"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Two Cities

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," it was the best of books, it was the worst of books.

I say it was the worst of books not to be unduly harsh on A Tale of Two Cities but because, of the handful of Dickens's books I have read, this is probably my least favorite. Dickens is by no means my least favorite author though, so the criticism could be taken as a complement.

My chief complaint is the lack of characteristic humor. Even in a book as depressing as Hard Times,there was always plenty of comic figures to laugh over as the pages turned. Not so in A Tale of Two Cities, here the only mildly funny people are Mr. Cruncher and Miss Pross. Sidney Carton starts out as a buffoon but ends the book as the most tragic figure, heroically laying down his life for his friends. I think I went into the book with the wrong preconceived idea of what it would be like. The stormy gloom of the first chapter should have told me that this book was deadly serious.

The two cities are London and Paris. The time is during the French Revolution. If you wish to know why a happily married Charles Darnay leaves the safety of England and travels to Paris, or how he is imprisoned there, and what his friends do to rescue him from the guillotine, you will have to read it yourself.

I take the two main themes to be forgiveness and friendship. By friendship I mean those qualities of loyalty, sacrifice, and care that a friend (or lover) has for another. The reconciliation between Dr. Manette and his daughter's husband is contrasted with the merciless hatred of Madame Defarge. Though they both have been wronged, Manette does all he can to help Darnay as a true friend. He is in the end powerless to save Darnay from the hate of Defarge. Only a greater love can overcome this great hate, and Carton, in the moment of despair, supplies this.

Dickens dwells long on the anarchy and blood of the Revolution of the French people, yet his sympathy is with those people. The oppression and tyranny they suffered under, he says, "produced this horror."
Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similiar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the seeds of rapacious license over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Lewis's Short Fiction

Last night I read the fragment After 10 Years by C.S. Lewis. There is a lot I don't knew about the Trojan war. The idea of two Helens, a copy, a golem, an eidolon, opens a lot of alternative possibilities for the direction of the plot. It is fun to wonder what outcome Lewis would have written if he had continued. The same could be wondered about The Dark tower, another fragment in Lewis's book of the same name. There the imagery is skin-crawling, spine-tingling; its closest equivalent is That Hideous Strength, only creepier. A gripping tale of a parallel world with a demonic Stingyman who is translated into this world while poor Scudamour is transformed in the "Othertime." Eughhh! The whole thing reeks of Charles Williams.

For some strange reason, Lewis's short fiction collected in The Dark Tower and Other Stories doesn't seem that great to me. Oh, it is thought provoking and well written just as to be expected but it does not set the forests dancing and the animals talking, and the stars alighting on Earth like Narnia.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Stories Can Do

Among many good quotes from C. S. Lewis's On Stories, a book of 20 essays on reading, writing and appreciating (you guessed it) stories, is this one that explains the ideal he strove for in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I thought how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them appear for the first time in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

"Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said." in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature pg. 47. Harcourt, inc. 1982

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"I" or "We?"

What little I have heard about Ayn Rand has been positive, so when I saw a little book by her I decided to gamble away my 50 cents in hopes of an intellectual jackpot. Another factor that swayed me was the slim size of Anthem. Why it is called Anthem has continued to puzzle me to this moment but I comfort myself with remembering other good reads with obscure titles.

The story presents a futuristic society with an all encompassing socialist government. In this society the individual does not exist, there is only "we" and "us." The very word "I" has been forgotten. The effect that the loss of this word makes on what would normally be considered a fictional autobiography of the hero is eerie. The main force of the book is derived from this constant omission and replacement of "I" with "we."

The oddball hero of this story is different from his peers; he is disappointed by the robot like education that "we" received, angered that "our" assigned profession is street sweeper, and saddened that communication between the farmer-woman and "us" is forbidden. And so the stage is set for Equality 7-2521 to begin breaking the inviolate laws of the people. Eventually he is condemned to death for inventing something that the "World Council of Scholars" blindly despises because he, Equality 7-2521, a street sweeper, without his peers in the "Homes of the Scholars," has make something that would leave those employed in the "Department of Candles" without work. He escapes to the "Uncharted Forest" and finds there a house from the "Unmentionable Times." In it he finds books that use the strange word "I."

