De Descriptione Temporum

I’ve begun a book of Selected Essays by Lewis.  The first of these essays, delivered on his accepting the new Medieval aSee for similarnd Renaissance English Literature chair at Cambridge, sets out his understanding of what that position meant; to him it implied that Medieval and Renaissance literature were, in some sense, of a piece, rather than antithetical to each other.  Indeed, Lewis holds, historical “periods” are always somewhat false and will lead us astray if we are not on guard.  In life, the months and years flow into each other; literature, political order, and culture in general change gradually so that individuals within the order do not ascertain that a new epoch has begun.  Threads of the culture, one may say, each change color at different points, and later historians cannot jab a single pin into the braid of threads to indicate where indigo became emerald; but they can see the ultimate color change and discuss when, generally, the host of individual changes occurred.

All that said, we must use some sort of divisions of time lest our discussion (never mind our syllabi!) be incoherent; though all divisions be false, some are less violently false than others.  There is value in examining alternate divisions of time to determine which does the least damage to the historical reality.

This surely sounds familiar enough to any of you who have studied or discussed history in any depth.  What interested me was Lewis’s suggested aetates (ages/epochs) and his maintaining that “the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West [is] that which divides the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott.”  He understood that this might be an illusion caused by some of those recent individual changes looming large in his imagination, and therefore lays out his reasons for believing it.

These grounds are as follows:
1.  Change in political order
Once on a time, rulers tried to keep their subjects quiet and their realms generally peaceable.  Now the leaders and their constituents strive to organize mass excitement, with plenty of appeals, drives, campaigns; and woe betide the leader without initiative or magnetism.  Only the liveliest vocabulary fits this new, energetic period in “govertisement” (a portmanteau of government via advertisement).

2.  Changes in art
Readers or beholders once agreed about what art or poetry, even difficult art or poetry, meant.  (To what extent that is true, I cannot say, but I suppose Lewis would know far better than I.)  But now a good deal of that coherency is lost, because art is new – not merely new, but new in a new way.  This is not teased out very far (I suppose Lewis didn’t feel he had the space for it), but he finds it telling that 7 educated men can read the same poem and all disagree on its meaning.

3.  The un-christening of the West.
Even though there have always been skeptics, some kind and degree of religious observation had been the norm; it is now, no matter how Lewis desired to believe otherwise, the exception.  And history does not allow mere reversal; we shan’t ‘relapse into Paganism.’  As Lewis put it, “A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce.”  So the present is cut off from the Christian past, and doubly cut off from the Pagan past.

4.  The rise of machines.
I will quote this section at length because of the different material in it:

This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered.  For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history.  This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy.  It alters Man’s place in nature.  The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are.  What concerns us more is its psychological effect.  How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation’, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence’?  Why does the word ‘primitive’ at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity?  When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.  (The only pejorative sense which Johnson gives to Primitive in his Dictionary is, significantly, ‘Formal; affectedly solemn; imitating the supposed gravity of old times’.)  Why does ‘latest’ in advertisements mean ‘best’?  … I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.  It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones.  For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.  And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated.  For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances.  From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage.  But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world.  Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

I’d heard this before from Lewis, my beloved Dr. Whalen, in Dr. Birzer’s examination of Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and others.  But this time I was struck forcibly by the fact that “primitive” had been twisted so from its original meaning, and that I was indeed afraid of changelessness lest it bring stagnation, and that the archetype of machinery had penetrated some of my thinking despite my best efforts.  Though machines may improve with time, culture may not.  Government may not.  Our relationships may not.  Our language may not.  The assumption that the future must bring improvement: I know it to be false and yet it tangles itself into my thoughts.

The other point which smote my mind was the reminder that history does not run backward; when we’ve chosen one of the diverging roads, we cannot go back to the crossroads.  We cannot return to how it had been.  How much, then, is lost?  Sometimes recipes, art, concepts, or ideas are recovered; Renaissances do happen.  Will we, in this late age, witness any worth seeing?

5 thoughts on “De Descriptione Temporum

  1. As always, I am grateful to Lewis for explaining my own suspicions with the added authority of his expertise and wisdom. I have been much influenced by his scorn for “the arrogance of modernism” (or something like that, I don’t recall his exact words). It’s disturbing how deeply this mindset has burrowed into the modern mind. I have many friends and family who avoid what they term “old movies” because they perceive them to be boring, or just not very good, as if with the advent of CGI also came “real acting.” And most people, I think, pay lip service to admiring “old books,” but how many actually read them?

    When I realize what has happened to words like “primitive,” it makes me long to reclaim them for their original, nobler meanings. In fact, I think I’ll start making a list of such words, with “primitive” being the first entry. This way I can remember these misused words when I write!

    • One of the more distressing aspects of modernism’s arrogance is how the concept of specialization has saturated most every American (perhaps every Western) mind. Therefore we fear “wasting” classroom time on material that does not correspond directly to later job skills, and (it seems to me, though I may be oversimplifying) settle for the greatest common divisor (a more representative expression than “lowest common denominator,” as the GCD eliminates anything not common to all). So the schoolchildren are taught – in theory – how to read, write, and mayhaps do arithmetic. Compare that to Lewis’s thorough grounding in the classics and in all of English literature. No wonder he has such authority, and no wonder he feels the need to “rehabilitate” certain words, phrases, or concepts from time to time.

      Remind me to finish Studies in Words, because “primitive” is far from the only word which has been twisted beyond recognition.

    • David – Rereading this about a year later, I have to ask: has your list of “words to rehabilitate” grown longer? I have yet to finish Studies in Words…alack! Back with me to the bookshelf.

      • Oo, I know I’ve come across some, but I don’t think I marked them down. Gotta keep up with that. With my Latin class, we review quite a bit of etymology, so I know I’ve gleaned a few words from that which could be rehabilitated.

  2. Pingback: C. S. Lewis Read-Along: Post Master List | Pages Unbound

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