Monday, September 03, 2007

Lewis, 60 Years Later

CS Lewis's Abolition of Man (available in its entirety online here) was prophetic. Where literary criticism was going wrong in the 30's and 40's among academics has come to full flower in our own age. A clear thinker can sometimes manage the greater demolition of an idea with a mild sentence than all the flame-throwers and propagandists can do in entire books. In criticising the authors of a high-school text book of English composition, Lewis writes:
In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars.
That settles that, then, doesn't it? No insulting names, calling one's opponents Dhimmicrats or Repugnicans, wingnuts or leftards. Just a quiet overview. I'm glad it wasn't me he was talking about.

The context is his review of The Control Of Language an English textbook for the upper forms, by the Australians Alex King and Martin Ketley, which he disguises as the Green Book by Gaius and Titius. If it seems that Lewis is wasting large cannon on small game, remember that this textbook was in use for several decades, and had more direct effect on the thinking of schoolboys than the writings of the deeper thinkers behind them. Also, Lewis stands in against the heavyweights only a page or two later, giving a concise but thorough critique of I. A. Richards and thus "New Criticism," ascendant at Cambridge and Oxford at the time.

Richards (and Leavis) he accords more respect. He does not find their ideas ridiculous, but inadequate, incomplete, and unsatisfying. They rise to the level of refutation. But King and Ketley's textbook is a mass of contradictions and half-baked ideas, now thrust upon students who will be subtly damaged as human beings without quite knowing how. G & T are very concerned their students might fall for the political and social beliefs of their parents and grandparents (as if) because of the manipulations of language. They want to fortify the lads so as not to be taken in. That this opens them to be taken in by another set of beliefs currently in fashion seems not to worry them. The quote above continues:
Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional or (as they would say) 'sentimental' values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that 'real' or 'basic' values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted.

In between these quotes is the numeral "1," a footnote marker. Lewis sums up a set of attitudes prevalent still in a footnote, as cleanly as I have seen it done.
The real (perhaps unconscious) philosophy of Gaius and Titius becomes clear if we contrast the two following lists of disapprovals and approvals.
A. Disapprovals: A mother's appeal to a child to be 'brave' is 'nonsense' (Green Book, p. 62). The reference of the word 'gentleman' is 'extremely vague' (ibid.) 'To call a man a coward tells us really nothing about what he does' (p. 64). Feelings about a country or empire are feelings 'about nothing in particular' (p. 77).
B. Approvals: Those who prefer the arts of peace to the arts of war (it is not said in what circumstances) are such that 'we may want to call them wise men' (p. 65). The pupil is expected 'to believe in a democratic community life' (p. 67). 'Contact with the ideas of other people is, as we know, healthy' (p. 86). The reason for bathrooms ('that people are healthier and pleasanter to meet when they are clean') is 'too obvious to need mentioning' (p. 142). It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked. Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker's van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.
"...jeering at colonels and reading newspapers." That about captures it.

He subsequently complains that they should be called Intellectuals when
Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chests beneath that makes them seem so.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

Parts of The Abolition of Man are more relevant than ever. Other parts have, thankfully, become obsolete.

If we compare mid-20th-century SF (with psychohistory or the Lensmen or the Psychology Service etc.) to mid-20th-century history, we can see what part 3 of The Abolition of Man was against. At the time, it was a common idea that just as knowledge of Nature led to control of Nature, knowledge of Man would lead to control of Man. The question of who would do the controlling was rarely mentioned. That idea is no longer trendy, partly because the people most likely to take it seriously no longer believe in controlling Nature.