is a question that Lewis doesn’t really address, but it seems to me an interesting one. The many would be governed by behavioural norms imposed by their elites, which, though not properly moral norms, might seem so to the unreflective or uninformed. An appeal to the “good”, cynically made for the sake of social order or to achieve a certain end, might seem genuine to those to whom it was addressed. But appeals to something that might be mistaken for a transcendental good would be dangerous for the powers that be, so undesirable behaviour or thoughts would be best enforced by social means, perhaps through appeals to the importance of getting along, cultivation of a taboo against moral judgment in those realms where the regime is at odds with the Tao, or through shaming or intimidation. Evidence that one was living under such a regime would be that moral norms would be protean, always evolving, or, to use a suggestive term, progressive.

**

It’s a small book, but one on which the commentary has been voluminous. As a critique of what Alastair MacIntyre would later call “emotivism” in morals, as a defence of the natural law tradition, broadly speaking, and as an eloquent presentation of the metaphysical preamble to moral education it is justly honoured. And it’s beautifully written too.

**

[Education and the Tao]
The educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’. The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully dissipated.

[Magic and science]
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins.


St John Henry Newman

October 13, 2019

Today in Rome Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman. After his conversion Newman became an Oratorian priest, so this morning we made the journey down to our local Oratory to join the celebration. There was a first-class relic (a lock of hair), an excellent homily, and beautiful music. It was a joy to be there.

Had we returned tonight for Vespers we could have heard Arvo Pärt’s Littlemore Tractus, the text of which is by St John Henry Newman:

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen,
and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over, and our work is done!
Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging,
and holy rest, and peace at the last.

*

Some resources: Bishop Barron has put his one hour documentary about St John Henry Newman up on YouTube for a limited time; I’ve seen part of it, and it is very well done. Here is a warm appreciation of his literary legacy, here is a collection of some of his aphorisms, and here is a substantial reflection by Gerhard Cardinal Müller. I’ve read a number of Newman’s books — his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was an important book for me — but the only one I’ve written about in this space is his novel Loss and Gain.

St John Henry Newman, pray for us!


Wodehouse: Summer Lightning

October 9, 2019

Summer Lightning
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1929]
320 p.

At the end of the previous Blandings Castle adventure, young Psmith had replaced Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s personal secretary, and a principal question on my mind was whether he would continue in the post long enough to play a role in this rollicking tale. Sadly, he did not. Baxter, in fact, was back, or coming back, in his own efficient manner.

The intertwining stories in this book require close attention to keep straight. There is, of course, the matter of the prize pig, Empress, whose gigantic, near-spherical form doesn’t prevent her going missing. Then there is the Hon. Galahad Threepwood’s project to write his tell-all youthful memoirs, an occasion of sure embarrassment for all the Shropshire nobility. Then there is young Ronnie, the nephew of Lord Emsworth, who has fallen for a London chorus-girl, and there is his cousin, Millicent, who, though intended for Ronnie, has eyes for a member of the domestic staff. And there is the private detective who lurks in bushes and climbs drain-spouts to no great effect. All pile in and are swirled around to create something delectable. Amazingly, Wodehouse hit upon a single brilliant stroke in the final chapter to resolve all of the competing interests. It could not have been more elegant.

Usually the American versions of Wodehouse’s books were given inferior titles, but in this case the American edition was called Fish Preferred, which is not half bad.


Shikibu: The Tale of Genji

October 3, 2019

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
Translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker
(Everyman, 1993) [c.1000]
1224 p.

The Tale of Genji
A Reader’s Guide
William J. Puette
(Tuttle, 1983)
196 p.

A thousand years ago, at a time when European high culture had precious few ornaments in its crown, and was slowly emerging from a long time of trial, a woman in the Japanese imperial court wrote this intricate and refined story about the world in which she lived, a world worlds away from anything known in the West at that time, and quite different in tenor from even the high cultural achievements of Western antiquity.

