Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Discarded Image

The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
Read: 9/28/08-1/5/09
LibraryThing tags: Literary Criticism, Medieval, History, Philosophy, SLOBS

This should be required reading for everyone. Okay, it might be a bit academic for that. Still. His focus is very much on interpreting literature, so if a historical tangent would be important but has no bearing on the literature, he says so and moves on. Nonetheless, for such a focused little book, he covers a decent amount of history, especially the history of philosophy. He corrects several very common historical misconceptions, like the idea that the medievals thought the world was flat, or that they would consider a sphere problematic because everything would fall off the other side (something he himself uses in Narnia, oddly enough). I've seen this corrected in other books, but Lewis' analysis is such a great read.

Obviously they did differ with us on some aspects of astronomy, but that affected life and imagination in different ways than one might think. For example (not the best of all possible examples, but I like this quote),

“The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous. And the fact that the height of the stars in the medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in the modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you anticipated. For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this. The really important difference is that the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite. And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt. In our universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything--and so what? But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison."

I love his preface. He explains of his book, "I cannot boast that it contains much which a reader could not have found out for himself if, at every hard place in the old books, he had turned to commentators, histories, encyclopaedias, and other such helps. I thought the lectures worth giving and the book worth writing because that method of discovery seemed to me and seems to some others rather unsatisfactory. For one thing, we turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren't. Again, frequent researches ad hoc sadly impair receptive reading, so that sensitive people may even come to regard scholarship as a baleful thing which is always taking you out of the literature itself."

And from much later in the book, one of the things that "look easy" and isn't:
“The importance of all this for our own purpose is that nearly every reference to Reason in the old poets will be in some measure misread if we have in mind only ‘the power by which man deduces one proposition from another’. One of the most moving passages in Guillaume de Lorris’ part of the Romance of the Rose (5813 sq.) is that where Reason, Reason the beautiful, a gracious lady, a humbled goddess, deigns to plead with the lover as a celestial mistress, a rival to his earthly love. This is frigid if Reason were only what Johnson made her. You cannot turn a calculating machine into a goddess. But Raison la bele is ‘no such cold thing’.”

I wonder if, later in the Enlightenment and modernity when you have the exaltation of the more specific type of reason, the deductive part, if they ever took as support the old statements glorifying Reason, when in fact those old statements referred to something larger, something that could not be justified by the smaller meaning alone.
Seems quite possible.

And later in the preface, "There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its 'quaintness', and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives. They have their reward. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I was writing for the other sort."

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