Well, the 13th Annual C.S. Lewis & Inklings Conference is at an end. I presented my paper at 2:30 Friday afternoon, and I thought it went pretty well. I was able to meet and ask a few questions of C.S. Lewis celebrity extraordinaire, Michael Ward, and also to talk to the sweet and lovely Diana Glyer. I chatted a bit with Joshua of Eighth Day Books, who had a display at the conference, and spent a lot of time with John Granger, who presented a paper called ‘Literary Alchemy in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy: The Foundation for Anagogical Artistry in Lewis’s Narniad’ and stayed with my parents. I met many other professors, grad students, and even undergrads and independent scholars, saw many papers, and had a great time.
So, for those two people who asked, I have decided to post my paper. Keep in mind I was under length constraints. I intend to expand it and try to get it published somewhere. Rather than go through the trouble of changing the whole text to follow my usual footnote format, I have instead retained the parenthetical documentation of the original, with accompanying ‘Works Cited’ list at the bottom.
‘were Ceremonie slaine’:
C.S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost as a Contribution to the Ethics of Genre
The evangelical literary scholar, Leland Ryken, has claimed (merely in passing!) that ‘literary form . . . is amoral and philosophically neutral’ (Ryken 154). I respectfully disagree. The notion that content alone has moral or religious significance, though common enough I’m afraid among Christians, betrays a lack of sophistication in Christian approaches to art and can cause us to miss what I believe to be one of the most interesting areas of religious literary scholarship—what I call the ethics of genre. Exploring the moral ramifications of form deepens our understanding of how we interact with literature as moral beings called to ‘be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). It is a basic point of this paper that whatever conclusions we may come to about the relative ethical or religious significance of the various literary genres, such significance is undeniably present and Christian readers can and should discuss it.
I was first confronted with this question of the ethics of genre through the works of the Russian literary critic and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, perhaps most famous for his studies of Dostoevsky and Rabelais. It is clear from both these studies that to Bakhtin literary form is not ‘amoral and philosophically neutral’; rather, it plays an important rôle in his evaluation of the works in question, not only on a ‘purely literary’ level, but on a moral and philosophical one. But in order to understand the background to Bakhtin’s concerns, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of the Great Conversation on the subject of literary genre—Aristotle’s Poetics. After a very brief note about the classical genres and Bakhtin’s criticisms of them, I will then consider C.S. Lewis’s influential 1942 study, A Preface to Paradise Lost, as something of a defense of those genres, and a contribution toward the Christian understanding of ‘ceremony,’ both literary and liturgical.
I. Genre Then & Now
It is a telling symptom of the near total dominance of prose fiction today that we typically use the word ‘genre’ to refer simply to different types of prose fiction—romance, mystery, horror, sci-fi, etc. It was not always so. In a fascinating article, ‘Genre of Genre,’ Daniel Selden reminds us, ‘Greek and Roman writers worked within a highly elaborated field of generic classifications (eidi) which admitted several overlapping systems of classification’ (Selden 39). Although these genres had their origin in specific social situations—Lewis paints a memorable picture of the courtly setting of an epic performance for instance, with the poet ‘seated and chanting to the harp a poem on high matters before an assembly of nobles in a court’ (Lewis 16)—in their most classic formulation the attempt is made to relate them to nature itself. In Aristotle’s Poetics, we see all of the classical genres as a harmonious whole, or, as Bakhtin puts it, ‘the whole of literature conceived as a totality of genres, becomes an organic unity of the highest order.’ (Dialogic 4). But Aristotle speaks solely of the ‘art of poetry,’ that is, those arts which ‘have as their means of imitation rhythm, language, and melody.’ (Aristotle 45). Prose fiction is not conceived of as one genre among others, for because it ‘imitates in language alone’, to the ancients it has no name and is not a ‘genre’ at all (Aristotle 45).
Bakhtin’s view of these ancient poetic genres is a difficult and complex one, and it would be impossible to do it complete justice here. Suffice to say that for him, first, they are ‘the literature of ruling social groups’ (Dialogic 4); second, they are monoglot, that is they presuppose one particular language ‘not separable from its subject’ (Dialogic 17); third, they have well-defined generic features; and thus, fourth, they cannot be mixed lest they create, as Plato says in Laws 700e, ‘a total confusion of styles’ (Plato 1389).