The Tale of Genji has been called “the first novel”, and indeed Murasaki Shikibu’s careful tracing of psychological complexities and social niceties are worthy of Henry James, but it’s not clear that the designation is quite apt. The book lies wholly outside and antecedent to the tradition of the novel. Though it has roots in Japanese literary traditions, it stands apart as a staggeringly ambitious, in both scale and subtlety, attempt at literary realism. It is, I am told, considered a great classic of Japanese literature, and I am not surprised; had we something of comparable vintage and comparable greatness we’d consider it a classic too.

Although it is sweeping in scope, with over 400 characters, at least a few dozen of them having some claim to being central, the story mostly follows Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji”, a son of the Emperor and a concubine, whose parentage makes him a rather minor member of the imperial court. We follow his many romantic dalliances with ladies in and around the court, his marriages (for this court is determinedly polygamous), and then, as the story progresses, the lives of his children, for whom he does his best to provide, a faithful if distant father. A convenient prècis of much of the story might be this:

It was a difficult world, which refused to give satisfaction. Among his ladies there was none who could be dismissed as completely beneath consideration and none to whom he could give his whole love.

The setting of the story, the Heian court circles, is one of immense delicacy and refinement. Manners are impeccable, conversation is elaborate and polite, voices are hushed. Women remain veiled from sight behind screens. Letters, carefully written and scented with perfumes, are exchanged quietly. I was startled when I realized that most of the social action of the story takes place at night, when all is a play of shadows and light.

This delicacy carries over to the prose, at least in the translation I have read, by Edward Seidensticker. (There are now, I believe, four English translations available.) The voice Seidensticker gives Shikibu is fragile and minimal, smooth, and emotionally stable. I actually found myself turning the pages of the book gently and with unusual care, so as not to ruffle the placid surface, nor disturb the mood with something so rough as a rustling page. As time went on, and I night after night returned to Genji’s tale, I found myself looking forward, with real appreciation, to entering that quiet, carefully managed world again, as though I were entering a poem.

And thoughts of poetry are fitting, for though the story itself is told in prose, the pages are sprinkled with short poems — about 800 of them, I believe — which characters compose for letters or, spontaneously, in conversation. These poems are of a particular type, the tanka, consisting of 31 syllables, and have a literary effect not unlike that of the haiku. Seidensticker in his translation converts these poems into two English lines, confessing that much of the wordplay and poetic resonance is inevitably lost. They are often magnificently oblique, it being a kind of impoliteness, it seems, to come right out and say what one means.

I can perhaps give an impression of the style by providing a short example. This passage begins with Genji entering a room where a woman, Chujo, has been sleeping, whereupon they exchange poems:

Chujo was having a nap in one of the east rooms. She sat up as he came in. A small woman, she brought a sleeve to her face, bright and lively and slightly flushed. Her thick hair, though somewhat tangled from sleep, was very beautiful. She was wearing a singlet of taupe-yellow, dark-gray robes, and saffron trousers, all of them just a little rumpled, and she had slipped off her jacket and train. She now made haste to put herself in order. Beside her was a sprig of heartvine.

‘It is so long since I have had anything to do with it,’ he said, picking it up, ‘that I have even forgotten the name.’

She thought it a somewhat suggestive remark.

‘With heartvine we garland our hair — and you forget!
All overgrown the urn, so long neglected.’

Yes, he had neglected her, and he was sorry.

‘The things of this world mean little to me now,
And yet I find myself reaching to break off heartvine.’

There still seemed to be one lady to whom he was not indifferent.

The rainy Fifth Month was a difficult time.

Suddenly a near-full moon burst through a rift in the clouds. Yugiri chanced to be with him at this beautiful moment. The white of the orange blossoms leaped forward in the moonlight and on a fresh breeze the scent that so brings memories came wafting into the room. But it was only for a moment. The sky darkened even as they awaited, ‘unchanged a thousand years, the voice of the cuckoo.’ The wind rose and almost blew out the eaves lamp, rain pounded on the roof, and the sky was black once more.

‘The voice of rain at the window,’ whispered Genji. It was not a very striking or novel allusion, but perhaps because it came at the right moment Yugiri wished it might have been heard ‘at the lady’s hedge.’

‘I know I am not the first man who has had to live alone,’ said Genji, ‘but I do find myself restless and despondent.’

