The BEST: An Experiment in Criticism

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | March 31, 2022

Summary: Most readers think of C.S. Lewis either as a popular religious apologist or as the author of the Narnia Chronicles, themselves a kind of religious apology. They forget that his main profession was as an English professor and that he published multiple works about English literature. His An Experiment in Criticism (1961) offers important insights into our approach to reading. 

Many intellectuals judge a person’s literary acumen based on what he or she is reading – being seen with classic literature or pulp fiction helps form an opinion of the reader. Lewis suggests that we instead judge people by how they are reading. A good reader reads a book twice, looks forward to reading rather than viewing it as a last resort, cites memorable passages, and sees reading as a momentous experience (chapter 1). Someone can read the classics and not meet these criteria; perhaps they read only to achieve social status or because they teach English, but they do not truly love the material. 

In subsequent chapters, Lewis adds more markings of the unliterary. They are interested almost exclusively in narrative and they have eyes but no ear, meaning that they remain indifferent to the musical quality of prose (chapter4). Given such a context, poetry has no place (chapter 11). According to Lewis, this approach creates a more objective standard which avoids the vicissitudes of time. Even if popular or scholarly opinion of Melville’s worthiness changes, good reading remains good reading.

C.S. Lewis

Why this is The BEST: Lewis’ standard frees us from superficial judgments that, for example, identify anyone who can quote John Milton as ipso facto a serious person. Furthermore, it opens up the possibility of a reader benefitting from lowbrow literature, a possibility that I myself usually reject too easily. At the same time, I think Lewis pushes this viewpoint too far. Some works lend themselves to good reading more than others. They contain beautifully written passages, acute psychological insight, and great moral pathos. They reward close readings and sustained analysis. Auden and Kierkegaard provide opportunities for a more literary reader that romances and thrillers do not.

I thought about this recently when a very bright young postmodern student contended that there is no inherent difference between superhero comics and the classics of Western literature; it is just a question of what readers make of them. I find that position empirically absurd and challenged this fellow to cite the great lines, psychological acuity, and moral force of the Spider Man canon. Centuries of work will not transform such literature into the Bible or Shakespeare since one can only extract from a container what was there to begin with. 

The second issue will benefit from the contextualization of some personal background. When I first entered university as an English major, I focused exclusively on content. I wanted to see what psychological or moral wisdom emerged from the classics with an indifference towards my own writing style and that of those authors we read. Just out of full-time yeshiva, perhaps I worried that only the mining of incisive content justifies time spent beyond the beit midrash. It took a while to fully realize the significance of form and its impact on content. Sensitivity to language makes one a better reader of Torah sources and enables a person to express himself more precisely and powerfully. 

Archibald MacLeish’s famously said, “A poem should not mean but be.” From my earlier perspective, this was ridiculous. Lewis helped me see the other side of the coin. First of all, extracting the message in a soundbite neutralizes all the force of the poem. Let us consider Wordsworth’s Nuns Fret Not

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

A short summation saying that restrictions and structure can be helpful, or even liberating, leaves us with a bare idea lacking not just the beauty but also the argument of the poem. Wordsworth’s employment of the sonnet structure exemplifies how strict rules actually encourage more profound expression. A one-sentence summary denudes the poem of all its vigor.

Secondly, to borrow Lewis’ terminology, literature is most effective when I “receive” it rather than “use” it, and let the words work their magic (chapter 3). A reader consistently looking for the one crucial nugget of wisdom risks losing the larger experience. However, Lewis also counterbalances this support for MacLeish. Is reading literature more like eating ice cream or like reading philosophy? It does provide pleasure but it surely does more than that. It opens readers to new horizons, inspires them to analyze ideas, and connects them to a more profound sense of the good. If so, a poem must both be and mean. As Lewis would have it, it is both Logos (something said) and Poiema (something made). Combining the two aspects of literature generates the deepest results (epilogue). 

Both discussions impact on our study of Torah literature. We should evaluate both the sefarim we read and how we read them. Secondly, we must look for the sagacious wisdom of Tanakh and Talmud even as we appreciate their literary qualities.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta, is an associate editor of TRADITION. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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