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Tag: C. S. Lewis (page 1 of 2)

Don’t Shoot the Elephant or You’ll Kill Education

blind men and elephant public sculpture India
The Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant
is as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.

I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they realized that what they collectively beheld was much greater, more magnificent and wondrous, than what anyone of them individually suspected. (If you aren’t familiar with this parable, read it here. It is every bit as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.)

Education draws us out of our own, limited understanding of truth

Really, folks, this is precisely what education, in the true sense of the term, is supposed to do. It is not supposed to tell you that whatever you already perceive — whether it’s a leg like a pillar or a trunk like tree branch — is the absolute and only truth, it is supposed to put you in touch with people and cultures and points of view that differ from your own, so that you open your mind and learn to weigh
opinion and experience, and in this way become more capable of discerning not only particular but larger, more enduring truths. It draws you out of your own blinkered, myopic reality and sets you in a larger context that spans time (history and posterity) and space (the whole world). That’s what the word “educate” (Latin e(x) + ducere = to lead or draw one out) means.

stock image of magnificent elephant
Truth is a beautiful thing, but a false multiculturalism
can blind students and make true education impossible.

If the administrators of Columbia University or any institution of so-called “higher education” should capitulate to the demands of students that their own puerile perceptions not be challenged — if they agree to attach “trigger warnings” to any course that might offend a student’s cultural identity — they will be doing the opposite of educating. Instead of the academic community sharing insights and enlarging their appreciation of the majestic beast, they will kill the very thing that has brought them together. They will be putting an elephant gun in the hands of their blind young charges, and, when the trigger is pulled, they’ll all be left grasping some gruesome butchery of the truth.

If “multiculturalism” and “diversity training” actually tried to do these things, they would be valuable adjuncts to more traditional educational approaches. Instead, these duplicitous terms are a facade, masking a process that has systematically taught and reinforced prejudice — i.e., it has taught young people to hate and fear anything that they do not already experience or believe or enjoy. This recent article  in the National Review illustrates how true this is. (Read the article yourself to see what the kerfuffle is about; it has to do with students who feel offended by Ovid’s lack of modern cultural sensitivity, or some such).

We need to consider truth from different angles

I’d like to focus on the salient point that the article’s author, Ian Tuttle, makes — which, in fact, he takes from C. S. Lewis — and that is that education, far from insulating students from viewpoints that differ from their own, should be programmatically exposing them to a variety of political, cultural, historical, and philosophical viewpoints, so that they may enlarge their understanding and test their own preconceptions.

In an introductory essay to St. Athanasius’s De Incarnatione (another very old book), C. S. Lewis made just this argument. “Every age has its own outlook,” wrote Lewis. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Lewis is not suggesting (at least not here) that old books got things more right than new ones — Dante was not omniscient — but simply that they got things right (and wrong) differently: “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

The only problem with such an argument, of course, is that it assumes there are truths to be grasped, truths that transcend cultural and historical contexts — and here lies the rub. These days, if you want to get an academic’s back up, just try suggesting that there is any such thing as transcendent, universal, or  immutable truth. And if you really want to cause trouble, try suggesting that education’s purpose is to teach students how to perceive that truth. If my own experience in “higher education” is anything to go by (and, sadly, I’m convinced it is), you will be attacked — verbally, if not physically — and swiftly be given the gate.

That’s part of the reason I’m writing this blog rather than standing at the front of a classroom today. Not because I’ve given up on the ideal of true education, but because I’ve found it almost impossible to pursue such an enterprise in today’s halls of “higher learning.” If you value true education of the old-fashioned liberal arts variety, keep reading this space. In fact, why not sign up to get notifications of new articles by email? There’s a space for you to do so in the sidebar on the right.

