Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Discarded Image

I just finished reading CS Lewis's The Discarded Image. Very good read. I promised myself the happiness of typing out this quote from Chesterton, which Lewis uses to front his chapter on the "Longaevi", or the "faerie folk":

"There is something sinister about putting a leprechaun in the workhouse. The only solid comfort is that he certainly will not work."
But that is a bit of an incidental in this post, which is more about Lewis' "Short Course" (really, a series of lectures) on the Medieval "Model". By "model" he means how things looked from the perspective of the medieval author and thinker. He traces the thinking from the classical days up to how it manifested itself in the medieval and Renaissance literature. Maybe putting the leprechaun in the workhouse is a bit similar by analogy to the common fallacy Lewis describes and tries to get us past in the book -- the fallacy is taking some image or expression of times past and trying to understand it strictly in terms of our modern sensibility and intellectual context. This fallacy is almost the mark of ignorance -- parochialism, defined as "narrowly restricted in scope or outlook; provincial" -- and we are all subject to it, but ought to try and acknowledge it and at least attempt to get beyond it. I'm preaching a bit here, but Lewis does not preach in this book, though he does try to make a point about the advantages of the more respectful approach -- more about that later. The bulk of The Discarded Image deals in a scholarly, meticulous fashion with the details and big picture of the medieval "Model", so much like a cathedral with the abundance of detail and the soaring vision. With the background given in this book, it is much easier to understand allusions and themes in Chaucer, Milton and Spenser, among others, which simply pass by our radar without the understanding of the context which Lewis gives.

As he writes:

Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest--trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The "space" of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs was classical.

I requested the book because of the Seven Liberal Arts couplet and so found that chapter the most directly interesting to me, though the section on the medieval universe was also absorbing. Here's a bit on the subject of "Grammar" -- he states that Grammar meant Latin grammar, of course, but:

"While Grammar was thus restricted to a single tongue, in another way it sometimes extended far beyond the realm it claims today. It had done so for centures. Quintilian suggests literatura as the proper translation of Greek grammatike, and literatura, though it does not mean "literature", included a good deal more than literacy. It included all that is required for "making up' a 'set book'; syntax, etymology, prosody, and the explanation of allusions. Isidore makes even history a department of Grammar. He would have described the book I am now writing as a book of Grammar. Scholarship is perhaps our nearest equivalent.

In popular usage Grammatica or Grammaria slid into the vague sense of learning in general; and since learning is usually an object both of respect and suspicion to the masses, grammar, in the form grammary comes to mean magic. Thus in the ballad of King Estmere, 'My mother was a western woman learned in grammarye.' And from grammary, by a familiar sound-change, comes glamour --- a word whose associations with grammar and even with magic have now been annihilated by the beauty-specialists."

As for Dialectic:

"Dialectic in the couplet 'teaches words'; an obscure saying. What is really meant is that, having learned from grammar how to talk, we must learn from Dialectic how to talk sense, to argue, to prove and disprove. .... Everyone who has tried to teach mere Logic knows how difficult it is, especially with an intelligent pupil, to avoid raising questions which force us into metaphysics."

A bit about Rhetoric:

"Chaucer's apostrophe to 'Gaufred, dere mayster souverain; has kept alive the memory of Geoffrey de Vinsauf who...wrote the Nova Poetria, a work whose value lies in its extreme naivety.

He divides "Ordo" (which some call Dispositio) into two kinds, Natural and Artificial. The Nature follows the King of Hearts' advice by beginning at the beginning. The Artificial is of three kinds. You ccan begin at the end (as in the Oedipus Rex or a play by Ibsen); or in the middle (like Virgil and Spenser); or with a Sententia or Exemplum. Chaucer begins with a Sententia or maxim in the Parlement, the Hous of Fame, the Prologue to the Legen, the Legend of Phillis and the Prioress's Tale. I cannot remember that he ever begins with an Exemplum, but no one needs to be reminded how frequent they are in his work...
And I like this section:

Here Geoffrey is dealing with a real problem, which we have all faced though few of us would pose it so bluntly. The Natural Order will not always serve. And the plan of beginning with a Sententia, or something like it, is still an unlaid ghost. It 'walks' in that fatal opening paragraph with which schoolboys are apparently taught to begin their essays.

On Amplificatio he is almost embarrassing. He calls the various method of 'amplifying' you piece, quite frankly, morae (delays); as if the art of literature consisted in learning how to say much when you have little to say. That, I suspect, was how he really regarded it. But this means not that the morae he recommends are all necessarily bad but that he misunderstands -- I do not profess to understand it fully myself -- their real function.
There is a bit more about Geoffrey de Vinsauf here, and here.

Personally, I wonder whether "delays" as an artifice weren't a matter of pacing.... of suiting the delivery to the occasion. I see that mora is a linguistic and metric term, and I don't see why it shouldn't extend out to the actual syntax and substance when the occasion calls for it.

Elsewhere Lewis writes (in The Influence of the Model, the last chapter):

Rhetoric recommended morae -- delays or padding. Does all this science and 'story' come in simply longius ut sit opus, 'that the work may be longer'? But this perhaps overlooks that fact that Rhetoric explains the formal, not the material, characteristic. That is, it may tell you to digress; not what to put into your digressions. It may approve Common Places; it can hardly decide what shall achieve the status of a Common Place.
OK, I had better stop now because I keep finding more things to quote. Anyway, the book was interesting in more ways than I can find time to describe here.

I thought the examples of morae and sententiae brought up to today's schoolboy essays had applicability to some of the criticisms of the SAT essays.

SAT essay test rewards length and ignores errors

1 comment:

Laura A said...

I read this book years ago and was recently thinking that I should revisit it. Your post adds to that feeling. Lewis is helpful for dissipating "chronological snobbery," don't you think? Thanks for helping me to remember.