Monday, September 21, 2009

Men without chests

Reading this, by Lydia McGrew today, sent me back to my copy of The Abolition of Man.
Modern men, says Lewis, are not really smarter than men used to be. Rather, their heads appear bigger because of the atrophy of their chests. By the "chest," Lewis meant to refer to just, well-ordered, and well-formed sensibilities and emotions. Contemporary man has intellect (the head) and appetite (the belly) but lacks proper training in the appreciation of the good and the beautiful (the chest). If that was true in Lewis's day it is, of course, true in spades in our own.
From The Abolition of Man:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more 'just' or 'ordinate' or 'appropriate' to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions. But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about. ....

.... The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. ....

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive,' or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity.' In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
To Make you See: Conrad, Eliot, Lewis, and one other (What's Wrong with the World)

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