fleshers and stoics

I’m going to be traveling for the next few days, by automobile, and will therefore be mostly away from the internet. I have queued up a few posts that will show up during that period, but I will probably be slow in approving comments.

Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora came out twenty years ago, and it anticipates in really interesting ways conversations that are going on right now. We have the uploading and downloading (and digital generation) of consciousness, explored in more detail than is usual in novels pursuing that theme, and in far more detail than Cory Doctorow gives in Walkaway. But Egan also provides some interesting, though not to my mind very satisfying, reflections on sexuality, gender, and embodiment.

In this far-future universe, we find a comparatively small number of fully, permanently embodied people. These “fleshers” have undergone profound genetic enhancement and modification — some of them, the “dream apes,” have even chosen to eliminate speech and certain high-level cerebral functioning in order to draw closer to Nature, or something like that — but despite their astonishing variety fleshers are perceived as a distinct group because of their permanent and stable embodiment. In this sense they differ from “gleisner robots,” who take on bodies of various kinds and live in the same time-frame as the fleshers, but are fundamentally digital intelligences. The third group are the “citizens,” who are generated digitally and exist in purely digital environments they call “scapes” — though citizens can take gleisner-robot form when they want. They don’t often want, though, and can be scathing in their contempt for embodied intelligences, whom some of them call “bacteria with spaceships.”

The citizens appear to one another as avatars, and typically these avatars have no determinate gender, so they refer to one another, and Egan refers to them, as “ve”, “vis”, and “ver.” (I was surprised in reading the book at how quickly I got used to this.) Some citizens, though, take on distinctively male or female form and assume the associated pronouns, though this appears to be one of the few things you can do in this world that generates widespread revulsion.

Here come the spoilers. Insofar as the story has a protagonist, that protagonist is a citizen called Yatima, and ve has a friend named Paolo (a gleisner/citizen) who decides to die. Yatima considers dying verself, but then says “I’m not ready to stop. Not yet.” However, ve is concerned for Paolo. “Are you afraid to die alone?”

“It won’t be death.” Paolo seemed calm now, perfectly resolved. “The Transmuters didn’t die; they played out every possibility within themselves. And I believe I’ve done the same, back in U-double-star … or maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere. But I’ve found what I came to find, here. There’s nothing more for me. That’s not death. It’s completion.”

“Maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere” refers to the possibility of clones of Paolo that are doing their own thing. Yatima thinks this really matetrs: “Paolo was right; other versions had lived for him, nothing had been lost.” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether this is a compelling point of view.

The most interesting thing here, though, I think, is Paolo’s assumption — which, for reasons just noted, among others, Yatima doesn’t question — that there are no longer any reasons to live once you have “played out every possibility.” That is, the value of life depends wholly on novelty. In a provocative digression in his book Early Auden, Edward Mendelson writes,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

Many, many centuries from now, Paolo’s self-understanding is still governed by the valuation of repetition given us by the Industrial Revolution — or rather by Romanticism’s reading of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. If it really works out that way, if the love for repetition cannot be recovered and neophilia reigns forever, then the Industrial Revolution will ipso facto turn out to be the most consequential event in the history of humanity. And post-humanity.

I wouldn’t mind reading a science-fiction novel that assumes the opposite. (I don’t know of one.)

There is one more illuminating moment in the scene I have been describing:

Paolo took ancestral form, and immediately started trembling and perspiring. “Ah. Flesher instincts. Bad idea.” He changed back, then laughed with relief. “That’s better.”

Paolo’s mind isn’t afraid of dying — but his body is. A good thing, then, that, since he has purposed to die, his body is dispensable, is merely an “ancestral form” that can be donned and doffed at will. For if the mind craves novelty and can’t think of reasons to live when the possibilities for novelty have been exhausted, the body takes the opposite view: it craves repetition, delights in repetition, and shakes in fear when it’s about to be deprived of the simple pleasure of “bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light.”

People will call Paolo’s mind’s viewpoint Gnostic, but that’s a word that is used far too loosely these days. Paolo doesn’t hate embodiment, or think embodiment a curse: it is because he values embodiment that at this crucial moment he wishes to “take ancestral form.” But he believes that the body’s verdicts are not wholly trustworthy, and that at times they need to be overridden by the intellectual powers he believes to be higher. This is not Gnosticism; it is Stoicism.

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, when the Fox, the Greek tutor of the book’s protagonist, falls out of favor with the King, he decides that his best remaining course is to take his own life:

Down by the river; you know the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk. It’s the roots of it I need.”