The two poems set off by line breaks are in the tanka form, but the other poetic fragments (three of them in this section) enclosed in quotation marks are allusions to extra-Genjian poetry, with which Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been intimately familiar, and with which she expected a comparable familiarity in her reader.

*

By almost any measure, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece. Like many great achievements, it is not easily enjoyed; much is asked of the reader. I have already mentioned the many characters, the mastery of whom is complicated by the fact that the same character is often referred to under several different names or titles; most of the names, in fact, seem not to be proper names at all, but names of flowers, which characters have adopted as monikers. Seidensticker errs in the direction of greater naming consistency than do some translators, and this was a mercy. Even so, I found it difficult to keep track of all Genji’s lady friends, most of whom ended up blurring together in my mind. The great exception to this rule was Murasaki, his concubine and greatest love (but this relationship posed difficulties of another order, for Genji first fell in love with her when she was only ten years old).

Then, too, the story cannot be said to have a superabundance of narrative momentum. Much is revealed by the existence of a scholarly dispute about whether the chapters were composed in order, for although there are narrative threads that span the life of Genji, and a legion of recurring characters, the story is somewhat episodic, each chapter being only loosely tied to its neighbours. There is also a dispute about the story’s ending: intentionally abrupt or unfinished? Without any claim to expertise in literary conventions of the period, I feel confident saying that a modern reader is going to find the ending abrupt in an unfinished kind of way.

Finally, the book’s overall effect seems to me marred by a tremendous disruption in the narrative that happens about 800 pages in. Remember how in Les Miserables there is a narrative gap in which we transition rapidly from young Cosette to adult Cosette, and are introduced to a new set of young revolutionary characters, and so many things have changed that we are tempted to put the book down? The problem here is similar, for we leave behind Genji and focus instead on the romantic escapades of Kaoru, a son of one of Genji’s nephews. Granted, this part of the story has certain resonances with the story of Genji’s own youth — in some sense, it could still be read as being about Genji — but I found it difficult to make the transition, and I confess I didn’t read the last chapters of the book as attentively as the first.

*

Many of the difficulties of the book were ameliorated for me by keeping William Puette’s A Reader’s Guide on my bed-table. He provides a brief introduction to the historical setting, describes the poetic traditions which Genji draws on, provides lists of characters and clues to their relationships, comments on the relative strengths of the English translations (only Seidensticker and Waley, those being the only two available at the time the book was published), and, best of all, he gives chapter-by-chapter summaries of the story. I found the book helpful, a valuable safety net, and am not sure that I would have persevered without it.

It is natural, I think, having finished a novel that competes in scale with War and Peace, to speak well of it; the alternative is to admit that many precious hours of life were wasted. Determined to be unswayed by such thoughts, I will, nonetheless, speak well of The Tale of Genji, and allow its long-standing reputation to justify my praise, rather than the other way around.


Gleanings: MacMillan, Wittgenstein, and more!

September 30, 2019
  • At Image Journal, I’ve discovered an essay by Michael Capps which gives an appreciative overview of the music of the fine Scottish composer James MacMillan. I learned quite a lot from it. MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony recently premiered in Edinburgh.
  • Also at Image Journal, the editor, Gregory Wolfe, in a neat inversion of the usual formula, confesses to being “religious, but not spiritual”. I don’t know that I’d put it quite so emphatically myself, but I’m sympathetic.
  • The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped in the last week or so, and, once again, I failed to attend any screenings, but I did take note of this positive reaction to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. I wonder when I’ll get a chance to see it…
  • Standpoint has been running a series on persons and things they judge “overrated”. It’s hard to argue with some of their targets (Harry Potter, Ayn Rand, Voltaire, Richard Dawkins); I confess I’ve never heard of some others, which makes me wonder how overrated they can be. But the most recent entry, on Wittgenstein, is a gem.
  • Deal Hudson has assembled what he thinks the 100 best Catholic movies. Inclusion criteria seem to have been fairly loose: we expect to find “A Man for All Seasons”, but “First Reformed” isn’t specifically Catholic. “Movies of interest to Catholics” is probably closer to what was intended. I’ve seen 8 of his top 10, but only 30-odd of the titles on the full list. Plenty of fodder there for future movie nights. Did you know there was a film version of “Kristin Lavransdatter”?

