Monday, April 28, 2008

All Literature is Dangerous

This is what Martin Cothran writes in The Classical Teacher sent out from Memoria Press. He quotes Chesterton, who says in "On Reading":

To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one's last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns.
Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone.
Cothran writes about young college students who read some of Ayn Rand's work and were "swept away", not having read enough or thought enough to realize that books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were not great literature or thought. You could probably substitute whatever book or idea you could imagine. The best insurance against a disproportionate influence of one book or idea is a broad, deep environment of them.

Of course, CS Lewis says something very similar in his famous Introduction to Athanasius:

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. 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. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. 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 should now absolutely deny.

Cothran goes on (he is talking about the Harry Potter series):

"To a child who is not well-read, Harry Potter is dangerous -- and so is any other book he or she may read. But the best defense against one idea is not fewer ideas but more of them....being widely read, in other words, is the best inoculation against the dangers of literature. Being widely read enables a person to not only see an idea, but, as Chesterton put it, to see through it."

"Literature is dangerous-- except when taken in large doses"

I read Ayn Rand in my freshman year of university, so that is why the example particularly rang with me. The friend who gave me her books was an enthusiast who took her philosophy as truth. As for me, I admired Rand's vigor and a sort of cool sweeping bleakness in her tales of striving, dispassionate men and women. But I knew it was not great writing and I knew it wasn't great thinking. When I reflect on how I knew, I think it was because of my mother reading Winnie the Pooh to me, among much else, and I knew that Rand had left a whole lot out that needed to be accounted for at least implicitly.

John Senior writes:

"The seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, romances, adventures-the thousand good books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest."
I think that if children have explored the territory of these "thousand good books" (you could probably add others to the list) then they will have some means by which to measure the books and ideas that will inevitably come their way. The virtues and the limitations of the Hogwarts world will be clearer against a context of Middle Earth, Narnia, Sherwood Forest, and Ravenhurst, to mention only a few.

I like what Theresa at La Paz Learning wrote some time ago about Living Dangerously. She writes:

Far better to teach your child how to appropriately handle the dangerous things he may come into contact with, like power tools, knives, or fire. It is actually safer than trying to keep your child in a sterile, “safe” environment in hopes of keeping him from harm. Rather than forbidding a child to touch these things, teach him (age appropriately, of course) to use “dangerous” things safely, and you no longer need fear him coming across them (because he inevitably will) and then hurting himself. I contend (though I admit I have not done the research to back it up) that most accidents happen due to lack of knowledge, not because of the possession of too much of it.

I think this mastery of danger has ramifications in the literary sphere too. A lot of the most worthwhile things have an element of risk. We don't read them or do them BECAUSE they are risky; but because of their very value or power, there is some danger in their handling. This would include our faith, of course. A constant theme in CS Lewis's Narnia Chronicles is that "he (Aslan) is not a TAME lion". Our faith is not tame, or at least should not be; our lives are not tame, unless we have insulated them to the point of vacuum-sealing; nor is tameness all we should expect of our literature, even for our children.

Of course, this is not about letting kids have free rein with the matches or knives or guns or books with adult themes, either. I think our society tends towards a dichotomy -- XTreme precautions, to the point that you can't buy a real chemistry set anymore and laws are being proposed to restrict fast food; and on the other hand, simple neglect or indifference to a toxic environment. Everyone has to find their own balance for their own family and children. But there is a golden mean between any two extremes, and it seems to me that children learn more about risk by learning to handle it to some extent according to their maturity than by being kept from it altogether.


Theresa said...

Fascinating! All of it!
I never really thought of this reason for reading the classics before, but of course it makes sense. Great post, Willa!

Mark Wickens said...

I knew that Rand had left a whole lot out that needed to be accounted for at least implicitly

Such as...?

Susan L said...

I keep finding myself coming back to your blog the last couple of days. First because you wrote something about mentoring (and receiving mentoring) that was encouraging to me. Long story, but I found myself following the links in your posts on this topic, and it was all helpful and encouraging (and kept me from going into hiding!). :-)

And then this post. I've come back to reply several times, but I keep getting interrupted.

I just loved this post from one end to the other! As I read through it, something you would say would make me think of something else, and then you'd say that, too. That happened three or four times-- Chesterton's quote reminding me of Lewis's; Harry Potter and dangerous literature reminding me of Senior; Theresa's quote making me think of Narnia and Aslan not being a tame lion...

You made me think of what Peggy Noon wrote in her epilogue to When Character Was King:

"The little bodies of children are the repositories of the greatness of a future age. And they must be encouraged, must eat from the tales of those who've gone before, and brandished their swords, and slayed dragons."

Children really do need those 1,000 great stories. And time to think about them, to imagine, to wonder, and to act them out.

What are we doing to children and childhood?! Everything has to be safe, structured, organized, tame. I watch parents with their young children nowadays and wonder if there's hope for children to grow up to be anything but neurotic. They're learning in childhood to be fearful, protected, coddled, and self-consumed. Life revolves around the child and not the family any more. Children can't simply go out and play (no, they're too busy "practicing" as George Will said). Children don't do hard physical work because they're too busy doing homework or practicing sports or taking enrichment classes. Trees are climbed less often. Creeks aren't for wading. Woods aren't for exploring. (They are all too rife with danger!) Books are read less often (kids are too busy or electronically plugged in, and they relate reading to book reports and schoolwork). And, yes, chemistry sets blow up less often.