Just one more point. I’m as eager to further my own on-going education as I am to help you further yours. I started this blog hoping to generate some conversation through the ether, but too often I find myself alone in my echo chamber. I don’t mind a bit conversing with such folk as C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ovid, Livy, Vergil, et al., but I would love to have some of you readers chime in from time to time. Let me see some other quadrant of the elephant. If you find value in anything you read here, please leave a comment and let me know why. Join the conversation and add your insights — or your illuminating questions. That’s how we can all, together, arrive at a clearer perception of the truth.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Truth, Eternity, and Mere Facts

The Magician's Twin http://bit.ly/magictwin

On my way back from a recent meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group, I caught a snippet of Al Kresta’s interview with John G. West, editor of a new book called The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.  West was discussing the philosophical shortcomings of scientism, an ideology that reduces all truth to that which can be verified empirically. Coincidentally, at our writers’ meeting, I’d just had a conversation with a writer working on a short story that explores a similar theme.

This coincidence points to a problem that plagues the modern mind, i.e., the bad habit of confusing mere facts with truth, of conflating knowledge and wisdom. The world we live in today is obsessed with facts, yet has little understanding of (or appreciation for) truth; when scientists claim they know something to be true, we too often take them at their word, never questioning the relationship between particular empirical facts and universal truths. Few scientists are willing to admit the inability of the scientific method to arrive at universal truth (although it can, I believe — if properly employed — inexorably approach absolute truth). Anyhow, if you don’t believe me, watch this TED talk (since banned from the TED channel for daring to question the dogmas of scientism)by biologist Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge University. (If you like the video, you might like his book as well: The Science Delusion — recently re-published under the title Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.)

Christians know – or should know – that the most important truths cannot be verified by science. These are immaterial, spiritual, and transcendent, metaphysical, literally beyond the realm of science. (Let us not forget that science can observe, and pronounce judgments on, only material and contingent (physical) reality. If it claims to be able to do more, it lies.) Sadly, the modern age has seen a schism introduced between physics and metaphysics, which at times appears to be more of an all-out war.

‘Twas not ever so, however. Earlier ages (one might say wiser ones) understood that there is more to the cosmos than meets the eye, and until the modern era people had no trouble grasping the idea that the immaterial and transcendent is greater than (i.e. truer and more important than) the merely material, because the former is eternal while the latter is contingent and ephemeral. In ancient times, the imagination was often of more help than the naked intellect in grasping such immutable truths. This is why, at the dawn of western culture, poets were considered something akin to prophets; it’s why Homer and Hesiod invoked the immortal Muse to inspire their writings, so that they could adequately convey the truth about their poetic subjects.

Conversely, even fields that today we would regard as matters of fact – history, for instance – had something in common with poetry, in that the facts of the matter were important chiefly because of the universal truths that they bring to light. (Remember that Aristotle acknowledged that history was “philosophical,” but poetry was even more so.) When Livy sat down to compose his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, he acknowledged that there was scant documentary evidence for many of the legendary figures and events about which he wrote, but he didn’t necessarily see that as a stumbling block. In the preface to that massive work, he wrote:

I do not intend to either affirm or refute those traditions, more suitable to poetic fables than to authentic historical records, which are handed down from times before the founding of the city or from times just before it was founded. …

The traditions he referred to were the legends surrounding the birth and upbringing of Romulus and Remus, who were reputed to be demi-gods fathered by the war god, Mars. After being stolen from their mother and exposed in the wilderness (the “after birth abortion” common in the pagan world), they supposedly were suckled by a mother wolf who heard the

Sons of War God + Suckled by She-Wolf=
The founders of Rome were bellicose and savage,
like modern scientific dogmatists.

pitiful cries of the newborn twins. Livy did not wish to dispute pious legend, because his purpose was not to critique his source material but to expose the moral lessons contained therein, his overall aim in writing the history being the edification of the Roman people, who were greatly demoralized and disillusioned after generations of civil strife. Waving aside the question of whether Rome was literally or only figuratively born from the god of war, Livy goes on to say:

But, however those and similar myths are considered and judged, I myself will give them no importance. In my opinion each reader should focus attentively on these points: what were the life and customs? Through the actions of which men and by means of what skills, at home and in war, was dominion brought forth and increased? Thereafter the reader may follow mentally how morals collapsed, as is characteristic of a thing sitting idle, little by little when discipline was first slipping, then more and more, then began to plummet, until these times arrived in which we can tolerate neither our faults nor the remedies.

