Readers who aren’t put off by the rather abstruse tour, in chapters three and four, of ancient writers who influenced the medieval mind will be well rewarded by an accessible analysis of what C.S. Lewis calls the medieval “Model of the Universe,” as evinced by the literature of the time. This Model is fascinating in its coherence, aesthetic appeal, contrast with the modern point of view and, especially, comprehensiveness: astronomy, biology, philosophy, physiology, physics, art…none of these topics are left out. Even the most outlandish of medieval beliefs is treated by Lewis with sensitivity, understanding and not a trace of chronological snobbery, though I do wish that many of his claims were more rigorously substantiated.
This book is full of interesting facts and themes that I am, depressingly, forgetting even as I type this review. Some of the most interesting (stripped, in the interest of conciseness, of the discussion and proofs that accompany them) follow:
- According to Lewis, the Medievals were “very credulous of books” and had little or no concept of fact vs fiction when it came to literature (11).
- “I have read a novel which represents all the Pagans of that day [the transitional period considered the source of much medieval thinking, circa 205 to 533AD] as carefree sensualists, and all the Christians as savage ascetics. It is a grave error. They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man. The leaders on both sides were monotheists, and both admitted almost an infinity of supernatural beings between God and man. Both were highly intellectual, but also (by our standards) highly superstitious” (46).
- “…educated people in the Middle Ages never believed the winged men who represent angels in painting and sculpture to be more than symbols” (71).
- “Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. […] The relative size of objects in the visible arts is determined more by the emphasis the artist wishes to lay upon them than by their sizes in the real world or by their distance. Whatever details we are meant to see will be shown whether they would really be visible or not” (101).
- “In all this [literary descriptions of opulence] one may suspect a certain vulgarity of imagination–as if to be a High Fairy were much the same as being a millionaire. Nor does it obviously mend matters to remind ourselves that Heaven and the saints were often pictured in very similar terms. Undoubtedly it is naïf; but the charge of vulgarity perhaps involves a misapprehension. Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant–of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer” (131).
- Medievals lacked a “sense of period” when it came to history: they “pictured the whole past in terms of their own age,” attributing to historical people the same language, clothing, customs, and religious practices as themselves (182). This gave them a feeling of close connection to the past. Such a close connection, in fact, that the perceived reality of the historical stories “forces them presently to see and hear, hence to set down, at first a little more, and then a good deal more, than their book has actually told them. […] If they had been less rapt by what they read they would have reproduced him more faithfully” (212). This tendency to act “like a historian who misrepresents the documents because he feels sure that things must have happened in a certain way” (211) fills me with horror, but that is because the modern conception of “originality” and the value placed on it was simply not an issue in the Middle Ages. “The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking?” (211).
But my favourite parts of the book are those three night walks where Lewis looks up at the starry sky and helps you to feel what people from the Middle Ages might have felt at the same view (98, 112, 118).
[Why I read it: It’s unusual to find a C.S. Lewis book that I haven’t read, so I was happy to spot this attractive edition on the shelves of Magus Books.]
Only post-apocalyptic fantasy novels could come close to the otherworldly horror that Solzhenitsyn writes about. This is the kind of work that inspires both thankfulness and watchfulness in the reader – there is something chilling but deeply relatable about the outrageous, disbelieving silence that surrounded the ongoing atrocity of the Russian prison camps. Despite the language barrier, grim subject matter and frequent use of sarcasm, the whole work is suffused with gentleness, humanity, depth and insight, the product of a spirit made beautiful through the tempering of much suffering. I feel the need to read the complete, 3-volume work, since the abridgment felt awkward and cut out an extremely impactful section that I remembered from a previous encounter with a different version of the book, leading me to wonder what else has been sacrificed to the short attention span of the Westerner.
After an extremely positive experience with War and Peace, I approached this other piece of famous Russian literature with enthusiasm. I was disappointed. There was only one likeable character in the book and even he was annoyingly sacharinne and preachy. I’m talking about 729 pages of really unlikeable characters: hysterical, screaming, dirty, secretive, malicious, crying, dramatic men and women, all of whom I found impossible to connect with. Dostoevsky’s use of foreshadowing was extremely clumsy and the narrator’s voice was distracting. The “main event” didn’t happen until page 415 and there was about enough storyline and events of interest to sustain a novel of half the length. However, reading other people’s reviews of the book, I found at least one criticizing the translation, so perhaps I would have enjoyed a different translation more.
Author E.B. White once said: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Substitute “literature” for “humor” in that quote and you will understand the reason why I disliked this book. I felt that Foster’s strained analytical style efficiently robbed the mystery, joy and suspension of disbelief from almost every literary example he gave. If he was a theater or film critic, he would probably spend a lot of time analyzing the wallpaper on the fourth wall. Knowing that “there’s only one story…every story you’ve ever read or heard or watched is part of it” (32) and then searching for traces from the “canon of literature” in every other work does not enrich my reading experience, but dampens it. Yes, damp as if it was rained on and if you read page 75, you’ll learn that “It’s never just rain” and you’ll be able to read deeply into why I supposedly chose that particular word. A lot of the book was spent in defining symbols and themes as “whatever you think they mean,” which is frustratingly unhelpful. Also, from his comments, Foster seems to view Freud favorably, which I find revolting.
Update: I Stumbled on this perfect illustration of the book.
I approached this classic with trepidation, having somehow got the notion in my head that it was prohibitively long and complex, and was shocked by how accessible and absorbing it really is. The scope of this book is staggering – it seems to cover every single aspect of the human existence, with an insight, skill and thoughtfulness that I am at a loss to describe and cannot praise enough. This book is touching, inspiring, challenging, informative and (despite the awkwardness in style that is inevitable in many translated works) is the best novel I have ever read.