I think of Davy Crockett who "killed him a b'ar when he was only three." ;-) Or children who used to be sent out to kill a chicken for dinner or even to go to the woods with a gun to hunt something!

Or, to take it to an extreme, the children of France and other countries during WWII who were spies and blew things up and did all sorts of insanely "unsafe" things. I can't begin to imagine a modern 14yo girl doing what was done by the young girl in Madeleine Takes Command. Surely the parents of these children and youth didn't intend for their children to have to do such brave, grown-up things, but somehow their childhood prepared them well for them. Our own children may not be called to this kind of daring, but they'll definitely be assailed continuously with poor thinking, and the same things that bring about courage bring about good thinking (as you've already said so well).


Susan L said...

Oooh. That's embarrassingly long!


Willa said...

Children and contemplation come to mind right away.

Willa said...

Oh, that comment of mine was in answer to the question: "Such as..." in the second comment.

Willa said...

I love long comments, Susan. Yours gave me much to think about.

Theresa, I'm glad you didn't mind me taking your thoughts and connecting them to something else that way.

Martin Cothran said...


Great post! I couldn't fit that Lewis comment in the article, but the other quotes were new to me. Thank you for continuing this line of thought. I had hoped someone would.

Laura A said...

Willa, I read and liked this post this morning, but it's been one of those errandy days, and I'm only just now commenting (on the East Coast).

I've been reading one of those contemporary Christian bestsellers for a women's group that I'm in. It has some good things in it, but it also requires a lot of discernment. If I hadn't read the Bible and Christian classics for years and years, who knows what this book would have me thinking by now! For one thing, it's a very emotional book.

Also, I went through a bit of a Rand stage myself at one point. I enjoyed "striding purposefully" for a couple of months, until I read a biography by one of her former groupies, at which point the fallacies of her "airtight" logic became all too clear. (In case I didn't know already.)

Anyway, thanks for reminding me why its so worth it to read, read, read. Which we were already doing anyway. And I totally agree with Susan about how this reminds you of that, and that of something else, and then there it all was, in your post!

And speaking of which, I really liked your Flannery O'Connor post, too. She's another favorite!

Evenspor said...

Very well written and interesting post. Thanks for putting all that together for our benefit.

Sara said...

What a wonderful post. I love the idea of inoculation through more ideas, not fewer. I think I can use that argument at a committee meeting comeing up ...

Stephanie said...

No. Not a tame lion. Not at all, and it makes us moderns very worried. We are always so intent on always being "safe" from everything (ironic, I think - we who live in the most safety known to humans since the dawn of civilization).

Safe isn't healthy (healthy immune systems break down in sterile environments). Safe isn't holy. (Seriously. There have been a few martyrs, right? Holy martyrs?)

Yet it's terrifying to allow our children exposure to lions not tame.

One thing I know for sure (now - after the times of childhood are over and done in this house) - I know that it was wise to equate holiness and strength of character with bravery, genuine risk, valor, wisdom, choice, strong wills, and the widest variety possible as a banquet for young minds.

I can see now that it was good to behave as if my kids could - and ought to - grow up knowing what the choices were, and knowing how to choose.

There's another benefit too, Willa. Our oldest had a very interesting experience lately. She'd been reading about the "challenges" of reading "post-modern" literature. She finally decided to research a little, and she figured out what they were talking about -- and then drew the conclusion that it's only "challenging" if you've decided that it is. Otherwise it's just literature, and there's all kinds of literature.

She's always read all kinds of literature - so the distinction for our own times producing the "challenging" stuff seemed silly to her. And it seemed to take a very narrow view of the literature of other times. Such a distinction seemed to her to misunderstand both the old and the new.

Children ought to grow up, I think, in a world where they know that tame is not the same thing as good.

Faith said...

Willa, I love that Winnie the Pooh prepared you to discern the truth about Ayn Rand!

Of course it would, because Pooh stories are full of wimsy, humor, affection, imagination, kindness, putting up with the foibles of others graciously. Those are the REAL things in life.

Rand is materialism and the worship of the self as god. Utter nonsense!

Us! said...

This was a great post Willa. Susan I really appreciated your comments as well. I was just listening to the CBC the other day and this author had written a book about 'Helicopter parenting" or "curling-parents" and how it is so unhelpful to our children (I wish I could have heard him out but I was running errands).

Yes, lets let them be kids. To mess up sometimes, to have time to think etc.

Willa, I linked to this on my blog. It has really been on my thoughts lately.


Willa said...

Kristie, your reflections on Susan's comment reminded me of this post I read today by a homeschool grad who is homeschooling her kids.

Do your kids get enough danger?

It has been so interesting reading all the comments.

Martin Cothran, I am glad you did not mind me quoting you. I liked that whole issue of Classical Teacher very much -- Joe Paterno talking about Virgil, no less!

Stephanie, I remember reading your thoughts on Why it Worked and how a fearful, closed-in approach towards life and ideas wouldn't serve the truth OR the kids.

"Tame is not the same as good". How true!

Angela said...

This philosophy rings so true for me. I have always felt that anything in a vacuum--literature, religion, life-- is far more dangerous than a planned exploration followed with guided discussion. Excellent!