In other words, there were moral and civic lessons to be gleaned from this history that transcended mere fact or legend. If Livy had insisted (as a modern historian might) on recording only those public figures and events that could be pinned down with documentary certainty, his history would have been much shorter and of much less value either to his contemporaries or to his posterity.

Mere facts will get lost in the dust of time, but truth will endure.

©2014 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Ruminating on The Father’s Tale



sheep chewing cud
Here I am, ruminating on The Father’s Tale
In Book Ten of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo
refers to the memory as “the stomach of the mind” – an image that probably
seems strange to many modern readers, but one that has been very useful to me.
He wasn’t talking about the kind of stomach we humans have – which are a kind of way station for food on its way to the intestinal tract – but the kind of stomachs found in
sheep (as well as cattle and goats, etc.), i.e., a ruminant stomach. The
ruminant stomach stores food until it can later be brought back up and chewed
over (ruminated).
I’ve always loved this idea of the memory as somewhere that
we store our experiences until we have a chance to bring them back to mind and
“chew them over” or ruminate upon them. Animals who literally ruminate (chew
food that they have already swallowed) do so in order to get the nutrition out
of what they have eaten, and to be able to digest it properly; in a similar way, as Augustine understood, our memory lets us bring back
things we have already experienced and not only “taste” and feel them again, but
also derive more profit from them than if we just let them sit in our memory
unexamined. When we ruminate (in the figurative sense) we get more out of our

Some of us are more inclined toward rumination than others.
I am definitely a “ruminant creature,” and one of the reasons I started this
blog a few years ago was to give myself an excuse to ruminate on things I’ve
read. In fact, I would say that rumination provides a great part of the
pleasure of reading.
This is why I prefer to read books that will reward
further thought – books that are “good” in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that
term in An Experiment in Criticism.  One of the problems of reading things
that are the literary equivalent of junk food is that they really don’t provide
much of a “mental cud” – if you try ruminating on them, you find that there is
nothing there.

Good books require thorough chewing to nourish the soul

The Father's Tale by Michael D. O'Brien

 A lot of my rumination these days occurs while I am taking a
walk along the shore of the lake where I live. There’s no telling what will
come to mind as I walk along. This morning, it was Michael D. O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale, a book I read a couple of months ago, which I’ve been allowing
to sit in the stomach of my mind until it was ripe for rumination. I have
been planning to write about this book here, and find that there is a lot to
discuss – which suggests that it is a very good book.

You wouldn’t know this from many of the reviews that appear
on the internet. Google “Michael D. O’Brien The Father’s Tale” and you’ll find
that the reviews that show up in the first couple of pages of results complain
a lot about the length of the book (nearly 1,100 pages — one reviewer suggested that you could trim it down to 300 pages and not lose the “essential story”) and the “absurdity” of
the plot. Most readers considering this novel will be put off by such remarks and, like the reviewers who say such things, like the rich young man to whom Jesus said, “You are very near to the Kingdom. One
thing more is required of you,” they will go away sad, never knowing what they are missing. Or perhaps they are more like Euthyphro, whom Socrates had been
guiding toward a true understanding of piety, but quit the discussion at the
last minute, saying it made his head hurt and, anyway, he had more pressing
things to attend to.
The truth is that this book is probably fare too rich for
such readers, who have been weaned on modern novels that traipse expeditiously, and superficially,
through plot points to their happy endings. Such books are the literary
equivalent of a quick meal at Chili’s. The Father’s Tale is not such a one. It is a rich and
varied banquet, one to be savored and ruminated before being digested.
Just as
a banquet is not gulped down in one mouthful, nor quickly digested before
bedtime, I don’t think I can do this book justice in a single discussion. So I
will discuss different aspects of the book in separate posts. These will not be
“reviews” in the usual sense, but reflections on things that I find have
spurred my own reflection.  

