27 January 2014

Exploring Lewis's "The Inner Ring"

Earlier this month, bells rang, students scuffled through the hallways, and books opened once again.  The rusty gears of public education, silent during Christmas break, began to spin once more, stiffly at first.  School busses are toting lethargic children back to school.  Teachers are busy preparing for a new semester implementing routines to help ensure student success.  We strive to give each student an equal opportunity to change the future for the better.

However, the social experience that characterizes high school is another matter entirely.  We control our decisions, over whether or not we complete homework or study for a test, but we cannot alter the fierce judgments of others.  This pressure of being "in or out" is the origin of bullying, of which recently we have seen persistent campaigns in the press and in local communities.  We can all reflect on high school and recall the various "social groups".  In fact, the television show Saved By the Bell capitalized on this phenomena.  The show was a hit during my adolescence, and perhaps because it resonates with all of us who matriculated through high school and possessed the impulse to categorize.  This person is into this, so we file them in this group.  Quite contrarily, college affirms the brilliance of the unique.  In college (or at least it was my experience), those who blurred social definitions, who defied categorization, triumphed.

I cheer on students who refuse to be defined by shallow preconceptions.  The best thing one can do is celebrate uniqueness and despise conformity.  If you can unplug yourself from such frivolous desires (such as the desire to gain conditional acceptance), you have defeated the giant which psychologicially anesthesizes so many.  Unfortunately, this does not always disappear once we graduate.  When we mature, it is to new heirarchies, different systems which demand for us to adapt. We learn what and what is not socially acceptable.  We learn who must follow the rules and who can thwart them. It is in our adulthood where we make the disappointing discovery that we may change, but the awful heirarchies which made us nauseous can often survive adolesence.
And what then?  Do you change to gain this acceptance?  Do you at once repress the voice in your head which warns you that the acceptance is conditional?  Is association and not individual satisfaction your premiere goal in life?
Ah, but then again, a grin crosses your lips.  To be "one of them"!  To have access to the information, to the "right" people, to be seen with "that crowd" - what elation! What this will do for my reputation/job opportunities/social life!
And thus begins the uphill struggle, the sacrifice. You do things for the appobation of others. Yes, I did this, you say, but did they see me?  Did they notice me?  Doing activities for your own personal pleasure is lost, replaced with the burning desire to win "them" over so you can become "we".  But you see, if you do make it in friend, you will find a new struggle, one to maintain what you have "earned".  Sadly, there is no brass ring, just the illusion of one.  The joke is on you.  Your behavior will evolve to pattern yourself after "them" until no trace of yourself is left.  You gladly compromise everything for admittance, to find that what you tossed so quickly and carelessly on the alter was what you should have cherished.  But the time is gone and realization came too late.

C.S. Lewis spoke of this in his appropriately titled essay, "The Inner Ring".  In it, Lewis argues that the "Inner Ring" is actually menacing.  He states that if we do not take steps to prevent it, it will steal our time and ambition. The essay serves more as a warning than an exposition:
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.  It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it - this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings, then you may be quite sure of this.  Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.  That will be the natural thing - the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort.  If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an 'inner ringer.' I don't say you'll be a successful one; that's as may be.  But whether by pining or moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in - one way or the other you will be that kind of man.
There is, Lewis illuminates, a deep meaning behind the supposedly benign use of the pronouns "we" and "they."  Lewis identifies an "invisible line" in which exists association or lack of association.  There'd be no fun if there were no outsiders, Lewis writes. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.  For some, that bears no importance.   For others, it encompasses the foundation on which they build their worth. Essentially, you are admitting that you are nothing of your own accord, that you require the company of others before that value arrives.  What you must do is disregard the impulse to elevate association as crucial to your value.  Exalt your own individuality, given to you by a God who established variety, over the conceptions which other people create.

Gerard Manley Hopkins once confirmed this in his poem "Pied Beauty"
Glory to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Diversity is a keystone of creation. Differences should be celebrated. If you find yourself trying to fit into a social group, it proves that you do not belong there naturally.  Transitioning to the group is not an option; transcendence is.  Rise above the propensity to blend.  Those who treasure their uniqueness do not wish to change.  They see that the mirror reflects a masterpiece.  Loving who you are at your very core is absolute necessity.  Changing to simply be different is not the essence of who you are.  Those who truly know who they are would never entertain the thought.
You see, you cannot dangle what you assume is a privilege in front of an individual for whom the lack of that privilege has no value. A cup of water is only desired by a thirsty man.  If I care not for it, then it cannot be used as a means of control.  Live your life by your own dreams, not by the demands of the sacred oligarchy.

