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.

Doubt Mis-Placed

My current nightly reading is cycling between Descartes and Foucault: well, at least they were both French.  My reasons and reading choices aside, I ‘ve come through the Meditations on First Philosophy wherein we are led through Descartes’ search for the “true Method of arriving at a knowledge of all the things of which my mind was capable.  (Meditations, translated by E.S. Haldane & G.R.T. Ross, from The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2012), Modern Library, edited by Monroe Beardsley: p. 15)”  Noting that everyone seems to think they have sufficient good sense that most do not desire more of it (ibid, p. 5), Descartes chooses to sort between those reasons manifest as good sense according to method; namely, an adaptation of methodological skepticism which has come to be known as Cartesian doubt.

A full critique of such methods, or more specifically a critique of the reliance on methods to alleviate one doubt by choosing systemically choosing another and the dualism necessary to accept the Cartesian result, is not of interest here.  Descartes has been scoffed at enough.  What has interested me instead has been how the results of Descartes’ project so diverged from his purposes.  An example: Descartes hoped, in the introduction to his Meditations to show how his method frees reason from prejudices.  But Descartes was not truly interested in letting go of his central prejudices.  The two that remained were his identity as a thinking being and being equally sure that God exists.  Instead of liberating philosophy from all prejudices, Descartes hoped instead to free from all prejudices that were of lesser importance.

Of course, the first of these prejudices embodied in Je pense donc je suis or cogito ergo sum fails to answer either what it means to be, who I am, or that of which thinking is truly comprised.  It did, however, add questions not asked in isolation (methodological skepticism was not original to Descartes – see Pyrrho of Elis, Sextus Empiricus, and, if you ‘re feeling adventurous, I really recommend al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal or Deliverance from Error but his use of it was unique) and the results went well outside the bounds of Descartes’ purpose.  Instead of accepting the Cartesian presupposition, the subject ‘I’ became the locus of reason with the illusion that right thinking freed one from prejudice.  The prejudice against prejudice must be dealt with another time, but I follow Gadamer enough to distrust such claims.  Needless to say (why is this considered an appropriate segue ever?) Descartes sought to answer such questions as I have raised, but the success of his project was ineffective for effecting his purpose while its reliance on the definition of man as rational animal was reinforced by his project.

But the second is equally important to Descartes!  Interestingly the idea of the ‘natural light’ rings of al-Ghazali as I read this, but my point holds: existence is not imagined apart from the being above the realm of thought.  Here:

“[T]he idea by which I apprehend a supreme God, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of all things which are in addition to Himself, has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas by which finite substances are represented.”

~Meditation III, p. 45

Because Descartes is so assured of God’s existence, and recognizes that such an idea cannot originate from himself, so he holds that not only does something other than himself exist, but that being must be the cause of that idea (ibid, p. 46).

“Consequently, the idea I have of Him is the most completely true, the most completely clear and distinct, of all the ideas that are in me.”

~Meditation III, p. 49

He then goes on to consider, in Meditation IV, truth and falsity which necessarily includes some discussion of error by way of an Augustinian theodicy.  In the Supplementary Passages attached, Descartes concludes:

“And though the wisest minds may study the matter as much as they will, I do not believe they will be able to give any sufficient reason for removing this doubt, unless they presuppose the existence of God.”

~Metaphysical Doubt and Certainty from The European Philosophers, p. 82

This should be all that is necessary to demonstrate that Descartes’s purpose in discourse cannot be easily divorced from a belief in God.  Taking away this second assumption would remove the meaning in defense of Whom Descartes doubted.  In a similar way, no one ever deconstructs purely for deconstruction’s sake, but does so with the hope to be consulted in the rebuilding.  Otherwise, one does not write.  That ‘s speech-act theory at its core: we speak and write to communicate a purpose.  So, to avoid plunging further into terms, I here wish to expound on my own research project – that of mis-understanding as it relates to the thoughts of one or many coming to serve purposes contrary to those for which the author publishes.  I ‘m no less haunted.  If I stoop but a little to look at the mis-purposed corpses of thought – meditative projects whose methods are made to serve, whose lives must be animated by something other than the purposes which were their origin – that for which they were conceived and sewn together.

Again I put the question to myself, so I shall put it to you as well: what thought is more horrifying for the thinker?  Rejection is far better than this mis-projection, this misuse of energies.  Put the question to yourself – what is worth being not only misunderstood for, but what is worth putting your energies into and subsequently being completely misunderstood and misdirected?

