Old Western Man

J.I.M. Stewart

  • C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences edited by James Como
    Collins, 299 pp, £6.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 00 216275 X

This is a collection of essays, old and new, by diverse hands, brought together by James T. Como, a Professor of Rhetorical Communication in the City University of New York. He tells us in an introduction: ‘Now several societies exist for the purpose of studying Lewis’s thoughts; film rights to several of his books have been purchased, and filmed documentaries of his life have been produced; both popular and scholarly books on Lewis are being published with increasing frequency (so that the Modern Language Association cites Lewis as one of the most rapidly increasing objects of literary study in the world).’ Another critic, Mr Eugene McGovern, who ‘works in the field of casualty insurance on actuarial matters’, and who, with the exception of Professor Como himself, is the only contributor to the volume not to have been personally acquainted with Lewis, records the further impressive fact that Lewis’s works ‘at present sell at about two million copies per year’.

How Lewis felt about the first stirrings of a vogue or cult of this sort we don’t know. But in 1941 he told a congregation in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, that the desire for fame belongs to ‘hell rather than heaven’. It is possible that he would have contrived to regard the Lewis Societies rather as Browning regarded the Browning Societies (‘There’s a Me Society down at Cambridge’) and would have recalled with satisfaction Max Beerbohm’s cartoon of the poet taking tea with such an assemblage.

But at Oxford, and anterior to these, there was the Socratic Club, here described by one frequenter as providing ‘a good-humoured and high-level Christian debate’ in a room so crowded that students sat on the floor or under the piano. At its inception Lewis agreed to be the Senior Member of the University required by the Proctors to support and oversee any society or club proposing to include undergraduates from more than one college. How long he remained in this statutory position no one seems quite to know. But his was certainly accepted as the club’s dominating intelligence until his remove to Cambridge in 1954, and terrible was the occasion upon which he was generally, although not by everybody, held to have been worsted by Miss Elizabeth Anscombe, a young lady who smoked cigars, combined Roman Catholicism with logical positivism, and was on her way to becoming Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. Lewis himself wrote to a friend, Dom Bede Griffiths, that Miss Anscombe had completely demolished his specific arguments for the existence of God. And he added, with characteristic candour: ‘At the Socratic the enemy often wipe the floor with us.’ Derek Brewer, a pupil of Lewis’s who was later to become Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, formed the impression that Lewis attended, and presided over, the Socratic ‘entirely as a sacrificial duty, and loathed it’. This may well be an exaggeration, since Lewis appears to have enjoyed above everything else occasions giving scope to the rapid cut and thrust of spoken controversy. John Lawlor, another pupil, has recorded that argument was the only form of conversation ever employed by Lewis in his presence.

It must be a question whether such an eristic temperament made Lewis an ideal tutor, although he was assuredly an outstanding one. He listened to every word of your essay, held it virtually verbatim in his memory and, when you had finished it, rapidly took it to pieces and put it together again for your benefit. But a tutorial with him seems to have been a distinctly impersonal affair. I can recall one of his pupils telling me that Lewis was a marvellous teacher – but that if at the end of your hour with him you had failed to reach the door because a trap had opened in the floor and you had been precipitated into some fiery nether region, Lewis would have been uninterested and undisturbed. Nor, one feels, is the power to argue down all but the very ablest undergraduates to be more than moderately indulged. Challenge every now and then there should be. But the pupil – who is probably not going to as many lectures as you have advised – is hoping for orientation and instruction too, and beyond that for something closer to mature table-talk than to inquisition in a schoolroom or a court of law.

‘Marlowe, next to Carlyle, was the most thoroughly depraved of English writers.’ To this pronouncement, instanced by Professor Brewer, what rejoinder is possible for a young man who has been reading Marlowe’s plays and perhaps acting in one of them, but has no more than a dim memory of looking into Sartor Resartus when at school? In Surprised by Joy Lewis asserts of his boyhood’s most admired teacher, William Kirkpatrick, ‘the Great Knock’, that ‘the most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation.’ And from Kirkpatrick he would appear to have received much of the colouring of his mind not only as a tutor, a lecturer and a conversationalist, but as a writer too. He is seldom for long without designs upon his reader; at times we may feel him to be rather a bully; and what John Wain, in a wholly admirable essay reprinted from Encounter, calls his ‘all-pervading contentiousness’ would in many instances become wearisome if not enlivened by an astonishing power of cogent, amusing and often bizarre analogy. Who but Lewis, composing a formidably learned paper on the translation of Holy Scripture, would remark that ‘among men like Erasmus, Tyndale, Munster, or the Jesuits at Rheims [Coverdale] shows like a rowing boat among battleships’; or that taking up some obscure and unfortunate critic of Sir Walter Scott is ‘like reading a review by a jackal of a book written by a lion’; or that an error into which he fell in the course of his recovering the faith of a Christian was the persuasion that he could no more ‘meet’ God than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare; or, yet again, that ‘a post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce’?