Lewis continues, The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.  But if you break it, a surprising result will follow.  If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, the other sound craftsmen will know it.  This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know...And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside, that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring.  But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric, for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like.  This is friendship.  Aristotle placed it among the virtues.

There are times where I have pined for that approval but it was not simply meant to be.  Individual solitude is more valuable than corporate association. In the past, I have disappointed those I love to achieve that association. Last year, I left my mother's bedside at the hospital to do so.  I deeply regret it.  My mother would easily forsake all others for me, and yet, I strived to feel "in" with a group to whom I clearly did not belong.  It is disheartening to feel alone in a room full of people.  I have made it "in the door" and have still not felt the warmth of the hearth.  The margins of "in" are just as cold as "out".

Lewis provides great advice here.  Do your work and be found a craftsman.  Value individuality over "people to know."  Figure out who wears a mask and who is genuine.  When you find the latter, hold them very close to your heart.  Delight in their friendship for they love you as you are, as God created you to be.

09 January 2014

Ekphrasis Report, 01.06.2014 - A Very Small Meeting

The original plan was to skip our monthly Ekphrasis meeting, since our usual time fell only one week after our [extremely successful] Holiday Party.  However, some of the more social event-craving members (mainly myself and Marian B.) decided that we wanted to go ahead and have a meeting anyway.  The space was already reserved, and we wanted to meet, even if it was a smaller group than usual.  Sørina gave it a miss, having to perform some mysterious "domestic duties" instead, so I took the proverbial "first among equals" reins for the night.

In attendance were myself, Marian B., Nick M., Betsy G. and Curt D.  Since it was such a small group, we were considerably more relaxed in pacing our presentations.  Before any real work was done, lively discussions about biker events and Quentin Tarantino filled our first hour of interaction.  Nick M. has a background in journalism, but hasn't written anything presentable for several years.  He said that he hoped participating in this group would inspire him to begin writing again, since he needs "to be poked a bunch" before beginning to think creatively again.

"I will poke you.  Many times," was my reply.

We had a brief discussion about Exile, a web series that I produce.  Although I haven't formally presented any of it to the group, both Betsy and Marian had seen parts of it.

Marian B. started us off officially for the night, finishing the chapter she'd begun at the holiday party.  The chapter brought back a particularly angry and bloodthirsty character.  Curt D. expressed some concern for the responsibilities of an author.  Being an anti-war activist, he recommended that Marian employ her power to end the bloodshed and war in her novel as soon as possible.  Marian's response?

"I am pro-war."

We took a short break for tea, and an argument about the virtues (or lack thereof) of Jane Austen's body of work sprang up.  I gave my opinion about Pride & Prejudice (against) and Emma (she's basically Bella Swan but, if possible, more boring).  Betsy and Marian heartily disagreed with my assessments.  Nick M. reminded us all of the wise words of Mark Twain:

Curt D. was the next to perform a piano piece for us; he played his own arrangement of "Travelling Blues."  His arranged an intro to the song based off of the Moonlight Sonata, but dropped an 8th note from every measure.  The arrangement also worked "We Three Kings" into it, keeping with the travelling motif.  

I followed Curt, singing Tom Waits' "A Flower's Grave" and accompanying myself on piano.  Sadly, I grossly misjudged the acoustics in the room, and was told that my voice could barely be heard.  We will have to hook up a microphone next time.

Betsy G. presented our final work for the night, the sixth chapter in her re-telling of "Beauty and the Beast."  Her "beast" character began to show his first tiny hints of reform in this chapter, and another character Betsy has been working to make more mischievous really began to show her new personality.

Finally, I brought in a drawing-in-progress that my brother David was in the process of finishing.  We gave him several notes on the work.  

The group was much smaller than usual, but no less vivacious, and having a smaller group did offer some opportunities to spend more time delving into the various works presented.  Thanks for reading, and see you in a month!

06 January 2014

Ekphrasis Report, 12.20.2013 - A Holiday Party

guest post by Andrew Stirling MacDonald

Hello, fellow readers of Islands of Joy.  Sørina, a very new but quickly endearing friend of mine, has asked me to take up the mantle of chronicling the musings and misadventures that occur during the monthly meeting of Christian artists and performers known as Ekphrasis.  My name is Andrew Stirling MacDonald, and I attended my first Ekphrasis event in October.  To date, I’ve presented some music I composed (I produce video and often compose music to accompany it) as well as some of my writing.  I also act, sing, and play piano, often simultaneously, something that I plan to bring to the group at some nebulous point in the future.  I am not a minute-taker, nor am I an agenda-follower, so I may prove to be a very unorthodox group historian.  However, I will to my best to be an interesting one.

Our most recent Ekphrasis gathering was quite a departure from our usual song-and-dance – for one thing, it included actual dancing.  This was not meant to be an ordinary meeting, but a holiday party, open to the public.  I took advantage of this openness by bringing my two-year-old daughter, Somerled, who was, in my entirely biased opinion, a big hit.  In addition, several other new faces were present, in addition to most of the usual crowd (a few were on various holiday trips and one had her wedding anniversary). We were happy to welcome Nick M, Philip L., and Amanda L. for the first time. Several members brought snacks to share, and we all munched away happily as various members of the group presented. 

Marian B. was the first to present, another installment in her long-running fantasy saga.  Marian’s mother, who has heard none of the story so far, had attended the party.  She kept herself spoiler-free by taking my daughter aside and playing with her in another room.  Marian’s excerpt proved to be a very dark one, involving mutilation and coercion.  Interestingly, this set the tone for most of the readings that night, apparently many people in the group had some dark writings to share over the holidays.

Betsy G. followed, reading a chapter from her re-imagined fairy tale (I will have to confer with the various authors to find out exactly how much they are comfortable with me sharing here; expect to find somewhat more detailed descriptions for at least some of these in the future).  

Richard B, who brought his wife with him as a guest, read a chapter from an upcoming novel in his “Legend of the Redeemer” series.  Since I’ve read the first three books, I took a special interest in his protagonist, Jack Windsword.  A lively discussion ensued.

After a short break, Abigail M. read us a short story she’d recently had published in her school’s literary journal.  It was a sort of very short personal essay written from the perspective of a female character who’d just cut her hair short for the first time.

Alex U. brought a chapter from a novel he’d been writing (he’d developed the concepts with a friend of his).  Again, I’m not sure how much I can disclose here on this blog, but it involved death.  Geographically.

I read the third chapter of my NaNoWriMo novel “Lullaby,” a concept which I’d developed some years ago as a series but decided to repurpose as a novel.  Although my chapter did have some funny and light-hearted moments, it also included a young boy being forced to watch as his father was executed by impaling, so.

With all of our literary presentations spent, the night turned towards the direction it always ought to when people are done talking: dancing.  Sørina had requested that our resident English Country Dance caller Betsy G. lead us in a dance called the Coventry Carol.  Betsy went above and beyond and brought three songs for us to dance to.  My daughter Somerled was very enthusiastic about the dancing, and Betsy was kind enough to take her hand and dance alongside her while calling the first dance.  For the second song, we danced in two giant circles, switching partners every half-verse of the song.  I only tripped once, and my partner-at-the-time, Amanda L., very impressively helped to hoist me to my feet.  The song continued on without incident.  We finished the evening’s dancing with the Coventry Carol, a beautiful-sounding song that was about parents trying, and ultimately failing, to save their young children from execution on the orders of King Herod.  So very in-keeping with the unintended dark theme of the party.  The dance was for six people, and by the end we’d figured out how to do a pretty cool interweaving star thing, with two stars going at once and spinning ‘round like clockwork.  I cannot claim that we mastered this dance, but we quitted our parts pretty admirably, and we were all well-satisfied with the results. 

This concludes my first report of our Ekphrasis gatherings.  We are meeting again the first Monday in January, and you can expect another report from me as soon as I find the wherewithal to write it.  Thanks for your attention!

