The Fault in Our Selves

This wonderful quote by the extremely quotable C. S. Lewis appeared on my Facebook newsfeed today:

“In order to pronounce a book bad, it is not enough to discover that it elicits no good response from ourselves, for that might be our fault.” (Lewis, “An Experiment in Criticism”)

I think I am going to have these words painted in large letters right above the front board in my classroom.

And then I will have my students memorize this quote during the first week of school.

And at any point during the year, when a student complains that a book is “boring,” I will have him stand up and recite the words of C. S. Lewis from memory and see if anything happens.

But I am as guilty of Lewis’s implicit criticism as any of my kids. There are great works of literature I have had absolutely no taste for–and I readily admit the fault lies with me and not with War and Peace, Sir Gawain or Gulliver’s Travels.

There are other works which bored me the first time I read them but delighted me when I returned to them years later: Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) and Robinson Crusoe come to mind.

It’s not the book that changed. I did. I think for the better–at least insofar as I became able to appreciate what these books give.

In other cases, there are books that I used to think very profound and now have realized (or at least believe) that I misjudged.

But again, the books didn’t change, I did. And hopefully (though not certainly) for the better.

The relationship between text and reader is so complex that sometimes it is hard to tell where the “fault”–if any–lies. Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood has been criticized as an ungainly novel, and some critics suggest she should stick to the short story where she belongs. Honestly, I did not enjoy Wise Blood when I read it years ago, and sadly I have not attempted to read it since. But O’Connor is one of those authors whom I think it is better to approach again with humility as well as criticism.

A case in point. In one letter, O’Connor says:

I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up. (The Habit of Being: Collected Letters)

I’m inclined to agree.

During Bell Work today, I had a different but related quote written on the board that I asked my students to try to paraphrase in their own words:

“The fault […] lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

I did not cite the quote because I’m still leaving our next unit as sort of a surprise, but as many of you probably know, it is from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Cassius says this to Brutus early on in the play, when he is trying to convince him to take action against Caesar and eventually to join a conspiracy to kill him. Cassius insists that it’s not because of fate (“the stars”) that we little Romans are oppressed by a dictator– it’s our own fault. We let him have the power. Now we have to do something about it.

Louis Calhern as Cassius (left) and James Mason as Brutus (right) in the 1953 movie version of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Of course, in this particular instance, Cassius’ wise statement about human nature is really only a ploy to manipulate Brutus into joining him in his dark plans. A central question of the play actually does turn out to be whose “fault” is the tragedy really? Caesar’s, because he is “ambitious”? Brutus, because he is disloyal? Cassius’, because he is scheming? Marc Antony’s, because he is eloquent and manipulative? The Roman people’s, because they are gullible?

source: wikipedia

A lot of my students have been talking about (and even reading!) a book called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, a novel about two teenagers suffering from terminal disease who fall in love with each other. Interestingly, Green inverts the original quote. His title seems to suggest that the “fault” really is “in our stars”–that is, outside of our own personal control, rather than “in ourselves.”

Which is, of course, what most teenagers (and human beings in general) like to hear*.

If I don’t like a book, it must be the book’s fault. If I don’t like a movie, it must be the movie’s fault. If I don’t like another person, it must be his fault.

How seldom do we wonder if our lack of joy, or of feeling entertained, or of liking someone else is because of our own deficiencies!

And not in a “1950’s Catholic guilt” way, either. That’s just too easy.

Real humility acknowledges what is true. As one of my UD Professors (Father Maguire) put it, “Humility is the reality principle.” It is the virtue of seeing oneself truthfully, both the good and the bad.

I notice that Christians (like myself in particular) bring this sort of “fault” misplacement to prayer and liturgy just as much as to our reading. The Mass is boring. The music is bad. The priest can’t string a word together in the homily. So-and-so was distracting me. This is so “Spirit of Vatican II.” This is so “Pre-Vatican II.” I prayed and nothing happened. God isn’t listening. It didn’t make me feel better. I wasn’t uplifted.


Maybe if my heart had been in the right place…

*Caveat: I have not read Green’s book. But I’m thinking of doing so because so many of my kids are reading it. Though many of them may just wait to see the movie version that’s coming out soon.