Sunday 26 September 2010

Surrender: an experiment in looking

Last week I finished Laura Miller's The Magician's Book, an exploration of her "long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia.". Yesterday, I finished off Lewis's 1961 extended essay on literary criticism, An Experiment in Criticism. Today I visited roundabout at City Gallery Wellington. This post seeks to draw together some threads between these experiences.

As a kid, I got my biblical language (rounded, rhythmical, intonational) from Kipling and my moral compass from King Arthur and Robin Hood, by way of T.H. White and Roger Lancelyn Green. By the time I was introduced to Christian mythology, the space in my imagination where God might have fit was already filled with Greek and Roman and Norse figures, before whom the Christian story paled into dull insignificance.

So it's not surprising that I was one of the legion of young readers - including Laura Miller - left disappointed, angered, even bereft when they discovered that the Chronicles of Narnia were in some ways a retelling of the Christian story. (In my case, the news was broken by a born-again uncle when I spotted a copy of The Screwtape Letters on his shelf).

In the Chronicles I had recognised and rejoiced in seeing Bacchus and dryads and fauns (dear old Mr Tumescent). I had been devastated and confused when Aslan gave himself up to the White Witch and overjoyed when he woke up, but I had no inkling that what I was reading was a version of the Passion Story. When I did unravel it all I was deeply offended that Lewis had tried to pull a fast one on me - to slip me something I didn't believe in by disguising it in things that I desperately wanted to.

Laura Miller had a similar experience (as did Neil Gaiman, and hearing him talk about this earlier this year was wonderful). She writes:

Lewis, Carter explained, was famously Christian, a fact I'd somehow managed to miss. I was shocked, almost nauseated. I'd been tricked, cheated, betrayed. I went over the rest of the Chronicles, and in almost every one found some element that lined up with this unwelcome and, to me, ulterior meaning. I felt like a character in one of those surreal, existential 1960s TV dramas, like The Prisoner or The Twilight Zone, a captive who pulled off a daring escape from his cell only to find himself inside another, another cell identical to the first.

I'm sure my uncle thought he was giving me a greater understanding of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when he explained the Christian symbolism. But rather than gaining something, I felt loss. All the potential had been taken away, and instead I had an explanation of what the book was ultimately 'about'. It closed the book down, rather than opening it up.

Turning to An Experiment in Criticism. In this book, Lewis tests out another way of writing literary criticism:

In this essay, I propose to try an experiment. Literary criticism is traditionally employed in judging books. Any judgement it implies about men's reading of books is a corollary from its judgement on the books themselves. Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books. I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.

Lewis defines two kinds of reader: the few and the many, the literary and the unliterary. He characterises them thus:

1. The majority never re-read a book. Once they've finished it, they've 'used' it all up. "The sure mark of a unliterary man is that he considers 'I've read it already' to be a conclusive argument against reading a work."

2. The majority don't see reading as anything special. They read when there's nothing better to do, and abandon the book as soon as something better comes along. "But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.

3. The many are generally unmoved by what they read - when they reach the end "nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them." But for the literary, the first reading of a work can be "an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison."

4. Finally, for the literary, what they read is constantly in their minds and made part of their lives. They talk incessantly about it when they're with others, and they savour it when they're alone. "Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experiences."

When I read this passage, I felt - well, I felt understood. I didn't like the connotations of 'few' and 'many', although Lewis is quick to deny any kind of value judgment in the following chapter. But these four points so well summed up my own life experience of reading. They explain my confusion at why people would not read a wonderful book again, the puzzlement I feel when I visit a house without bookshelves, the reason why I get up an hour earlier than I need to in the morning (to squeeze in some reading before I start my work day) and the way that I constantly use the books I've read and ideas I've gleaned from them to explain the world around me to myself.

I'm ready to admit that I didn't follow all of Lewis' arguments, and I found some of the passages either howlingly sexist or unconscionably classist. And yet time and time again I found passages that gave shape to the way I feel about books and reading, but have never had the follow-through to articulate.

It was the final page that undid me though:

Those of us who have been true readers all our lives seldom fully realise the enormous extension or our being that we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk to an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly I would learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

In the book Lewis also talks about different ways of looking at art. One way is to look at it, figure out what it is ‘of’ or ‘about’, decide whether it’s a good, faithful, even skilful representation of what it’s ‘about’ or ‘of’, and then move on. He describes it as ‘using’ a picture – you’ve got what you need from it and you don’t need to go back.

The other way of looking is to ‘receive’. You try to put aside all your preconceptions and instead try to let the artwork work on you. The word Lewis uses is ‘surrender’.

I thought about that idea this afternoon when I was at City Gallery. I was drawn back several times to Shane Cotton's 2007 painting The Hanging Sky, which is hung in the new gallery formed by knocking out the old auditorium.

Shane Cotton, The Hanging Sky, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 265cm x 265 cm. Image from the Anna Schwartz Gallery website.

Cotton is an artist I find easy to 'surrender' to. It is easy to say what is ‘in’ The Hanging Sky – there are dark clouds, overlaid by the falling figures of birds, shadows of foliage, and in the centre a carved face, like one you would find in a wharenui. It's tempting to try to explain what all the elements mean - indeed, assessments of Cotton's works often read like art history as puzzle-solving: post-modern, post-colonial iconography.

But to seek to explain what Cotton's painting is 'about' is to deny it its action as a painting, and Cotton's power as an artist. I went home and re-read that chapter from Lewis's book:

We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our preconceptions, interests and associations. ... We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand that any work makes of us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out).

Whenever I see one of Cotton's paintings that really works on me, I can't explain why. It's like he's trying to show me something I can't see yet. But I'm willing to go on looking until I can see it - and hopefully beyond.

1 comment:

staplegun said...

Wow, you have had a week of convergence!

... some might say a religious experience :)

I find it interesting the attitude people have towards religion. I wonder if it is the different-to-me-ness, or the rose-tinted-glasses-ness, or the rub-it-in-your-face-ness? I certainly know I've found it hard coping with a friend has recently been 'born again' - sometimes it's more comforting to be around uniform misery.

Was it the Christianity or the religiousness that offended? I'm picking it is just the Christianity, otherwise you'd be a hypocrite - since you already take deep communion at the alter of Art :)

I am also a vociferous reader, but rather of (alleged) non-fiction. I think I experience the same four characteristics, so am I allowed to call myself literary? It's the same end point (knowledge and experience), just a different route. Please say yes so I can pretend to be cultured :)

Are you planning to match up the 'about' vs. 'surrender' for Narnia? Now you know what it is 'about' can you look past that to 'receive' it again?

And finally, to 'surrender' is what is needed for all art forms, including the performing arts and musicals. Have you found that to be a transferable skill? :)