“The poison?”

“Why, yes. (Child, child, don’t cry so.) Have I not told you often that to depart from life of a man’s own will when there’s good reason is one of the things that are according to nature? We are to look on life as — ”

“They say that those who go that way lie wallowing in filth — down there in the land of the dead.”

“Hush, hush. Are you also still a barbarian? At death we are resolved into our elements. Shall I accept birth and cavil at — ”

“Oh, I know, I know. But, Grandfather, do you really in your heart believe nothing of what is said about the gods and Those Below? But you do, you do. You are trembling.”

“That’s my disgrace. The body is shaking. I needn’t let it shake the god within me. Have I not already carried this body too long if it makes such a fool of me at the end?”

That the Fox is a Stoic is clearly marked throughout the novel, not least by his repeated reference to what is or is not “according to nature.” What we see in Diaspora and Till We Have Faces alike is not Gnosticism — the idea that some evil demon has imprisoned us in bodies and delights in our imprisonment — but rather the characteristically Stoic attempt to reckon with the unquestionable truth of “nature” that bodies are vulnerable and bodies know that they are vulnerable.

The root of what I am calling our Anthropocene moment is the desperate hope that the very technological prowess that has put our natural world, and therefore the bodies of those who live in it, in such dreadful danger may also be turned, pivoted — as it were converted — to safeguard Life; that we may overcome by technical means the vulnerability of those bodies. It’s really the most sophisticated (and potentially insidious) version I know of Stockholm Syndrome.

Look for a rather different fictional perspective on these matters in tomorrow’s post.

children of Twitter

It’s a commonplace that Europeans, and people from several other parts of the world, see Americans as — if they’re inclined to be neutral — “childlike” or — if they’re inclined to be censorious — “children.” In his memoir Paris to the Moon Adam Gopnik quotes approvingly a French friend who comments that you can always spot the American tourists in France because they’re all dressed like six-year-olds. And indeed Americans have often embraced this description, though giving it a positive spin: for instance, in his seminal book No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, Jackson Lears explains how many intellectuals and artists embraced “antimodernism” in the form of medievalism precisely because they saw the Middle Ages as “childlike” in all the best senses of the term.

And then there’s A. O. Scott, writing in 2014 on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”:

A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

Yesterday’s post on social media, politics, and emotion is a variation on this theme. I don’t think there’s any question that social media prompt us to respond to the world in childlike/childish ways, leading always with our strongest emotions and then coming up with comically inadequate post facto justifications of them, or assuming that the only just world is one which conforms itself to my felt needs and within which the only real violations are of my feelings.

Nous sommes tous Américains. In the current moment, most adults are emotionally six years old, most college students four, and the Republican Presidential nominee two. (Seriously: look at any professional description of the “terrible twos” and try to tell me that it doesn’t precisely describe Donald Trump, whose supporters act as indulgent parents and elder siblings.)

I can’t say that this is a good thing, but it’s the situation we’re in and it’s not going to change any time soon. So when we’re thinking about social media and political discourse, what if we stopped cursing the emotional darkness and instead lit a candle? And the first step in doing that is by accepting that most of the people we interact with on social media really are children.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

This, I think, should be the task of those who want to use social media wisely and well: not to try to reason with people — the code architecture of all social media, and especially Twitter, with its encouragement of instantaneous response and crude measures of approval or disapproval, militates against rational reflection — but to promote ordinate affection, and especially the love of the good wherever it may be found, even in people you have been taught to think of as your political opponents.

I say that because I believe hatred is the least selective of emotions, the most scattershot, the one that can most easily find its way into every human encounter if it is not restrained by strongly positive responses to the true, the good, and the beautiful. (The truth of this statement is confirmed on Twitter every hour.)

If we are going to begin to heal the wounds of our political culture that have been either created or exacerbated by social media, then we will need to train ourselves — and only then, we hope, others — in the practices of loving what is truly desirable. Rather than trying to wrench Twitter into a vehicle for rational debate, which it can never be, we need to turn its promotion of emotional intensity to good account. (We need jujitsu, not Mortal Kombat.) And then, perhaps, when at least some people have become habituated to more ordinate affections, and Reason at length comes to them, then, bred as they have been, they will hold out their hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity they bear to her.

John Gray and the human future

So many things I wish I could write about; so little time to do anything but work on those darn books. But at least I can call your attention to a few of those provocations. I’ll do one today, others later this week.

