Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, February 14, 2014

CSL and the Menippean satire, once more

There's probably not much point in responding to this post, with its rhetorical strategy of huffing and puffing and blowing my house down by intoning words like “nonsensical.” The best response to such stuff us almost always this.

But then there's precedent for this, also.

So here's the key passage, I think:

I'm not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye's very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin's interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis's novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Well, see: no. It isn't. And that's the key point.

(By the way, I'd be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don't understand it. He clearly hasn't read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that's precisely what it is, just look it up and you'll see — doesn't appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky's novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon's blog, Pooh! )

The Menippean satire is a genre that includes narrative but also includes many other things — the various “inserted genres” that Bakhtin refers to, which may be poetry, song, philosophical disputation, almost anything. And in some cases, an overarching narrative that contains very different narrative genres within, as, to take an example especially important to Lewis, when Apuleius puts the tragic myth of Cupid and Psyche in the middle of the often farcical and picaresque Satyricon.

So, to anyone passingly familiar with the genre, its marks are not just on That Hideous Strength but on much of Lewis's fiction: the songs and debates interspersed in the narrative of The Pilgrim's Regress; the debates — yes, again with the debates — in Perelandra, topped off by an extended theological lecture; the curious combination of satire and dream-vision in The Great Divorce; and so on. And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris's continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim's Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney's Arcadia.

Lewis taught and wrote about all of these works, and if you read what he had to say about them, you'll see that he understands that modern readers of them are likely to grow frustrated and impatient. Why? Because we live in the Age of the Novel, in which Henry James's emphasis on “organic form” has long been sovereign (though coming under increasingly frequent challenge in recent decades). The average reader expects a story to be just that, a story, and tends to be puzzled when songs turn up or lectures or disputations go on for too long. Example: it's amazing how agitated readers can become by the songs in The Lord of the Rings — though in that case Tolkien may be the victim of his own skill at keeping a story moving: his readers don't want to pause. Or don't think they do. (But I digress.)

Which leads me back to the chief point of my earlier post, which is that if we're going to have a proper appreciation of what Lewis was up to in his fiction, we do well to realize what his models were, and how many of them involved the mixing-and-matching of genre that we see best exemplified by the Menippean satire. Sometimes Lewis's stories seem to lose impetus or focus because he's not the best storyteller in the world; but sometimes he's not at that moment trying to tell a story: he's pausing in the narrative to complicate and deepen its picture in varying ways.

I think this has almost everything to do with Frye's comment that “the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.” One of Lewis's most consistent purposes as a writer was to diagnose the diseases of the intellect that arise when the intellect is cut off from its proper and healthy connection to the “chest,” as he puts it in The Abolition of Man: the seat of moral discernment and judgment. Other great modern practitioners of the Menippean form seem to believe the same: I think especially of Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Walker Percy in the twentieth. The generic multiplicity and intellectual daring of the Menippean satire are, I think, under-exploited resources, especially for the Christian thinker.