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An Experiment in Criticism

22 August 2019

An Experiment in CriticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Having recently heard Dr Gerhard Wolmarans of the University of Pretoria Political Science Department speak on this book, twice, I thought I’d better read it. It’s been sitting on my shelf for 40 years or more, and if I had read it before, I couldn’t remember doing so. I can’t even remember how it came into my possession. I must have bought it some time in the 1960s or 1970s, intending to read it some day, but somehow I never did.

Political Science? Not English literature?

Yes, Dr Wolmarans said that C.S. Lewis has a great deal to tell us about human diversity, and living in a multicultural society. He says there are two ways of reading a book: Using a book and Receiving a book. When we use a book, we simply, at best, bounce our own ideas off it, and don’t accept what it actually has to say. When we Receive a book, we receive it on its own terms, even if we disagree with it. And this applies to relationships with other people: we need to really hear what they have to say even if we disagree with it; receive, and only then evaluate. So if we transfer what Lewis said about reading books to our relationships with other people, we can learn a great deal.

According to Lewis, before evaluating books we should evaluate the ways of reading them. We should receive the book before we can evaluate it as a good or a bad book. A good book can be both used and received, depending on the reader. A bad book is one that can only ever be used.

Lewis wrote this book in 1961, at the time I was exploring English literature. It was the last major book he wrote and had published, so it is the result of his mature reflection at the end of his life. Reading it now, I wonder if it would have helped me then, when I was young and an undergraduate. Perhaps I was too immature then to have received it, and done anything more than use it. One point that he makes quite strongly is that literary criticism doesn’t tell us what books we should read, it tells us about the books we have already read, and is to be appreciated more as writing in its own right than for anything it can tell us about the books.

In 1959 I took English I at Wits University. Among the novels we had to read were
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Emma by Jane Austen.

I had to write an essay on whether Lord of the Flies was an optimistic or a pessimistic book. I read it, and then wrote that it was neither, but that it was about the Christian conception of original sin. The lecturer who marked it said that I should not approach books with preconceived ideas. I wanted to argue with that. I had come to that conclusion after reading the book. I thought  that the book had illuminated the concept or original sin for me, which had previously just been some kind of abstract theological terminology. In terms of Lewis’s thesis, the lecturer thought I was merely “using” the book, while I thought I had received it.

Unfortunately there was not really an opportunity to discuss this. Wits University had too many English I students, and the tutorials, though they had a smaller number of students than the lectures, were simply “teacher tell” affairs,

Wolseley 15/60

Wolseley 15/60

I had already read Brave New World while I was still at school. At that point i think its conceptions were entirely new to me. I could only receive it. But 1959, the year in which I read it for the second time as a university set work, was also the year in which I became aware of badge engineering in the motor industry, The British Motor Corporation had just introduced the Wolseley 15/60, “Within months, the similar Riley 4/68, Austin A55 Cambridge Mark II, MG Magnette Mark III, and Morris Oxford V appeared as well.”

To me that was an ominous sign that Aldous Huxley’s predictions in Brave New World were coming true. If it was already being done in motor engineering, could human engineering, with its Alpha, Beta, Gama, Delta and Epsilon models be far behind?

I also read and cited Huxley’s non-fiction sequel, Brave New World Revisited, in which he himself described how he thought his visionary science-fiction novel was coming true, The lecturer was not impressed with that essay either. I probably really was using the book on the second reading. Inspired partly by me first reading of the book I had become a rather fanatical individualist, and was inclined to see threats to individuality everywhere.

Emma I didn’t appreciate at all. My irony meter had not been calibrated. The satire went right over my head. I was incapable of receiving the book. I took the opening statement at face value, and rejected it, and Jane Austen, with contempt. I have said more about that in another post, Pride, prejudice, and youth | Khanya, and I suggest that, if you are still reading this at this point, you go there and read that before reading any more here, because that is, in effect, an integral part of this post, and I refer you to it rather than repeating it here.

Now the English Department at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP), described in the linked post above, belonged to what C.S. Lewis called the “Vigilant” School. They were vigilant in trying to restrict students’ reading to books that they thought were good. lest their critical faculties be impaired. It might have been good if I had read An Experiment in Criticism at that point in my life, but I had been inoculated against the wiles of the Vigilant school by Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, who had encouraged me to read widely, including authors like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Iris Murdoch, Jack Kerouac and Charles Williams, all of whom would have been anathema to the Vigilants of the English Department at UNP.

Dr Gerhard Wolmarans, who spoke as part of a series of events at the University of Pretoria arranged by a group called Ratio Christi, and again at TGIF, applied what Lewis had said of the Vigilant School to the Post-Structuralists who maintain that there is nothing beyond the text. Their approach, said Dr Wolmarans, is simply Using the text in the sense that Lewis speaks of, rather than Receiving it. I believe the Post-Structuralists refer to their approach as a Readerly approach — there is no dialogue with the author, but only between the reader and the text itself.

Lewis laments that the young people, Honours students of his day, knew more about critics than about the works they criticise, and I reflect that those young students he wrote about in 1960 are probably now all retired or dead, but that it was they who poularised the post-structuralist approach.

And I am reminded of another book, not about literature at all, Up to our Steeples in Politics by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway. in which they say, of using Holy Scripture to throw light on race relations in the USA,

In taking Paul’s letters as an authoritative point of departure, we mean no more than Karl Barth meant forty years ago when he explained that his “biblicism” consisted in nothing more than being “prejudiced in supposing the Bible to be a good book,” and “profitable for men to take its conceptions at least as seriously as they take their own.” But if our use of Paul’s understanding of Christian communities means no more than that, it means at least that.

And that, I think, is what Lewis means by “receiving” a book, whether the Bible or any other: that we take its conceptions at least as seriously as we take our own. We don’t necessarily have to agree with those conceptions, but we must at least take them seriously.

At the risk of taking a “readerl;y” approach to C.S. Lewis’s own fiction, and “using” , I would say that his fiction also has a great deal to say about diversity and multicultural societies. Out of the Silent Planet is an obvious example, and Prince Caspian is another.For more on that, see Inside Prince Caspian | Khanya

One can also learn a great deal about writing from this book. Lewis says a bad book is one that can only be used and cannot be received, He probably didn’t intend the book as advice to writers, but I think writers can also learn a great deal from it.

View all my reviews

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 August 2019 2:42 pm

    I think the distinction between receiving a text and using it is useful, but most readers probably do a bit of both, most of the time.

    I think your reading of “Lord of the Flies” is a valid one — you can hardly set aside your existing views and concerns when reading a book.

    If the worldview of a book is hugely different to my own, I sometimes find it a bit of a struggle, but it’s interesting to see the world through the lens of someone else’s views.

    As to not letting students read books considered “bad” — how else will they know the difference between good writing and bad? And I’ve never understood why Iris Murdoch is somehow not considered to be literature in some quarters. I love her books, mostly the early ones like “The Bell” and “Under the Net”, but also some of the later ones like “Nuns and Soldiers”. I once read one of her books to cleanse my literary palate after reading a book that I disliked.

    • 24 August 2019 1:54 am

      The first Iris Murdoch book I read was The Sandcastle. It was the first time I had ever heard of Tarot cards, so found the book rather confusing.

      • 24 August 2019 1:57 am

        I think the Sandcastle May have been my palate-cleansing book!

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