For an envoi, let’s hear a piece that ravished me this week: the “Agnus Dei” from Johannes Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine, performed by Le Miroir de Musique.


Lux aeterna

September 29, 2019

Lewis: Space Trilogy

September 25, 2019

On my first attempt on Lewis’ Space Trilogy, over twenty years ago, I mostly disliked it — disliked it enough, at least, that I abandoned (space)ship after the second volume. When I mentioned this to a friend a few years ago I was told (to vary the metaphor) that I had left the wedding just as the best wine was being served. So I thought that I would give the series — the entire series — another try, and I have finally made good on that decision.

***

Out of the Silent Planet
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1938]
158 p.

Lewis wears his debt to the science fiction of H.G. Wells on his sleeve. Out of the Silent Planet will remind Wellsians of The Time Machine and especially The First Men in the Moon on account of its speculations about other rational species and varieties of social organization conjoined to a marked lack of interest in the niceties of rocketry and thermodynamics.

The premise, if anyone should be ignorant of it, is that Ransom, an English academic, is kidnapped and taken via makeshift spacecraft by two mad companions to Mars — which, as we soon learn, is called Malacandra by all rational creatures save ourselves. The story follows Ransom as he lands on Malacandra, escapes from his captors, and lives for many months among the native species, learning their ways.

The book is partly an imaginative exploration of several of the themes of his great non-fiction book The Discarded Image — that is, an exploration of pre-modern astronomy and cosmology. We learn from Ransom, for instance, that our modern conception of interplanetary space as “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” is inept, the ancients’ name for it — “the heavens” — being much more suitable. The book is also, more thoroughly and specifically, an attempt to think through Christian and Platonic ideas about embodiment, rationality, morality, and the hierarchy of being(s). It attempts, in fact, to take many of the elements of medieval cosmology and adapt them to the new world-picture given us by modern astronomy. The Christian doctrine of the Fall, for instance, plays a central role: Earth is the silent planet, whose creatures and presiding spirits have been “bent” and fallen out of contact with the other rational beings who inhabit the solar system.

In addition to Ransom, the book introduces us to two other characters, Weston and Devine, who reappear in subsequent volumes and are, in their own villainous ways, central characters in the trilogy.

It’s a good book, better than I remembered. I think that my younger self was put off by the somewhat corny and unconvincing handling of the scientific elements of the story — this has always been an obstacle to my enjoyment of science fiction — and he, my younger self, was also probably not astute enough to appreciate Lewis’ larger and more learned interests and concerns.

**

Perelandra
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1943]
192 p.

It was Perelandra that crashed my spacecraft on my first attempt on these books. My memory of exactly what went wrong was, I would have admitted, hazy, but if pressed I’d have pointed first to that garish sequence in which Ransom, now spirited away to Venus, witnessed a herd of pastel-coloured beasts, long-legged and flimsy, like a cross between a Star Wars Walker and one of Dr Seuss’ more whimsical creations, galloping across a field of lily pads. This was just too much for my sober imagination.

All of which would have been quite amusing, because, as I now discover, there is nothing like this in the book. Where these lurid imaginings came from I cannot now say.

I had this much right: Ransom goes to Venus. He is summoned, and knows not why. Eventually he learns that his arch-nemesis, Professor Weston, is also there, intent on colonizing the planet, destroying whatever native life he finds there, bringing evil and sin to a world where it does not yet exist, and Ransom infers that his task is to prevent it.

Misapprehensions being corrected, I find that there is actually much to like about the book, which is clearly deep in conversation with Lewis’ beloved Paradise Lost. His Venus is Edenic, an unfallen world, complete with its own Adam and Eve, and some of the images he uses are echoes of Milton’s own. It has often been said that it is easy, for us, to imagine and describe evil, but to do the same for goodness, to make goodness alluring and involving, is strangely elusive and difficult. Lewis here does his best to climb that endless mountain.

