Saturday, October 1, 2011

Thoughts on Lewis: Abolition of Man

I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do. Even Dr Richards, who first seriously tackled the problem of badness in literature, failed, I think, to do it. To 'debunk' the emotion, on the basis of a commonplace rationalism, is within almost anyone's capacity.
 In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head    -- Men without Chests

It seems to me that there are two different types of debunking.   One is the kind that anyone older than about eleven can do.   Middle schoolers specialize in it, and some people never grow past it.   It is to scoff at any emotion or motive that isn't directly pragmatic or directly correlated with the pressing concerns of the world the debunker exists within.   So if you are a popular wannabe at the local middle or high school, you have to be respectful about whatever is cool at the moment, but you can scoff at anything outside those narrow parameters.   But it isn't just middle schoolers.   You can see it anywhere.   I think it's a constant temptation for most people, and one of the things for which a liberal education can be an antidote; that is, if the liberal education isn't just sufficient to make you into a snob who thinks you have a license to debunk everything.

But there is another kind of debunking, or so it seems to me.   You see it around the fringes of any large living thing.   It operates like a trimming and pruning, keeping the tree fruitful and vigorous.  

It seems to me, though maybe these are just the results of trying to think after driving for 7 hours, that Jesus did something of this kind of debunking of the Pharisees and their pretensions to be God's spokesmen.

The difference seems to me to be that one kind of debunking, the easy kind, scoffs at any value that is not very easily grasped by the debunker.

But the other type of debunking. the kind where you have actually done your homework, rebukes false pretensions while preserving the honor of the thing that the pretenders falsely associate themselves with.

Sure, once in a while the lines get blurred.   When I read Mark Twain I can't always tell if he is rebuking the pretenders or the thing they pretend to; and when I read Oscar Wilde, sometimes I think he mistakenly scoffs at the thing that should be preserved, when he really in his inner being is outraged by the pretenders and is trying to defend the thing, even if he can't quite see what it is.

I think our cultural inheritance has a consensus that dialectic is valuable for discovery and expression of truth, and that dialectic almost always will involve some debunking (of both kinds) 

Lewis has mentioned elsewhere that he dislikes our modern tendency to encourage the crude form of debunking that most schoolboys naturally engage in.   Here he points out tellingly, and I think accurately, that most children have to be awakened from a cold slumber of vulgarity rather than damped down from their emotional fervency.  I think, perhaps, that untrained fervency can become narrow and self-conscious or wavering and unstable, and the cold slumber can become selfish complacency.   Fervency has to be broadened and stabilized  and dullness has to be vivified, and this is really what a liberal education is about.

Is debunking properly an element of critical reading?   In Experiment in Criticism (see link above for quotes) Lewis says that too early and ready analysis impedes
that inner silence, that emptying out of ourselves, by which we ought to make room for the total reception of the work.
 So aside from the philosophical problems with Gaius' and Titus" little work, Lewis does not approve of their pedagogy.  I do not think he would teach reading of good literature by quoting examples of bad literature, in the form of advertising copy.     However, when bad things present themselves, I am guessing he would not hesitate to point out their problematic aspects, just as he does in this work, deftly and with a reasonable assumption of charity/ 


  1. Wonderful post, Willa. I love learning from you as I read your words. I'm admired at how well you can write after those long driving hours, :)
    I've loved reading about Aidan.

    Much love to you,


  2. Great thoughts, Willa and helpful to me as I continue to grapple with this idea. I especially like that you give me an out and I may not be the worst teacher ever in this area :)

  3. Cindy, you made me realize I more or less contradicted myself in my last paragraph and so I revised just a little at the end. I am sure that Lewis, by example, shows that debunking can be done in a substantive way that brings out the deeper issues, and I'm sure this is what you do with your boys and girl, as I try very hard to manage with mine, though I am sure in a flawed way!

  4. I do think you are right, Willa, that there is a form of criticism that is done with a spirit of preservation or upholding or even giving life (by cutting off what is dead).

    I was so sarcastic in high school. I just realized I am blessed to have outgrown it!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!