John Gray’s review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus makes some vital distinctions that enthusiastic futurists like Harari almost never make. See this key passage:

Harari is right in thinking of human development as a process that no one could have planned or intended. He fails to see that the same is true of the post-human future. If such new species appear, they will be created by governments and powerful corporations, and used by any group that can get its hands on them – criminal cartels, terrorist networks, religious cults, and so on. Over time, these new species will be modified and redesigned, first by their human controllers, then by the new species themselves. It won’t be too long ­before some of them slip free from their human creators. One type may come out on top, at least for a while, but there is nothing to suggest this process will end in a godlike being that is supreme over all the rest. Like the evolution of human beings, post-human evolution will be a process of drift, with no direction or endpoint.

It is interesting how closely Gray’s argument tracks with the one C. S. Lewis made in The Abolition of Man, especially the third chapter, on the Conditioners and the rest of us. And of course — of course — there’s no question which group Harari identifies with, because futurists always assume the position of power — they always think of themselves as sitting comfortably among the Conditioners: “Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry.” To which John Gray rightly replies,

Yet who are “we”, exactly? An elite of benevolent scientists, perhaps? If choice is an illusion, however, those who do the manipulating will be no freer than those who are being manipulated.

That point about free will is also Lewis’s. But Gray raises a possibility that Lewis didn’t explore in Abolition, though he hints at it in the fictional counterpart to that book, That Hideous Strength: What if the Controllers don’t agree with one another? “If it ever comes about, a post-human world won’t be one in which the human species has deified itself. More like the cosmos as imagined by the Greeks, it will be ruled by a warring pantheon of gods.” And so John Gray’s recommendation to those of us who want to understand what such a world would be like? “Read Homer.”

only connecting

Everything connects; but teasing out the connections in intelligible and useful ways is hard. The book I’m currently writing requires me to describe a complex set of ideas, mainly theological and aesthetic, as they were developed by five major figures: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil. Other figures come into the story as well, most notably Reinhold Niebuhr; but keeping the connections within limits is essential, lest the story lose its coherence.

So I have to be disciplined. But there is so much I want to include in the book that I can’t — fascinating extensions of the web of ideas and human relations. For instance:

One of my major figures, Maritain, spent most of the war in New York City, where he recorded radio talks, to be broadcast in France, for the French resistance. One of the refugees who joined him in that work was the then-largely-unknown but later-to-be-enormously-famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. (Levi-Strauss’s parents, who managed to survive the war in France despite being Jewish, did not know that their son was alive until one of their neighbors heard him on the radio.) When Maritain formed the École Libre des Hautes Études, so that French intellectual life could continue in New York, Levi-Strauss joined the school and lectured on anthropology.

Through working at the Ecole Libre, Levi-Strauss met another refugee scholar, the great Russian structural linguist Roman Jakobson, who like Levi-Strauss had come to America on a cargo ship in 1941. Their exchange of ideas (they attended each other’s lectures) ultimately resulted in Levi-Strauss’s invention of the discipline of structural anthropology — one of the great developments of humanistic learning in the twentieth century.

During this period, Levi-Strauss lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village, and by a remarkable coincidence he lived on the same block as Claude Shannon, who was working for Bell Labs. (A neighbor mentioned Shannon to Levi-Strauss as a person who was “inventing an artificial brain.”) He had gotten that job largely because of his Masters thesis, which had been titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” — which is to say, he was doing for electrical circuits what Jakobson was doing for linguistics and Levi-Strauss for “the elementary structures of kinship.”

(Shannon liked living in the Village because he was a serious fan of jazz, and liked hanging out in the clubs, where, during this period, Earl Hines‘s band, featuring Dizzie Gillsepie and Charlie Parker among others, was more-or-less accidentally transforming jazz by creating bebop. We don’t know as much about that musical era as we’d like, because from 1942-44 the American Federation of Musicians were on a recording strike. They played but didn’t record.)

Shannon’s office was a few blocks away in the famous Bell Labs Building, which housed, among other things, work on the Manhattan Project. In January 1943 — at the very moment that the key figures in my book were giving the lectures that shaped their vision for a renewed Christian humanism — Bell Labs received a visitor: Alan Turing.

