Saturday, March 17, 2018

Three Great Days

During the third week in February, I enjoyed one of the best three-day stretches of my whole experience in scheduled reading. First, I started Mansfield Park, which was even better than I had remembered. Then I started Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, which had two stunning effects. First, the basis of his experiment is directly exemplified and verified by Austen's characters (and once he even refers to Austen), as if one were the demonstration of the other. Second, he said something on almost every page that provided that moment when you see something with import to your whole life that you hadn't thought about before and yet immediately seems obvious. Sometimes he challenged everything I thought about literature and made me feel I had been reading incorrectly my entire life. But then just as I would begin to abandon all hope, he would make another remark that made me feel pretty intelligent after all. The unassuming title hides the importance of what he has to say! The book doesn't present a throw-away idea that you might try out on a Sunday afternoon; it explains What It Means To Be Literary.

The experiment is this. Instead of beginning with criticism of books and then defining good readers as those who like the right sort of books, let's begin with criticism of readers and define good books as those that appeal to the right sort of reader. The first step in defining different kinds of readers is to see that they don't “like” different kinds of books. Using the same verb suggests that the same process is going on in various readers’ heads and that what makes a nonliterary reader is a taste for bad literature. But who has a taste for the bad? What the many nonliterary people do with books is simply not the same as what the few literary people do with books. Let's say that the many use books while the few receive them.

Those who use books want plot with exciting events. Description has to be just interesting enough to set the stage and must use hackneyed phrases: "her blood ran cold" cues the reader to register the idea of fear more strongly than “she was afraid” but does nothing to describe a particular fear in a particular situation. Those who use books want excitement, happiness, drama, tragedy or any other effect that will entertain, confirm, and present visions of possibility for the reader's life. But they don't grow by them; they always want to agree with what they read. They read books once and set them aside as accomplished tasks.

Those who receive books, on the other hand, enter into the world of the book as it is. They appreciate the artistic form of the work, and, while they may not change their mind on any position, they find out to their benefit what it is like to think differently. The users criticize immediately; the receivers defer judgment. Receivers read the same works “ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” (Oh, dear. It doesn’t sound very good for me right now.) Literary readers hear the sounds of the words. (Whew! I’m literary again.) They have life-changing reading experiences akin to religion, love, and bereavement. (Now I’m very literary.) What they read keeps a prominent position in their minds, and they think about, quote, and mutter their favorite lines.

If I continued the summary at this pace, I would nearly have to reproduce the length of the book. So I’ll end with just a note about conclusions. Lewis’s main conclusion is that a certain kind of book rewards the kind of reading that literary people perform: such a book can be read several times and grows with each rereading, it challenges and changes readers’ ideas, it has beautiful, memorable, and speakable lines, and so on. But the conclusion that most struck me this time (I’m sure I will have to reread this book about rereadable books!) had to do with the related topics of agreement and judgment. I was feeling quite nonliterary for a while as Lewis talked down a reader being too quickly critical about works he doesn’t agree with. I have opinions, after all. Maybe I’m the reader Lewis is talking about. But then once more he reconfirmed my status in his club by proving me wrong about myself using my favorite example: Lucretius! I agree with hardly a single sentence in all of De natura rerum, and yet I love it. Lucretius’s theory of atoms gives me a vivid picture of an atheistic, materialistic world and helps me experience what it’s like for a brilliant, eloquent mind to think that way. Now I should inspire myself by my own example to take on a repertoire I don’t have much sympathy for or understanding of: contemporary poetry. I should read swaths of it and remind myself just to let it be what it is, entering into it without judgment and letting it help me see the world through the contemporary poet’s eyes. Just because.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Aristotle and Dickens

Speaking of villains (as I did nearish the end of the previous post), I promised in the last post of January that I would have to write someday about Aristotle and Dickens’s three types of villain. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me when I wrote that post that my opportunity would arrive in the very next weeks.

In book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about why people do bad things. He does this in part to combat a mistake his mentor, Plato, makes through most of his career: assuming that a person will act righteously if he simply knows the right thing to do. (Did Plato never go to a middle school? Or to a college faculty meeting?) Aristotle analyzes mistakes that even good people make in their moral reasoning (not seeing contradictions between the universals of knowledge and the particulars of appetite and other such Aristotelian explanations). But he finds three kinds of fault causing evil action that have nothing to do with syllogisms: vice, incontinence, and brutishness. The vicious person knows all about ethics but simply doesn’t care about the pain or happiness of others anywhere near as much as he cares about his own comfort. The incontinent person wishes she could be better but finds herself too weak to resist temptation. The brute on the other hand doesn’t think at all, acting merely to satisfy hunger and anger by the most direct means.

At some point over the years, it occurred to me that Dickens’s villains often come in threes, and that they usually fall into three types. Maybe I first noticed the pattern with the Defarges and their horrifying partner, The Vengeance, in A Tale of Two Cities. Mme Defarge coolly knits the record of her victims, plotting and planning her private Revolution all the way, while her husband, who appears at times to have a good heart, often simply glides along with the bloody tide. On days of execution, Mme Defarge looks on with grim satisfaction, and M Defarge with sad resignation. But The Vengeance cackles with delight: she loves the sight of blood whether it drips from the neck of a nobleman or his innocent charwoman.

In reviewing Aristotle’s taxonomy of evil this year, I saw a clear parallel. Mme Defarge fits neatly into the Philosopher’s category of vice, M Defarge represents the incontinent quite well, and The Vengeance is a paragon of brutishness. And the pattern seems to hold in other novels, as well. In Oliver Twist, Fagin (Vice) uses children in cold blood to line his own pockets, Bumble the Beadle (Incontinence) finds himself unable to act contrary to the law that he calls “a ass,” and Sikes (Brute) beats Nancy to death in animalistic rage. The baddies in the Dickens I read this year, The Old Curiosity Shop, also fit the mold. Sally Brass (Vice) knows just what she’s doing as she calculates to bring misery into the lives of those around her. Her brother Sampson (Incontinence) isn’t smart enough to do any calculation of his own but acquiesces in his sister’s schemes. And Quilp (Brutishness) – okay, Quilp thinks and plots, but his primary motivation is just a kind of bloodlust.

Dickens’s funny heroes don’t succumb easily to categorization; each is uniquely hilarious. This post has gone on long enough already for me to spend much time on the humor of The Old Curiosity Shop. But before signing off, I want to take the opportunity to promote one of the funniest characters I’ve ever come across. Dick Swiveller may be overlooked becomes he appears in a book whose allegorical melodrama hasn’t suited English-language reading fashion for 150 years. But anyone of the weird few who have read this far in this post will be rewarded by becoming acquainted with a character who, in the serious business of making readers laugh and feel happy to be a part of Dickens’s world, stands tall beside the more well-known Sam Weller and Wilkins Micawber.