Monday, September 19, 2016

"The clean sea breeze of the centuries"

C.S. Lewis argued that "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." Why?
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.
College students find it therapeutic to decry offense in old books. Last year Columbia undergrads, shocked at Ovid’s insensitive portrayal of Persephone’s abduction, demanded their professors tag Metamorphoses with trigger warnings. Such texts, according to four students on the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, were “wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression,” making them “difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” The suggestion is that some books survived the centuries not because they were great, but because they were “privileged.” That word has the finesse of a wrecking ball. “Privilege” is to serious criticism what a strobe on a cop car is to natural lighting: a warning, not a source of illumination. ....

All books have blind spots. All eras do. We can look back and spy past prejudices, ridiculous and discredited in hindsight. We see their mistaken premises and faulty logic. We can reject geocentric astronomy, the rooting of disease in the “influenza” of the planets, and the race-based classification of the human and the “subhuman.” We see the futility of phrenology and cringe at doctors who bled their patients to cure fever. We laugh at the “divine right of kings” and wonder why Salem thought it wise to hunt witches. But should we avoid books whose authors accepted what passed for wisdom in their own time?

Several reasons support wide reading of old, even flawed, books.

Censoring history helps nobody. TinTin might stereotype and degrade the Congolese. That might be reason to keep his African escapades from toddlers, who surely are not ready to learn of King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Belgian Congo. But those who are mature ought to know the hard realities of history. We shouldn’t erase the Trojan War because it was bloody, just as we shouldn’t forget Jim Crow laws because they are troubling.

We benefit from the clarity arising from past mistakes. We can learn to avoid old errors, of course, but “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” sweeps away hubris, as well. Meeting dead assumptions—whether they are disproven or merely discarded—confronts us with the realization that we may have our own unexamined suppositions. What premises do we consider self-evident that earlier generations scorned? Perhaps our own generation’s ideological fads are not so permanent as they seem.

Reading classics is humbling. Myopia becomes impossible. Millennia of human history unfold with the pages of books—and with an authenticity that no textbook or documentary can mimic. Read the Iliad and you glimpse the grandeur of a bygone warrior civilization. Marvel at the mysteries of The Inferno—and at the epoch that thrived on such poetry. Read Of Plymouth Plantation and admire the pluck of the Pilgrims who erected homes in a barren Massachusetts winter. Whistle at the sheer determination that drove pioneers like the Ingallses to plough and homestead the West. Recognizing hardships in other centuries doesn’t erase our own. But the recognition can relieve the feverish sense that our troubles are overwhelming. Great books stand as testaments that civilization survives adversity. Thucydides’s History is the record of wartime. Boethius bequeathed The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution. Milton composed Paradise Lost blind, and Bunyan penned Pilgrim’s Progress from prison.

Old books remind us that human nature persists across time. Rosalind’s love for Orlando, hidden in her boyish disguise but at the end bursting forth in womanly depth, speaks to us today as it did in Shakespeare’s time. Joy, love, loneliness, valor, heroism, grief, pride—we sense these anew with characters whose lives look nothing like our own. Human emotion isn’t limited by geography, economic conditions, political structures, or time. The stories of long ago reflect to us something of our own experiences, as in a mirror that mimics the major features but twists and alters the rest. .... [more]