Literature, like life, takes us on unexpected journeys

I’m going to discuss this book as if you all have already
read it – so take the spoiler warning as read. Of course, many, if not most, of
you have not yet read The Father’s Tale – that’s okay. Perhaps my discussion of
it will make you want to read it (I hope so). Let me warn you right now,
though, that this is a huge book – both literally and figuratively (nearly
1,100 pages). And it’s a little slow getting started, so hang in there. After
the first 75 or 100 pages, though, it just gets better and better and better,
right up to the last page. 

Reading as adventure, by Alex Vitti
As you read, you may find that the book seems constantly to be
changing from one kind of story into another
– don’t let this upset you. The
author has divided it into four separate parts, which suggests that these kinds
of changes are deliberate, and together they create the overall architecture of
the story. At the beginning of each part, the protagonist’s life takes a sharp left turn. And what happens when you make four left turns? Well … read it, and you’ll see. As the old Shaker song says, By turning, turning, we come ’round right.

By the way, it’s always good to think about not only the contents of a story, but the way they are arranged. I sometimes do this deliberately, as a formal exercise, and I find it gives me a
kind of “God’s eye view” of the plot, revealing the integrity of the story, which
may not be evident in a single, superficial reading (the only kind of reading
that many novels deserve or require).

If you haven’t read The Father’s Tale, but are beginning to
think maybe you should, get started. Don’t rush, but keep going once you begin.
Think of it as an adventure – not as if you were jumping on a jet to get from New
York to Johannesburg
in the shortest time possible, but as if a friend has kidnapped you to take you
on an around-the-world ramble whose itinerary is unknown to you.
Like Alexander
Graham, the protagonist of The Father’s Tale, you will go places you never
expected, experience things that may seem unpleasant and uncomfortable at the
time, you may even reach a point at which you despair of ever reaching the end
of the journey, but at the end you will know that you have been greatly
enriched by the experience.
Update 2015: I realize I didn’t say much about the novel in this post — probably because I didn’t know where to start, it stirred up so many ideas in my mind. But I will get back to it one of these days, honest! Meanwhile, I’ve read O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri (his first and only venture into science fiction) which I also liked very much. If you get a chance, read it — there is a big surprise, about two thirds of the way through, one you won’t want to miss.

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

The Narnia Code: Hidden inklings of the God-breathed cosmos

Michael Ward The Narnia Code
Many readers have sensed that there is more
than meets the eye in Lewis’s Narnia tales,
but Michael Ward is the man
who finally discovered what it was.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on Michael Ward’s theory of the unifying principle  that guided C. S. Lewis in writing the Narnia tales, and Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, in which he provides a detailed analysis of the Narnia novels. The book was based on his doctoral dissertation and was, I suppose, fairly scholarly in tone. Apparently Ward and/or his publisher felt that Planet Narnia would be heavy reading for a lot of Narnia fans, so now there is a new book which (as far as I can tell from the preview available on Amazon) is essentially Planet Narnia reworked for the popular market.

The new book is The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. Here’s a portion of the publisher’s blurb:

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward presents an astonishing literary
discovery. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings, Ward reveals
the single subject that provides the link between all seven novels. He
explains how Lewis structured the series, why he kept the code secret,
and what it shows about his understanding of the universe and the
Christian faith. 

Readers should not be put off by the title’s similarity to The Davinci Code, which, despite Dan Brown’s claim to the contrary, is pure fiction and a load of codswallop. Ward actually does a good job of demonstrating that Lewis (a) wrote according to a set of principles that, until Ward discovered them, had eluded literary critics and exegetes and (b) he deliberately concealed his plan. In other words, there actually is a “code” which can be “decoded,” thereby yielding up new meaning to the reader who has figured out the code.