Over the next couple of months Turing acquainted himself with what was going on at Bell Labs, especially devices for encipherment, though he appears to have said little about his own top secret work in cryptography and cryptanalysis. And on the side he spent some time with Shannon, who, it appears, really was thinking about “inventing an artificial brain.” (Turing wrote to a friend, “Shannon wants to feed not just data to a Brain, but cultural things! He wants to play music to it!”) Turing shared with Shannon his great paper “On Computable Numbers,” which surely helped Shannon towards the ideas he would articulate in his classified paper of 1945, “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography” and then his titanic “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” of 1948.

That latter paper, combined with Turing’s work on computable numbers, laid the complete theoretical foundation for digital computers, computers which in turn provided the calculations needed to produce the first hydrogen bombs, which then consolidated the dominance of a technocratic military-industrial complex — the same technocratic power that the key figures of my book were warning against throughout the war years. (See especially Lewis’s Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.)

This supplanting of a social order grounded in an understanding of humanity — a theory of Man — deriving from biblical and classical sources by a social order manifested in specifically technological power marks one of the greatest intellectual and social transformations of the twentieth century. You can find it everywhere if you look: consider, to cite just one more example, that the first major book by Jacques Ellul was called The Theological Foundation of Law (1946) and that it was succeeded just a few years later by The Technological Society (1954).

So yes, you can see it everywhere. But the epicenter for both the transformation and the resistance to it may well have been New York City, and more particularly Greenwich Village.

insders and outsiders

One of the stories often told by fans of the Inklings — C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and their friends — is that their great success is a kind of “revenge of the outsiders” story: writers whose ideas were rejected by the cultural elite end in triumph. The story’s origins lie with the Inklings themselves: so they conceived themselves, as a ragged group of oddballs tending the flame of old tales and old ways while the cultural elite went its corrupt modernist way. Lewis returns to this theme often in his letters.

But were Lewis and Tolkien really outside the mainstream? Consider:

  • Each of them was a fellow of an ancient and prestigious college in one of England’s two elite universities
  • They were the two leading authors of the English curriculum at that university (a curriculum that lasted longer than they did)
  • Each of them published books for that university’s prestigious press
  • One of them (Tolkien) shared a publisher with Bertrand Russell
  • One of them (Lewis) gave immensely popular radio talks for the BBC

Even Owen Barfield, in some ways the most culturally marginal of the major Inklings, early in his career wrote articles for the New Statesman and had a book (Poetic Diction) published by Faber. (After that he was largely self-exiled from the mainstream by his commitment to Anthroposophy.)

To be sure, there were important ways that both Lewis and Tolkien were, in the eyes of some, not quite the right thing at Oxford: neither of them attended an elite public school; Lewis was Irish; Tolkien was Catholic; each of them stood for ideas about literature that were palpably old-fashioned; and Lewis was (in addition to being generally assertive, sometimes to the point of bullying) vocal about being a Christian in ways that struck many of his colleagues as being ill-bred at best. But considering such impediments to insider status, they did amazingly well at finding their way into the midst of things, and they did so before either of them had written anything for which they’re now famous.

The Righteous Mind and the Inner Ring

In his recent and absolutely essential book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt tries to understand why we disagree with one another — especially, but not only, about politics and religion — and, more important, why it is so hard for people to see those who disagree with them as equally intelligent, equally decent human beings. (See an excerpt from the book here.)

Central to his argument is this point: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” Our “moral arguments” are therefore “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

Haidt talks a lot about how our moral intuitions accomplish two things: they bind and they blind. “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices.” The incoherent anti-religious rant by Peter Conn that I critiqued yesterday is a great example of how the “righteous mind” works — as are conservative denunciations of universities filled with malicious tenured radicals.

So far so vital. I can’t imagine anyone who couldn’t profit from reading Haidt’s book, though it’s a challenge — as Haidt predicts — for any of us to understand our own thinking in these terms. Certainly it’s hard for me, though I’m trying. But there’s a question that Haidt doesn’t directly answer: How do we acquire these initial moral intuitions? — Or maybe not the initial ones, but the ones that prove decisive for our moral lives? I make that distinction because, as we all know, people often end up dissenting, sometimes in the strongest possible terms, from the moral frameworks within which they were raised.

So the question is: What triggers the formation of a “moral matrix” that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged?

I think that C. S. Lewis answered that question a long time ago. (Some of what follows is adapted from my book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.) In December of 1944, he gave the Commemoration Oration at King’s College in London, a public lecture largely attended by students, and Lewis took the opportunity of this “Oration” to produce something like a commencement address. He called his audience’s attention to the presence, in schools and businesses and governments and armies and indeed in every other human institution, of a “second or unwritten system” that stands next to the formal organization.

