Monday, November 24, 2008

The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis

Not long ago I discovered this book-- something by C.S. Lewis that I had not read! My wonderful sister gave it to me for my birthday. :) It's not one of Lewis' specifically Christian works, but "An introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature". He gives this introduction not so much by talking about the literature itself, but by teaching the reader about the culture and worldview of the Middle Ages.

I like history for its own sake, but I think the book would have been interesting even apart from that, for the light it sheds on our own culture. Lewis wrote something about that in his essay "On the Reading of Old Books", arguing that it's parochial to restrict one's learning to one's own time and assume we must know best because we come latest. We may never find out what incorrect assumptions are common in our age if we don't step outside of it by reading works from other time periods.

Anyway, here are some quotes and ideas from Discarded Image that stood out to me. Of course they don't do justice to the whole book. Lewis' exact words are in quotes and my summaries are not.

"Savage beliefs are thought to be the spontaneous response of a human group to its environment." This can develop into "something more ethical, more philosophical, even more scientific," as probably occurred in ancient Egypt. But Medieval culture is like neither of these. It had an "overwhelmingly bookish or clerkly character... When we speak of the Middle Ages as the ages of authority we are usually thinking about the authority of the Church. But they were the age not only of her authority, but of authorities. If their culture is regarded as a response to environment, then the elements in that environment to which it responded most vigorously were manuscripts."

"At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems.... Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index."

Lewis spends most of the book describing "The Model", which is "the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe."

However, this Model is more important in art and literature than in religion: "We need to know something about the Model if we are to read Chaucer, but we can neglect it when we are reading St. Bernard.... The spiritual books are entirely practical-- like medical books."

"The insignificance (by cosmic standards) of the Earth became as much a commonplace to the medieval, as to the modern, thinker; it was part of the moralists' stock-in-trade, used, as Cicero uses it, to mortify human ambition..... The medieval Model is anthropoperipheral."

"If the reader will suspend his disbelief and exercise his imagination upon it even for a few minutes, I think he will become aware of the vast re-adjustment involved in a perceptive reading of the old poets. He will find his whole attitude to the universe inverted. In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity; in this, he stands at the bottom of a stair whose top is invisible with light." This difference "perhaps leaves no area and no level of consciousness unaffected."

"Perpetuity is only the attainment of an endless series of moments, each lost as soon as it is attained. Eternity is the actual and timeless fruition of illimitable life. Time is... a hopeless attempt to compensate for the transitoriness of its 'presents' by infinitely multiplying them. That is why Shakespeare's Lucrece calls it 'thou ceaseless lackey to eternity.'"

Lewis describes the Model of the heavens, the famous spheres that revolve around Earth which the medievals learned of from Aristotle, and then comments upon "how such a universe must have affected those who believed in it.... You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. 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."

"All power, movement, and efficacy descend from God to the Primum Mobile [Prime Mover] and cause it to rotate. This moves the other spheres down to the last moving sphere, the Moon... Besides movement, the spheres transmit (to the Earth) what are called Influences." The Sun illuminates the whole universe; stars receive their light from the Sun. "Night is merely the conical shadow cast by our Earth... we are looking through darkness but not at darkness." Space isn't silent either; as Henryson wrote: "Every planet in his proper sphere / In moving makand harmony and sound." So a medieval man on a nocturnal walk was "looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music." The modern man looking at a night sky feels he is looking out; medieval man was looking in.

One problem to solve was this: How can God be an Unmoved Mover? If he is Himself unchanging and motionless, how does he initiate the motion of the spheres? This had already been asked and answered by Aristotle: "'He moves as beloved.' He moves other things, that is, as an object of desire moves those who desire it. The Primum Mobile is moved by its love for God, and, being moved, communicates motion to the rest of the universe.... It will be noticed that when Dante ends the Comedy with 'the love that moves the Sun and other stars', he is speaking of love in the Aristotelian sense."

"Certainly there is a striking difference between this Model where God is much less the lover than the beloved and man is a marginal creature, and the Christian picture where the fall of man and the incarnation of God as man for man's redemption is central. There may perhaps.... be no absolute logical contradiction...But there remains, at the very least, a profound disharmony of atmospheres. That is why all this cosmology plays so small a part in the spiritual writers, and is not fused with high religious ardor in any writer I know except Dante himself."

