Literary Hedonism

One evening a month or so ago, my three oldest children were reading on the couch, each one in their own way. Maria, my second oldest, seven, was silently reading one of the Little House books to herself. In the middle of the couch sat Abraham, my oldest at nine years old. He was reading aloud one of the Hardy Boys books to Judah, five. Reading- aloud, silently, and by listening have been the trinity of my kid’s reading lives.

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I have been trying for most of my life to figure out reading. Before Rachel and I had children, we had aspirations for the kinds of educational goals that we thought would suit our children. These goals were as easy to discuss as ‘what would you do if you won the lottery,’ considering that we had no raw material to work from, no obstacles to weigh our dreams against. When we finally did have our firstborn son, we decided that above all else, we wanted our children to love and glorify God, and to love reading. We considered that a love of reading and learning would be conducive for properly shaping and equipping a young mind for the wide world and God’s purposes.

I obviously don’t know yet how many large directional mistakes we’ve made, but there are some things that have gone well. God has blessed our simple efforts to raise readers. Rachel and I wanted to expose their eyes and ears to the riches of literature, and we continued to raise our expectations just a bit higher than we thought them likely to attain.

Today, library trips are a regularly scheduled occasion. The children remind me of starving inmates awaiting daily rations. Entire series are greedily gobbled down before another trip can be arranged. Their enjoyment was something we could share together. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Abraham and Maria while they were three and four respectively. Since then, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed countless hours of shared literary experience. I can’t tell you how many Harry Potter jokes we’ve recounted to one another. Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, and Narnia have provided worlds of imagination and shared culture to appreciate. Lewis, Kipling, Tolkien, Homer- our list of patrons goes ever on and on. We wanted to read with serendipity, a word that Alan Jacobs bequeathed to us that forever changed our reading habits.

So, we read for pleasure, for pure joy. Let us call it literary hedonism. If we find that we can enjoy a text that we had to work hard to appreciate, we are overjoyed for the pleasure of the thing. Lest concerns of pride arise, we pay homage to the author to receive and engage what he or she has to offer. We have nothing that we did not receive. It is all so exhilarating. I look over the lists of texts we’ve read with wonder- how many more will we share? We’ll enjoy the tales of arms and of men, of rings of power, and of the best and worst of times.

So lightly invoked

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some “disinterested,” because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the “lord of terrible aspect,” is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable , exacting as love between the sexes.

– C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain 46-47

Body and Soul

I’ve recently been teaching a class on the relationship between the body and the soul at our church. The writings of C.S. Lewis have been invaluable for me because he anticipated much of our contemporary philosophical and scientific discourse on the mind-body problem. His wonderfully clear analogies have been faithful friends.

I knew that I generally found myself in agreement with Lewis’ ideas regarding the embodiment of our souls and the important distinction between mind and matter. I was therefore prepared to wrestle with a statement that he had written which I thought had an awkward lack of balance. The quote frequently shows up with this subject:

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

The statement seemed to place an almost Platonic emphasis upon the soul over against the body with regard to our personhood. Rather than seeing humans as body-soul composites, it implied that we are more soul than body. This is striking because it seemed to run against the grain of Lewis’ other writings about the body. For instance:

“Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those acetic Pagans who called it the prison or the ‘tomb’ of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a ‘sack of dung’, food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body ‘Brother Ass’. All three may be – I am not sure – defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.” ~ from The Four Loves

I’m aware that the two quotes are not mutually exclusive. The longer quote above could be consistent with the kind of hierarchy implied in the shorter. However, when the longer passage is compared with Lewis’ other writings, a kind of balance appears which places the ‘you are a soul’ quote to the status of unrepresentative outlier.

Lewis’ other writings portray a keen awareness and attention to materiality, as well as a strenuous effort to help his readers see how the higher world is seen and experienced by means of the lower. Another great example is his allegory, The Great Divorce. In this story, heaven was not more ethereal and cloudy than our world below, but harder, crisp, more deeply felt. In this case heaven was a more real version of the world as we know it, giving a sense of dignity to the here and now.

Naturally, I wanted to find additional context for the ‘you are a soul’ quote. I searched the highways and hedges of the internet to discover that Lewis never wrote it. Here is a link to the source that helpfully explained this for me. The statement is most credibly attributed to a letter written by George MacDonald. I’m glad that I don’t have to discuss Lewis’ views on the mind-body with an awkward caveat about that single off-balance quote. Instead, I’ll provide a statement from Matthew Lee Anderson, one that would more likely cohere with Lewis’ thinking:

You are a body. But you’re a soul too. And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.

Authority

It was only last year that I first encountered The Lord of The Flies by William Golding. I found a narration on Audible that was excellently performed by Golding himself. Just after finishing the book, Golding gave some concluding remarks, with an intriguing pronouncement at the end. I’m still thinking about it a year later. When asked about how to interpret the meaning of the story, Golding replied:

There have been so many interpretations of the story that I’m not going to choose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story, if you want one, is your own. Not your teacher’s, not your professor’s, not mine, not a critic’s, not some authority’s. The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like. If it’s yours, then that’s the right one, because what’s in a book is not what an author thought he put into it, it’s what the reader gets out of it.

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While I’m aware that such matters of interpretation can be quite involved, I’ve never been able to fully understand declarations like these coming from an author. I wonder what Golding intended me to make of his admonition.

Of course, out of politeness I should assume that he means exactly what he says. He says there is no ‘correct interpretation’ of the story. The narrative envisions a little colony of shipwrecked boys as a struggling microcosm of society. Things go badly fairly quickly. Chaos and anarchy ensue. If I said the story was a Rousseau-like celebration of the innate goodness of humanity, rather than a stark portrayal of the Beelzebub within us all, would Golding simply have nodded and given me a pat on the back for my bold and independent reading?

What I suspect is going on is a blurring of hermeneutical edges that may have been trendy in Golding’s time. Perhaps it was cliché to be overly concerned with authorial intent, as prior generations might have been. It’s probably not a coincidence that there was a culminating backlash against all things authoritative in those days. The times, they were a changin’.

On one level, of course what the reader gets out of it is most important. If I manage to get anything out of the story, it will be through my own mind. However, since so I enjoyed Golding’s story, I wish that he was less flippant about his intentions towards me as his reader. I suppose that I wanted him to care that I understood him aright. In some way, my efforts to understand him would be my small part of honoring his efforts.

Anyway, if I decide to ‘have my own way’ with the story, regardless of Golding’s intentions, I will likely miss out on a more delightful reading experience. This is a point that Lewis makes in his Experiment on Criticism. When faced with the question of why we should pay any attention to authorial intent at all when we can simply have a grand time with our private understanding of the text (‘what it means to us’), Lewis answers:

There seem to be two answers. One, is that the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations of Chaucer or misunderstandings of Donne, may not be so good as the work Chaucer or Donne actually made.

Secondly, why not have both? After enjoying what I made of it, why not go back to the text this time looking up the hard words, puzzling out the allusions and discovering that some metrical delights in my first experience where due to my fortunate mispronunciations, and see whether I can enjoy the poet’s poem, not necessarily instead of, but in addition to my own.

“Not necessarily instead of, but in addition to my own.” This is a fitting rejoinder to Golding’s suggestion. Where Golding says, “go ahead boys, have a good time,” Lewis suggests that we go back to Golding for advice on the best way to do that.

All of this reminds me, however, of Twain’s dire warning to the reader of Huckleberry Finn:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Duly noted, gentlemen.