The Weight of Glory

And how to find secret weapons.

Welcome to today’s issue of Other Life. If you received this from a friend, subscribe here. Quick reminder that our writers’ program is starting its 6th cohort very soon. You can request an invitation here.

In this issue:

  • CS Lewis on beauty and “infinite joy”

  • William S. Burroughs’ secret weapons

  • Notes from master reader Harold Bloom

How to Find Secret Weapons

One lesson I've learned from studying Ted Morgan’s 1988 biography of Burroughs is that you should try to find generative elements within systems that are otherwise total trash. Most smart people will dismiss and ignore anything that's generally trash, so this is how you can find secret weapons for your own private processes.

One great example of this was his temporary infatuation with Scientology. He went pretty deep into the official organization before eventually rejecting it. But one thing he found compelling was their "e-meter" device that they used in their "audits." As far as I can tell, it was basically just a polygraph machine (i.e., lie detector).

He left Scientology but got himself his own "e-meter." He was obsessed with it for a while, he would use it on himself and all of his friends. He used it to find out things about himself that he did not consciously know or remember. I’m not sure if that makes sense scientifically, but leave science to scientists. The greatest thinkers and writers are usually more like alchemists (one part scientific rigor, one part hyperstitional collaboration with the real).

It's not easy to leave behind an original and influential body of work—you might need a few private tricks that seem absurd to everyone else.

PS: Next week I’m publishing a deep-dive podcast about the biography of Burroughs. I don’t think he’s the greatest writer, or the greatest thinker, but he is one of the wildest of the twentieth century. I’ve studied his life and extracted a bunch of lessons. Make sure you’re subscribed.

Reading Now: How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

Over the next few years, I’ll be reading some of the greatest books ever written. But first I think it wise to begin with Harold Bloom's excellent and easy-going How to Read and Why (2000).

Bloom never tells you how to read exactly, because that’s impossible. He just gives you some excellent rules of thumb, and dozens of short examples of excellent reading. His four rules of thumb:

  • Clear your mind of cant.

  • Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neigh­borhood by what or how you read.

  • A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light.

  • One must be an inventor to read well.

I’ll say more about these next week.

This book shows you different types of things you can look for, and the different types of reflections you might wish to make, on whatever you might be reading at any time. It’s just delightful and inspiring to watch a master reader at work.

You can listen to him read a section of the book here. Bloom should inspire in you a healthy sense of shame—shame for your comparatively inadequate bookshelf and erudition. If you’re anything like me, this book will wake you from your slumber. It was one of many catalysts for my recent re-orientation of the Other Life project.

You, too, can start overflowing with original reflections on many of the greatest books ever written. All you need to do is to make the time, be patient, and read consistently.

We’re meeting to discuss How to Read and Why on July 12th at 11am Central. Please do your best to read the whole book. If you start now, reading one hour every day until we meet, at an average reading speed (roughly 50 pages per day), you will finish just on time. All meetings are free for members and outsiders are welcome for a modest fee.

The Weight of Glory by CS Lewis

Just yesterday someone gave me this sermon by CS Lewis from 1942. It’s the best thing I’ve read this week. At around 5,000 words it should take you about 30-45 minutes to read carefully.

Lewis explains that the virtue of love is not primarily about denying oneself; it is a positive, enthusiastic desire for the greatest possible joy. Whereas a vulgar pseudo-Nietzscheanism will blame Christianity for the blunting of human desire, Lewis blames Kant and Stoicism for the blunting of Christianity, which, correctly understood, was already a kind of enlightened will to power.

We should not reject sinful pleasures because pleasure is bad, we should reject sinful pleasures because they are weak and lame as pleasures. When we become infatuated with loose sex or hard drugs or earthly ambition,we are like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Finally, it is very popular to speak of beauty today. “Why don’t we make beautiful things anymore?”—people love to say. Or, “I don’t believe in God but I believe in beauty,” and other such inanities.

Lewis argues convincingly that the popular, secular love of “beauty” is actually rather a cheat. Same for nostalgia and romantic memories of adolescence. He drills down into each of these superficial fixations and forces you to confront something hiding beneath all of them. Everything testifies to what he calls an inconsolable secret.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

CS Lewis

I must say… it rings true. There are many other fascinating surprises and edifying lines in this superbly readable text.

Preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942. The Weight of Glory is available as a PDF here. Hat tip to Justin Dyer, author of C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law.

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