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The Unliterary Person

The Unliterary Person

I recently finished reading C.S. Lewis’ work An Experiment in Criticism. I wrote a couple posts the other week on what Lewis described as being a “literary person” (here & here). Today I’d like to take a look at the other side of the coin with some more help from Lewis. By “the other side of the coin” I’d like to look at what Lewis characterizes as an “unliterary person” by looking at a few quotes from An Experiment in Criticism.

The main distinction Lewis makes between the literary and unliterary person can be seen in their approach to literature. The literary person approaches literature in a receptive manner whereas the unliterary person approaches literature as a tool to be used. It is this that makes the literary person literary because literature demands (first & foremost) to be received:

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (pg. 19)

The receptive manner of the literary person can also be described as a humble approach.

One of the illustrations or parallels that Lewis uses to help the reader understand the ways of the unliterary person is by comparing the way people approach literature to the ways people approach popular forms of music and art.

In general the parallel between the popular use of music and of pictures is close enough. Both consist of ‘using’ rather than ‘receiving’. Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them. As a result, a very great deal that is really visible on the canvas or audible in the performance is ignored; ignored because it cannot be so ‘used’. (pg. 25)

Before this quotation, Lewis spent a considerable amount of time describing the ways that people so “use” music and pictures (read “artwork”). In short, people tend to say that they “like” a certain song or work of art based on whether they can use them to garner certain feelings they find enjoyable. In popular music, for instance, people will usually “like” a song if they are able to use the music to feel a certain way or if the music helps the imagine themselves doing something they’d like to be doing. Lewis calls this “imaginative castle building.” Lewis doesn’t condemn castle building outright but he does warn of the using of literature (and music & art) in order to conduct prideful castle building (i.e. day dreaming about being a celebrity or sports star, etc.).

The difference between “good” and “bad” literature (or music or art) is that “bad” literature/music/art encourages people to “use” it whereas “good” literature/music/art discourages people to use it. Unliterary people are used to using literature to make them feel a certain way or to help with their imaginative “castle building.” If they are to come across a great work of literature (say Homer’s The Odessey) they would find that the work is difficult to use. They will be frustrated because they work does not lend itself to simple castle building.

On the other hand, the literary person approaches these works of literature to be changed. The literary person approaches Homer to receive. His hands are laid open, ready to receive, whereas the unliterary person’s hands are grabbing for something to use. The Literary person will be changed by reading Homer (even multiple times) whereas the unliterary person will most likely lay Homer down after 30 pages when he finds that Homer cannot be used in the same way that the Twilight series can.

Food for thought.

Michael

"I was born to jump and run"

"I was born to jump and run"

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