Clear all

High and Low Brows

NarniaWeb Regular

C.S. Lewis's essay “High and Low Brows” is one of my favorites. In it, he debunks the notion that there is a difference in kind between “literature” (i.e. high brow literature) and novels which are mere popular entertainments.

The crux of his argument is a fear that knowledge of and love for “high brow” literature will be seen as an accomplishment rather than as a delight. In the past (Lewis writes) English literature was not taught in schools; Greek and Latin were accomplishments beaten into boys with a hickory stick – English literature was discovered on its own. This has changed. We now teach the literature of our mother tongues in schools, and give grades to those who can read it and comment on it.

Of course “genre fiction” is generally considered “low brow” - including the novels Lewis wrote. Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, etc. would all be considered "low brow” – and yet some clearly “high brow” literature shares many “genre” features. The Iliad and the Odyssey are adventure stories and fantasies. I suppose Dante could be considered a fantasy writer. Magical realism would be considered “high brow” as well.

I suppose it is natural for literature “professionals” to promote difficult literature. How else are their credentials and expertise to be verified, if not by reading, enjoying, and understanding literature which defies the less well-educated? English Lit. PhD.s can caparison themselves in the jargon of their craft, and analyze works which defy the understanding of the hoi palloi. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with this. Learning to enjoy difficult literature expands and improves one's taste – just as learning to read the Iliad in the Epic Greek expanded the taste of Lewis and his cohorts. But (I think) we need not decry the popular or the easy.

I have learned to like Bleu cheese, wine, and anchovies, which I disliked as a child. Does that suggest that I should disavow my love of peanut butter and pizza? I continue to love the Narnias (and The Jungle Books, The Treasure Seekers, Wind in the Willows, etc.) despite also enjoying “To the Lighthouse” and “Ulysses”. Love for the approved literary canon is not some sort of test of one's credentials that can be enhanced by a distaste for genre literature, or children's literature.

It wasn't so long ago that ALL novels were considered "low brow". The popular entertainments of the past (Shakespeare, for example, or Dickens) have morphed into high brow literature, in part because they have stood the test of time, and in part because, as they have aged, they have become more difficult (in the case of Shakespeare, at least). But surely "difficulty" cannot be the test of "true literature". There must be some other standard.

Topic starter Posted : May 3, 2020 7:36 am
Col Klink
NarniaWeb Junkie

I really like that essay too. Interestingly though, Lewis kind of contradicts it in Screwtape Proposes a Toast in which he implies that it's better for society if people aspire to read highbrow stuff. (I didn't mean that to sound like I'm criticizing Lewis. I just that it was something interesting to discuss.)

I agree with Lewis that guilty pleasures aren't enjoyed even though they're bad. They're enjoyed because parts of them are genuinely good. Parts of them are genuinely bad too, hence the guilty part. But that doesn't mean you like bad art if you enjoy them.

As much as I agree with the essay's thrust though, I still sometimes feel embarrassed when someone catches me reading and enjoying something for very young readers or something with aspects I consider really cheesy. ;))

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

Posted : May 9, 2020 10:04 am
NarniaWeb Regular

I couldn't remember Screwtape's toast – but, lo and behold, I own a copy so I was able to refer to it even in these isolated times. I assume you are citing Lewis's seeming objection (based on Screwtape's approval) to the word “democracy” suggesting a sort of equality that disapproves of excellence. Screwtape advises: “No man who says 'I'm as good as you' believes it. He wouldn't say it if he did.”

Lewis is suggesting that useful words that we vaguely associate with positive virtues have meanings so muddled that they can be used (in the case of “democracy”) to call excellence "undemocratic". GK Chesterton wrote an excellent newspaper column on this subject, in which “Island” has become a word with positive connotations, and one interlocutor asks, “How can we deny beautiful Switzerland, the birthplace of democracy, the title of 'island”.” (Quote from memory.)

My question (if not Lewis's) is this: why should we be proud of our tastes? Is it meritorious to like caviar better than peanut butter? I suppose there is merit to educating ourselves so that we EXPAND our tastes. If we learn Epic Greek to read the Odyssey, that is an accomplishment. Learning how to understand and enjoy (modern) poetry often takes some doing.

Nonetheless, on the flip side of that coin are those who think that by having (or, at least, claiming to have) canonical tastes, they are showing off an intellectual accomplishment. Writing great books is an accomplishment; merely enjoying them is an entertainment.

Some people (in my experience) think their tastes in literature proclaim that they have poetic souls. But everyone has a poetic soul – because he has a human soul. What he doesn't have is the ability to write or appreciate poetry.

Screwtape ascribes this objection to elite tastes as being based on envy. By calling the intellectual elite (or, at least, those with “elite' tastes) “undemocratic”, the envious can feel superior.

I don't think we can be certain of Lewis's opinion based on Screwtape's. Certainly Lewis the Oxbridge Man may have deplored the lack of moral, cultural and intellectual excellence among his fellow humans. In “High and Low Brows”, though, he writes: “For them (the high brows) 'good' taste will have been acquired by the sweat of their brows.... and they will hold it with uneasy intensity.” For many, Lewis fears, ALL literature will be an acquired taste, and they will look askance at those to whom loving books comes naturally (as it did for Lewis).

Topic starter Posted : May 10, 2020 1:59 pm