Bruce's Reviews > An Experiment in Criticism

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
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Aug 14, 09

Read in August, 2009

In this book Lewis proposes to critique readers and types of reading, leaving the distinction between books themselves as a corollary to the primary experiment. Here are a couple of quotations that struck me: “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way….The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it.” After describing the reading habits of the “unliterary” (primarily and almost exclusively for narrative and “events”), Lewis discusses myth and fantasy (both literary and psychological) as well as realism. He distinguishes between realism of presentation and realism of content; both are important, and each or both can be present in good and bad literature. Works of literature “are complex and carefully made objects. Attention to the very objects they are is our first step. To value them chiefly for reflections which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them, is a flagrant instance of ‘using’ instead of ‘receiving.’” “As little as possible [in a work of literature:] must exist solely for the sake of other things. Every episode, explanation, description, dialogue - ideally every sentence - must be pleasurable and interesting for its own sake.”

“A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates.” Literature fundamentally uses words, and we must receive, appreciate, and come to terms with the words before we can, or dare, go beyond them in our (often misbegotten) attempts to force “meaning,” “philosophy,” “social commentary,” etc, onto the text. A literary work must be received in its entirety before it can be judged, for before we complete it we have no solid basis on which to make a judgment.

Lewis’ short chapter on poetry is marvelous, worth the price of the whole book if one were to focus on only a portion, although, to be sure, it makes sense only in its larger context. For, as Lewis admits, there are no non-literary poetry readers at all, the number of poetry readers in contemporary society having been reduced to only a very few. But his characterizations and cautions are most apt and helpful.

In his penultimate chapter, “The Experiment,” Lewis proceeds to complete his argument, first recapitulating: “Normally we judge men’s literary taste by the things they read. The question was whether there might be some advantage in reversing the process and judging literature by the way men read it.…Observation of how men read is a strong basis for judgements on what they read; but judgements on what they read is a flimsy, even a momentary, basis for judgements on their way of reading.” Lewis goes on to assert that the ideal critic describes books rather than judges them. Yet, in fact, “the truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics.” He is quite skeptical about the utility of evaluative literary criticism.

Finally, in a brief epilogue, Lewis addressed the question, “Why read?” And his answer is in order to extend ourselves, to experience what others experience: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Hazel (new) - added it

Hazel Sounds fabulous, Bruce. Another for the list.

Thank you,
H.


message 2: by Maria (new)

Maria Bruce, you have whetted my appetite...I thought I had read most of CS Lewis. I missed a big one. Thanks again for a beautifully written review. If there is anyone who exemplifies the kind of reader that Lewis is describing, you are it...a thoughtful, "receiving" reader. Be well! Maria


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