Intertwine: C.S. Lewis, Reading, and Atrophy of the Mind

While I ‘m working perhaps a bit too much, and making little headway in pursuit of my particular research interests, some little time is afforded me for reading.  Perhaps I should spend such times in transit lesson-prepping instead, but I hope the exercise keeps me from turning dull.  Last week I finished a book from my favorite Masters’ class (ironically an intensive I had to add for the purpose of graduating but simply so that I should have enough loans dispersed so as to be able to finish the course necessary for completion of my degree): Overcoming Onto-Theology by Merold Westphal. 

There is much food for thought, some repeated a little too often, but on the whole I am remembering something of the language presented in that course on Philosophical Hermeneutics (because ‘interpretation’ just sounds too simple, and after all; Gadamer will demonstrate how interpretation never escapes, nor should it attempt to, its embeddedness in its Zeitpunkt (time/place, but the German adds a bite to my ticked ear).  This poorly executed segue could, largely unbeknownst to its author, almost serve to illustrate the point Lewis wants to make in ‘Edmund Spenser, 1552-99’ as found in my current travel-mate: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1998), Cambridge U., by C.S.L. 


What the revered Mr Lewis has to say about nearly any matter piques my interest, and I should say this is most true for the ways in which I yet find his writing a surprise not merely to be admired but worthy of being pondered at length.  As regards Spenser, whose Faerie Queene I tackled because it fell within Lewis’ realm some years ago, I find C.S.L.’s reading sheds light on those qualities I had forgotten.  Foremost is Spenser’s ‘polyphonic’ story-telling which surprisingly leaves Prince Arthur, his squire, and Sir Guyon in pursuit of an unknown damsel close-followed by a forester (the intrigue is ryp to be pickt) in favor of following the tale of a strange knight of whose character the reader is wholly unfamiliar. 

In my own reading, I recall both my initial shock and my determination to await the inevitable ‘dovetail’ing where again I should meet the exploits of Arthur and his court.  Lewis remarks that the “old polyphonic story…enjoyed a longer success than the modern novel has enjoyed yet” (Studies p. 134) and some of us might add our approval.  While C.S.L. appeals to the renewal of a theme by a composer, he has addressed a reader too musically challenged to benefit.  Thus I am only able to appreciate the simile theoretically where it might prove illustrative for one less impaired.  But as a reader I share this appreciation for the complex, if not a mind skilled enough to wield it properly. 


And so I nearly escape the charge that “this kind of suspense is lost on us because our bad memories frustrate it and when we get back to Arthur we have forgotten all about him, then, since our ancestors made no such objection, it would seem that we differ from them by an inferiority, not by a superiority” (Ibidem).  I rather envy this skill of such readers – perhaps in such I am ‘behind my time’.  But then, I suppose that is rather essential to any imaginative reading; for any reading that not only explains this world but carries us to another point, another space, another world is, to my mind, an attempt to leave this particular Zeitpunkt in favor of considering the world from another (and then, of course, returning with fresh eyes to see our own – no reading is a truly successful escape).  That former minds were able to embed themselves so thoroughly in such a world, be it a land of faerie or whatever you will have, that their memory extends through the pages and cantos and Books that comprise a work like Faerie Queene illustrates a deficiency of my time.

Lewis takes this opportunity to aver that while the technologies of reading have improved, the faculty of memory has diminished.  Where he points to “cheap paper, typewriters, notebooks, and indexes” as prime examples of what impairs our memories, just as “automobiles have made some people almost incapable of walking” (Studies p. 134), Lewis echoes Socrates’ complaints in Plato’s Phaedras about the book as destroyer of memory and anticipates Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ – reading technologies have continued in progressively offering greater accessibility to resources for reading even as those technologies inhibit the practiced attention needed for higher order reasoning.  In the same sense, the more accessible my destination is by motored vehicle the more effort I need to exert to fight atrophy (surely not a concern for my forebears). 


It is in this sense that C.S.L. marks: “One of the great uses of literary history is to keep reminding us that while [humanity] is constantly acquiring new powers [it] is also constantly losing old ones” (Ibidem).  But our tale need not end on such a negative note for Lewis believes that exercise of these faculties, however much more effort is required, can still be practiced to good effect.  Just as the habit of walking will restore and strengthen our legs, the habit of reading works with ‘thickness’ or ‘density’ may expand our view so that we may not merely follow the immediate events of our stories, as we live them, but so we may be impressed of the conviction that other stories worth being told may break in and interrupt, or better intersect that which we thought worth our interest.  The world of such poems is intricate enough that we should always be forced to leave one tale untold to consider the other, and I should think this true of our own world equally.


At such time, I shall take the ill-advised course of explaining how I inadvertently slipped into giving an example of what struck me in this writing.  I have, of course, completely failed to consider in any depth the world opened by Westphal’s course.  In truth, it is a story I have tried to begin more than once and I can but promise that this poor teller of tales would at least warn his reader against the notion that King Arthur’s court (or the likes of Heidegger, Derrida, and Nietzsche by way of M. Westphal) have left the pages of this sham world not to be summoned again, for there are ever more tales to be told (of faerie and wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) if the reader will but follow along.


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