But Bakhtin observes that the Hellenistic period undermined the classical genres forever. A literature developed featuring characters of diverse social backgrounds often in very earthy situations, featuring self-conscious use of languages, and ‘permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody’ (Dialogic 7). In this literature the older genres are mixed, prose alternates with poetry, ‘novellas, letters, oratorical speeches, symposia, and so on’ all come into play (Problems 118). All of this is done in full self-consciousness, with a marked distanciation between the author and the various voices in the work. This literature, which began (for Europeans) with Menippean satire and culminated in the modern novel, ‘cringes with a timid and ashamed sideward glance at the other’s possible response,’ in Bakhtin’s highly anthropomorphic characterization (Problems 205).
For Bakhtin this is an inevitable and also a good development (one hesitates to comment on whether one follows from the other). He sees the discursive mode of the ancient genres as reified and reifying, and novelization as a process of bringing something dead to life—an ethical judgement that is very appealing to post-Romantic sensibilities. But there is something to this for Christians as well. Bakhtin links the literature of early Christianity with menippea by means of the aretalogy, or acclamation of a god’s power. He finds in both the same intermingling of characters, situations, and generic discursive modes (Problems 135). The very idea of God incarnate in a poor, provincial carpenter’s son with no place to lay His head, Who mingles with tax collectors and prostitutes, is hardly material for an epic poem. Much better to use the fall of the rebel angels and the tempting of the first-born Man as one’s subject.
II. Lewis’s Contribution
In his important study, A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis finds himself explaining and defending a poem that amounts to something like a beached whale. The waters of the ancient genres have receded, they are largely incomprehensible to the modern reader, and we are left with the sand of the Bakhtinian novel.
Lewis does not dispute Bakhtin’s description of the ancient genres. Indeed, he emphasizes the noble setting, calling epic ‘a poetry about nobles, made for nobles, and performed on occasion, by nobles’ (Lewis 16). The well-defined generic features make an appearance too, when for example Lewis differentiates light from serious court poetry (Lewis 14). Finally, the importance of these distinctions forms a major crux of the first chapter when Lewis tells us that the first question Milton asked himself was, ‘What kind of poem do I want to make?’ (Lewis 2). Lewis is keen to call the modern reader’s attention to this because he fears that we wish Paradise Lost to be either lyric poetry or prose narrative. Recognizing its genre is key to understanding the poem.
It’s true that because he is highlighting the continuity of Milton with the previous epic tradition, Lewis is not as insistent on the language issue. Coming thousands of years subsequent to the end of the monoglot era, the educated poet can hardly be expected to write English without any self-consciousness. Thus, Lewis argues that Milton is actually responding to his unique historical-literary situation precisely by a deliberate use of Latinisms (Lewis 46-7). He has no choice but to write English with what Bakhtin would call a ‘sideward glance.’
But while Lewis does not disagree with Bakhtin’s description of epic, he does disagree with his judgment of it. Whatever he might have said about the strengths of polyglossia, Lewis’s primary concern in the Preface is to remind us of the unique value of epic, even borrowing Aristotle’s term οικεια ηδονη (Aristotle 58), which he renders ‘specific delightfulness’ (Lewis 2). Now, morally, we are perhaps on uncertain ground here, since from a secular perspective, the notion that a thing offers some pleasure may be a sufficient justification for it, but Christians can hardly affirm this. In this case, however, the ‘pleasure’ involved is of a kind that Christians will find familiar.
This becomes clear in Lewis’s description of the ‘specific delightfulness’ of epic, in other words, its ‘solemnity’ (Lewis 17). Lewis calls the epic poem ‘solemn’ in the old sense, comparing it to ‘ceremony,’ and thus to liturgy: ‘The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial . . .’ He tells us to think of a priest before an altar (Lewis 17). He explicity compares poetic diction to the language of liturgy:
Regular church-goers are not surprised by the service—indeed, they know a good deal of it by rote; but it is a language apart. Epic diction, Christmas fare, and the liturgy, are all examples of ritual—that is, of something deliberately apart from daily usage, but wholly familiar within its own sphere. . . . [T]hose who dislike ritual in general—ritual in any and every department of life—may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance. (Lewis 22)
Lewis also responds to the idea that such ritual behavior is vain, arguing that it is rather a humble obedience to ‘the hoc age which presides over every solemnity’. He concludes, ‘The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual’ (Lewis 17). To quote the epigram—from Chapman—to Chapter 8 of Preface, Lewis is concerned with what would result ‘were Ceremonie slaine’ (Lewis 52).