05 January 2014

2013 Book Survey

Here's a silly survey sort of thing, but it gives me a chance to reflect back on some of my reading last year--even though I'm a few days late. A lot of my reading didn't make it on here, because it consisted of articles, poems, short stories, textbook material, and books I read around in for research, but didn't go straight through.

1. Best Book You Read In 2013?

I'm probably supposed to say Hamlet here, but I think I'll go for The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fall of Arthur is startlingly good; I didn't know Tolkien could write such great poetry, or such a powerful female character, or something so strong outside his Legendarium. You can review my reviews of it via this post.  
Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers gets second place: it is the best psychological exploration of marriage I've ever read. I wouldn't recommend taking it out of order; read it where it belongs in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, if that's your thing.

2. Book You Were Excited About and Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Ender's Game by Orsen Scott Card. I am a sucker for compelling narrative fiction, especially with a fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopian twist, but this was a creepy story. Eek. 
Also Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor. I adore her stories, but this novel felt like all the darkness of her tales drawn out way too long without any light to relieve the darkness.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2013?

A Myth of Shakespeare by Charles Williams. You know how crazy I am about Williams's writing, but that doesn't mean I always find his books easy or even enjoyable to read, especially his early works. This is an early play in verse, and I was prepared for it to be difficult and dry. Not at all! It's a very lively imagined biography of Shakespeare's life, with lots of scenes from Shakespeare's plays cut-and-pasted in. It's quite performable; if you've got connections to a theatre company, I recommend it.

4. Book you read in 2013 that you recommended to people most in 2013?

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien. I think I'm going to mention this one most in answering these questions.

5. Best series you discovered in 2013?

The Legend of the Redeemer series by Richard Berrigan. It's also the only series I discovered this year, so.

6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2013?

Brenton Dickieson and/or Richard Berrigan (wait, am I allowed to mention friends of mine?). I readA Stone’s Throw Away by Brenton Dickieson and The Legacy of Kings (the first volume of the Legend of the Redeemer series) by Richard Berrigan. Brenton is a fellow Inklings scholar; I had only read his academic work before this, but loved his novel (which he wrote in three days). Richard is a co-worker and member of my local artists' fellowship. Check out Brenton's work on C.S. Lewis on his blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia, and check out Richard's author page on amazon.

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?

A Theory of Adaptation by Linda Hutcheon. Of course, I read tons of academic stuff (the sorts of things that you don't read cover-to-cover, so they don't get mentioned here), and I've read some film theory and books about particular page-to-screen adaptations, but I hadn't read a work specifically about the theoretical concepts behind translating a book into a movie. I learned a lot from it, and also from The Tolkien Professor's Riddles in the Dark podcast, in which he applies his own theories of adaptation to Peter Jackson's Hobbit films.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2013?

Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James. All decent murder mysteries are “unputdownable” (don't we have a better word for that?), but this one, while remaining thoughtful, literate, and disturbing, was also compelling enough that I read it in flash.

9. Book You Read In 2013 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I'll probably reread it again next year before the final installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation. (You can read my reviews of the first two Hobbit films here, here, and here.)

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2013?

I read almost every one of these on my Kindle, with the exception of the Williams books, that are all in a nice but fairly boring imprint from Apocryphile Press, the Inklings Heritage Series (I'd better be careful what I say, as I'm scheduled to contribute a book to that series this year!). Even though it's plain, I really loved the cover of The Fall of Arthur.

11. Most memorable character in 2013?

I reread most of the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester this year, and I'll never forget Captain Horatio Hornblower, especially as played by the gorgeous Ioan Gruffudd in the TV adaptations.

I finally met Poirot this year, too, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. I wonder if that's the one that fooled the Doctor?

2. Most beautifully written book read in 2013?

The Fall of Arthur (sorry to sound like a broken record). 
 Measure for Measure and Hamlet by William Shakespeare aren't bad, either (although I think Hamlet is a mess of a play, it's got some good lines....)

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2013?

Not to be boring, but the real answer is The Fall of Arthur again, since I am now practically staking my professional career on my ability to squeeze an academic book out of it.... But That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis also continues to hit me hard, every time I read it. I got to teach it for the first time ever, this past spring, and the result was surprisingly good. I had a classroom full of ordinary Penn State students defending CSL's conservative views of marriage and gender roles. That was unforgettable. 
Speaking of that Humanities class at Penn State, the anthology that we used, Being Human edited by Leon Kass, also had an enormous impact on me. It's a collection of literary selections organized around the “big questions” of life, death, human nature, suffering, and so forth. I found it very powerful.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2013 to finally read?

