Between the years 2012 and 2020, I wrote a weekly column for a blog called "Beguine", in honor of the 17th-century lay-Christian organization of men and women, married and single, called the Beguines, that flourished in the Protestant countries of Europe, especially Holland, during the Reformation. The weekly column was called "The Skeptic's Collection," and my official title as contributing editor was Skeptic-In-Residence. I adopted a skeptical attitude and was licensed by my editors to adopt a skeptical attitude to everything, all issues, and all subjects. The titles of the "Skeptic's Collection" columns ranged across all subjects -- art, history, science, religion,contemporary culture, current events, politics, philosophy ... you name it -- and nothing was sacred or beyond question. This volume of my collected "Skeptic's Collection" columns concentrates on art in particular and culture in general. In addition to the volume on art, there will be eight more collections of "Skeptic's" columns on the other eight subject areas.
In Shadowlands, the movie about the courtship and marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham, C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying “We read to know we are not alone”. I have found multitudes of citations where people quote Lewis as having said this in those very words, but have so far found no specific source, no book, no article, no lecture, for this remark. But even if Lewis did not say it, he should have. For in my own personal experience, there have been instances too abundant to count where this proved to be the case with uncanny timeliness. The following examples do not even scratch the surface. But in virtually all cases of where I have been reminded that I am not alone, this reminder also amounted to a revelation of what I myself thought even at times when I was not aware of it. Not only was I not aware that other people thought such things, I myself was unaware, at least on a conscious level, that I did so. The act of reading is revelatory, not only of the thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions of others, but reading also has a way of lifting into consciousness what I believe.
One of the most powerful examples of this revelation of self through the revelation of others, and probably the earliest such example, was the first time I read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses” as an exercise assigned to me and my fellow eighth-graders in Mr. Gordon Morse’s AP English class at Horace Mann Intermediate School, now Horace Mann Middle School, in Wichita, KS. I remember going home that night with my mimeographed copy of the poem tucked inside a filing folder in my briefcase – GAWD A’MIGHTY … I was a nerd before the word was ever coined! – and taking the sheet out in my bedroom to read as I waited for dinner. (I always did my English reading and homework first, because it was my favorite class.) I was instantly mesmerized by Tennyson’s lines, lines I can recite verbatim from memory now, words that had been echoing back and forth in my mind since I read my first paragraph in the eighth grade:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move. …
[V]ile it were
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
All this was written by an upper-class Englishman during Victoria's reign over 100 years before I was even born. Through his character of Ulysses, he spoke of that kind of restlessness I had known all my life, the kind of restlessness that made me the butt of all the jokes of the more athletically, and less academically, inclined boys (and their coaches!) in eighth-grade boys’ gym, the restlessness that drove me to pack my telescope when we visited relatives in the Arkansas wilderness so I could take advantage of the darkness (we still used kerosene lanterns then) to look at the moon, Saturn, Jupiter, the Pleiades, and, with my naked eye, the luminous smudge I later learned was the great Andromeda galaxy. Tennyson and his Ulysses knew that restlessness a century before I ever drew breath. I was not alone. As C. S. Lewis insightfully observed in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man's life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.
And not just Tennyson. When I was about the same age, maybe even a little younger, I discovered Shakespeare. (I asked my mother then for a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works for my birthday, which she gave me. I still have that book.) I was surprised to find a kindred spirit in Hamlet, whose existential brooding echoed my own:
To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life; …who would fardels bear,To grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all ...
As you can probably see, I was a rather morbidly introspective kid, all the more so because of my adolescent susceptibility to abysmally hopeless crushes on utterly unattainable girls and to the accompanying existential angst that afflicts the philosophically minded, especially at that age. Being smart ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when your love of literature renders you empathetically vulnerable to the angst of others. But, again, as with Tennyson and his Ulysses, the compensatory benison is an awareness that, emotional rip-tides notwithstanding, at least I knew I was not alone.