A great strength of the book is Lewis’ portrait of Venus, the watery planet. He gives us vast floating islands like lily pads (there they are!) which flex as waves pass beneath them, and stunning mountains, and cataracts, and, in one memorable sequence, intricate networks of caves. Of course, the fact that he calls his planet Venus, rather than, say, Planet X35, is complicated by what we now know of Venus, but, that aside, it is an impressive attempt at cosmic world-building.

Perelandra is also a very theological and philosophical novel. The Space Trilogy is much concerned with bringing Christian theology to bear on matters typical of science fiction — other worlds, alien creatures — and Perelandra is focused closely on the nature of original innocence, and how temptation might appear to it, and what sin actually is, and also on how the Christian story, seen from an Earthly perspective, might fit into a larger cosmic story which is, nonetheless, still ultimately the Christian story.

Lewis was a more than competent theologian and had a keen philosophical mind, so this is quite excellent on the whole. It does, however, make the novel quite wordy and discursive. I didn’t always mind this — the long peroration with which the book ends is a fine example of Lewis’ high rhetoric on a high theme — but overall I found it delayed and disrupted the action of the story. The book also, I think, has a problem of narrative structure, with too little to happen and the reader often at sea (as it were) about the direction in which the narrative wind is blowing.

**

That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 2003) [1945]
384 p.

That Hideous Strength returns to Earth, to England, where the cosmic conflict anticipated in Perelandra is beginning to play out. Lewis sub-titled this volume “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, and it is true that the science fiction elements of the previous volumes are here largely set aside in favour of something more wondrous strange.

We are introduced to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a suitably Orwellian name for a quasi-government agency with loads of money, lots of political clout, and high ambitions to transform society along progressive lines using propaganda, scientific methods, and — this being a fairy tale — magic. In the novel’s early stages they are attempting to recruit a promising young sociologist, Mark Studdock, and it is primarily through his eyes that we, as readers, come to know about the inner workings of the N.I.C.E.

Meanwhile Mark’s wife, Jane, is being pulled in quite another direction: she has begun to experience peculiar, disquieting dreams and, in an effort to get to the bottom of them, is quietly and providentially drawn into the orbit of Ransom, around whom a small group of people has formed who are determined to resist the advance of the N.I.C.E.

Having read the previous volumes, we are not surprised to learn that the N.I.C.E. is, in fact, the instrument by which the bent presiding spirit of Earth (aka Lucifer) intends to advance an inhuman ideology and political programme designed, ultimately, to erase from humanity the imago Dei by a thorough reconstruction of human nature and society, and that Ransom, a friend and servant of the unfallen planetary intelligences — the eldila — is the keystone in the counterplot. The story plays out as an escalating conflict between the two sides.

To a large extent the book continues the dialogue between Christianity and secularism that was begun in the earlier volumes, but here Lewis adds an unexpected third partner to the dance: the Arthurian tradition, which plays a key role both theme-wise and plot-wise. I’m not quite convinced that this is entirely successful, on the whole; unless I missed it, there was nothing in the earlier books about Arthur, and its introduction feels a little ad hoc. (This despite Lewis’ attempt, late in the book, to frame the Arthurian elements as simply a manifestation of England’s true self, the natural form which her native genius takes.) On its own merits, I rather enjoyed the Arthuriana, but artistically it’s a tad awkward — though perhaps no more awkward than having a fairy tale conclude a science fiction adventure.

Readers familiar with Lewis’ other writings are likely to notice how ideas in That Hideous Strength remind them of Lewis’ other books, so much so that I began to think of the novel as a kind of Lewisian ouvre in miniature. Essays like “The Inner Ring” and “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” are obvious points of reference, and I also picked up ideas which are familiar from The Discarded Image, The Abolition of Man, and even The Chronicles of Narnia.

Naturally, it’s quite gratifying to read a novel in which progressive causes are bad. Lewis had a life-long aversion to social planning and scientific, “rational” disruptions of traditional ways of life, and, as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, shared none of modernity’s characteristic fascination with the newfangled.

