altC. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)

I'm already convinced I made the right decision to begin my C. S. Lewis "retrospective" with biography. Learning about an author's personal life may not be the best introduction to his works, but when I'm facing a list of nearly 50 books that range from those I haven't yet read (e.g. The Discarded Image) to those I've read literally dozens of times (e.g. the Narnia books), it's probably a good idea to remind myself of the man behind the words.

I can recommend this biography without qualification, even though there were one or two spots that annoyed me, such as when the authors accuse Lewis of exaggerating the horrors of one of his childhood schools. "Oh, come on; it isn't that bad" are harsh words for a sufferer to bear. Lewis was safely dead ten years before the book was published, but I'm sure he heard similar comments in his lifetime.

What struck me most about Lewis this time was how brilliant he really was, from his earliest days. The sheer volume of his reading is phenomenal, and it seems he forgot nothing. He read adult books as a child and children's books as an adult, enjoying them strictly on their merits. He suffered greatly in the normal British educational system, but absolutely thrived in his two and a half years, beginning at age 14, with a private tutor (William T. Kirkpatrick) who would have terrified most children. "Some boys would not have liked it [but] to me it was red beef and strong beer."

"If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk*", Lewis decided, and his own acutely logical mind was to a great extent formed and sharpened by Kirkpatrick's. Kirkpatrick's outstanding conviction was that language was given to man solely for the purpose of communicating or discovering truth. The general banalities and "small-talk" of most people did not enter into his calculations. "The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation." To a mere "torrent of verbiage" he would cry "Stop!", not from impatience, but because it was leading nowhere. More sensible observations might be interrupted by "Excuse!", ushering in some parenthetical comment. Full approval would be encouraged by "I hear you"—but usually followed by refutation:  "Had I read this? Had I studied that? Had I any statistical evidence? And so to the almost inevitable conclusion: 'Do you not see then that you had no right...' "

Lewis arrived ... on Saturday, 19 September 1914, and two days later he was flung straight into Homer, of whom he had never read a word, nor had any introduction to the Epic dialect, having only studied the straight Attic of Xenophon and the dramatists. Kirkpatrick's method was to read aloud twenty lines or so of the Greek, translate, with a few comments and explanations for another hundred lines, and then leave his pupil to go over it with the aid of a lexicon, and make sense of as much of it as he could. It worked with Lewis, who had no difficulty in memorizing every word as he looked up its meaning. Kirkpatrick at this stage seemed to value speed more than absolute accuracy, and Lewis soon found himself understanding what he read without translating it, beginning to think in Greek.

Of Lewis, his tutor said,

He was born with the literary temperament and we have to face that fact with all it implies. This is not a case of early precocity showing itself in rapid assimilation of knowledge and followed by subsequent indifference or torpor. ... It is the maturity and originality of his literary judgements which is so unusual and surprising. By an unerring instinct he detects first rate quality in literary workmanship, and the second rate does not interest him in any way. ... [He] has a sort of genius for translating. ... He has read more classics in the time than any boy I ever had, and that too very carefully and exactly. In Homer his achievement is unique. ... In the Sophoclean drama, which attains a high level in poetic expression ... he could beat me easily in the happy choice of words and phrases. ... He is the most brilliant translator of Greek plays I have ever met.

With that as background, consider how near Lewis and Oxford University—with which he had fallen in love at first sight—came to missing out on each other. Without trying to understand and explain the British university system, I can boil it down to this: Lewis was accepted to Oxford pending the successful completion of a particular examination. In this, the brilliant student failed the mathematics portion. He was admitted anyway, because he had volunteered for Army service (World War I) and he went through the Officers' Training Corps there. The theory was that he would be working on algebra (his downfall) as he could and would re-take the exam after his service ended. He tried, but never mastered the subject well enough to pass the exam. Fortunately for all of us, after the war veterans were specifically exempted from the need to pass that exam. "Otherwise," Lewis observed, "I should have had to abandon the idea of going to Oxford."

