Friday, September 14, 2007

The Chasm

Another of C.S. Lewis's lectures found online: De Descriptione Temporum, his inaugural lecture upon appointment as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University in 1954.

I am very leery of the way the term "post-modern" is used (e.g. the post below), and part of my skepticism derives from my reading of Lewis. Here and elsewhere he does an effective job of making many of the traditional divisions that we learned in history and literature classes seem very artificial.
All lines of demarcation between what we call "periods" should be subject to constant revision. Would that we could dispense with them altogether! As a great Cambridge historian has said: "Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray." ....
In this lecture he identifies himself as a representative — "a specimen" — of Old Western Culture, a culture that has had more continuity than not until quite recently:
... It is by these steps that I have come to regard as the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West that which divides the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott. The dating of such things must of course be rather hazy and indefinite. No one could point to a year or a decade in which the change indisputably began, and it has probably not yet reached its peak. But somewhere between us and the Waverley Novels, somewhere between us and Persuasion, the chasm runs. ...
Lewis offers four reasons for this argument. First, that politics — how we are governed — has changed:
In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers, except at rare and short intervals, was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live "a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" and "pass their time in rest and quietness". But now the organisation of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power.
Secondly, in the arts:
I do not think that any previous age produced work which was, in its own time, as shatteringly and bewilderingly new as that of the Cubists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and Picasso has been in ours. And I am quite sure that this is true of the art I love best, that is, of poetry. .... In the whole history of the West, from Homer — I might almost say from the Epic of Gilgamesh there has been no bend or break in the development of poetry comparable to this. ....
Third, what he calls the "un-christening" of the West — not a reversion to paganism or mysticism, but to a "post-Christian" society:
A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.
Finally, he cites the impact of technology, along with the popular understanding of Darwin — the sense that what is newer is better, of the inevitability of progress and the relative worthlessness of what is old:
From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.
This division in the history of the West has made much of the past incomprehensible. I'm doubtful that the "post-moderns" will be much help in recovering it, since much of what they dismiss belongs to it.

De Descriptione Temporum

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