This book delivers a heavy blow at socialism and even, to some extent, democracy. It presents the horror that the majority can bring into the world. A bleak, lifeless society ruled by councils elected "by a free and general vote" (21) from the "Homes of the Leaders." But I think the solution Rand puts forth errs in exactly the opposite direction. It is true that individuals are important, more important than any state or special interest group. C.S.Lewis comments somewhere that the entire history of a nation is but the blink of a eye compared to the eternity a man's soul will live. But Rand seems to advocate throwing off all law and all restraint and to declare oneself a god--unaccountable to anyone--a pride comparable to Lucifer's.

After reading (and rightly rejecting) the first part of the book it is tempting in the second part to worship at the shine of "this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: "I" (112-113). Those who elevate the self seem to have forgotten the creator of every individual; that behind every "I" stands the great "I Am."

Was the gamble worth it? Lets just say I am willing to risk 2 or 3 dollars at a used bookstore for Atlas Shrugged. Still, there are some clods of dirt in this bag of gold.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. Signet 1946. eighteenth printing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Shoddy Lands

The Shoddy Lands seem almost uncharitable until the final sentence asks: "and how if, some other time, I were not the explorer but the explored?" The Shoddy Lands, I should say, is a dream-story C.S.Lewis wrote in The Dark Tower and Other Stories. In it an old pupil and his fiancee drop by the author's rooms (we can only hope the whole episode is fictional). During the boring conversation that follows, Lewis slips into a sort of vision of a drab world with indistinct shapes and colors. At first he wonders if he has died and this is hell, but then he stumbles upon a town; here he sees concrete and clear merchandise for sale in shops. The only things he sees offered though are jewelry, clothing, and other trinkets.

After passing through this town he arrives at a beach and sees the fiancee sunbathing. She is the only person who is not a shadowy blob. As he watches, he hears two voices coming "from somewhere beyond that low, gray covering which served the Shoddy Lands instead of a sky." One is Lewis's former student calling to the girl to let him in. the other "a voice at whose sound my bones turned to water: 'child, child, child, let me in before the darkness comes.'"

When he wakes out of his trance he interprets his own dream. He was permitted to see "the world as it existed for her. At the center of that world is a swollen image of herself.... Round this are grouped clear and distinct images of the things she really cares about. Beyond that, the whole earth and sky are a vague blur."

Do we all live in Shoddy Lands? The title may be plural to included every one's world and not just the poor self-centered girl's that Lewis glimpsed. But above the clouds and shadows a voice still pleads: "child, let me in before the night comes."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


It is only fair to warn people what a blog is going to be about. This one is about books and authors and stories. Since learning to read I have liked few things better than sprawling on my bed with a good story. Only lately have I begun to wonder what makes a story good.

This curiosity may be due to a recent (2-3 years) interest in books that in G. K. Chesterton's phrase: "wrestle with ideas naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women." Just like Alice in Wonderland who asked what good a book without pictures is, so I used to ask what good a book without a story is. Though I still think fiction is superior to non-fiction in almost every way, I am learning to appreciate (yes, even enjoy) non-fiction, especially apologetics, history, and essays on anything (or nothing).

I debated whether to describe the books I read as "old." Those who consider the Lord of the Rings as "old" will have no problem with that description; those who, like Tolkien, consider everything after Chaucer in the 14th. century as "modern," will laugh at me and you. Of course, I hope to read more medieval and classical literature before too long, but right now I have a host of newer-ish authors clamoring for my attention and trying to jump off the bookshelf every time I walk past.

My plan (so far as I have one) is to post about once a week on the book I am currently reading. Hopefully a brief synopsis and then an analysis (big word!) of the main point or philosophy. If plan A sometimes doesn't work, plan B might be a quote, an idea, or an old truth seen in a new way; or anything from my reading that seems worth passing on.