When I made starting this blog a new year’s resolution, I really didn’t think things through. With my usual impeccable timing my decision to start blogging my thoughts and reactions to what I’m reading and watching has coincided with finishing CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image, putting it first at bat.
Let me put it this way: Not the easiest to summarize.
For those unfamiliar, The Discarded Image (1964) is Lewis’s introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, culled from a career’s worth of teaching this stuff. A more accurate subtitle, I’m pretty sure, would have been an Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Thought. Rather than introduce you to the medievals by listing their representative authors, works, and topics encyclopedically, he takes you on a tour of their minds and philosophy, contrasting along the way the classical thinkers who influenced them and the moderns who succeeded them. He doesn’t so much introduce you to MedRen Lit as equip you to introduce yourself to it.
For someone who finds this stuff as fascinating as I do, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to medieval literature. I’m working to change that. What I won’t try to do is explain medieval thought to you in a few paragraphs. For that, you have to go to the grand master. What I can do is explain why he goes about it the way he does, and why this matters for my blog.
The new trend in fantasy lit scholarship seems to be to refer to Lewis’s essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” which can be found in God in the Dock. In it, Lewis writes:
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
Lewis goes on to defend the experience of looking along the beam (“by [which one] can see everything else” as he says in another essay) against those who prefer to only look at the beam itself. It’s the age old debate between subjectivity and objectivity.
The essay says nothing about the processes or styles of reading as it relates to this difference of looking at and looking along, but such great fantasy scholars as Corey Olsen, John Granger, and Michael Ward all apply this essay to that very things in recent years. They have all very correctly seen in this metaphor two opposing theories of the way stories should be read or experienced.
I’m sure you’ve all come across this debate. It lies underneath every dismissal of a hard-core fan of some particular story/author/genre as a childish geek who can’t separate the reality they live in from the fiction they love (Nevermind that “geek” is becoming a badge of honor, these days). On the other hand, how many times have I been asked if studying movies analytically doesn’t ruin the fun of watching them? (The answer, in a word, is “No.”) There are snobs on both sides of the fence.
Lewis doesn’t conclude in his essay that one method is superior to the other, but it is telling that he combines them both in The Discarded Image. As a book of literary criticism, it is clearly analytical and must look at medieval literature if it is to understand it intellectually. Lewis’s passionate introduction, however, is a plea to readers to look along the beam, to enjoy this pool of writing from the inside. To be not merely anthropologists but honest-to-goodness time travelers.
Both methods are, in my opinion, valuable and necessary, and my goal in this blog is to practice looking along as well as looking at. There should be plenty of room here for intellectuals and enthusiasts, for I consider myself in equal parts both. I hope to use this space to celebrate both the love of learning and of the arts.
In thinking about this blog, I’ve struggled to decide if it should have any coherent theme other than my desire to put my thoughts
down on paper out in the interwebs. As usual, Lewis has helped me clarify what I didn’t even know I was thinking. Maybe it’s a good thing I started with The Discarded Image after all.