25 September 2007

Romanticism: Pagan or Pre-Christian?

C. S. Lewis explicitly links Romanticism with a kind of pre-salvific prophecy, and I would like to explore that idea and its utility and truth. Here are some thoughts.

The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, & Romanticism, published on 25 May 1933, was the first book C. S. Lewis wrote after his conversion , and his first full-length prose work. It is a generalized spiritual autobiography, modeled on Bunyan’s, and recounts the hero’s evolutions of thought from an Anglican childhood through atheism, materialism-realism, a touch of occultism, philosophical idealism, pantheism, and theism to Christianity.

Ten years after the first publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis defined and categorized nine kinds of “romanticism” in the afterword. Seven of these—excluding movie star affairs and the religious mode—are to be found in literature. They include, but are not limited to, the historical period of literature which began in the late eighteenth century in Germany and reached a peak in the works of the British Romanic Poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, Letitia Elizabeth Landon et al). In addition to works of art associated with this cultural epoch, Lewis discusses other kinds of small-R romanticisms ranging from celebrity love-affairs through adventure novels, magic, heroism, abnormal or macabre tales, egoism and subjectivism, political revolutions, delight in nature, and his peculiar variety of religious experience.

The Pilgrim’s Regress-—in its subtitle An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, & Romanticism—explicitly connects John’s/Jack’s sensation of longing with Romantic literature. Book 8, chapters VIII and IX, “History’s Words” and “Matter of Fact,” propound the central symbols of the allegory: the “Rules” of John’s childhood are the Old Testament Law, given to the Jews. His Island was one of the many pictures given to Pagans; in theological terms, General Revelation allows elements of truth to infiltrate every system of mythology or literature, evoking longing for the Giver of Truth. Both the pictures and the Rules—Sweet Desire and rigid morality—come from and are designed to lead back to the Landlord, or God. The character named History explains to John that Romanticism (here the allegory breaks down entirely) gave the clearest pictures: “Romanticism is valuable precisely because it precludes idolatry: other intimations of immortality were pictures of something not of this world, so people worshipped the thing. But the Romantics made pictures of real things and infused them with the Something Other that invoked Joy."
After the first publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress in 1933, Lewis ran up against serious difficulties with this book. He realized that he had been, as he puts it in the afterword, needlessly obscure. He had expected that his readers would understand the association of Romanticism with his particular brand of spiritual longing. By 1943 he discarded the label “Romanticism,” but remained uncertain of what to call it. He tried the terms “intense longing,” “sweet desire,” “enchantment,” “the Blue Flower,” the “dialectic of Desire,” and “immortal longings”; all attempts to signify an “intense longing… yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight… this hunger is better than any fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth." These terms are still closely related to the characteristic diction of Romanticism and “the Sublime.”

For approximately one hundred years, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, “the sublime” was a widely debated subject. Thinkers and writers sought to discover the source, significance, and nature of passions, especially those connected to aesthetic experiences. While they described different catalysts of the sublime, they agreed that its attendant emotions were the strongest that human beings were capable of feeling. Several Romantic poets chose joy as a definitive emotion in their writings on the sublime. Lewis’s diction of desire, due to its use of “joy” and its explorations of sublimity, is therefore inescapably linked to Romanticism.

While Lewis unambiguously stated that his longing was not itself a kind of nostalgia, the close identification of the Romantic Sublime with his “It” led him into a reactionary backward glance at the history of European literature. In Lewis’s opinion, writers like Morris, Coleridge, and Wordsworth gave the clearest pictures “of real things” infused “with the Something Other that invoked Joy." Therefore, Lewis worked hard in his creative and professional spheres to keep their kind of literature alive. He had a religious axe to grind, too: he thought that Romantic poetry offered something very much like heavenly heraldry, and consequently very much like Christianity. “The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity." He insisted that the poems and novels of the most spiritually interfused writers were nothing but signposts—stimulating the yearning while only hinting at its object. But he was not above following the bright drops of Romanticism’s “spilled religion” on the floor of the history of literature. Lewis believed that spiritual honesty would force seekers on and on until they found that-—not the longings themselves, but-—the object of their desire lay on the other side of the canyon, and had been sending messages across.

18 September 2007

Book recommendation

I've just recently finished reading a remarkable novel. It might be my new favorite book! It's Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge. It was a long journey; I think it took me a month to read it. It had several features that are rare and desirable: stunning beauty of the fresh, clean, open-air kind; sevearl plot-lines or character interests, held together over a long, long period of time; and [best of all] amazing accuracy of Christian thought/teaching/truth without the outworn diction. I'm not sure it got truly orthodox -- but it hardly needed to.

Without giving exactly a plot spoiler, I woudl like to give studies of the two main characters. There are two sisters who enter the book as caricatures, rather 2-dimensional. The elder is determined, passionate, eaten up by a craving for something (adventure? love? faith?). The younger is relaxed, alomst lazy, mellow, easy-going. I definitely attached to the elder (Marianne) without effort, discarding Marguarite as the mere foil for Marianne's activity. And then the author showed her trick. Marguarite gets a whole huge section to herself, in which her profound spirituality grows and blooms into recognition while Marianne hardens and narrows. Marguarite's soul is the stuff of saints and martyrs, the illuminated selfless contentment of ecstasy and suffering. Well, anyway, stuff happens (some pretty crazy stuff) and Marguarite finds her entire existence shattered. She faces the meaninglessness of an empty night without love, without God, without any of the certainty she held for years. And Marianne? She constantly gets everything she wants, and her soul shrivels in proportion. But no more 2-dimensional episodes here. Again and again Marianne experiences one of those volte-face moments that are really only crystal-clear in novels, those moments that change a character forver, for the better, ransoming a soul for good (think of Jean val-Jean's moment of pardon by the Bishop, or Sidney Carton's internal transformation by love of Lucy, or Lizzy Bennett's "Until this moment, I never knew myself) -- yet Marianne doesn't change. She takes a weak leap forward, but falls back into her habitual patterns of ambition, energy, acquisition, and essentially selfishness. Meanwhile Marguarite suffers and serves. She is quiet, content, in pain; a suffering servant. Joy and beauty come back to her slowly, but instead of giving her herself, they give her God. And give her to God, forever. Marianne does have a final transformation, a final breaking and remaking -- but you'll have to read the book!