You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it, and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it…. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who it outside…. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in; this provides great amusement for those who are really inside.

Lewis does not think that any of his audience will be surprised to hear of this phenomenon of the Inner Ring; but he thinks that some may be surprised when he goes on to argue, in a point so important that I’m going to put it in bold type, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” And it is important for young people to know of the force of this desire because “of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

The draw of the Inner Ring has such profound corrupting power because it never announces itself as evil — indeed, it never announces itself at all. On these grounds Lewis makes a “prophecy” to his audience at King’s College: “To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours…. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes … the hint will come.” And when it does come, “you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world.”

It is by these subtle means that people who are “not yet very bad” can be drawn to “do very bad things” – by which actions they become, in the end, very bad. That “hint” over drinks or coffee points to such a small thing, such an insignificant alteration in our principles, or what we thought were our principles: but “next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.”

This, I think, is how our “moral matrices,” as Haidt calls them, are formed: we respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive. The element of sheer contingency here is, or ought to be, terrifying: had we encountered a group of equally attractive and interesting people who held very different views, then we too would hold very different views.

And, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us. And it’s worth noting, as Avery Pennarun has recently noted, that one of the things that makes smart people smart is their skill at such rationalization: “Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.”

In “The Inner Ring” Lewis portrays this group affiliation in the darkest of terms. That’s because he’s warning people about its dangers, which is important. But of course it is by a similar logic that people can be drawn into good communities, genuine fellowship — that they can become “members of a Body,” as he puts it in the great companion piece to “The Inner Ring,” a talk called “Membership.” (Both are included in his collection The Weight of Glory.) This distinction is what his novel That Hideous Strength is primarily about: we see the consequences for Mark Studdock as he is drawn deeper and deeper into an Inner Ring, and the consequences for Mark’s wife Jane as she is drawn deeper and deeper into a genuine community. I can’t think of a better guide to distinguishing between the false and true forms of membership than that novel.

And that novel offers something else: hope. Hope that we need not be bound forever by an inclination we followed years or even decades ago. Hope that we can, with great discipline and committed energy, transcend the group affiliations that lead us to celebrate members of our own group (even when they don’t deserve celebration) and demonize or mock those Outside. We need not be bound by the simplistic and uncharitable binaries of the Righteous Mind. Unless, of course, we want to be.

CSL and the Menippean satire, once more

There’s probably not much point in responding to this post, with its rhetorical strategy of huffing and puffing and blowing my house down by intoning words like “nonsensical.” The best response to such stuff us almost always this.

But then there’s precedent for this, also.

So here’s the key passage, I think:

I’m not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye’s very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin’s interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis’s novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Well, see: no. It isn’t. And that’s the key point.

(By the way, I’d be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don’t understand it. He clearly hasn’t read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that’s precisely what it is, just look it up and you’ll see — doesn’t appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky’s novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon’s blog, Pooh! )

The Menippean satire is a genre that includes narrative but also includes many other things — the various “inserted genres” that Bakhtin refers to, which may be poetry, song, philosophical disputation, almost anything. And in some cases, an overarching narrative that contains very different narrative genres within, as, to take an example especially important to Lewis, when Apuleius puts the tragic myth of Cupid and Psyche in the middle of the often farcical and picaresque Satyricon.

So, to anyone passingly familiar with the genre, its marks are not just on That Hideous Strength but on much of Lewis’s fiction: the songs and debates interspersed in the narrative of The Pilgrim’s Regress; the debates — yes, again with the debates — in Perelandra, topped off by an extended theological lecture; the curious combination of satire and dream-vision in The Great Divorce; and so on. And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim’s Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney’s Arcadia.

Lewis taught and wrote about all of these works, and if you read what he had to say about them, you’ll see that he understands that modern readers of them are likely to grow frustrated and impatient. Why? Because we live in the Age of the Novel, in which Henry James’s emphasis on “organic form” has long been sovereign (though coming under increasingly frequent challenge in recent decades). The average reader expects a story to be just that, a story, and tends to be puzzled when songs turn up or lectures or disputations go on for too long. Example: it’s amazing how agitated readers can become by the songs in The Lord of the Rings — though in that case Tolkien may be the victim of his own skill at keeping a story moving: his readers don’t want to pause. Or don’t think they do. (But I digress.)