Peripheral Vision – Science and the Prejudice Against Prejudice

It is usually said that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the scientific study of language in the western world. And this statement is true, if we give to the term ‘scientific’ the sense it generally bears today; it was in the course of the nineteenth century that facts of language came to be carefully and objectively investigated and then explained in terms of inductive hypotheses. It should not be forgotten, however, that this conception of science is of quite recent development. The speculative grammar of the scholastics and of their philosophical successors at Port Royal ..was scientific according to their understanding of what constituted sure knowledge.

-John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 1971: p. 22; underlines mine)

This brings to mind my favorite class at Fuller – Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics (hermeneutic generally means ‘interpretive’ and derives from the Hermes, the Greek god of heraldry) with Merold Westphal.  We spoke of the ‘prejudice against prejudice’ to quite some extent.  I like that Lyons here provides a means to contextualize science as we understand it.  It ‘s too easy to assume that our way of scientific inquiry is surely the right method.  Like us, the medieval scholastics thought their manner of inquiry was scientific and the most rational means of approaching the study of language.

Lyons concludes:

The difference between this way of looking at linguistic questions and that which resulted in the immensely fruitful period of comparative philology was not so much that the latter was more respectful of the ‘facts’ and more careful in its observation and collection of them (this is effect, rather than cause), but by the end of the eighteenth century there had developed a general dissatisfaction with a priori and so-called ‘logical’ explanations and a preference for historical reasoning.  (Lyons, Theoretical Linguistics: pp. 22-23)

I do n’t mean to argue here that the methods of our day are more ‘scientific’ than previously, but rather; I mean to note that the concept denoted ‘scientific’ has shifted as the presuppositions of scientific inquiry have been replaced.  Having read a goodly sampling of medieval philosophy in general, I am consistently impressed by how thorough their thoughts are (this was more true once I learned of some of the nuances particular terms held).  By the measures of their methods, they were exhaustive and many of the preserved texts are brilliant within their discourse.  I mean to say that that which causes something to be characterized as ‘scientific’ has and continues to change, even as we are unaware of the flux.

So, my question is – when will our current methods of ‘scientific’ inquiry be deemed unscientific?  More interestingly, what will be the means by which our science is seen as inferior – what criteria do we foolishly violate?  Every discourse or method of philosophical inquiry has limits – each is a ‘seeing as’ and therefore something is inevitably lost on the periphery.  My question is therefore one of predictive peripheral vision in the context of the study of language.  Or, are there some prejudices in our science which ought to be preserved?

On Reading as Performance

(I should add ‘provisionally’ to the title for a reason I shall be sure to expound upon soon)

Amidst our course’s considerations of H.G. Gadamer’s “Truth and Method” (Philosophical Hermeneutics with Merold Westphal to provide greater context) we have seriously looked at seeing texts. I only plan to draw one thought, one possibility, therefrom; the manner by which reading parallels performance.

Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s ‘How to Read a Book’ offers the reader an introduction to methods by which to actively encounter the text (assuming such is a worthwhile venture) – essentially by means of questions. Clearly they want to get away from the notion that the reader’s goal is to passively receive the (static) message of the author [Gadamer makes the point that transmitting an inner understanding is not always the author’s purpose, nor does the author have ultimate control over the life of the text]. The active reader better experiences the text – but are two readings ever the same (and is it problematic if they are n’t)?

Considering reading as it parallels the interpretation of a play (or the performance of a musical piece) may allow us to think differently of this activity. I return to certain works of imaginative literature in hopes of recovering some experience in reading, but my reading is never the same. Each time new items come to the front of the scene (illumined by other readings or better background understandings of the author or even current events in my life – all of these may affect the created scenes in more or less pleasing manners) and other items are neglected that may have been special in a prior reading.

For example, each reading of Lewis’ ‘Till We Have Faces’ has been different for me: I recall Orual’s case against the gods and answer as thoroughly gripping when first I stumbled across it — more recently considering Psyche as the human soul as opposed to Orual’s jealousy of her was particularly illuminating. I can never recover fully the first reading, though I treasure the memory of ‘performing’ the interpretation of the words in my mind (yes, that qualifies me as a nerd or a subset thereof).

It should not require much comment, but there are certainly better and worse performances (of interpretations) as there are tremendous and dubious performances on the stage. What I suppose is interesting about this consideration is that we are tempted to think of the author as the puppet-master of the text…but there is far more at play. Rather the reader is the director interpreting the screen-play (hopefully without gross distortions of the screen-play, but the screen-play may be gross in its own right and the performance could be better than the author’s intention). I should again mention (as Adler & van Doren did) that not every screenplay is worth a good performance – but some certainly are. Further, those directors who choose to interpret challenging works are more likely to better perform another work – while interpretation of such sort is unlikely to ever be the ‘perfect’ performance, this need not be the cause of any despair.

What performances haunt you with their beauty and demand another reading?