Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reflections on REFLECTIONS

So, since I'd just read the Book of Psalms (at 150 Chapters the longest book in the Bible), this seemed a good time to read CSL's REFLECTIONS ON THE PSALMS [1958], one of his minor apologetical works and one of the few of his books I've never read. Having now finished it, after plugging away bit by bit for two weeks, I'm afraid I found it a minor effort -- neither a high (e.g., THE DISCARDED IMAGE) nor a low (e.g., THE ABOLITION OF MAN) of his career, but trending towards the lower end. I'd thought it grew out of CSL's work revising the Psalms (for which he served on the same committee as T. S. Eliot and is said to have mainly voted to keep everything the same as it had been since Coverdale's day), but Hooper's COMPANION & GUIDE sets me straight on that point; it turns out it was the other way around, and that the Archbishop invited him to take part immediately after REFLECTIONS came out.

As its title suggests, this is not one of Lewis's carefully constructed book-length expositions of a quirky thesis but a disjointed book of not-quite random essays on various points he wants to discuss, all relating in various ways to the topic at hand. It did have a few surprises -- for example, I hadn't really appreciated how deeply he hated the government, but all his similes to government are extremely hostile (cf. p. 10, p. 15, & p. 70). Since there's really no central thesis to respond to, I thought I'd just list a few of the points that struck me as I was reading through.

First off, it's his view that the Bible evolved out of earlier texts and myths and legends, just as humans evolved out of primates. He's not a Literalist but advocates what we might call today a sort of 'intelligent design' theory of the Bible, whereby over time it transcends its human origins to become suffused with divine wisdom. Thus on p. 111 he puts it this way: "I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature -- chronicles (some of it obviously pretty accurate),* poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God's word . . . There are prophets who write with the clearest awareness that Divine compulsion is upon them. There are chroniclers whose intention may have been merely to record. There are poets like those in the Song of Songs who probably never dreamed of any but a secular and natural purpose in what they composed . . . On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure."

I have particularly been struggling with passages in which the Bible advocates evil,** so I wanted to see how Lewis handled passages like Psalm 137.9: "Happy is he who smashes your little ones' skulls against the rocks". Lewis has two ways of dealing with such passages, aside from suggesting they're a relic of "the terrible distortion of the human medium" through which the Bible tells its story (p. 114).

The first, and more interesting, is to suggest (p. 20) that they hint at the degree in which we play a role in each other's damnation -- someone who has been wronged will often respond poorly, in ways that endanger their moral well-being, so that the sinned-against may sin in response (think Nat Turner). Essentially Lewis devotes an entire chapter (Ch. III: The Cursings) to the problem. He doesn't really satisfactorily answer my question, but I give him points for at least addressing the issue.

His second attempt, near the end of the book (in Chapter XII: Second Meaning in the Psalms), is to allegorize the passage so that the problem simply magically goes away: "From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in [Psalm] 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us "I don't ask much, but", or "I had at least hoped", or "you owe yourself some consideration". Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock the little bastards' brains out. And "blessed" he who can, for it's easier said than done.' (p. 136).

I have to say I found this not just unhelpful but specious; perhaps, like Tolkien, I have a built-in suspicion of allegory as an easy out. But I was vastly amused by a side-point where Lewis displayed a stunning lack of self-knowledge. Given the (spiritual) damage we can do each other in his view, he goes off into a little rhapsody about himself: "I, who am exceptionally blessed in having been allowed a way of life in which, having little power, I have had little opportunity of oppressing and embittering others. Let all of us who have never been school prefects, N.C.O.s, schoolmasters, matrons of hospitals, prison warders, or even magistrates, give hearty thanks for it." (p. 25). To which I say: tell it to John Betjeman, who considered that Lewis ruined his life and held a grudge against him for decades.

Page 26 offers a beautiful example of manipulating an argument through selective quotation.*** Talking about how curses that occur in the Psalms are balanced out by "the corrective" of more generous sentiments, he cites Proverbs 25.21 as proof, where Solomon says "If thine enemy hunger, give him bread". But (and here's the virtue of reading the whole Bible, verse-by-verse, in order w. no skipping) he omits the following line: "for [thus] thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head". That is, both Proverbs (and Paul, who quotes the whole passage approvingly in Romans 12.20) suggest treating your enemy well as a way of bringing about his damnation. GAH!

