Jun 11 2010

What’s So Literary about Life?

D. G. Myers of A Commonplace Blog (whom Bookbread almost always agrees with) recently observed:

The American continent no longer compels [American novelists] into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire. What moves them are the envies and ambitions, the disdains and irritations, of their class.

Thus all their characters sound like literary intellectuals. Thus they cannot even imagine what their own non-writing spouses, nor anyone else for that matter, do every day at work.

I couldn’t disagree more when Bookbreads primary motivation for reading fiction is to escape the experience of things like “every day at work.” Bookbread seeks enchantment, as in “Good Readers and Good Writers” where Nabokov points out how:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” [01]

C. S. Lewis will call these three categories: “the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet,” in The Allegory of Love (1936). Lewis goes on to explain, in a large paragraph worth quoting in full, how the enchanter is a modern phenomenon [02]:

But the lasting consequence of all these writers, for the history of imagination, is far more certain than any assessment of their individual merits. In all of them alike, as I hinted above, we see the beginnings of that free creation of the marvellous which first slips in under the cloak of allegory. It is difficult for the modern man of letters to value this quiet revolution as it deserves. We are apt to take it for granted that a poet has at his command, besides the actual world and the world of his own religion, a third world of myth and fancy. The probable, the marvellous-taken-as-fact, the marvellous-known-to-be-fiction—such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to London and Warwick, Heaven and Hell, Fairyland and Prospero’s Island—each has its own laws and its appropriate poetry. But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. The poet has only two of these three worlds. In the fullness of time the third world crept in, but only by a sort of accident. The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils: that, we know, is what happened to our incalculable loss in the history of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its ‘third world’ of romantic imagining. And when they rose they were changed and gave poetry that which poetry had scarcely had before. Let us be quite certain of this change. The gods—and, of course, I include under this title that whole ‘hemisphere of magic fiction’ which flows indirectly from them—the gods were not to paganism what they are to us. In classical poetry we hear plenty of them as objects of worship, of fear, of hatred; even comic characters. But pure aesthetic contemplation of their eternity, their remoteness, and their peace, for its own sake, is curiously rare. There is, I think, only the one passage in all Homer; and it is echoed only by Lucretius [Odyssey, vi, 41 & Lucretius De Rerum Nat. iii, 18]. But Lucretius was an atheist; and that is precisely why he sees the beauty of the gods. For he himself, in another place, has laid his finger on the secret: it is religio that hides them. No religion, so long as it believed, can have that kind of beauty which we find in the gods of Titian, of Botticelli, or of our own romantic poets. To this day you cannot make poetry of that sort out of the Christian heaven and hell. The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvellous that knows itself as myth. For this to come about, the old marvellous, which once was taken as fact, must be stored up somewhere, not wholly dead, but in a winter sleep, waiting its time. If it is not so stored up, if it is allowed to perish, then the imagination is impoverished. Such a sleeping-place was provided for the gods by allegory. Allegory may seem, at first, to have killed them; but it killed only as the sower kills, for gods, like other creatures, must die to live.

Only enchantment lets readers escape the ennui of modern life.


[01] Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982).

[02] Lewis, C. S.. The Allegory of Love. (1936). Reprinted with corrections (1946). Oxford UP. pp. 82–83.