Which leads me back to the chief point of my earlier post, which is that if we’re going to have a proper appreciation of what Lewis was up to in his fiction, we do well to realize what his models were, and how many of them involved the mixing-and-matching of genre that we see best exemplified by the Menippean satire. Sometimes Lewis’s stories seem to lose impetus or focus because he’s not the best storyteller in the world; but sometimes he’s not at that moment trying to tell a story: he’s pausing in the narrative to complicate and deepen its picture in varying ways.

I think this has almost everything to do with Frye’s comment that “the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.” One of Lewis’s most consistent purposes as a writer was to diagnose the diseases of the intellect that arise when the intellect is cut off from its proper and healthy connection to the “chest,” as he puts it in The Abolition of Man: the seat of moral discernment and judgment. Other great modern practitioners of the Menippean form seem to believe the same: I think especially of Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Walker Percy in the twentieth. The generic multiplicity and intellectual daring of the Menippean satire are, I think, under-exploited resources, especially for the Christian thinker.

the problem of Lewis the storyteller

A recurrent problem for those of us who suffer from chronic logorrhea is our tendency to forget what we have and have not written. There’s a point about C. S. Lewis that I have spoken many times over the years but — I now, after some Googling, suspect — may never have written down in any detail. So here we go:

I don’t think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard. Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts.

What were those writerly gifts? Above all he was a brilliant satirist and parodist — abilities bolstered by his greatest more-generally-intellectual gift, a prodigious memory — and the master of a familiar, trust-inducing essayistic tone. (A tone that, by the way, he put to excellent use in his scholarly work, which is why The Allegory of Love and his OHEL book remain so exceptionally readable.) Now, his fiction sometimes benefits from these skills. For instance, consider the just-right pitch of this passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you — you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.

— or the terrific parodies of administrative jargon in The Screwtape Letters and That Hideous Strength.

But in the basics of the kind of storytelling he liked best — creating vivid characters and keeping a lively plot moving along — Lewis struggled, and I think at times he knew it. Note how in That Hideous Strength he has to pause to tell us what we are supposed to believe about his two protagonists: “Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker”; “It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging.” Apparently we might not have figured out those points without explicit direction.

Think also of the palpable creakiness, the lumbering joviality, of the whole Bacchus-and-Silenus passage in Prince Caspian; and the still more lumbering, and for CSL unusually mean-spirited and score-settling, assault on Experiment House at the end of The Silver Chair; and the endless explanatory talkiness, even long after the main plot points are settled, of Perelandra. (His dear friend Owen Barfield — one of the few people regularly to stand up to Lewis in dialectical situations — rightly commented that in writing fiction CSL was afflicted by an “expository demon.” To Lewis’s credit, he told this story on himself.)

There are far, far too many such passages in Lewis’s fiction. In my view, his only novel that’s free of these faults is The Horse and His Boy (and even then the allegorical treatment, near the end, of how God is present with us in our suffering is almost too much of a good thing). In my view, neither Lewis’s detractors nor his devoted fans have taken these limitations seriously enough. It’s a problem for his fans because they remain puzzled when other readers don’t like Lewis’s fiction as well as they do, and tend to attribute any dislike to some kind of spiritual dysfunction. It’s a problem for his detractors because they tend to attribute to malice or ethical narrowness what might just be lack of competence: maybe, as I suggested the other day, Lewis fell into The Problem of Susan not because he was anti-woman or anti-sex but because his desire to make a certain theological point was stronger than his storytelling common sense.

And yet, despite these flaws, all his novels possess a remarkable, but hard to define, vitality. I say “novels,” but in at least some of them, certainly each of the Ransom books, the vitality stems from the fact that they’re not novels at all. Lewis may not have realized it, but in those books — and even in some of the Narnia books, especially The Magician’s Nephew — he was writing Menippean satires.

What is a Menippean satire, you ask? Well, please see this definition from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism:

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. . . . The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.

See also Mikhail Bakhtin, in the revised version of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:

In the menippea there appears for the first time what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man — insanity of all sorts (the theme of the maniac), split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth. These phenomena do not function narrowly in the menippea as mere themes, but have a formal generic significance. Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself. . . .

Characteristic of the menippea is a wide use of inserted genres . . . [and] its concern with current and topical issues. This is, in its own way, the ‘journalistic’ genre of antiquity, acutely echoing the ideological issues of the day.