Decoding Narnia: the Medieval connection

To many modern readers, this will seem like a weird, sneaky thing to do, but it would not have seemed so to a medieval reader. What most modern critics have ignored is the fact that C. S. Lewis was a trained medievalist, and that, in scholarly circles, he is more famed and admired for his work as a medievalist than he is as a writer of children’s stories or a Christian apologist (as he is known to most general readers). He wrote several books that should be familiar to college students, if they’ve ever studied medieval literature or history, and which help to support Ward’s claim that Lewis’s background as a scholar of medieval literarture is absolutely key to a thorough understanding of his Narnia tales.

C S Lewis The Discarded Image
As Lewis knew well, medieval
culture understood the metaphysical
complexity of the universe.

First in importance, there is The Discarded Image, in which Professor Lewis demonstrates how the medieval conception of the created order (the cosmos) profoundly influenced every aspect of medieval culture. Here’s the publisher’s blurb from the Canto edition
of this book:

C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval
world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of
the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It describes the “image” discarded by
later ages as “the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of
their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious
mental model of the universe.” This, Lewis’ last book, was hailed as
“the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a
wise and noble mind.”

One of the key elements of the “medieval world view” was the concept of plenitude, i.e., that the world we can see is just one small part of the whole of creation and there is a densely populated, but invisible order of Creation which is every bit as “real” and varied as the parts we can see. So in the medieval view the cosmos actually had different “levels,” the visible and the invisible, which coexist side by side; in a somewhat similar way, the Bible was understood to have several layers of meaning, the literal or superficial meaning which would be plain to even the most casual reader, as well as spiritual (figurative or allegorical) meanings which lay, as St Augustine put it, “beneath the veil of the letter.” The reading habit of looking for, and finding, various levels of meaning in the Bible bled over into reading of other kinds of writing as well, so that medieval poets (i.e., fiction writers) carefully planned and built many layers of significance into their works, and astute readers were adept at recognizing the “hidden” layers of meaning. Lewis, of course, knew this thoroughly, and knew that much of the delight in both writing and reading in the Middle Ages was derived from this kind of polysemous composition.

Readers must uncover (discover) the meaning

C S Lewis The Allegory of Love
Medieval writers, in imitation of the Bible,
loved to hide their meaning
the surface.

Another work by Professor Lewis that should be familiar to students of medieval literature is The Allegory of Love
, which traces the allegorical treatment of love in western European literature from the high Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here again is evidence of the medieval delight in finding hidden meaning in literary works, and here again C. S. Lewis literally wrote the book on it. Both The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have been enormously influential in the modern study and teaching of medieval literature. And yet no modern scholar until Michael Ward has really understood how profoundly Lewis the writer was influenced by the medieval images and methods that preoccupied Lewis the scholar.

This idea of a literary work being conceived and composed according to an intricate plan is quite foreign to modern readers and writers alike. Recently I was introducing some students to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a massive work composed according to a massively intricate plan structured by various numerological, theological, and typological schemata. I had made similar remarks on the structures of other medieval narrative poems we have studied. One student, who seemed surprised to realize how carefully medieval writers planned their compositions, asked me if modern writers do such careful planning, and I had to reply that this is seldom the case these days.

Flammarion woodcut of the cosmos
The Flammarion woodcut, in which a truth-seeker
peers into the hidden workings of the cosmos.

Modern novelists frequently write without any plan whatsoever and seem to think that this somehow makes a work more authentic — they claim to “wait for their Muse” for inspiration, and then “let the characters take the story where it needs to go,” as if novel writing were something that happens to the writer rather than something that the writer deliberately does (I blame William Wordsworth for this romantic tendency to regard the writer as a medium through which the forces of inspiration magically work). Even mystery writers will claim that they start their stories without knowing “whodunnit.” What nonsense! Unfortunately, many readers and critics have assumed that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels using an equally haphazard method (or lack thereof). Thank goodness Michael Ward has finally vindicated Lewis in the face of critics who accuse him of having thrown Narnia together using a meaningless hodgepodge of images (Santa in Narnia? Crazy!).

