The Desire for an Idealized Self

Both the religiously inclined and secular types strive to acquire a splendid false self. Between the two groups, the terminology may differ, but the game remains the same.

C. S. Lewis

The case of C. S. Lewis reveals that the desire for a splendid false self leads to self-alienation. (Photo: public domain)

English author and academic C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) experienced a sudden religious conversion while still a young man. He went on to become one of the 20th century’s best-known religious writers at a time when faith – in Europe, at least – was decidedly on the wane. Whatever one might say about his beliefs, Lewis is a superb example of how a skilled writer can win a following and find substantial success by going against the dominant trend. Conservative writers take note.

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The Morality of Robert Louis Stevenson

We revere Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure novels, but he was not a genre writer in the modern sense of that term. While Black Arrow, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae, and Treasure Island may seem like straightforward romantic picaresque yarns, Stevenson was always deeply concerned with the moral aspects of his story. Among his fiction, the famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde most vividly reveals his other side. The story deals with Stevenson’s understanding of the subconscious mind and the idea that good and evil can reside in the same person. Issues of morality so vexed Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.”

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson

Questions of morality so concerned Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.” All of his works carry his moral values. (Image: Wikimedia)

He may have acquired a theoretical concern with morality from his fiercely Calvinist nanny, but ethical concerns literally overwhelmed him when his artistic ambitions prompted a serious clash with his conventional and practical father. Unable to sway his obstinate parent, Stevenson had to justify to himself his decision to pursue art rather than a more realistic means of earning a living.

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The Search for Personal Moral and Ethical Truth

German philosopher, mathematician and man of affairs (i.e. businessman), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz always said that he found no book so bad that he could get nothing from it. He was referring to serious works of non-fiction and meant that he could glean a few bits of worthwhile material from any book he read. There is a more powerful way to think about bad books. The fact that they are obviously wrong helps you to clarify your own thinking. (Perhaps Leibniz had this in mind as well.) You can view your own notions in the light of the wrong ideas in the bad book, make comparisons, and work out arguments to knock down what you are reading. I make a habit of reading books (not necessarily bad ones!) that present views opposed to my own.

Portrait of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Philosophers such as Leibniz work out entire philosophical systems. Ordinary people settle for a set of personal values. (Image: wpclipart.com)

There is a vital clue to being an intellectual in this.

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Your Worldview Will Sneak into Your Novel

Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge 1847

Yggdrasil, the world tree, was the Nordic symbolic representation of the world. These days, worldview varies on an individual basis, but always has an underlying humanness shared by all. (Image: public domain)

The Concept of “World” in a Novel

A novel’s “world” is the general impression readers absorb from the interwoven effects of plot, characters, authorial tone, atmosphere, and setting. Writers impart this vital yet elusive quality as their own worldview inevitably pervades the work. The process is partially inadvertent and the resulting worldview may differ somewhat from the worldview purposely expressed in the work. For example, authors who write religious thrillers may or may not be religious people themselves. An unbeliever’s attitude towards the clergy may lack the sympathy of a believer. We pick up the author’s “true” worldview by sensing their way of presenting the story. We detect subtle philosophical clues such as what an author chooses to emphasize and how they go about ordering events and tying the story together.

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Are Culture Wars a Symptom of Western Decline?

Victory Arch of Emperor Constantine

The victory arch of Roman emperor Constantine. The arch once symbolized spectacular victory — there are many examples in European cities — but its shape does suggest a process of rise and inevitable fall. (Image: public domain.)

When I was a young man, a popular topic for intellectuals was the decline of the West. As liberal ideas spread and moral standards declined, many writers drew parallels with the Roman Empire in its last days. German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler had popularized the notion in the 1920s. By the late 20th century, with the complete triumph of the left, the idea had fallen from favour.

As Winston Churchill said, “history is written by the victors.” Today, we see the left rewriting Western history and those who cause a decline seldom see reason to find fault with their role in it. As it happens, the left does not see a decline at all, only an incomplete change to leftist outlooks, values, and policies.

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Art Imitates and Instructs

Yin Yang Tree

In a two-sided manner, artists imitate life while presenting a moral or aesthetic message. (Image: public domain.)

The Two Aspects of Art

Art has a dual role: to imitate life and to instruct. Nowhere in art is this duality more important than in the art of writing. Words can tackle complex issues in ways that painting, sculpting, or dance, simply cannot. This is not to suggest other art forms have nothing to say. It is just that writing goes beyond the brilliant snapshots of painting and sculpture, however perceptive, suggestive, and evocative they may be, and can pack more into a couple of hours exposure than any ballet or modern dance performance. Words transcend emotion, beauty, and grace to tackle the difficult worlds of abstract ideas and morality.

Does this seem beyond the concern of genre writers who may be working in, for example, the science fiction or fantasy categories? It simply is not so. As I have pointed out in my earlier post, “Indie Writers Are Artists Too,” even the most genre-oriented writers need to understand that everything they write has a message, even if they are unaware of what that message is. Good writers – good artists – take charge of their message to make sure their work says something they believe in.

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