Alan Jacobs has been arguing that the current era of social media and soundbites has contracted most people’s sense of historical context, and that we need to make a concerted effort to expand our temporal bandwidth. The related book is in the works, but it’s an idea that’s worth spreading sooner rather than later.
I’m preparing to teach Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to a class of 10th — 12th grade students next week. As I’ve been educating myself a little more on Spenser’s work, I ran across C. S. Lewis’s essays on Spenser which were characteristically insightful, both of the literature itself and its reception in modern culture. I was struck by how much of what Lewis says echoes Jacobs’s current line of argument.
Lewis begins his introductory essay on Spenser by appealing to the importance of reading old books–especially books whose language and narrative style are foreign to our modern tastes. Why? Because…
“(One of the great uses of literary history is to keep on reminding us that while man is constantly acquiring new powers he is also constantly losing old ones.)” (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 134)
Lewis is one of the few writers who can make such an obvious yet profound observation in a parenthetical comment, as if it requires no more attention. I had not thought of it this way before: progress involves sacrifice. But it’s not solely the sacrifice of “unenlightened” cultural traditions or mores; it’s the sacrifice of a way of being in the world, a way of being that may be more robust and amenable to the human condition than the idea of “progress” would suggest.
Along similar lines, Lewis notes how Spenser stands as an in-between figure, bridging the divide between the medieval literary world and the European renaissance. According to Lewis, if Boethius was “The last of the Romans and the first of the scholastics,” then Spenser was the “last of the medieval poets and the first of the romantic medievalists” (“On Reading The Fairie Queene” 148). Again, his main point is to show that progress entails loss. What made Spenser exceptional–especially compared to his humanist and puritan peers–was his willingness to preserve a medieval ethos in his poetry.
On the importance of reading old works of literature, especially those works that stand at the cross roads of two different eras, Lewis writes:
“There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time. It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way. For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.” (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 138)
Here is one of the best arguments for reading old books and educating yourself in the humanities–that most unpractical of disciplines. If you want to understand the modern world, then you need to read about the preceding eras: starting with Homer and working your way forward. Twenty-four hour news cycles and New York Times Best Sellers distort the importance of current events more than they report with accuracy. These outlets are too close to the events themselves, and so everything is blown out of proportion. Such distortion ultimately leads to the hair-on-fire rhetoric that saturates and infects modern political and social discourse.
Want to diffuse the chaos of public debates–online, on television, or in person? Read old books. As Lewis points out:
“This kind of poetry [specifically The Fairie Queene, but also great poetry in general], if receptively read, has psychotherapeutic powers” (140).
Finally, if you want to know what current events are truly significant, then you should probably read Edmund Spenser first.
Lewis, C. S. “Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599” & “On Reading The Fairie Queene,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. by Walter Hooper, pp. 121-148, Canto Cambridge UP, 1998.