I shudder at the close call, and while I have difficulty fathoming the idea that someone so intelligent, skillful, and hard-working could fail to understand algebra, I offer this story as encouragement to those who may find themselves struggling now that so many high schools have made the subject a requirement for graduation. You can be brilliant and successful without algebra! I just hope you don't have to fight a war to get where you want to go, and that you will be able to afford an assistant to help you with the math of daily life. Algebra was not Lewis's only problem: He never managed to grasp the difference between gross and net profit when it came to his book sales, and had to be saved from dire financial straits by friends who set up a system whereby he could be exceedingly generous to others without going bankrupt himself.

If you are new to the works of C. S. Lewis, his own writings are the place to start. I would suggest beginning with either the Narnia books or Mere Christianity, depending on your temperament. But if you're interested in learning more about the brilliant, complex, surprising person behind all the books, Green & Hooper's book is a good bet.

*Some would say Spock, not Kirk, but that's another story.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 8:02 am | Edit
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Words of wisdom for our time from George MacDonald (from The Hope of the Gospel: "God's Family").

One thing is plain—that we must love the strife-maker; another is nearly as plain—that, if we do not love him, we must leave him alone; for without love there can be no peace-making, and words will but occasion more strife. To be kind neither hurts nor compromises.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 at 11:34 am | Edit
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One hundred years ago today, on November 11, 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armistice was signed that ended battle on the Western Front of World War I, the war that devastated a generation of Europeans, and set the stage for World War II two decades later. The cost was personal on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Veterans' Day is a time for honoring all veterans, but this year it seems appropriate to feature WWI. Those closest to us include:

Hezekiah Porter 

Hezekiah Scovil Porter, son of Wallace and Florence (Gesner) Wells Porter. Porter's granduncle on this mother's side. Army, 26th Division, 101st Machine Gun Battalion. Killed in action near Chatêau-Thierry, France, July 22, 1918. His story is elaborated here: The Complete World War I Diary of Hezekiah Scovil Porter.

 

 

 

Harry Faulk 

Harry Gilbert Faulk, son of Olaf Frederick and Hilma Justina (Reuterberg) Faulk. Porter's granduncle on his father's side. Army, 26th Division, 101st Machine Gun Battalion. Wounded in action near Chatêau-Thierry, France, July 25, 1918. Died of his wounds later that day. Here is a (mostly accurate) article about him.

 

 

 

Howard Harlan Langdon, WWI

 

Howard Harland Langdon, son of Willis Johnson and Mary Lucy (Wood) Langdon. My grandfather on my father's side. Army, 219th Aero Squadron, served in England. He didn't fly the planes, but kept them air-worthy.

 

 

 

George Cunningham Smith, Sr., WWI

 

George Cunningham Smith, Sr., son of Nathan and Issyphemia (Cunningham) Smith. My grandfather on my mother's side. Army, 5th Engineers, Company B, served in France. His father fought in the Civil War (16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company B).

 

 

Thank you to all who have stood "between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation."

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 11, 2018 at 7:54 am | Edit
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altC. S. Lewis: Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby (Eerdmans, 1973)

This book of photos—places, people, manuscripts—from the world of Clive Staples Lewis was a gift from Porter eons ago, probably not many years after its publication. I read it then, of course, and just re-read it as part of my newest reading project: binge-reading all the books in our home library by or about a particular author. I have previously tackled George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare (plays only, read or viewed), and Miss Read (Dora Jesse Saint). Since the C. S. Lewis collection is exceeded only by our George MacDonald books, this is no small project.

Often I read the books in publication order, because I think that gives insight in to an author's growth and development. I'll do some of that with Lewis, but I thought I'd start with a biography, and this book seemed good to read even before that ("Book 0"), to give context to what I will be reading. It was a good choice.

It's largely a picture book, no surprise, so there's not a lot to quote from, but there were two I couldn't resist marking.

In spite of his academic success [at Malvern College], Lewis wrote home in March 1914, imploring his father to take him away. His brother Warren commented: "Much to my surprise, my father reacted to this letter by making an immediate and sensible decision. Jack was to leave Malvern at the end of the school year.... The fact is that he should never have been sent to a public school at all. Already, at fourteen, his intelligence was such that he would have fitted in better among undergraduates than among school boys; and by his temperament he was bound to be a misfit, a heretic, an object of suspicion within the collective-minded, and standardising, Public School system."