In the end I found That Hideous Strength, like the trilogy as a whole, to be a quite fascinating attempt to combine things not normally treated together in fiction: theology and science, technology and magic, Arthur and Wells, sociology and sophiology. It makes one think about the intellectual and spiritual currents which contend against one another in our times, just as they did in Lewis’, and to consider, like Mark and Jane are forced to do, where one’s allegiance lies. The ambitious — indeed, cosmic — scale of the storytelling is attractive, and, I think, a necessary preparation for the story that the final volume wants to tell.

*

I cannot help noting that there is today, in the UK, an organization called N.I.C.E.! I guess not everybody reads.

**

I’m so pleased to have finally read this trilogy in its entirety, after so many years of intending to do so. Lewis is an unimpeachable stylist, always graceful and civilized, always a pleasure to read. The trilogy is better than I had judged on first acquaintance, even if it is not likely to rank among my favourite of Lewis’ writings. This is what is called “praising with faint damnation”.

***

For an envoi, we must listen to the song “Out of the Silent Planet” by King’s X. They made an entire album called Out of the Silent Planet, but this song comes from what I think is their best record, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. It must be played loudly.


Wodehouse: Something Fresh

September 12, 2019

Something Fresh
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2005) [1915]
284 p.

This is the first Blandings novel, and it ranks with the very best of Wodehouse. Everything about it is top notch, from the smoothly-oiled machinations of the ingenious story to the raft of eccentric characters to the buoyant mirth of the prose. If I had migrated from the Jeeves stories with some expectation of a decline in delight, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and encouraged.

The plot circles around the recovery of a precious Egyptian scarab “of the fourth dynasty”, which has been absentmindedly removed from the collection of the American millionaire J. Preston Peters by Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a doddering man who believes he received it from Peters as a gift, but of course Peters wants it back. The matter is delicate because the children of the two men, Freddie Threepwood and Aline Peters, are engaged to be married, and to accuse Lord Emsworth of theft would be a faux-pas of the first magnitude.

When a prize is offered by Peters for its recovery, three parties decide to make a try: Ashe Marson, writer of detective fiction, who engages himself to Peters as valet; Joan Valentine, old school friend of Aline and struggling actress; and R. Jones, an obese fix-it man. When the rivals, Ashe and Joan, begin to fall in love, the plot thickens!

There are other factors in the mix too, most notably the ill-luck of Baxter, the suspicious personal secretary to Lord Emsworth. Lest there be any concern on the point, everything works out beautifully, and Wodehouse’s manner of spinning the yarn yields pleasures on every page. Superb.


Labyrinthine

September 8, 2019

Everybody thought that George Crumb was cool for notating his music in a circular fashion, but here’s an anonymous medieval piece on a labyrinthine theme that is actually notated to look like a circular labyrinth. It was way, way ahead of its time (and the music is better than the Crumby modern stuff).


Virgil: Aeneid

September 4, 2019


Aeneid

Virgil
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
(Penguin Classics, 1997) [19 BC]
480 p.

Aeneid, Book VI
Virgil
Translated from the Latin by Seamus Heaney
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
xiii + 53 p.

What Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son,
A thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done:
False tears and fawning words the city won.

Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates; Virgil might well have titled his poem Aeneid, with Constant Reference to Homer. Not only do many episodes in Homer find echoes and analogues in this poem, but the story itself is the mirror image, as it were, of the Odyssey: both launch from the sack of Troy, but whereas Homer follows the victorious Greeks as they return home, Virgil follows the defeated Trojans as they seek a new homeland in which to found a new city, great Rome itself.

We join the story in medias res, Aeneas and his men having been blown off course on their journey and landed at Carthage in North Africa. There they are feasted at the court of Dido, and the Aeneid relates, in verse that is grippingly dramatic, the backstory of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. Sent into exile, they endure various hardships and adventures before washing up at Carthage. (One amusing episode has them land on the island of the Cyclops. A Greek comes rushing unexpectedly out to meet them, begging them to take him on board. This, it turns out, is a sailor left behind by Odysseus when he visited the island a few weeks before! (Odyssey, IX)) During the telling of this tale Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but when he insists that the gods have destined him for other things, she commits suicide. This tragic love story forms one of the more satisfying sub-plots in the poem.

