Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Pen is Mightier Than...the Pencil?

C.S. Lewis seldom read the newspaper, and he recommended to his assistant Walter Hooper that "if he *must* read the newspaper, he have a frequent "mouthwash" withThe Lord of the Rings or some other great book". But there were issues current to his generation that he felt important enough to write essays about them for publication. Here is the beginning of his one of his pieces against censorship:

There have been very few societies, though there have been some, in which it was considered shameful to make a drawing of the naked human body: a detailed, unexpurgated drawing which omits nothing that the eye can see. On the other hand, there have been very few societies in which it would have been permissible to give an equally detailed description of the same subject in words. What is the cause of this seemingly arbitrary discrimination? [...] fortunately there is a very easy way of finding out why the distinction exists. Sit down and draw your nude. When you have finished it, take your pen and attempt the written description. Before you have finished you will be faced with a problem which simply did not exist while you were working at the picture. When you come to those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will have to make a choice of vocabulary. And you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find any ordinary, neutral word, comparable to "hand" or "nose". And this is going to be very troublesome. Whichever of the four words you choose is going to give a particular tone to your composition: willy-nilly you must produce baby-talk, or Wardour Street, or coarseness, or technical jargon. And each of these will force you to imply a particular attitude (which is not what you intended to imply) towards your material. The words will force you to write as if you thought it either childish, or quaint, or contemptible, or of purely scientific interest. In fact mere description is impossible. Language forces you to an implicit comment. In the drawing you did not need to comment: you left the lines to speak for themselves. I am talking, of course about mere draughtsmanship at its simplest level. A completed work by a real artist will certainly contain a comment about something. The point is that, when we use words instead of lines, there is really nothing that corresponds to mere draughtsmanship. The pen always does both less and more than the pencil.

~C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, "Prudery and Philology" (1st pub. in The Spectator, January 21, 1955)

2 Comment(s):

At Thu Jun 30, 12:04:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. I have a deep and abiding passion for C.S. Lewis, and your writings are always interesting.

I was trying to source the often mis-quoted "As soon as you deal with it [sex] explicitly, you are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class." It's frequently cited as coming from the 1960 Studies in Words, but of course it doesn't.

You've nailed the source for me here. Thank you again!

Best wishes,


At Thu Jun 30, 12:27:00 PM EDT, Blogger Arevanye said...

:) It's always great to see how, years after I've posted them, these quotations come in as useful to someone. Even though I don't post to this blog anymore (no time!) it's gratifying to know that my work benefits C. S. Lewis fans.



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