Thursday, June 24

Reading As Companionship — A Personal History

In Shadowlands, the movie about the courtship and marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham, C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying “We read to know we are not alone”.  I have found multitudes of citations  where people quote Lewis as having said this in those very words, but have so far found no specific source, no book, no article, no lecture, for this remark. But even if Lewis did not say it, he should have.  For in my own personal experience, there have been instances too abundant to count where this proved to be the case with uncanny timeliness.  The following examples do not even scratch the surface. But in virtually all cases of where I have been reminded that I am not alone, this reminder also amounted to a revelation of what I myself thought even at times when I was not aware of it.  Not only was I not aware that other people thought such things, I myself was unaware, at least on a conscious level, that I did so. The act of reading is revelatory, not only of the thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions of others, but reading also has a way of lifting into consciousness what I believe.

C. S. Lewis

One of the most powerful examples of this revelation of self through the revelation of others, and probably the earliest such example, was the first time I read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses” as an exercise assigned to me and my fellow eighth-graders in Mr. Gordon Morse’s AP English class at Horace Mann Intermediate School, now Horace Mann Middle School, in Wichita, KS. I remember going home that night with my mimeographed copy of the poem tucked inside a filing folder in my briefcase – GAWD A’MIGHTY … I was a nerd before the word was ever coined! – and taking the sheet out in my bedroom to read as I waited for dinner. (I always did my English reading and homework first, because it was my favorite class.) I was instantly mesmerized by Tennyson’s lines, lines I can recite verbatim from memory now, words that had been echoing back and forth in my mind since I read my first paragraph in the eighth grade:

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' 
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move. …
[V]ile it were 
For some three suns to store and hoard myself, 
And this gray spirit yearning in desire 
To follow knowledge like a sinking star, 
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

William Shakespeare
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

All this was written by an upper-class Englishman during Victoria's reign over 100 years before I was even born. Through his character of Ulysses, he spoke of that kind of restlessness I had known all my life, the kind of restlessness that made me the butt of all the jokes of the more athletically, and less academically, inclined boys (and their coaches!) in eighth-grade boys’ gym, the restlessness that drove me to pack my telescope when we visited relatives in the Arkansas wilderness so I could take advantage of the darkness (we still used kerosene lanterns then) to look at the moon, Saturn, Jupiter, the Pleiades, and, with my naked eye, the luminous smudge I later learned was the great Andromeda galaxy. Tennyson and his Ulysses knew that restlessness a century before I ever drew breath. I was not alone. As C. S. Lewis insightfully observed in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man's life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.

And not just Tennyson. When I was about the same age, maybe even a little younger, I discovered Shakespeare.  (I asked my mother then for a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works for my birthday, which she gave me. I still have that book.) I was surprised to find a kindred spirit in Hamlet, whose existential brooding echoed my own:

To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life; …who would fardels bear,To grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all ... 

As you can probably see, I was a rather morbidly introspective kid, all the more so because of my adolescent susceptibility to abysmally hopeless crushes on utterly unattainable girls and to the accompanying existential angst that afflicts the philosophically minded, especially at that age. Being smart ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when your love of literature renders you empathetically vulnerable to the angst of others. But, again, as with Tennyson and his Ulysses, the compensatory benison is an awareness that, emotional rip-tides notwithstanding, at least I knew I was not alone.

Eventually, I did grow some protective scar tissue, in the form of a precocious skepticism and cynicism. One inexhaustible source for this astringently stinging balm of Gilead was Thomas Hardy, whose poem “Christmas 1924,” reflecting on the horrors of chemical weapons in the First World War recently concluded, was like mercurochrome on a raw wound, but no less therapeutic for all that.

Ezra Pound
Thomas Hardy

'Peace upon earth!' was said. We sing it, 
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.

