Monday, May 09, 2005

Mental Distance

Ronald Eveston writes on about the gap between writer and reader:

[The] mental distance [between writer and reader] is a main reason why, for example, G. K. Chesterton is not widely read today (with the possible exception of his Father Brown stories). He makes, especially in his early work, a set of assumptions about his reader that are no longer true. He expects the reader to be more educated, more actively intelligent and more, as it were, sensitive to the workings of the universe than most reading public is today. He expects a lot of things to ring a bell. He expects the reader to handle more or less effortlessly complicated chains of reasoning as well as complicated strings of images, to be comfortable with the endless intertwined strands of meaning that are the stuff of thought. After all, the reader is supposed to have been to school and to University. What is more, he assumes a common moral ground. "Democracy in its human sense is not arbitrament by the majority; it is not even arbitrament by everybody. It can be more nearly defined as arbitrament by anybody. I mean that it rests on that club habit of taking a total stranger for granted, of assuming certain things to be inevitably common to yourself and him. Only the things that anybody may be presumed to hold have the full authority of democracy." This is from a work written in 1910. Now we have moved a long way from this cheerful faith in common sense and the ultimate spiritual brotherhood of all men. There are no things that I can assume to be inevitably common to myself and a total stranger. The stranger may be a cannibal for all I know.

C. S. Lewis, who wrote a few decades later, is much nearer to us mentally because the assumptions he makes about his readers are totally different. Chesterton expects us to join in the fray as equals, and enjoy it as much as he does; Lewis expects no more than that we should sit quiet and let him talk while he patiently and carefully explains simple things in the simplest possible terms. Lewis is better known today because he had to write for an audience that was, generally speaking, both more stupid and more wicked than Chesterton’s.

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