Moonlight

Henri Bosco’s book The Boy and the River is short and sensual. The descriptions of the river and its flora and fauna are so luxuriant they border on suffocating. I couldn’t help wondering if the touch is lighter in French.

I could pick any number of passages to illustrate his style, but I chose this one about the moon because it reminded me of a similar poetic passage in Watership Down:

The moon was a great help to me. Its brilliance lit my way, and its spreading softness calmed me not a little, as though by enchantment. For, more effectively than any other of the heavenly bodies the moon touches the human heart with magic. Its light is close. We feel that it is filled with concern and love for us, and, in the season of spring, its friendship is so tender that all the countryside grows tender, too. At those times, for children waking in the night, there is no more charming counsellor. Through the open window it shines into their rooms, and, when they fall asleep again, brings to them the loveliest of dreams.

Here’s the passage from Watership Down:

We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech woods at night. In moonlight, two acres of coarse, bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse’s mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that even the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. it does not reveal but changes what it covers. And its low intensity—so much lower than that of daylight—makes us conscious that it is something added to the down, to give it, for only a little time, a singular and marvelous quality that we should admire while we can, for soon it will be gone.

Lewis on English Majors

[English Literature as an academic discipline] directs to the study of literature a great many talented, ingenious, and diligent people whose real interests are not specifically literary at all. Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about? Hence literature becomes for them a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, a psychotherapy, a sociology—anything rather than a collection of works of art.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Last fall I gave a talk on literary theory and in my research I discovered (or rather, I confirmed) that English Departments are an utter and complete sham. When I was in school, some of my professors and fellow graduate students loved stories and poetry—and at least one of my professors tried to bring that love into the classroom—but when it came to “serious” literary discussion (the kind that gets published in respectable journals), the conversation turned from the stories themselves to the religion, philosophy, sociology, history, or sex embedded within the story. I met a PhD student whose dissertation was not about literature but about the history of a particular book—the physical object, not the content. Nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t it seem like a task more suited to a budding historian than a lover of literature?

English majors pick projects like that because literature does not lend itself to the kind of scientific analysis required in the modern university. At some level, English departments are aware of this and it keeps the chair of the department up at night. Will his budget be assured come the morn? In his book on literary theory, Terry Eagleton describes the shaky identity of English departments when they first came into being in the 1920s:

The definition of an academic subject was what could be examined, and since English was no more than idle gossip about literary taste it was difficult to know how to make it unpleasant enough to qualify as a proper academic pursuit.

Eagleton goes on to say that English departments survived thanks to the rise of nationalism in the 1930s. When your nation goes toe-to-toe with another, you’re much less likely to dismiss even the least significant aspect of your culture. English people suddenly became much more loyal to their own literature than they were before and its place in the university was assured.

Still, the problem of how to make reading for fun an “unpleasant” academic subject persisted. Lewis says it was solved by literary criticism.

Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacle of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible. This state of affairs seems to me a far greater threat to our culture than any of those from which the Vigilants would protect us.

Academics love it when an eminent professor writes a new book about Shakespeare because it gives them something new to focus on and they can debate the accuracy of his judgment. It’s much easier to analyze someone’s claims about a book than to analyze the book itself. None of this nonsense about the “literary experience.” No more reading for “enjoyment” or “beauty,” whatever that is. Swaddled in criticism, the English major is free from such messy topics.

Lewis’s solution to this sorry state of affairs:

I suggest that a ten or twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.

I wholeheartedly agree.

A Good Word for Lit Teachers

We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

CS Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Media Diary Update

You may remember that there used to be a link to my Media Diary up in the menu. A few months ago I waffled between making the page private or keeping it public and ultimately decided on the latter. Well, I reversed that decision. It’s private again and will stay that way.

My reasons are basically the same as the ones I included in my previous post on the subject (linked above). Reading certain books is a part of my job, but not one that I necessary want to advertise. The problem then was that, without the accountability of a public page, I wouldn’t update it.

Here’s my solution: in the menu there’s a link to my /now page, which is just a short list of the things I’m currently working on. (You can read more about /now pages here.) I’m going to add a list of books I’m currently reading. Whether or not I finish them, it will at least give me some accountability to keep track.

The Subterfuge of Realism

Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Peet

Bill Peet was a children’s author and illustrator who was also heavily involved in Disney’s early animated features. I found a copy of his autobiography at a library book sale yesterday and heartily commend it to you. His life story isn’t all that interesting, but I loved his anecdotes (some unpleasant) about working at Disney in its infancy. And the illustrations are delightful.

Bill liked to paint the ugly and gruesome…
…especially when it shocked ladies at art exhibitions.
Bill works as an inbetweener — a thankless job.
Walt at a pitch meeting

Media Diary

A few years ago I decided that I was done with Goodreads. Instead, I thought, I’ll keep track of my reading on my own blog, like film director Steven Soderbergh. A big part of my reasoning was that Goodreads pressured me to finish everything I read, whereas posting a daily update of the books I dipped into let me record what I was reading while giving me the freedom to lay down a book at any time.

I kept my Media Diary faithfully for many years. About six months ago it occurred to me that, since the page was public, people could critique my reading, watching, and listening on a daily basis. Normally I wouldn’t mind. But a friend might lend me a favorite book and be offended if I don’t start it till two weeks later. A boss might happen to see that I watched a movie in the middle of the week instead of keeping up with my grading. I decided to make the page private.

Since then, I’ve basically stopped updating it. I didn’t realize how much the public gaze (or rather, the possibility of the public gaze) motivated me to post every day. The invisible audience held me accountable. So, I’ve made the page public again, until I think of a better solution.

Newz

Someone on Twitter (maybe Joss Whedon – remember him?) once wrote, “I love it when my friends go internet-silent for a while, then suddenly reappear with some new project just completed.” Well, I have no major accomplishments to reveal (yet…), but here are a couple of news items from the world of Broken Bow.

  • I have essays coming out in two books this year. The first is called Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children. I contributed an essay on YA fiction. The second is called Movies from the Mountaintop: 100+ Films that Express God, Explore Faith and Enlighten Church. The editor of this book stumbled across my review of Spotlight on Film Fisher and asked if he could include it.
  • The third annual Psalm Tap Music Colloquium meets in Monroe, Louisiana, this June. Swing by if you can. As always, it is free.

A Different Way of Seeing

One day, on impulse, I asked the students to copy a Picasso drawing upside down. That small experiment, more than anything else I had tried, showed that something very different is going on during the act of drawing. To my surprise, and to the students’ surprise, the finished drawings were so extremely well done that I asked the class, “How come you can draw upside down when you can’t draw right-side up?” The students responded, “Upside down, we didn’t know what we were drawing.” This was the greatest puzzlement of all and left me simply baffled.

Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain