The exhaustion of my camera batteries last Saturday was bad timing. Not only did we have a terrific blizzard, with snow blowing horizontally down Waukazoo Street for most of the afternoon, but my charger was back at home, so I couldn’t use the bookstore hours to recharge before the evening performance of “The Magician’s Nephew.” Costumes, makeup, sets, kids I've known for years—photo ops galore, and I missed them all. We were glad to see the play nonetheless. The students did an impressive job inhabiting the C. S. Lewis characters in their own script adaptation of the fantasy novel, and they even managed quite creditable British accents, no mean feat in a little northern Michigan town. As my regular readers know, I am not a fantasy fan, but this production held me enthralled.
C.S. Lewis, I was musing, in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, went deeper into his topics than the vast majority of writers on the same subjects. What a coincidence, then, when my son sent me a link to text of C. S. Lewis on the subject of reading old books just two days after we’d seen “The Magician’s Nephew.”
If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. - C. S. Lewis
This is exactly what I used to tell my philosophy students. If you try to read Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, even Aristotle, without knowing the earlier philosophers those men read, you are coming into the middle of a conversation with no idea what went before, and much of what is said will seem to come out of nowhere. Not so. What you’re hearing is fully meaningful only in the context of the entire conversation, as response to or elaboration or rejection of earlier ideas. The full conversation is the history of a culture and its ideas.
As for reading old books, however, I would issue a caution which Lewis also articulated: the value of the older works is not that they are more true or more right than works of our contemporaries but that we can more easily see their errors, as well as their truths, and in seeing errors in old books we are more likely to notice those of our own time.
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united....
Not everyone approaches old books with careful scrutiny. Early in my bookstore days I was surprised by the number of requests for older history books by people convinced that books written closer to the time of the events covered would be more accurate. Whatever gave them that idea? Generally the history books written while the guns are still smoking tend to be less informative than later works. A participant in events sees them firsthand, true, but from a single perspective; a combination of perspectives, on the other hand, along with documents that later came to light, allows a larger, more balanced overview.
Every time period has partisans for one view over another, and so it is true, as the seekers after old truths are convinced, that different historians in 2011 give different interpretations of earlier times. But the seeker of truth who thinks that partisanship did not exist at the time of conflict is the victim of a strange delusion. Why would there have been conflict at all—how could conflict exist—if people hadn't seen things differently then, too?
P.S. Gerry always pushes my thought further, and her comment below is no exception. Here is a student essay I found online and recommend for its statement of the problems of historical research. I loved these lines from the student's paper: “Historians view the world, hoping to make sense of it. The world, however, does not speak – we do.”
What do the rest of you think?