By the way, when I got a beautiful new hand-tooled leather cover from Oberon Designs for my Kindle ereader, I chose a design that caught my imagination because it seemed to sum up for me the wonder of reading, allowing us to glimpse the inner workings of the universe. I didn’t realize at the time that the image was based on a well-known pseudo-medieval engraving known as the Flammarion engraving (see image at the top of this post). Whether the image is a forgery made in the nineteenth century or not, it captures nicely the medieval belief in the invisible but magnificent reality of the created order that remains invisible to human eyes. This is a much richer conception than the scientfic worldview, which denies any unobservable, metaphysical reality. Anyway, the Flammarion image makes for a beautiful Kindle cover — check it out!

Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs
Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness



Recently I wrote about literature
as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth,
which can be
called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle
and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that
poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than
history, and St Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower
form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect.
Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value, but one that
we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.
beautiful dew drops on clover leaf

Beauty lifts us up

My thoughts are prompted by this interesting feature article
from the National Catholic Register, “True
Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,”
an interview by Trent Beattie of
psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge.
Laracy has made a study of the healing effects of beauty on those suffering
from mental illness. Since she is one of the few scholars to study seriously
the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty”
before she could study it; as a starting point she turns to St Thomas Aquinas,
the great definer of abstract truths. Thomas identified three essential
qualities of beauty: clarity (the luminosity or illumination communicated by the
object of perception), harmony (the right ordering of the parts of the object),
and integrity (the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in
synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation). Through its integrity, beauty calls
us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the
greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of what
C. S. Lewis said of “good books”
– that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does
not cite St Augustine in her
discussion of beauty, but she well might: Augustine would say that in
contemplating the creature (beautiful object) one is drawn to the Creator
(God). In this way, I would say, beauty can provide not merely mental but
also spiritual healing.

Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I
was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I
was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of morbid
curiosity than for aesthetic pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most
of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant,
sometimes even laughable. (In fact, I can remember at least one occasion on
which I was all but physically expelled from the Modern by a docent who didn’t
like my jeering commentary on the exhibits.) I guess, in Thomas’s terms, I found
that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every point – for
instance, a pile of stones of nondescript stones did not communicate anything
in particular; patrons were invited to rearrange them as they liked, so there
was no inherent harmony; and there certainly was no integrity, since the
implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were
exhorted not to take any of the stones away). The only thing it led me to
contemplate was why the heck the museum would present such dreck as “art.”

A visceral reaction

Perhaps the same day I saw the pile of stones at the Modern
(or some other day altogether), I wandered into an open gallery containing
sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. I imagine there were a number
of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large (say
about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up), and seemed to chrome-plated
(it was probably polished aluminum), abstract in form, a twisted, highly
reflective mass suggesting (to my imagination, anyway) tangled car bumpers, which
I found mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and
then rush out of the room, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in
horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent, but insistant,
impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away.
Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.

I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture
that provoked such a strongly negative response and could not articulate a
reason other than to think, as I looked at the sculpture, “It’s just wrong! It’s
a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I
undoubtedly would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art,
that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone
else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have
replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid
sense of repulsion, but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture
that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was
visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours
perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be
closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t even gotten upstairs yet. I was
rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I
was stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked
around to see what had stopped me, and found myself gazing at a sculpture that
I had seen many times in photographs without finding it very impressive: the
famous Nike, Winged
Victory of Samothrace
You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that
seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often
found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder
blades. The statue has been badly battered, with the arms (probably once
outswept like the wings) and the head completely missing. Still, it was, quite
literally, breathtakingly arresting; it had stopped me dead in my tracks, while
my attention was elsewhere. As I looked at it, I felt indescribably
exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form,
sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even felt I could see
her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling –
although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that
she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air
against her body and lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in
vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous
craftsman two thousand years ago.