Can you imagine a better description of the generic tendencies of That Hideous Strength than these two critics offer? And these traits are prominent in all of Lewis’s fiction, even the books for children. He tried to write novels, but his deep scholarly knowledge, his polemical temperament, and his marvelous abilities as a parodist and satirist led him to write Menippean satires instead. I think this goes a long way towards accounting for Tolkien’s distaste for Lewis’s fiction: he himself, a born storyteller if there ever was one, knew that on some level Lewis was faking it, was writing not so much stories as extremely clever imitations of stories, fantastically skillful mechanical models of stories. And given his narrow tastes he couldn’t abide what his friend was doing.

But if we realize the kinds of books Lewis was (willy-nilly) writing, then many of the faults — faults primarily according to the canons of novelistic narration — do not exactly disappear but slide into the background. Lewis then emerges as someone who was a successful writer of fiction after all; just not the kind of fiction that he tried to write and wanted to write.

a little Narnian adventure

I’m suffering with a rather nasty cold at the moment, which, along with the typical craziness of the start of an academic term, has slowed the pace of writing around here; but I can’t resist trying, even in this befogged condition, to say a few words in response to this typically smart post by Adam Roberts on the Narnia books.

First, about whether Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan is consistent with “the Christ of the Gospels” — I would say both (a) Yes and (b) That depends. Taking the Christian scriptures as a whole, we get three interventions into this created order by the Second Person of the Trinity. First, we are told at the beginning of John’s Gospel that “all things were made through him” and, similarly, in Colossians 1 that “by him all things were created”; for this, see The Magician’s Nephew. Second, the Incarnate Christ is the one we see in the Gospels; for this, see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And then there’s the Christ who “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the Creed says, and whose role as Warrior and Judge is described most fully in Revelation; that’s The Last Battle. Traditional Christian theology would say, and therefore CSL would say, that the character of the Second Person of the Trinity is utterly consistent but he plays different roles at different points in history.

Now, about Susan. The old Problem of Susan. Adam writes, “ I do not claim that Susan is forever banished from heaven; I say that at the end of the Narnia books she is excluded, and so she is.” I genuinely don’t think this is the right way of putting it, because it gives the agency to someone other than Susan — which might be okay if Lewis were a TULIP-affirming Calvinist, but he wasn’t. I think that the right way to put it is to say that Susan simply chooses not to return to Narnia. That we paltry little humans have the power to refuse God is a point that Lewis returns to often in his theological writings. As he writes in The Problem of Pain, if we demand that God leave us alone, “that is what he does” — and, interestingly, Lewis prefaces that statement with an “Alas,” as though he might well prefer God to operate in another way. (Which also helps us understand that in sparing Susan from the train wreck that kills the rest of her family he is trying to give her a chance to turn back around towards Narnia. However, the emotional tenor of all this is muddled by this catastrophic contrivance to get the rest of the Pevensies into Narnia one last time; it’s one of Lewis’s unwisest narrative choices.)

I think this point — that we can refuse God and that some of us do — was important enough to Lewis that he was determined to get it into the Narnia books, but how was he to do it? The point wouldn’t be made strongly enough if any of the less dominant characters embodied it, so it had to be one of the Pevensies. He couldn’t make Lucy a backslider: she was the one who had always had the greatest faith and the greatest spiritual discernment. And he couldn’t use Edmund either, since any renunciation of Aslan by Edmund would destroy the whole portrayal of Edmund’s redemption in the first book. So it had to be either Peter or Susan, and I suspect that Lewis was not quite ready to face the possible theological implications of the High King of Narnia becoming a rebel against Aslan. So Susan it had to be. Lewis was backed into a structural corner, as it were.

This is not to say that Lewis didn’t have some deeply troubling ideas about women, only that I think he couldn’t have gone in another direction if he were going to make this theological point about our ability to be “successful rebels to the end.”

Finally, I want to look at this passage:

My real criticism of this novel relates to a different matter. It is that it ends just when it is getting interesting. The Pevensie kids become the kings and queens of Narnia: King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just and Queen Lucy the Valiant. They grow to adulthood in this world, until, many years later, they chance upon the lamppost again, and tumble back into our world, no longer adults, now children. Only a few hours have passed on Earth, for all the years (decades?) they spent in Narnia. Then Lewis stops; but this is where the story starts, surely—what would it be like to have an adult consciousness inside the body of a child? To have passed through puberty, and then suddenly to have the hormone tap switched off? You could hardly go back to you former existence; but neither could you expect to live as an adult. Would you go mad, or use your beyond-your-seeming-years wisdom to some purpose? How would you cope? Would you try to explain? Would you betray yourself, and reveal the Narnia portal to the world—would governments attempt to exploit it? The psychological interest in the story begins at the end; but that’s exactly the place where Lewis drops the bar down and ends things. Grrr!