Pages 29-30 had an extended passage worthy of THE ABOLITION OF MAN: Lewis recounts an episode when he fell in with some young soldiers during the early days of World War II and was horrified to find that they didn't believe official government propaganda ('They took it for granted, without argument, that this was all lies, all propaganda put out by our own government to "pep up" our troops'). Lewis concludes, in a stunning non-sequitur, that they must have been entirely lacking in moral sense: "Clearly these young men had . . . no conception of good and evil whatsoever." The identification of moral worth with naivete about propaganda has to mark one of the book's low points.

But not its nadir: that does not come until pages 67-68, which have to rank among Lewis at his v. worst. The context is his discussion of how much can a person trying to live a virtuous life associate with those who are not virtuous. A perennial problem for all who try to hold themselves to a different standard than those around them, not trying to impose their standards on others but also keeping to their private code of conduct among those who do not follow the same strictures (e.g., a prohibitionist among social drinkers, a non-smoker among smokers). Lewis, however, falls back on longing for the old days of social ostracization for such people, and laments that it's no longer the practice to smash a rascal in the face with a riding crop "if [he] were ever bold enough to speak to a respectable woman". He wishes for a return to the days of "moderate rioting" rather than "the evils of our present tameness", and would like to see windows broken, "certain people . . . put under pumps" (i.e., held face down until semi-drowned, the fate he inflicts on one of the villains in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET) and "pelted in the streets" (but with mud, not stones -- he's not willing to go quite as far as lapidation). Is it possible that Lewis was a tea-partier ahead of his time? Or is this just his sadistic side, which he's usually successful in supressing, breaking out here? Personally, I'm glad for there to be less mob rule, not more, and think that Lewis ought to bethink him that dishonorable mobs are more likely to do this to good men and women as his hypothetical honorable mobs are to do it to rotters.

By contrast, another passage on p. 89 shows Lewis at his v. best where, after a brief discussion of Egyptian monotheism, he briefly envisions (and rejects as too cerebral a religion for this messy world)**** a kind of alternate history in which ". . . if only the priests and people of Egypt had accepted it, God cd have dispensed w. Israel altogether and revealed Himself to us henceforward through a long line of Egyptian prophets". He ends by offering up a prayer for Akhenaten:***** "what gentle heart can leave the topic without a prayer that this lonely ancient king, crank and doctrinaire though perhaps he was, has long seen and now enjoys the truth which so far transcends his own glimpse of it?"

So, not his best. Some good bits, but not enough to counterbalance the rest. I'm currently re-reading his WILLIAMS AND THE ARTHURIAD (part of ARTHURIAN TORSO) [1948], but think my next will be LETTERS TO MALCOLM, to see if I can get any insight into why Tolkien hated it so much (it was reading MALCOLM that set Tolkien to write THE ULSTERIOR MOTIVE).


*From my occasional archeological reading over the past few years, I'd have to disagree with him on this one.

**For example, a passage in Jeremiah I listened to yesterday in which a priest of Jerusalem offended the prophet, who then prayed that the priest's children would starve to death. So far the account of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness and their conquest of Canaan are the worst offenders, but there are plenty such passages in the Psalms (cf. Psalm 137).

***In fact, the original title of this post was to be "Selective Quotation", but as I read on I found too many other points I wanted to address, hence the revised header "Reflections on REFLECTIONS"

****Elsewhere he concludes that God deliberately refrained from presenting his theology in a clear, logical way; otherwise Jesus wd not have spoken mainly in parables. He gets downright catty re. the apostle Paul: "I [i.e., CSL] cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him [Paul] so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition." (p. 113)

*****He also earlier (p. 108) expressed his hope that Plato and Virgil had long since achieved salvation: "For we can pray with good hope that they now know and have long since welcomed the truth; 'many shall come from the east and the west and sit down in the kingdom.')"

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