(How was that for a complete narration with a single actual fact?)

My only gripe was a nagging feeling that the book was too long. It was about 6 novels, tied together by strong threads, covering these women's lives from age about 8 to 68. But the struggle to contain all the minute descriptions of psychology was worth it. I recommend this book to anybody who wants to know how to write about faith without being trite. Or to anybody who wants to read a great "Christian" book that doesn't advertise itself as such!

There's an old movie of it, made in 1947. I don't imagine it would be any good. The synopsis shows considerable mutilation to the original plot, not to mention a complete lack of subtlety.

According to the infallible (ha ha) Wikipedia, one of Elizabeth Goudge's books, The Little White Horse was J. K. Rowling's favorite as a child. Interesting.

The British title of Green Dolphin Street was Green Dolphin Country, which actually makes more sense.

06 September 2007

Fantasy Films

I'd like to reinstate the "reading/listening to" feature of this blog:
Reading: Green Dolphin Street; just finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Listening to: Romeo & Juliet by Gounod.

I’ve been thinking about film these days. All of a sudden there's a proliferation of classic fantasy-style books being made into movies. I (finally) watched the first four Harry Potter films this summer and hope to see the newest one next week. You know, I purposely stayed out of the Harry Potter “controversy” (Christians burning the books while kids lined up in costume at midnight to buy the newest book) for years, and now I regret that. I wish that I were part of the subculture that was eagerly speculating about the ending of the series. I wish I could have rushed out to buy the latest book. There is a gap in my experience of both fantasy literature and popular culture.

I wish there hadn’t been a controversy. Why do we have to make such a big deal over such lovely, fun, delightful things as new fantasy fads?

Well, I’ve just finished Pullman’s trilogy, and I know why Christians do have to keep their antennae up, feeling for heresy. But I can’t do it. I can’t keep away from these brilliant books. Yes, the books are about the need to kill God, because His church has oppressed people and kept them from reaching their potential and has basically perpetrated every crime against creativity and joy and consciousness possible. Yes, the portrait of God (a version of Blake’s) is pitiful, evil, blasphemous. Yes, this epic quite clearly makes Satan (or all his forces) out to be the hero(s). But wow is it great writing, and I don’t know if I’ve ever come across an imagination like his! The daemons alone are enough to immortalize this series. But there’s so much more that’s both brand-new and timeless: fresh metaphors for love, an updated version of Gulliver’s Houyhnhnms, angels who envy human flesh, the revivifying (if that’s the right word!) of Virgil’s underworld, wheeled animals, windows between parallel universes, meeting one’s own Death as a gentleman, and on and on. The writing kept me gasping in shock, weeping in grief, gritting my teeth in terror and suspense.

I’ve heard films are being made of Pullman's trilogy. I think they will be great.

And there’s a film being made of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which is another I’ve missed. More here.

And there’s also an upcoming
film of Paradise Lost
, for better or worse. You can read more about it here.

So I’d better get moving on my pipe dream: to make films of Dante’s Divine Comedy, of the greatest of the Inklings’ works, and of some other classics. Here are the movies for which I would love to write the screen plays and direct the films (but I haven’t any experience in either):

Out of the Silent Planet
That Hideous Strength
The Great Divorce
The Princess and the Goblins
The Princess and Curdie
Many Dimensions
The Place of the Lion
Descent into Hell
The Book of the Dun Cow
The Iliad
The Odyssey
The Winter’s Tale

I don’t think I’d like to have one done of Till We Have Faces, though.

What do you think? Do you think it’s a good idea? What other books would you add?

Wow! Look what I just got in my email from the C. S. Lewis society:
A number of the fantasy novels by novelist, playwright, poet, biographer, and theologian Charles Williams, starting with his ALL HALLOW'S EVE, will be made into major films by renowned producer Ralph Winter. Mr. Winter is also producing the film version of C.S. Lewis's best-selling book, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, which is scheduled for release in late 2008. Among his many other film credits are the X-Men, Fantastic
Four, and Star Trek III-VI films as well as "Planet of the Apes," "Mighty Joe Young," and "Flight of the Intruder," as well as the ABC TV series, "Lost."


01 September 2007

September Poem of the Month

Set Apart
A Villanelle

He spoke of holy words one day. I thought
of writing sacred songs: I thought I could
compose inspired poetry. But I could not.

He gathered reeds beside the Nile and taught
me paper-making. We wove scrolls that should
proclaim my written holy words one day, I thought.

He plucked three quills from golden geese and caught
a phoenix feather. Surely such pens would
inspire perfect poetry? But they did not.

He crushed a blood-red pomegranate, brought
me inky juices from Parnassian woods,
and spoke of writing Sabbath words that day. I thought

I needed time. He gave me what I sought:
eternity. Then He said, “It is good.
“And now compose your holy words.” But I could not,

for I thought He said “life” there where I ought
to have heard “words”—had I misunderstood?
He speaks in sacred words of holiness: I thought
inspired poetry was good enough. But it is not.

~ Admonit