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Monday, January 17, 2011

C. S. Lewis Recommended Reading Old Books

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?


Gerry said...

I've been spending a lot of time with 19th and early 20th century writers, journalists as well as historians, and in my experience what you say is absolutely true. I've given some thought to what kind of idiot people of the near future, say 50-75 years from now, will think I am. Then I laugh at myself for thinking that they might consider me at all. I will disagree with you about one thing, though. Sometimes the history books do not become more balanced over time, because sometimes the conflict has never been resolved. Thus it is that we are in the midst of a furious revisionism with respect to our own Civil War. We live in interesting times.

P. J. Grath said...

How often does anyone tell you that you said or wrote something that was "absolutely true"? I also appreciate your disagreement, however, because it gives me a chance to clarify my meaning. It is not that any single source or even the "mainstream" of thought becomes more balanced--and, in fact, it is later revisionism that the seekers of old books hope to avoid. We are as error-prone as earlier writers. The key, it seems to me, is relying on a wide range of sources from the time of the events to the present. Would you agree that we have more information? Sometimes additional information adds to confusion! How about acknowledging to ourselves and others that our knowledge can never be complete and thus our conclusions should not be graven in stone? Interesting about revisionism: it has taken on such a negative connotation, and there is certainly that side of it (when the past is whitewashed in an attempt to create a more glorious story), and yet there are also times when the official story of the past was itself a whitewash and needs to be revised. But we need heroes, too, don't we? Many perspectives, some dishonest, but conflict even among the honest versions.... I would love to hear you talk about the Civil War and the conflicting stories you're gathering!

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry and others, I have added a P.S. into this post.

Gerry said...

Blogly homework!

I have printed out the four-page (single spaced) essay and its bibliography and will report tomorrow. I love this stuff. You realize, of course, that it is not meat and drink to most sensible souls. We are both going to have to post stories about our dogs for awhile. And how is Sarah?

P. J. Grath said...

A historian 100 years later cannot interview participants in an event but usually has access to a much broader range of written sources, including primary documents (letters, diaries, etc.) that the writer in the thick of events would not have had, and I bring all this up because I think I backed too far away from my original position, which is that distance in time can--though it does not always do so--give a more objective view of events.

So Gerry, is this your essay? I'm all EARS (and eyes)! But you think we discourage more casual blog readers with our obsessions? Dogs, yes--always popular. Then there are ice photos--also good. Maybe some tasty winter meals? I don't know what will come next for me. I've taken to reading about methods of historical research now. Is there no hope for me, Dr. Sell?

Anonymous said...

I've read some of C.S.Lewis but none of his fantasy. He certainly was brilliant and full of rare insights. In his time there was a greater familiarity among the learned of the classics than there is today. A general university education used to include their study. Not any more. It's a shame that so much of the conversation will never be considered by the present generation.
In Canada there are two histories: the one of the francophones and the one of the anglophones. I was taught the former in elementary school and was surprised to come across the latter when I homeschooled my children. Even within one time period, there may be more than one history record. This must make things quite difficult for the likes of Dr.Sell.

P. J. Grath said...

Amy-Lynn, you were taught the francophone version of history in school? Was that in Quebec? Otherwise, it surprises me.

I took a book out of the library the other day, TOCQUEVILLE IN AMERICA, and was shocked by some of the author/editor's criticisms and "corrections" to Tocqueville's views on Native Americans. This book, I then saw, was originally published in 1938. The current tendency in this country is to think of "revisionist" history as tending toward some kind of "political correctness" (a term I loathe), but history, though continually undergoing revision, is not always revised in only one direction.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, Sarah is very well, thank you! Sorry I neglected that important question!

Anonymous said...

Pamela, there are pockets of francophones in Northern Ontario as well. School textbooks would likely have been published in Quebec, at least back in the 60s and 70s.