But what kind of man was C. S. Lewis? It is to this question, rather than to the burden and quality of his prolific writings, that most of the contributors to the present volume address themselves. One quickly becomes aware of contradictory impressions. Leo Baker, who knew Lewis as a fellow undergraduate, affirms that he showed ‘a single-minded determination to get the highest class in the examinations’ and ‘was not a laughing man and did not often indulge in wit’. But others report Lewis as laughing often and rather loudly, and that wit was what he greatly loved in company of every kind. Richard Ladborough believes it to be ‘certain that he enjoyed female company’ Professor Brewer reports that in a lecture he ‘indulged in several of his more pointed anti-feminist witticisms’. (I myself can bear witness that, if seated beside a lady at a dinner table, he would take it for granted that she merited nothing but a little badinage or banter.) George Sayer, in the course of a notably sympathetic and pleasing portrait, has to admit that Lewis did not naturally like boys or children at all, although he was a most successful writer of stories for them. But A. C. Harwood records that his children adored a guest who entered with complete seriousness into their concerns. At Magdalen, Peter Bayley recalls, Lewis taught in a ‘dull, soulless, unaesthetic college room’, on one wall of which there oddly hung an ‘alluringly erotic picture’: a reproduction of Tintoretto’s ‘The Origin of the Milky Way’. On this the young Bayley once offered some remark, to which Lewis responded briefly: ‘Yes. Jolly, isn‘t it?’ ‘I was disappointed he did not talk about it,’ Professor Bayley comments. ‘I was always disappointed that he never showed a trace of any aesthetic sense except about literature.’ When another pupil said that he was going to Italy in the vacation the response he elicited was ‘Ah, good. You’ll be able to drink Chianti.’

This last, from a loquacious Christian to a serious boy who is possibly thinking of Italy in terms of the Sistine Chapel, the later Donatello, and Piero della Francesca’s ‘Resurrection’, is a fair instance of Lewis’s chronic liability to strike a false note. He was a shy and sensitive man who had schooled himself to guard his privacy within the carapace of an artificial personality. The Lewis of the booming voice and jolly-farmer appearance and garments, companionable only in a dominating way, fond of country walks and pubs and beer and bread and cheese (but not sandwiches), seeming to rejoice in obtruding a vein of robust insensibility, rejoicing in the ribald conviviality of chosen semi-intimates, instantly capable of every appearance of warmth and welcome and total interest and concern even to intrusive strangers and pilgrims – all this added up to a geniality that doesn’t ring quite true. Yet it was a genuine achievement in its way, and had been striven for. But, within, there existed, in Mr Wain’s phrase, ‘a heavily protected inner self that no one ever saw’, or no one except perhaps a friend or two of forty years’ standing.

It is in Surprised by Joy that this dichotomy is most strikingly exhibited. The book is an autobiography and aims, Lewis says, at telling the story of his conversion from atheism to the doctrines of the Christian Church. But what happens in its concluding section is extremely curious. We have been abundantly given, with every effect alike of intimacy and closely reasoned argument, a view of the hard road from total unbelief to Theism. But there still seems to be a long way to go. ‘Though I liked clergymen as I liked bears,’ he writes, ‘I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo.’ In the next two pages he asks where religion is to be found ‘full grown’, and decides that there are ‘only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity’. He finds that Hinduism seems ‘to have two disqualifications’, and these he identifies and describes with his customary lucidity and force. Then what follows is this: ‘I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.’ I suppose there is a small joke in those two zoos so close together, yet separated by a tremendous chasm, the bridging of which the discursive intelligence cannot describe. The conviction that in Jesus Christ God entered History is arrived at by that inner Lewis who is not to be put on public view.

The course of his later academic life was not altogether happy. There had been a time when, largely in a spirit of mischief, he had promoted the successful candidature of his friend Adam Fox for Oxford’s oddly elective Professorship of Poetry. But the time came when he wanted it for himself. The position would, if anything, have added to his teaching load, but would have constituted something like an adequate recognition of his eminence as a teacher. When he failed of election he appears to have been deeply mortified, and very soon he accepted at Cambridge a Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature expressly established for his occupancy. Here we come again on conflicting reports. Professor Como asserts that, when Lewis lectured, ‘at both universities students regularly stood in auditoriums filled to capacity.’ But there is abundant evidence that this was not so. At Oxford as many 400 undergraduates would turn out to hear him, whereas at Cambridge we have it on the authority of the Master of Emmanuel that the same lectures attracted ‘a mere handful’. Lewis simply didn’t catch on. His Inaugural Lecture, which he entitled ‘De Descriptione Temporum’, perhaps started the trouble. Speaking in the main to an undergraduate audience which had never seen or heard him before, within five minutes he held up as absurd something written by ‘a young gentleman whom I had the honour of examining’. At Oxford and to students who knew and admired him this would have passed as a small and harmlessly ironic orotundity. Among strangers it didn’t do at all. Nor did the concluding passages in which he dramatised himself as an Old Western man (and also a dinosaur) go down at all well. ‘A public application of grease paint’ is Mr Wain’s slightly unkind description of this infelicity.

So to the end C. S. Lewis remained essentially an Oxonian, retaining his house at Headington Quarry and seldom spending a weekend away from it. His most substantial work, English Literature in the 16th Century excluding Drama, was published by the Clarendon Press in 1954, when he could still be described on the title-page as ‘Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford’. It is the outstanding volume in a series known to the world as The Oxford History of English Literature, but to Lewis himself as ‘O.H.E.L.’.