Luxury and material splendor in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money. But in medieval royal courts, in Faerie, and in Heaven, "They were all symbolical or significant-- of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage, or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer."

"Nearly all moralists before the 18th century regarded Reason as the organ of morality.... To recognize a duty was to perceive a truth, not because you had a good heart but because you were a rational being."

To the Greeks history was meaningless flux or cyclic reiteration. Significance was sought not in becoming but in being, "not in history but in metaphysics, mathematics, and theology." For Hebrews their whole past was "a revelation of the purposes of Jahweh. Christianity, going on from there, makes world-history in its entirety a single, transcendentally significant, story with a well-defined plot pivoted on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment."

(The above passage is similar to one in G.K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man. You find a lot of Chesterton in Lewis' work, as he himself frankly acknowledged.)

Medieval narratives about the past are lacking in a sense of period. For us the past is a costume play, and this helps us more than we suspect towards subtler discriminations between different ages. "Where even the most obvious and superficial distinctions between one century and another were ignored, the profounder difference of temper and mental climate were naturally not dreamed of."

"Medieval and 19th-century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come. The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper. Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration... The saints looked down on one's spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one's secular life, the great lovers of old on one's amours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one's place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely."

"Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the period I am discussing."

We get the impression from medieval poetry "that the poets were unable to keep to the point." But it was deliberately done. Digressions "can be regarded as an expression of the same impulse we see at work in much medieval architecture and decoration. We may call it the love of the labyrinthine; the tendency to offer to the mind or the eye something that cannot be taken in at a glance."

"Far from feigning originality, as a modern plagiarist would, they are apt to conceal it... If you had asked Lazamon or Chaucer, 'Why do you not make up a brand-new story on your own?' I think they might have replied (in effect) 'Surely we are not yet reduced to that?' Spin something out of one's own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?"

"I think the majority of the audience, then as now, could hardly conceive the activity of invention at all. It is said that people pointed out Dante not as the man who made the Comedy but as the man who had been in Hell. Even today there are those, some of them critics, who believe every novel and even every lyric to be autobiographical."

Epilogue: "I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree. It is possible that some readers have long been itching to remind me that it had a serious defect; it was not true.
"I agree. It was not true. But...."

There was a change "from a cosmology in which it was axiomatic that 'all perfect things precede all imperfect things' to one in which it is axiomatic that 'the starting point (Entwicklungsgrund) is always lower than what is developed'.... This revolution was certainly not brought about by the discovery of new facts. When I was a boy I believed that 'Darwin discovered evolution' and that the far more general, radical, and even cosmic developmentalism which till lately dominated all popular thought was a superstructure raised on the biological theorem. This view has been sufficiently disproved. The statement which I have just quoted about the Entwicklungsgrund was made by Schellin in 1812. In him, in Keats, in Wagner's tetralogy, in Goethe, in Herder, the change to the new point of view has already taken place.... The demand for a developing world-- a demand obviously in harmony both with the revolutionary and the romantic temper-- grows up first; when it is full grown the scientists go to work and discover the evidence on which our belief in that sort of universe would now be held to rest.... I do not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory. Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes.... Nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her."

"I am only suggesting considerations that may induce us to regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolising none. [Each Model] reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age's knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical."

"It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts-- unprovoked as the nova of 1572.  But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should."

4 comments:

Alpha Otter said...

WOW! A Lewis book I've never heard of! This is glorious! Thank you for posting on this. You have a great blog design by the way (interesting graphic).

Kevin Ott
www.kevinott.net

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Kevin! That picture was originally an illustration for an article on gene therapy, but it looks like infused knowledge too... I'm glad to have helped someone else find a Lewis book. :)

Jonathan, Sheffield UK said...

What a great overview and sample. I was thinking of buying this book, and now I am sold.
PS please don't become a nun. More people will need you out in the world than inside a convent.
XJonathan

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Jonathan, I'm glad people appreciate this post. :)

I figure if God calls me to be a nun, it's because I'll give Him more glory in a convent than out in the world. And nothing is more practical than prayer.