The comfort of knowing you are not alone is not an unmixed blessing, however. For I also discovered Ezra Pound’s rage against the profligate waste of war in his great anti-war -- and anti-usury -- poem as an indictment of Western civilization “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:

… liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

Fortitude as never before

Frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Gradually, into my middle and late teens, I found myself almost being sucked past the event horizon of my adolescent cynicism and skepticism, and possibly toward the ultimate singularity of suicide, all because I could not find any source of hope or moderation or reason for optimism. The fact that I was not going there alone was scant comfort. But then I discovered two writers who remain critical to my equilibrium to this day:  Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot, both of whom I discovered at roughly the same time as a freshman in college -- the former in my first philosophy course; the latter just through independent reading:  I suffered greatly from an inability to ignore texts merely because the course syllabus did not require them.

To this day, I can recite verbatim, in both French and English, the opening paragraph of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, from which I graduated to the writings of the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran (living in Paris and writing in French), though there is not enough space to even summarize the latter. The opening sentences of Sisyphus are (my translation from the French):

Albert Camus

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest …  are games; one must first answer this. And if it is true, as Nietzsche says, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must teach by example, you can appreciate the importance of this reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel, but they call for careful analysis before they become clear to the intellect.

And later in Sisyphus I was haunted by (again, my translation):

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm-this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the "why" arises and everything begins in that weariness tainted with amazement.

And all this time, I thought I was the only person on the planet to whom Camus’ “Why” had ever occurred! I wish I could describe in words the liberation I experienced the first time I read these words. Somewhere out there, there really are other people – probably most other people, if we are to believe Camus – just like me. Not only was I not alone, if anything, I was the rule, not the exception.

But the problem still remained:  Camus’ “Why”.  Monotheistic religion in general, and Christianity in particular, had long since failed me. I continued going to church during this time just to please my parents – who were, after all, paying the bills for my education – and also, frankly, out of sheer habit. But for a long time, Christianity had felt like an exercise in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” or maybe life in some kind of surveillance state like North Korea, where one is being perpetually evaluated – another “it’s not just me” experience I skate over for lack of space – and it continued to feel that way until I discovered both the biography and writings of the man I still consider the greatest religious poet in the English language:  Thomas Stearns Eliot. 

T. S. Eliot

Suffice to say that what I found in Eliot was a kindred spirit who also saw Christianity as fatally devoid of one of the defining parameters of human – not just Western or Christian – spirituality:  tragedy. The all-consuming glory of Christ's Resurrection simply, as we would say today, "sucks all the air out of the room," and thus annihilates all the categories of Tragedy. Christians are fond of saying Christ's victory is complete. They are right. That's just the problem:  it is too complete, too complete to leave any room for, e.g., Dostoyevsky, for Unamuno's "tragic sense of life". (So it should not require a precocious imagination to understand why for a time I buried myself in the writings of Miguel de Unamuno of the University of Salamanca. But again, there is no time ... ) After 50 years of, not merely reading, but living inside of, Eliot’s poetry, from The Wasteland to "Ash Wednesday" to Four Quartets, I have come to believe that Eliot’s singular achievement is to reconcile the Christian myth with tragedy, in fact, to show that the former is incomplete and impoverished without the latter. I have spent most of my life “decoding” Eliot’s meaning, especially of the Quartets, with the serendipitous help of an experience I had at St. Nicholas Church in Galway, Ireland, and within the Quartets especially of “Little Gidding”. This is obviously too long a story to even synopsize here. I would only invite you to embark on the same quest by reflecting on the concluding lines:

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

And if you do undertake this journey, I can, from personal experience, promise you:  you will not be alone. In fact, you will be accompanied by illustrious companions as a "cloud of witnesses" . 

James R. Cowles

Image credits

T. S. Eliot ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Shakespeare ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Camus ... UPI ... Public domain
Pound ... Alvin Langdon Coburn ... Public domain
Hardy ... Bain News Service ... Public domain
Lewis ... Arthur Strong, photographer ... Fair use
Tennyson ... George Frederick Watts ... Public domain
Ulysses ... Sculptor unknown, 1st century CE ... Public domain

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