Beauty and Truth

These two sculptures – the deliberately twisted, highly
polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of
marble at the Louvre in Paris –
both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The
former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the
sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished
but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge it according to St Thomas’s “essential”
criteria of beauty, it has none: it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity
(at least, it is very shiny and smooth), but it is so disharmonious as to
suggest a car crash; the (apparently deliberate) disharmony opposes the clarity
(if that is what we can call its smooth shininess) that the work does not seem
to posses integrity, indeed its clarity seems to belie its disharmony, making
it seem false and wrong, and to evince a feeling of dis-ease, rather than

On the other hand, while the mutilated form of the Rhodian
sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, it
nonetheless remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant
emotion that can quite literally stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is
such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual
light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are
broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its
broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive
integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself
has been given exuberant form.
By Thomas’s standards then, the modern metal sculpture lacks
the criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all
its careful craftsmanship and smooth surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite
the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to
possess all the hallmarks of beauty, in spades, and certainly it left me
feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty
years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its
beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many
parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity
itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its
beauty does somehow seem to depend on
direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was
able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.
ugly metallic sculpture
The dog seems to have the right idea,
to treat it as a toilet.
All of this serves to show that there does seem to be, despite
what so much modern “culture” insists, that there is a strong identification
between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties
for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we
are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our
senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the
identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr.
Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to
beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy, to be good. This in turn suggests
that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we
should avoid lies and wickedness.

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

girl reading a book
Doing this in public could earn you funny looks.

If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I’ve run into on various web sites claim that:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

    Today’s column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don’t read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection — these days, college students hit the beach with their “smart phones,” not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for “electronic books” that can be read off of computer and smartphone screens, a view that I share. I’ll let you read for yourself his reasoning. (What do you mean, you don’t read The Catholic Thing? Why on earth not? They publish a new and thought-provoking essay each day, by an impressive variety of excellent Catholic thinkers.)

    Fiction matters

    Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be “important literature” or “timeless classics,” just “fiction,” including poetry.) I think the answer is, “Absolutely, yes!” I know plenty of people who think of themselves as “readers,” but proudly proclaim, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can’t help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by “literature” — in his day, all “fiction” was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry (“fiction”) to history (“nonfiction”), he says:

    It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims … (Poetics IX)

    So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only “nonfiction.” 

    C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto edition

    But, one might ask, was Aristotle right in claiming that “poetry” is a “high and philosophical thing”? And if so, why? I would say yes, if we recognize that, while his use of the term “poetry” would include literary fiction generally, it probably would not extend to pulp fiction (the sort of mass-produced schlock that keeps many booksellers in business, for which there was no analogue in Aristotle’s day). I think that Aristotle had in mind something more like what C. S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, classified as “good books.” Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:

    One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. … We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue.  And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

    This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books “permit” a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle’s criterion of being “philosophical”because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.

    People who don’t read suffer from anorexia of the imagination

    Matthias Stom,  Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    With free books and free reading apps for every gadget,
    there’s no excuse not to read.

    None of this is to say, however, that every work of fiction we read should be “good” (using Lewis’s terminology) or “philosophical” (using Aristotle’s), any more than every bite we eat has to be “healthy” or “nutritious.” If we want to carry this food analogy a little further, however, we would have to acknowledge that, much as a complete lack of appetite for food indicates some underlying illness, and prolonged fasting will, in the end, prove deadly, in a similar way, it is not healthy for an otherwise civilized person never to read a book, or to regard reading (as too many students do!) as simply a necessary evil that must be performed to survive, a bitter medicine that must be swallowed. Avid readers are baffled by people who never read, in much the same was as people who delight in healthy, delicious, well-prepared food are baffled by anorexics, or those who never eat anything but tasteless processed junk.

