Wednesdays with Words – March 19, 2014

I’m continuing on with Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism this week.  I’ve been reading about Realism.  Lewis says that there are two types of realism in books: realism in presentation and realism in content.

This is what I call Realism of Presentation—the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail.

A fiction is realistic in content when it is probable or ‘true to life’.

The two realisms are quite independent. You can get that of presentation without that of content, as in medieval romance: or that of content without that of presentation, as in French (and some Greek) tragedy; or both together, as in War and Peace; or neither, as in the Furioso or Rasselas or Candide.

Lewis gave several examples of each kind, including a lovely word picture by Wordsworth (Presentation):

“…The whispering air

Sends inspiration from the shadowing heights,

And blind recesses of the caverned rocks;

The little rills, and waters numberless,

Inaudible by daylight, blend their notes

With the loud streams:…” – The Sea Shell

Lewis goes on:

The Middle Ages favoured a brilliant and exuberant development of presentational realism, because men were at that time inhibited neither by a sense of period—they dressed every story in the manners of their own day—nor by a sense of decorum.

It will be noticed that most of my examples of presentational realism, though I did not select them for that purpose, occur in the telling of stories which are not themselves at all ‘realistic’ in the sense of being probable or even possible. This should clear up once and for all a very elementary confusion which I have sometimes detected between realism of presentation and what I call realism of content.

Lewis comments that moderns prefer realism by content overall.  He says that there seems to be a bias (at least in his day although I think the pendulum may be swinging back in the direction of at least accepting realism by presentation as well these days) against fantastical stories.

But when we say ‘The sort of thing that happens’, do we mean the sort of thing that usually or often happens, the sort of thing that is typical of the human lot? Or do we mean ‘The sort of thing that might conceivably happen or that, by a thousandth chance, may have happened once’?
We can learn the world-wide and immemorial attitude of man to stories from noticing how stories are introduced in conversation. Men begin ‘The strangest sight I ever saw was—’, or ‘I’ll tell you something queerer even than that’, or ‘Here’s something you’ll hardly believe’. Such was the spirit of nearly all stories before the nineteenth century.
Surely the author is not saying ‘This is the sort of thing that happens’? Or surely, if he is, he lies? But he is not. He is saying, ‘Suppose this happened, how interesting, how moving, the consequences would be! Listen. It would be like this.’
The raison d’être of the story is that we shall weep, or shudder, or wonder, or laugh as we follow it. The effort to force such stories into a radically realistic theory of literature seems to me perverse. They are not, in any sense that matters, representations of life as we know it, and were never valued for being so. The strange events are not clothed with hypothetical probability in order to increase our knowledge of real life by showing how it would react to this improbable test. It is the other way round. The hypothetical probability is brought in to make the strange events more fully imaginable.
The demand that all literature should have realism of content cannot be maintained. Most of the great literature so far produced in the world has not. But there is a quite different demand which we can properly make; not that all books should be realistic in content, but that every book should have as much of this realism as it pretends to have.
Later in the chapter, Lewis deals with the idea of reading for escapism and whether or not fantasy is deceptive:
No one that I know of has indeed laid down in so many words that a fiction cannot be fit for adult and civilised reading unless it represents life as we have all found it to be, or probably shall find it to be, in experience. But some such assumption seems to lurk tacitly in the background of much criticism and literary discussion. We feel it in the widespread neglect or disparagement of the romantic, the idyllic, and the fantastic, and the readiness to stigmatise instances of these as ‘escapism’. We feel it when books are praised for being ‘comments on’, or ‘reflections’ (or more deplorably ‘slices’) of Life.
The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’.
Escape, then, is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding -ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate, and thus neglecting real opportunities and evading real obligations. If so, we must judge each case on its merits. Escape is not necessarily joined to escapism.
There was one place where Lewis quoted someone else:  “a grim and distressful tale may offer a complete escape from the reader’s actual distresses.” How many times I have read stories in which horrid things happened while I myself was going through a difficult time.  Somehow, in some way, reading about terrible things outside of my life helped me to deal with the terrible things inside of my life.  Do you find stories and poems and hymns and songs to be helpful when you are traversing a valley of fear or sickness or pain or grief?

2 thoughts on “Wednesdays with Words – March 19, 2014

    • I’d love to discuss it with you, Elspeth. If you want a book club, you may be interested in reading Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott. Cindy over at Ordo Amoris is going to lead one, starting next week. Here is the link to the announcement with a teaser quote:


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