Oh, good: a new blogger to argue with.

Micah Mattix quotes C.S. Lewis on Milton’s Satan:

In all but a few writers the “good” characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action.  But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder.

Hmm. This is interesting. It suggests, among other things, that C. S. Lewis saw himself as insufficiently “good” to provide himself the basis in knowledge for creating a “good” character – that, in fact, he possessed none of the “real high virtues.” Indeed, he uses the plural in talking about who does not possess these virtues – “we” do not posses those “high virtues.” At all.

To my mind, that raises the question of whether the premise – that there are good and evil characters as such, and that virtues are “possessed” rather than exercised – is simply false. It certainly isn’t Christian, at least if we’re talking about human characters – Christians believe we’re all inherently sinful and, but for God’s grace, would be deserving of death. It isn’t Jewish either – the classic Jewish notion is that we all possess a good and an evil impulse (and even that isn’t right – better would be a “selfish” and an “altruistic” impulse).

I’m genuinely perplexed what Lewis is talking about. Is he under the impression that the history of literature is bereft of heroes? Presumably, those would be people possessed of “high virtues” if the phrase has any meaning at all. I suspect Achilles wouldn’t pass muster for him as “good” – but if he’s not possessed of “high virtues” then I don’t know what the word means. Or does he think that bourgeois virtue is pale and boring? Is he under the impression that Dorothea Brooke is an uninteresting character? Or Leopold Bloom? Or John Ames?

And what about those evil characters? Iago, yeah, he’s a pretty rotten piece of fruit. But is Othello evil? What about Anna Karenina? Or Captain Ahab? For that matter, is Edgar really less-interesting than Edmund? Really? Are you sure?

And dare I mention in this regard Huck Finn’s own estimation of his damnedness, versus our own estimation of his heroism?

Saying “all it takes” to write a successful character is to release one’s own pent-up desire to do evil is akin to saying that “all it takes” to make a hit movie or television show is to show a little skin. Which is to say: it isn’t correct at all. Writing a successful villain is extremely difficult – because writing any kind of successful character is extremely difficult. What would be more correct to say is that in bad writing, the only points of interest may be acts of violence or of prurient sexuality. That doesn’t say anything about good writing, though.

Meanwhile, what about good old Milton?

When people say that he was of the devil’s party without his knowing, they aren’t just saying something about his Satan. They are saying something about his God – and, hence, about the cosmology that he has created. Personally, I fully understand Philip Pullman’s reaction to the Miltonic cosmology. What’s ironic is that, to my mind at least, his anti-Miltonic cosmology, a conspiracy of good rebel angels against the Authority, is no less ridiculous, because equally inhuman. We, after all, are humans, and so we respond to human characters that say something about being human.

The titanic figures in the Hebrew Scriptures – Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, David, etc. – are profoundly human even if they have “high virtues” that we don’t seem to possess. And, of course, the big deal about the man from Nazareth is that he (according to Christian doctrine) was both wholly divine and wholly human.

Milton’s Jesus? Not so much.