Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Late With My Presents, Dear Readers

The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, Read by The Author, W Publishing Group, 2004

When my plan of reviewing A Child’s Christmas in Wales fell through due to Dylan Thomas’ unavailability, I fell back on C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves despite reservations of doing a second work by an author within months. My hesitation also came from spending more time reading Christian apologia. Of course, it was Christmas coming up and I had enjoyed The Screwtape Letters immensely, so I went ahead with it.

Imagine my surprise to hear the elegant Lewis preceded by a nasal East Coast voice welcoming me to the work, promising to provide an introduction — and what’s worse, a commentary. In reading various eastern religious and philosophical works, I have regularly avoided texts embroidered with commentaries, which are abundant in that literature. The poetic flow of a work is interrupted by some know-it-all telling you what to think, trying to influence you.

The four loves that make up the title are the four kinds of love humans feel. The first, shared with the animal kingdom, is storge, or simple organic affection. The second, philia, is love of friends. The third is eros, the love of (and Lewis is quite clear on this) man and woman for each other, including but not limited to erotic sentiments. The fourth is agape, the love of God for man.

Apart from the obvious prudishness demonstrated in his third definition of love, there is little to criticize in these categories — unless you are an atheist like me, in which case, category four is a bit of a wash. Lewis seems on his strongest ground in the first three areas specifically because there are concrete examples from which to draw and at which to point. While he has a knack for all the excuse-making humans use to wriggle themselves into transgressions, a knowledgeable and kindly forgiveness for the backroads of minor sinning, and a gentle acceptance of the falls that lead to bigger sins, when Lewis turns to something so tenuous as the love of God his argumentation weakens. There are a number of a priori assumptions within his argument that a bit of prodding would not allow to stand, such as his assumption that all parents feel agape for their children. The vast body of English literature on bastardy ought to have clued him in there.

Lewis is good at demonstrating how strength can easily cross the line and become a kind of weakness, a literary and theological trick much more masterly on display in Screwtape. Here he quite succinctly sums up how friendships can give us both moral support and immoral support. The category of friendship love is the most unique of the types in Lewis’ canon, and, as such, the most interesting; it does not partake of the elements of love with God (agape having both eros — Christ as the bride groom — and storge — God as the father) and so is more intellectual, more a choice and an active kind of love than the others.

In his chapter on eros, the newly married Lewis is apparently laying down the law to his wife, quoting approvingly of fake apostle Paul’s requirement that the husband be the head of the wife. This argument, while in recent years repeated by the Southern Baptists, is one that seems less and less worthwhile as years pass. While it still holds sway in more backward religious groups and cultures, the tide of human life is against it.

Lewis himself, in his only professional recording, reads in a lovely, warm Oxford accented purr. It is a soothing balm poured in your ears, the perfect accompaniment for his religious tract. He sounds, at times, like the kind of uncle you wouldn’t mind having. I’d definitely swap out either of my own for him. In what can only be considered nearly the worst of all possible pairings, the introduction and commentary is provided by Chuck Colson. Older readers will no doubt recognize the name.

As an affront to all humanity, the Watergate jailbird/scumbag/born again phony turned columnist joins Lewis, brazenly considering himself equal to the task of explaining to us Lewis’ already accessible work. Yes, that’s right. The twentieth century’s most eloquent spokesperson in Christian apologia accompanied by Nixon’s hatchet man. What the fuck?

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Read by John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., 2001

Dickens occupies in my mind a slightly more generous space than my spouse accords Dostoevsky. There’s something about writers who so blatantly write and demonstrate that they were paid by the word that rubs readers wrong in such a way that little can be forgiven of them. While Dostoevsky works to create an alternate, mirror universe in its entirety, populating it with fully fleshed out and complex characters, Dickens seems to spend an inordinate amount of time adding decorative, though inessential, filigree, curlicues, and arabesques.

That’s what makes this shorter, most popular piece of his writing, such an enjoyable dip into Dickens. Recent fatherhood propelled me to delve into some of the more traditional primary texts, my mind alight with the vision of someday sitting next to my daughter’s bed around late December and reading this to her in nightly installments. As such, this was my very first time experiencing the story first-hand. I’d wager at this stage that more people are familiar with the story from second-hand sources (movies, plays, satires) and its traditional place in the holiday season, than from Dickens’ actual book.

It repays the visiting. Never mind all the kooky adaptations, all the fussy, dusty, moldy versions, and all the associated spin-offery. Holding to a tight schedule and space allotment, Dickens delivers a punchy, moving piece, the best essences of his other writings distilled down here without frippery, bows, ribbons, and other fancies.

To hear the Christmas revels at Old Fezziwig’s involving porter, capons, cakes, dancing, fiddlers, and lots of hearty celebrating, it makes you feel how impoverished our holidays have become with sit down meals and dozing by the TV. With complaining about the commercialization of the holiday entering its centennial, scenes of holiday partying in A Christmas Carol show people what they’re really missing in the crush of sniffing out bargains from Black Thursday until Christmas Eve.

What surprised me most was how non-dominating Bob Cratchett and his family were in the original. To see modern adaptations, you’d think all of the story came down to Tiny Tim’s crutch and his marketable catch-phrase, while Dickens himself expends as much if not more energy on Scrooge’s nephew and the rousing party they throw. This fete almost had me jumping out of my seat, desperate for a hot rum punch and some blind-man’s buff.

And for all of this year’s cranks and shitbags who delight in using the holiday season as another reason to sew dissension and ill-will while supposedly defending their inalienable right to CHRISTmas, Dickens had this lovely thought when Scrooge tries to catch the Ghost of Christmas Present in a religious debate:

There are some upon this earth of yours,’ returned the Spirit,’ who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.

Someone should inscribe that sentiment inside a card and I’d send it out as my holiday greeting.

John Lee does a wonderful reading of all characters with the exception of Marley who is given a trifle too much vaudeville vocal tremolo — boooo-oo-ooo-ooo. His spirit of Christmas Future is truly a fright to all, while his voices of cheer and celebration expand in your hearing like a good Christmas meal filling your belly.

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