It Ought to Mean Something

June 19th, 2010

One of Miller’s tricks is to be constantly using apocalyptic language, to sprinkle every page with phrases like “cosmological flux”, “lunar attraction” and “interstellar spaces” or with sentences like “The orbit over which I am travelling leads me farther and farther away from the dead sun which gave me birth.” The second sentence in the essay on Proust and Joyce is: “Whatever has happened in literature since Dostoievsky has happened on the other side of death.” What rubbish it is, when you think it out! The key words in this kind of writing are “death”, “life”, “birth”, “sun”, “moon”, “womb”, “cosmic” and “catastrophe”, and by free use of them the most banal statement can be made to sound picturesque, while what is outright meaningless can be given an air of mystery and profundity. Even the title of this book, The Cosmological Eye, doesn’t actually mean anything, but it sounds as though it ought to mean something.

-George Orwell, “Review of The Cosmological Eye by Henry Miller”

Which nicely sums up quite a bit of theological literature as well, though of course words like “semiotic” are substituted for dramatic terms.

Poets’ Politics

August 9th, 2009

George Orwell, “As I Please” Tribune 28 January 1944

Whether a poet, as such, is to be forgiven his political opinions is a different question. Obviously one mustn’t say “X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer”, and for the last ten years honest literary criticism has largely consisted in combating this outlook. Personally I admire several writers (Céline, for instance) who have gone over to the Fascists, and many others whose political outlook I strongly object to. But one has the right to expect ordinary decency even of a poet.

George Orwell, “As I Please” Tribune 17 March 1944

Yet they [“lackey” and “flunkey”] and other equally inappropriate words are dug up for pamphleteering purposes. The result is a style of writing that bears the same relation to writing real English as doing a jigsaw puzzle bears to painting a picture. It is just a question of fitting together a number of ready-made pieces. Just talk about hydra-headed jackboots riding roughshod over blood-stained hyenas, and you are all right. For confirmation of which, see almost any pamphlet issued by the Communist Party?or by any other political party, for that matter.

On Finding Allegory

July 4th, 2008

C.S. Lewis, Letter to Father Peter Milward, 10 December 1956

We shd. probably find that many particular allegories critics read into Langland or Spenser are impossible for just that sort of reason, if we knew all the facts. I am also convinced that the wit of man cannot devise a story in wh. the wit of some other man cannot find an allegory.

What’s become of books

March 21st, 2008

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

In times of old, books were as religious oracles; as literature advanced, they next became venerable preceptors; they then descended to the rank of instructive friends; and as their numbers increased, they sunk still lower to that of entertaining companions; and at present they seem degraded into culprits to hold up their hands at the bar of every self-elected, yet not the less peremptory, judge who chooses to write from humour or interest, from enmity or arrogance, and to abide the decision (in the words of Jeremy Taylor) ‘of him that reads in malice, or him that reads after dinner.’

Of course, now we could go a step further, and say that books are largely not read at all.

What Is Unpoetical?

December 12th, 2007

Samuel Johnson, Life of Milton

[Speaking of the “short digressions at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books” of Paradise Lost] Perhaps no passages are more frequently or more attentively read than those extrinsick paragraphs; and since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.

The Critic May Discover…

August 24th, 2007

…What The Author Never Knew

Samuel Johnson, Life of Pope

[Speaking of how Warburton “discovered” in the Essay on Criticism “such order and connection as was not … intended by the author.”]

Almost every poem, consisting of precepts, is so far arbitrary and immethodical, that many of the paragraphs may change places with no apparent inconvenience; for of two or more positions, depending upon some remote and general principle, there is seldom any cogent reason why one should precede the other. But for the order in which they stand, whatever it be, a little ingenuity may easily give a reason. It is possible, says Hooker, that by long circumlocution, from any one truth all truths may be inferred. Of all homogeneous truths at least, of all truths respecting the same general end, in whatever series they may be produced, a concatenation by intermediate ideas may be formed, such as, when it is once shewn, shall appear natural; but if this order be reversed, another mode of connection equally specious may be found or made. Aristotle is praise for naming Fortitude first of the cardinal virtues, as that without which no other virtue can steadily be practised; but he might, with equal propriety, have placed Prudence and Justice before it, since without Prudence Fortitude is mad; without Justice, it is mischievous.

As the end of method is perspicuity, that series is sufficiently regular that avoids obscurity; and where there is no obscurity it will not be difficult to discover method.

[I suspect that these solid words may have application as well to those who fret over the internal logic of the arrangement of topical sermons.]

C.H. Dodd, The Epistle to the Romans, p.221 on Romans 15:3

But it is more in Paul’s manner to cite Scripture (cf. x. 11-21), because, to his mind, if you can cite Scripture for a fact, you show, not only that it was so, but that it must have been so, in the eternal purpose of God.

Laurence Sterne’s Morality

August 15th, 2007

Laurence Sterne (the author of Tristram Shandy) certainly had a sense of humor. I have quoted from him before on this blog, and when I was reading volume 5 of Tristram Shandy I laughed as I don’t remember ever having done previously at a book. We may be surprised (but if we are, I think it is a symptom of a problem within us) to find that this man also had a fine moral earnestness. There is the sermon included in volume 2 of Tristram Shandy, which is really rather good and which certainly sparks interest in a republication of the volume(s) of Sterne’s sermons that were published during his lifetime. And there is also this:

Tristram Shandy, v.5 Ch. XVI

Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride of human wisdom, That the wisest of us all, should thus outwit ourselves, and eternally forego our purposes in the intemperate act of pursuing them.

Of course, this comes in a comic context within the book. But we shall be guilty of great shallowness if we thereupon presuppose that there can be no genuineness to it. Earnestness and humor are not opposed: I think they go together. Consider this fine sarcasm by one of the most wholehearted of men:

[On the Papist interpreters of the passages relating to the power of the keys] So well known are the keys to those who have thought proper to fit them with locks and doors, that you would say their whole life had been spent in the mechanic art.

John Calvin, Institutes, IV.11.2

At that line also, I laughed out loud.

Art as Instruction

August 8th, 2007

C.S. Lewis reminds us that we should not despise art for having a moral purpose: though of course we are free to despise bad art and to despise bad moral purposes.

Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., 16 April 1940

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. Dante’s alright, and Pickwick is alright. But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing. In fact one can say of Art as an author I recently read says of Love (sensual love, I mean) “It ceases to be a devil when it ceases to be a god”. Isn’t that well put? So many things – nay every real thing – is good if only it will be humble and ordinate.

Letter to I.O. Evans, 28 February 1949

I’m with you on the main issue – that art can teach (and much great art deliberately sets out to do so) without at all ceasing to be art. On the particular case of Wells I wd agree with Burke, because in Wells it seems to me that one had first class pure fantasy (Time Machine, First Men in the Moon) and third class didacticism: i.e. I object to his novels with a purpose not because they have a purpose but because I think them bad. Just as I object to the preaching passages in Thackeray not because I dislike sermons but because I dislike bad sermons. To me, therefore, Wells & Thackeray are instances that obscure the issue. It must be fought on books where the doctrine is as good on its own merits as the art – e.g. Bunyan, Chesterton (as you agree), Tolstoi, Charles Williams, Virgil.