Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Books we never have read: Books we never should

Professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII, Pierre Bayard's essay on "How to discuss books that one hasn't read" raises some intriguing thoughts. According to Bayard, it is possible to have a fruitful discussion about a book one hasn't read. Bayard is more interested in the 'constraining need to appear cultured' and discussing literary works. In other words – pride – this can come even into theological reading. 'Knowledge puffeth up'.

'And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.' (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Life is short, there are too many books to read and the pursuit of them can lead us away from the one book needful if we do not approach them in the right way: prayerfully, humbly, and scripturally. Martin Luther has an appropriate comment on this in 'An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility':

'The number of theological books must also be lessened, and a selection made of the best of them. For it is not many books or much reading that makes men learned; but it is good things, however little of them, often read, that make men learned in the Scriptures, and make them godly, too. Indeed the writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time, in order that through them we may be led to the Holy Scriptures. As it is, however, we read them only to be absorbed in them and never come to the Scriptures. We are like men who study the sign-posts and never travel the road. The dear fathers wished, by their writings, to lead us to the Scriptures, but we so use them as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought to work and toil.'

But it is true that one can discuss books one hasn't read. The false idea that one must have viewed, heard or read something that is obviously blasphemous or immoral before one can protest about its content is frequently made but absurd. It is the idea and the content not the 'artistic merit' one is discussing. 'whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things' (Phil 4:5).

This brings us on to books one should never read. These are what R.L. Dabney called 'dangerous books' by which he referred to 'particularly the usual kinds of fictitious narratives, novels, impure sentimental poetry, and biographies, whether accurate or not, of criminal and degraded characters. profess only to amuse while they destroy; which say, "Am I not in sport," [Prov. 26.19,] while they "scatter firebrands, arrows, and death." [Verse 18.]'

Dabney's objections to these can be summarised as follows, but the whole article is not long and repays careful reading. One point is interesting which is the one that anticipates the observation that television and film portrayal of violence, distress etc desensitises us to real, factual portrayal of these things. Another point is that fiction creates an alterior world which when indulged gives an altered sense of reality akin to what we complain of nowadays in relation to computer games, mind-altering drugs etc.

1. To do what they profess to do, to give a correct picture of human life and character in a fictitious narrative, is extremely difficult.I fearlessly assert that, even though their intentions and principles were pure, and their scenes undefiled by pictures of vice, the views of human life and of the human heart which they give would not be true to nature, but unnatural, exaggerated and absurd. They do not truly paint the springs of human conduct and feeling. The true history of the past, on the contrary, gives true, and useful views of life, because they are painted from nature. There men are drawn as they really lived and acted.
2. The habitual contemplation of fictitious scenes, however pure, produces a morbid cultivation of the feelings and sensibilities, to the neglect and injury of the active virtues.
3. Now, all works of fiction are full of scenes of imaginary distress, which are constructed to impress the sensibilities. The fatal objection to the habitual contemplation of these scenes is this, that while they deaden the sensibilities, they afford no occasion or call for the exercise of active sympathies. But the beholder of these fictitious sorrows has his sympathies impressed, and therefore deadened, while those sympathies must necessarily remain inert and passive, because the whole scene is imaginary. And thus, by equal steps, he becomes at once sentimental and inhuman.
4. All men who read novels will confess that usually they read them as an indulgence, and not as a means of improvement. Now, it is an indulgence which is not recreation, for it excites, wearies and emasculates the mind even more than excessive mental labor. But every man is responsible to God for the improvement of every hour which is not devoted to wholesome recreation. Novel-reading is the murder of time, and on this simple ground every mind which professes to be guided by religious principles is sternly challenged by God's authority to forego it. "Redeem the time." "The night cometh." [Eph. 5.16; John 9.4.]
5. The vast majority, besides being liable to the objections formerly stated, in their full force, lie under the still more damning charge of moral impurity. Many of them are, in truth, systems of error, covertly embodying and teaching ruinous falsehoods. Some are written for the secret purpose of teaching infidelity, and some to teach the epicurean philosophy. Many of them are the aimless effusions of a general hatred against every thing correct and pious. There may be no professed attack on right principles, probably no didactic discussion at all, in the whole book, and yet the whole may be false philosophy or heresy, teaching by fascinating incident and example.