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.

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