Obviously, as a Christian Lewis does not deny that liturgy is a higher endeavour, a higher form of ceremony than epic poetry. While Richard Ladborough claims Lewis was uninterested in ritual, yet in the same paragraph he notes that Lewis attended daily matins at the college chapel (Ladborough 103). Indeed, while he might not, with Plato, exile the poets entirely from the city, Lewis would approve of Plato’s oft forgotten affirmation of doxology. In Republic 606e-607a, Socrates says, ‘But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people [ymnous theois kai egkomia tois agathois] are the only poetry we can admit into our city’ (Plato 1211). Lewis’s comparison of epic and liturgy points us toward the fundamental nature of the latter. Commenting on Plato’s willingness to accept doxological poetry, Catherine Pickstock observes that doxology avoids the self-division of epic poetry: ‘In an act of doxological expression, the one who gives praise, the object of praise, and all those who share in its expression, are supremely centred and non-ironic, for genuine avowal involves commitment to such a degree that nothing can be held back or veiled’ (Pickstock 39).
So while Homer’s ‘Goddess, sing the rage’ (Homer 77), Milton’s ‘Sing Heav’nly Muse, . . . / . . . I thence / Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song’ (Milton 89), and George of Nicomedia’s ‘I shall open my mouth to chant and with the Spirit shall I be filled’ (Menaion 174-5) may seem all of a piece, we are reminded that in the latter we have not only the solemnity and humility that Lewis recommends in epic, but the singleness of mind and ‘genuine avowal’ that Plato does not find in epic. Finally, confronted with the prayer of doxology, even Bakhtin welcomes a properly ‘religious naivete’ wherein ‘rhythm becomes possible’ (Art 145). But he also reminds us that prayer ‘is not a produced work, but a performed act’ wherein, ultimately, God is in control (Art 145).
Let us also recall that in doxology we are able to celebrate the humble and the lowly—‘For,’ as an Orthodox hymn for the Nativity asks, ‘what is meaner than a cave, what is humbler than swaddling clothes?’ (Menaion 272). But through paradox we lose none of the solemnity, the ‘specific delightfulness’ of ritual—‘Yet therein shone forth the wealth of Thy divinity: glory to Thee, O Lord’ (Menaion 272).
There can be little doubt that Bakhtin has hit on a point of great importance to the Christian reader: he has made clearer some of the specifically literary consequences of St Isaac the Syrian’s observation that ‘humility is the raiment of the Godhead’ (St Isaac 381), consequences realized above all in the Gospels and the Lives of Saints, as well as in such writers of fiction as Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Alexander Papadiamandis. But in the wake of these literary ripples, Lewis reminds us that high, formal poetry has its own humility, one closely akin to our solemn humility before the Godhead. In the texts of the Christian liturgy, we find a morality that reconciles old and new, prose and poetry.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Tr. James Hutton. NY: Norton, 1982.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Art & Answerability. Ed. Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov. Tr. Vadim Liapunov. Austin: U of Texas, 1995.
---. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas, 1998.
---. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. & tr. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994.
The Festal Menaion. Tr. Mother Mary & Archimandrite Kallistos (Ware). South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998.
Homer. The Iliad. Tr. Robert Fagles. NY: Penguin, 1998.
Isaac the Syrian, Saint. The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian. Tr. Dana Miller. Boston: HTM, 1984.
Ladborough, Richard W. ‘In Cambridge.’ C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table & Other Reminiscences. Ed. James T. Como. NY: Macmillan, 1979. 98-104.
Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. NY: Oxford U, 1965.
Milton, John. The Complete English Poems of John Milton. Ed. John D. Jump. NY: Washington Square, 1964.
Pickstock, Catherine. After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Plato. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Ryken, Leland. Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979.
Selden, Daniel L. ‘Genre of Genre.’ The Search for the Ancient Novel. Ed. James Tatum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U, 1994. 39-64.