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Of bikes, dialectics, and modern bodies

August 20, 2013

So that no one was human till bicycles were invented?

–C.S. Lewis, “Talking about Bicycles”

I came across this essay in a post on First Things, but I don’t want to talk about the post[1], I want to talk about the essay. To begin, here’s the first page and a half:

“Talking about bicycles,” said my friend, “I have been through the four ages. I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on. Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding—more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element—that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy. But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedaling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave.”

“But what was the fourth age?” I asked.

“I am in it now, or rather I am frequently in it. I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were—how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something.”

“How do you mean?” said I.

“I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false—even if all possible promises of it are false.”

I’ve always enjoyed biking, but I’ve never done it regularly, and I suppose I’ve never quite gotten past the “enchantment” stage. On the other hand, the thought of this sort of innocence-experience dialectic has enchanted me for quite some time, to the point that I’ve even been dis- and re-enchanted with the concept of the dialectic itself. (At first it seems earth-shattering; then you realize it’s just a formula; then you accept that the formula, while a formula, remains quite insightful.) So I know what the interlocutor[2] is saying “in general.” The question is: to what extent can that abstract knowledge actually affect how I experience the dialectical dynamic “on the ground,” as it were? With bicycling, for example?

The last time I was in Europe, I spent two days bicycling down the Danube river towards Vienna. It was one of the most serene experiences of my life. Afterward I kept thinking about buying a bike, but never got around to it. I still don’t own one. Maybe this fall… Anyway, this time around in Europe, a group of us went bicycling out of Munich up the Isar river, and it didn’t go so well; an hour in, I found myself going down a too-steep hill, applied the brakes wrong, skidded, fell, and tore a decent amount of skin off my knee, my shoulder, and both my palms. That didn’t stop us from riding on, but it did take a bit of the serenity out of it.

Why didn’t it stop us? After the fall–which wasn’t entirely trivial, and which forced us to admit that the bikes we had rented weren’t really cut out for the paths we had chosen to bike on–why didn’t we turn around? Perhaps others wanted to, but I denied any interest in turning back. One can probably locate, in that denial, a subtle desperation, an agitated desire to reclaim a lost serenity. It seems childish. Or child-like? Enchanted or re-enchanted? That agitation, after all, is what “re-enchantment” amounts to, most of the time. The experience of “re-enchantment,” as the interlocutor describes it, is the experience of remembering believing a promise one now knows to be false. Remembering the belief–not just remembering that you believed–is hard to do, and easy to lie about.

Remembering, and avoiding an inauthentic mis-remembering, is the goal of most modern art. Cf. Friedrich Schiller: “The poet, I said, is either nature, or he will seek it. The former produces the naive, the latter the sentimental [i.e. Romantic, i.e. modern] poet.” The question of re-enchantment leads directly to the question of aesthetic creation, specifically of imitation, mimesis–how to re-present something to make it re-enchanted, so we see it both as it is and as it could be? If we could learn how to re-enchant the world, we would know how to make art. But in fact, most Romantics believe anyway, we need to make art in order to learn how to re-enchant the world.

By a stroke of luck, the entire bike ride I had that most Romantic of poets William Blake’s “And did those feet” running through my head[3]. It’s not about art, at least not directly, it’s about life, about life after Innocence and Experience (the poem comes from neither songbook), about “England’s pleasant pastures” and its “dark Satanic Mills.” Yet, though I was biking through a half-industrialized forest, at the time the verse that most stuck with me was the third:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

“Bring me”: energetic, even militant, as he sounds, he cannot find them himself.  He “will not cease from mental strife,” from the labor of perfecting the world through artistic creation, but that activity requires a passivity: he needs to be brought his weapons, his artistic implements. And he needs to be brought his vehicle, his “chariot of fire.” And the use of that vehicle is itself passive; he does not draw the chariot, he is drawn by it.

That the artist is passive and active both, I take to be a universal truth. But active how, passive how–it must depend on what kind of art he does, on what kind of vehicle he drives. What is the modern artist’s vehicle? Ancient man’s chariot was drawn by horses. I want to suggest that the modern artist is less like a charioteer than like a cyclist–a natural metaphor, given the commonplace that a bicycle is a horse as imitated by the modern imagination. The difference? In the new paradigm, art (life) is no longer about instinct and guidance, body and soul, using the reins and whip; it’s now about effort and posture, force and repose, pedaling and just being, balanced. And the meaning of passivity differs too. The charioteer can only move for so long before the horses exhaust themselves, but the cyclist can only rest when he’s gotten up to speed.

[1]: Mostly because the post isn’t very good. It falters on a conflation of aesthetics with ethics.

[2]: Incidentally, I strongly suspect the interlocutor is J.R.R. Tolkien. Since the interlocutor does most of the talking, this means the essay is really more about Tolkien’s philosophy than Lewis’s. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone, though I didn’t realize it till I had written most of this post. I have many reasons for this suspicion: he loves bicycles, he loves enchantment, he fought in WWI, he loves the Battle of Maldon, he read Owen Barfield’s poetry in manuscript, he dislikes democracy. Though his citing Wordsworth is evidence to the contrary.

[3] I realize that “And did those feet” is the unofficial anthem of England, and so quoting it is a bit like quoting “The Star Spangled Banner”; but unlike “The Star Spangled Banner,” “And did those feet…” is also a great poem. The references to England did feel a bit strange, since I was in Germany, but in any case the poem isn’t really about Englishness.

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