Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Little Women vs. Treasure Island

On my family's road trips, we listen to audio books, to pass the time, and to amuse my wife and I and our children. We've taken a few trips in the last few weeks, and on them we listened to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both of these books were among my favorites when I was a boy, and it's a pleasure now to share them with my children.

When I read a book, I'm always sensitive to how it is trying to form me, especially how it's trying to form my worldview and my morals. I know that literature is not chiefly meant to be didactic (indeed, extremely didactic literature is boring) or like a work of philosophy, but is meant to be a thing of beauty. Nevertheless, one of the great extrinsic effects of literature is that it teaches us, it forms us, preferably without our even noticing.

Human beings are called to greatness. My heart resonates before those books that show me this greatness. There is a place for books that display the anti-hero or the man on the search (God knows I love to indulge such literature, hence my love for Albert Camus and Walker Percy), or even what Von Hildebrand calls the "tragic sinner" (as seen well in the works of Graham Greene). But I need (and too often I forget that I need) and my children need works that show the greatness of the human spirit.

In showing this greatness, Treasure Island surely greatly excels over Little Women. Little Women is full of strong, full-fledged, even likeable characters, yet they are characters marred by a moral introspection, a constant concern for their own moral state (not to mention the narrator's constant analysis of her characters, bordering on moralizing) and a strong desire for self-improvement. The best characters of Treasure Island (Dr. Livesey, Captain Smollett)  by contrast are magnanimous, striving for great deeds and great achievements, knowing themselves deserving of what is best, and defiant before what is beneath them. Finding themselves under bombardment in the stockade on the island, the heroes refuse to lower the British flag that they have raised, despite the fact that it is giving away their position. Far from them is any miserly or self-serving attitude: adherence to duty, defiance before the enemy, display of their greatness, boldness in action are their values. Yet this is not without a strong awareness of their own mortality, their sinfulness before God, their failures in their duty, their need for the aids of religion--in a word, their fallenness.

The good characters in Little Women, for all their real virtues and genuine religiosity, are at once too concerned for their own weak moral state and too sure of their own ability to improve themselves. The good characters in Treasure Island, by contrast, are aware of their own power to do great deeds even in the face of mortal danger, but they are also aware of their own deficiencies; despising the latter, they strain every nerve for the former. They present us with a deeply attractive picture of Aquinas' magnanimous (or great-souled) person.

The magnanimous Christian knows himself capable of great deeds (indeed, in Aristotle's view, which Aquinas takes over, the magnanimous person, being of utmost virtue, acts only so as to display the beauty of his character). He strains every nerve to perform such deeds, and knows himself deserving of the best because of his greatness, and knowing others deserving of little on account of their deficiencies. Yet he also has humility, and thereby despises himself for his lack of greatness, his fallenness, and thinks much of others for their greatnesses. Both are necessary for virtue. His greatness he indeed knows to be a gift from God--yet it is a gift he has received, given to him to exercise, and yes, to glory in.

As we read, so we speak. The debased nature of our political discourse, reduced to the miserly language of economic loss and gain, or the pathetic straining after rights, reflects and is reflected in the sort of literature we write and read, the literature of weak, broken characters, of characters only on the search and never finding what they search for, of characters in the process of improving themselves or finding themselves or making the world a better place. As I said, there is, I do believe, a place for such things--and I mean that both literarily and politically. But it must be leavened by  literature displaying great souls. That is necessary if we are to recover the notion of politics, which is nothing less than our very lives together, as the saying of great words and the doing of great deeds, as the public face of a people's life, where a people (which is a unified, coherent thing) grapples with the best life available to it, and acts so as to display its nobility to the world. One thing that gave me great hope in the recent "Brexit" vote was that the discourse (on both sides, but more on the victorious side) sometimes rose above the current decadent language of politics, to invoke things like tradition, greatness, and culture, at a level greater than the mere sound-bite. I don't expect much to follow on such rhetoric, but it's nice to hear.

Little Women, I fear, was a step on the road to our current debased literature and politics, which is that of the technocrat and the perpetual field hospital or therapists' couch. I don't say this because of its domestic setting or its careful consideration of moral states and feelings; Jane Austen (better than anyone else) clearly shows us, in Mr. Darcy and Fanny Price, that those are realms for great-souledness greater than any other. I say it because it misses, even so subtly, genuine greatness and beauty of action and feeling. Treasure Island showed me that.

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