    The fact that even college-educated adults quit reading books as soon as they are able suggests that our schools and colleges do a very poor job of teaching the delight of reading tales well told, and that many parents set a bad example by never reading books themselves. What can or should be done about that is a separate question, and outside the scope of this blog. The delight and benefits of reading, however is a topic that I’d like to pursue further, so I’ll undoubtedly return to the question of why reading fiction is good for you.

    ©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

    Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

    Laughs in the Catholic Blogosphere

    Since this is a blog about things I’m reading, I guess it’s okay from time to time to make reference to other blogs that I read occasionally. (I don’t plan to make a habit of this, however.) One that I enjoy from time-to-time is Fr Dwight Longenecker’s Standing on My Head blog, particularly when he is in satirical mode (which is much of the time). One of his recent entries that got me snorting was an announcement that he will henceforth be linking his blog to the website of his new parish, Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, SC, and including more parish-relevant posts. That much is just straight news, no funny business intended. However, to let his new parishioners get a taste of what they will have to put up with from their new pastor, he includes the following at the end of his discussion of his new parish:

    … The parish has a building project, so the chance to build a new church is an exciting challenge.

    I have already designed a very nice contemporary structure which is circular in form with the altar placed down among the people. The church is patterned after the native American teepee so that it reflects the ‘Circle of Life’. Around the altar will be plenty of space to allow for liturgical dance and behind the altar will be the sacred drum space. I believe in proper inculturation and we will be encouraging the young people to play bongo drums of different sizes during Mass to encourage participation by all the people of God.

    Already some nuns from New Mexico have expressed interest in coming to take over the parish school in order to transform it into a place of genuine earth healing and reconciliation with the maternal powers which are being raped by the military industrial male chauvinist conspiracy. They are called Sisters of the St Hildegard of Bingen who was known to be a herbalist, healer, musician and mystic.

    Episcopal Bishop Mary Cesspool has agreed to be our liturgical advisor and spiritual director.

    Then he rather spoils the fun by adding a postscript to his new parishioners that the last few paragraphs are just satire. Well, you can hardly blame him — in many parishes in the American South (still officially “mission country” because of the paucity of Catholics), such things are not necessarily the stuff of Pythonesque fantasy. In fact, one commenter (“Catholic Tide”) notes:

    Those last 3 paragraphs were brutal! With the exception of “Bishop Mary Cesspool” I think I have seen every single one of these atrocities at one parish or another over the years. Thank you for the satire… sometimes we need to laugh to keep from crying.

    Not everyone appreciates satire, of course — especially those whom it ridicules, at least if they lack a sense of humor and the healthy habit of being self-critical. One such reader (apparently an Episcopalian who resented his oblique reference to the local Episcopal she-bishop) reprimanded him for his “insulting” and “non-sensical” references, and received this reply from another reader, who apparently has a greater appreciation of the purpose and uses of satire:

    Bad Jesus, who makes nasty insults, such as,”Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” I guess those forty days in the desert didn’t do him any good.

    The Gargoyle Code by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Just for the record, Fr Longenecker is a Catholic priest of the Pastoral Provision (i.e., former Anglican/Episcopal priest) who started as  an Evangelical Christian (Mennonite, I think). He’s a fairly prolific writer (not just a blogger), with a number of books in print, including a recent book that updates C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, called  The Gargoyle Code. I was surprised to learn that his writing career started with writing apologetics for This Rock magazine, a very fine magazine published by Catholic Answers and currently edited by a former classmate of mine from the University of Dallas, Cherie Peacock. This Rock is well worth subscribing to, as I have done when I had a job and an income (and will do again as soon as I am able); if you are cash-poor or just want to get a taste of the magazine, follow the link in the previous sentence and you can read online (or download) archived issues of This Rock (after following the link, click the This Rock pull-down menu and select the desired date of publication).