I want to look at this passage because I have wondered about this point too, and I suspect that Lewis never really thought this through. In this particular sense the Narnia books are connected in my mind with the old Tom Hanks movie Big, which enacts an especially intriguing wish-fulfillment dream: that it’s possible for a kid to assume an adult body and have adult experiences, including living on his own, having sex, and working for a living — and then turn his back on all that and go back to live as a child with his parents. But then what would puberty have been like for him? There’s a reason why Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience can’t be read in reverse: “The Lamb” necessarily comes before “The Tyger” and always will.

It’s interesting that Lewis to some degree addresses this issue when going the other way: when the adult Kings and Queens of Narnia ride back into the forest where the Lamppost is they have clearly forgotten who they once were and only gradually recollect their previous lives as ordinary children; but whenever they come back into Narnia they seem to have perfect recall of everything they had done there before. Lewis might have done better to reverse the memorial polarity.

to live and die in the Anthropocene

I’m not quite sure what to do with this essay by Roy Scranton on learning to live — or rather, learning to die — in the Anthropocene. The heart of the essay may be found in its concluding paragraphs:

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.

If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

Scranton, who is a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton, is here making an innovative argument for the value of the humanities: humanistic learning, or rather the deep reflection historically associated with it, is all the more necessary now as we are forced to grapple with the inevitability of cultural collapse. Much in me resonates with this argument, but I think the way Scranton develops it is deeply problematic.

A good deal of the essay links the coming civilizational collapse with Scranton’s own experiences as a soldier in Iraq. But it seems to me that that is precisely the problem: Scranton assumes that the death of a civilization is effectively the same as the death of a human being, that the two deaths can be readily and straightforwardly analogized. Just as I had to learn to die, so too must our culture. But no.

The problem lies in the necessarily loose, metaphorical character of the claim that a civilization is “dead.” Scranton writes,

Now, when I look into our future — into the Anthropocene — I see water rising up to wash out lower Manhattan. I see food riots, hurricanes, and climate refugees. I see 82nd Airborne soldiers shooting looters. I see grid failure, wrecked harbors, Fukushima waste, and plagues. I see Baghdad. I see the Rockaways. I see a strange, precarious world.

Well, maybe. But maybe the end of our civilization, even should it be as certain as Scranton believes, won’t look like this; maybe it will be a long slow economic and social decline in which massive violence is evaded but slow inexorable rot cannot be. (Scranton is rather too assured in the detail of his prophecies.) But in any case, whatever happens to our civilization will not be “death” in anything like the same sense that a soldier dies on the battlefield. When that soldier dies, his heart stops, his brain circuitry ceases to function, his story in this world is over. But even this catastrophically afflicted culture described by Scranton is still in some sense alive, still functioning, in however compromised a way. And this will be the case as long as human beings remain on the earth: they will have some kind of social order, which will always be in need of healing, restoration, growth in flourishing.

Which means, I think, that the absolutely necessary lessons in how to die that every one of us should learn — because our lives are really no more secure than a soldier’s, though for our peace of mind we pretend otherwise — are not really the ones needed in order to deal with the coming of the Anthropocene. Scranton’s dismissal of practical considerations involving the social and economic order in favor of philosophical reflection might even be a counsel of despair; he does seem, to me at least, to be saying that nothing in the material order can possibly be rescued so the only thing left to do is reconcile ourselves to death. I believe that anthropogenic global warning is happening, and I believe that its consequences for many people will be severe, but I do not accept that nothing meaningful can be done to mitigate those consequences. In short, I do not believe and do not think I am permitted to believe that our civilization is already dead.

But for me and for you, the necessity of facing death remains, and indeed is not any different now and for us than it was in the past or for any of our ancestors. For the individual facing death, the Anthropocene changes nothing. This was the point of C.S. Lewis’s great sermon “Learning in Wartime”:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them.

Just as wars must sometimes be fought, so the consequences of the Anthropocene must be confronted. Or so I believe. But whether or not I’m right about that, I know this: Death is coming for us all. And if Montaigne is right that “to philosophize is to learn to die,” then the humanities, in so far as they help us to be genuinely philosophical, are no more relevant in the Anthropocene than they ever have been — nor any less so.