Pressing on toward Italy, they eventually make landfall, but despite their intentions to build a new city and live in peace, their neighbours, inflamed by the ill will of Juno, march to war against them. The entire second half of the poem is devoted to this war, and the poem ends abruptly when Aeneas at last kills his rival, Turnus:

He rais’d his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain’d his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.

*

If you have ever wondered why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, you need only turn to Book VI, which relates the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in search of his father. Each time I read it, my hair stands on end, and I can feel the atmosphere again of Dante’s epic, through a glass darkly. It is among my favourite parts of the poem, so I was pleased to supplement my reading of Dryden’s translation with the recent translation of Book VI which Seamus Heaney made shortly before his death. He says he undertook it partly as a way of reflecting on his own father’s death, and on the birth of his granddaughter, but also as a way of honouring his childhood Latin teacher.

Heaney’s version has not the incantatory power of Dryden’s, but I nonetheless found it very good on its own terms. He writes in blank iambic pentameter. Let’s compare a few passages.

When Aeneas makes his first entry to the underworld, Dryden writes

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

while Heaney gives us

On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king —
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
While the colours of the world pall in the gloom.

In this case I think I prefer Heaney; the ‘shoots by fits’ in Dryden sounds awkward, but ‘clouds and unclouds’ is a nice phrase, and I think Heaney, with his ‘darkness’, ‘shadowing’, ‘nowhere’, ‘deserted’, ‘pall’ and ‘gloom’ captures better the desolation of the place.

Moving downward, Aeneas comes upon a mysterious tree which Dryden describes in this way:

Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.

and Heaney:

\; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinger together
On the undersides of the leaves.

That ‘darkly aflutter’ is a nice touch, but I think the rhymes in Dryden add to the solemnity of the moment. Heaney, though, does tell us that the dreams are on the undersides of the leaves; I don’t know what this means, but it does seem an important detail, if indeed it is in Virgil.

For one last comparison, let’s take one of the more gruesome moments. Aeneas sees, Tityos, ‘the foster-son of Earth’, bound to the ground while a vulture of perpetual appetite perpetually consumes his liver. Writes Dryden:

There Tityus was to see, who took his birth
From heav’n, his nursing from the foodful earth.
Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space.
A rav’nous vulture, in his open’d side,
Her crooked beak and cruel talons tried;
Still for the growing liver digg’d his breast;
The growing liver still supplied the feast;
Still are his entrails fruitful to their pains:
Th’ immortal hunger lasts, th’ immortal food remains.

Fantastic! And Heaney:

Tityos, his body stretching out
Over nine whole acres while a huge, horrendous
Vulture puddles forever with hooked beak
In his liver and entrails teeming with raw pain.
It burrows deep below the breastbone, feeding
And foraging without respite, for the gnawed-at
Gut and gutstrings keep renewing.

It’s good, but for me it’s simply not as good.

**

Toward the end of Aeneas’ underworld sojourn, the shade of his father, Anchises, foretells the future history of Rome, from the city’s founding down to the reign of the mighty and stupendous Augustus. When I have read the poem in the past, I have stumbled through this section, needing constantly to refer to the notes. But this time, rafter having spent the better part of two years reading Roman history, I read it with understanding! A nice pay-off.

To my mind the Aeneid is front-loaded with its best material. I love the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy in Book II, and the fateful romance of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV, and the journey to the underworld in Book VI, but once the Trojans make landfall in Italy and begin the long process of forming alliances and fighting battles with the locals it seems to lose its forward momentum, becoming a blur of minor characters and shifting allegiances. I feel about the first half as I feel about the Odyssey, but about the last half as I do about the Iliad.

This was my first time through the poem with Dryden; in the past I have read the Fitzgerald translation. There is no contest: Dryden prevails. His poem has the high epic tone. He carries the reader aloft. By all means, let there be other translations, but for English-speaking readers I am convinced he is essential. It is one of the few examples of a translation that stands on its own as a poetic masterpiece.