The Masque of the Manuscript, The Masque of Perusal, The Masque of the Termination of Copyright, The Silver Stair, Windows of Night, Outlines of Romantic Theology, and the Arthurian Commonplace Book by Charles Williams. I'm supposed to be a Williams scholar, and there are still many of his books I have yet to read straight through. I hope that next year will find me with an even longer, more embarrassing, list of his works that I have finally read.

I guess Ender's Game belongs here, too, because I read the first chapter more than twenty years ago and have been meaning to finish it ever since.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2013?

Maybe this poem from The Silver Stair:. Sonnet XXXIII, “Of Love's Enemies—The Cross”:

In sight of stretched hands and tormented brows
How should I dare to venture or to win
Love? how draw word from silence to begin
Tremulous utterance of the bridal vows?
Or, as the letter of the law allows,
If so I dared, how keep them without sin,
While through our goings out and comings in
That Sorrow fronts the doorway of our house?

It is the wont of lovers, who delight
In time of shadows and in secrecy,
To linger under summer trees by night.
But on our lips the words fail, and our eyes
Look not to one another: a man dies

In dusk of noon upon a barren tree.

16. Shortest and Longest Book You Read In 2013?

That's a dumb question. Who cares?

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It?!

Well, since most of the books here that would fit that description were assigned in classes I teach, I did get to talk to somebody about it right away. 1984 by George Orwell and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton would have fit this category when I first read them, years ago, as would That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis.

There were several startling scenes in She by H. Rider Haggard. Many vivid, visual, gripping scenes. And I haven't found anybody to talk to about it yet.

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2013 (be it romantic, friendship, etc).

That would have to be Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. 
I also read something or other by P.G. Wodehouse with Jeeves and Wooster in it; they're hilarious. 
And Tommy and Tuppence from Secret Adversaries by Agatha Christie are, as I said, sparkling. 
There's also a fantastic relationship between the angelic character and the demonic character in the first chapter of The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton.

19. Favorite Book You Read in 2013 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

I assume you mean that I've read something else by this author before but haven't read this particular book? Well, then The Fall of Arthur by Tolkien, followed by A Myth of Shakespeare by Williams.

20. Best Book You Read In 2013 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:

I don't know about SOLELY (and what's with the caps?); there are many factors that influence anyone's reading: time, energy, cost, availability, connections... But anyway. 
Ender's Game, recommended by Marian (a member of my artist's fellowship).

I also read three biographies of C.S. Lewis, for my job as book review editor of Sehnsucht: the C. S. Lewis Journal. Does that count as a recommendation, when they get sent to me by the publisher to review? I didn't know where else to queeze them in. They are: C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alistair McGrath, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis by Devin Brown, and C. S. Lewis: A Biography of Friendship by Colin Duriez. My review will appear in the next issue of Sehnsucht. In short, McGrath's was excellent, Brown's was good, Duriez's you can skip.

21. Genre You Read The Most From in 2013?


22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2013?

I don't have one this year. Any recommendations in this category for next year? Peter Dalgliesh is very admirable, and I reread most of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, but I already had a crush on Sherlock (of course) and my admiration for Dalgliesh is not of the romantic kind.

23. Best 2013 debut you read?

Legacy of Kings in The Legend of the Redeemer series by Richard Berrigan

24. Most vivid world/imagery in a book you read in 2013?

The Hobbit, in the context of the larger legendarium and all the other Tolkien bits and pieces I read this year.

25. Book That Was The Most Fun To Read in 2013?

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie. It was totally hilarious and such a surprise. It was quite unlike anything I've read by Christie, a side-splittingly funny genre parody. The characters are delightful: they really sparkle.

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2013?

Uh... I'm very hard-hearted. I think I saved all my crying for Doctor Who this year. Plus there were a lot of re-reads, so the initial shock was gone from many of the plots.

27. Book You Read in 2013 That You Think Got Overlooked This Year Or When It Came Out?

Anything by Charles Williams. All his works are under-rated.