The Green Book
by Cole Matson
Last summer, I attended the first of two Summer Seminars-in-Residence at the Kilns. This one was led by Dr. Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College. There were about a dozen of us who attended the seminar. The first weekend in February, eight of us got together for a reunion at Wheaton. Chris Mitchell took us into the lower depths of the Wade, into the double-sealed room that holds Lewis’ actual library. There Chris showed us Pauline Baynes’ original sketches for the illustrations in The Chronicles of Narnia, an afghan that Joy (Lewis’ wife) had knitted, and several books with Lewis’ own annotations, including one in particular: the Green Book.
In The Abolition of Man – one of my favorite Lewis works – CSL writes in reaction to a book of which he received a review copy. With his signature courtesy, even toward his intellectual opponents, Lewis declines to name the authors with whom he took issue – or even name the book. Instead, he calls them Gaius and Titius, and their book the Green Book. He assures his readers that the Green Book is no conglomerate of other modern educational books, or a hypothetical textbook, but an actual book sitting on his shelf.
I squee’d when Chris pulled the book off the shelf, and then not only revealed its identity, but let us hold it. When I received the book and tenderly opened its pages, I saw dozens of scrawled notes on the inside covers, as well as on the various pages. It was amazing to see a Lewis thought, and know how it had developed in the published Abolition.
The Abolition of Man is one of Lewis’ most under-rated works, and one of his most intellectually robust. However, it still maintains the clear readability of Lewis works like Mere Christianity. I highly recommend you put it at the top of your CSL reading list if you haven’t read it already.
The problem with the Green Book, according to Lewis, was that it purported to be an English textbook, but it really taught very little about English at all. Instead, it taught philosophy in the guise of literary criticism. And not only philosophy, but bad philosophy. Here students were taught moral relativism and subjectivity in the name of not being “taken in” by statements of feeling or value. Gaius and Titius quote the story of Coleridge at the Falls of Clyde, in which he speaks with a tourist, who calls the waterfall “sublime.” G & T inform the student that the tourist was not really making a statement about the waterfall, but about his own feelings about the waterfall. They go further to inform the student that poets are never really talking about the subject they seem to be talking about (e.g. Love, the Fall from Heaven, a cloud of daffodils), but are merely talking about their own feelings, their own psychological experiences. (See Lewis’ brilliant exchange with E.M.W. Tillyard on this Personal Heresy, now finally back in print in an inexpensive edited paperback edition!)
For Lewis, this reading of poetry took away any possibility of poetry communicating anything of value. G & T were in effect saying that nothing could be beautiful, or good, or true in itself, but only that we could feel happy, or calm, or safe, or some other feeling when we thought of them. But of course, if I’ve started to describe my psychological state, I’m no longer describing the waterfall. And what is the point of making poetry about majestic waterfalls, if all I’m really saying is that the waterfall induces feelings of majesty within my emotional experience? I might as well just show you a scan of my amygdala and be done with it. It would give you the same amount of information about the world in a more efficient manner, and be more honest.
To be continued when I review the new edition of The Personal Heresy…
By the way, in case you’re wondering. The name of the Green Book? The Control of Language: A critical approach to reading and writing, by Alec King and Martin Ketley (1939).