Granted, what the Brits mean by "public school" is not the American version, but the point about how school life treats those who don't fit in—especially if they are particularly intelligent—is still the same. It is worth noting that Warren himself was very happy at Malvern, yet he also said (taken from another source), "He was, indeed, lucky to leave Malvern before the power of this system had done him any lasting damage."

After almost 30 years as a professor of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College of Oxford University, Lewis became Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It's a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they're all so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and "old woman" here I shall become the enfant terrible there. 

I can identify with that. Put me with liberals, and my conservative side predominates. Put me with conservatives, and my liberal side comes to the fore. Always the troublemaker.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at 9:43 am | Edit
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Some of my friends predicted a Blue Wave. Some of my friends predicted a Red Wave. Instead, I awoke this morning to a sea of purple.

I'm good with that. I'm a purple kind of person, politically. I belong to a particular party only so that I can participate in the primary elections. Yesterday I voted for some Democrats and some Republicans. I won some races and lost others. Of one thing only am I certain: the victors will be neither as bad as I fear nor as good as I hope.

I'm also fine with what they're calling a "mixed government." No party should have an easy time pushing its own agenda: we lose the checks and balances that allow the voices of the rest of the country to be heard.

However, I do have a few words for the winners:

  • If you won your race by a 51/49 margin, do not intone, "The people have spoken" and think you have a mandate for your ideas. Never forget that half your constituency do not want you as their leader.
  • If you won by a landslide, I say the same thing. A rare 60/40 victory, or even an unheard of 90/10, does not mean you have the right to ignore the minority. Never forget that you are now as responsible for looking after their interests and considering their needs and values as you are those of the people who voted for you.
  • Remember that you were elected to serve, not to be served.

That would make American great.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at 6:23 am | Edit
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The Kindle edition of all three of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy books in a single volume is currently $1.99, a 91% price decrease.  I don't know how long that will last, but it's unbeatable if you are at all interested.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:28 pm | Edit
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Today being the REAL Election Day, I voted. I can't say it was the pleasant experience it usually is. Oh, the poll workers were as friendly and as helpful as usual, but the room was chaotic and I left not feeling so confident about some of my fellow-voters. I write this now, before the results are known, so I can't be biased by the results, whatever they may be.

Several people seemed to be having procedural compliance issues.  Now the voting procedure in Florida is easy: be registered, and show up with an acceptable photo ID with signature. There are other ways, such as a photo ID without signature plus some other ID with signature. Or voting a provisional ballot and having your signature matched with your voter registration signature. They really bend over backwards to make voting easy here. They also make it very clear before you go to vote what you need to bring with you to the polling place.

For just one example of the confusion, the man in front of me was insisting that they accept his driver's license. Normally, that's the easiest way: they can scan your license and you're in. But this man's license was from another state.

Poll worker: When did you move here?

Voter: Eight months ago. And I registered to vote.

Poll worker: But you didn't transfer your driver's license. You must do that within 30 days of moving here. This license is not valid.

Voter: Why should I get a new license? This one hasn't expired yet.

(In case you are wondering, this wasn't a language issue.)

At least those who believe that the mere act of voting is meritorious in and of itself will be happy. With all the other ways Florida has of casting one's ballot, and the fact that I usually vote mid-morning, the polling places are usually pretty empty when I arrive.  Not this time!

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:44 am | Edit
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I was taught to view voting as a civic duty, and have always believed that. I still do. It's almost a civil sacrament, the "outward and visible sign" of good citizenship. With that in mind, I have observed that Americans have made some of the same mistakes with regard to voting as the Christian Church through the ages had made with its own sacraments.

Ideally, the sacraments are made available to all Christians ("citizens") who are deemed to have sufficient understanding of and respect for what they are doing. Different churches disagree considerably on what constitutes sufficiency, but that's the general idea. Two extremes may be noted, however.

  • Some churches, especially in the past, have greatly restricted the sacraments: to those of their own church, those who are of at least a certain age, those who have undergone sufficient instruction, those who have been thoroughly examined and been found to be fit, etc. They take very seriously the Bible's admonitions not to partake of the sacraments lightly—but by doing so have excluded many who should be welcomed.
  • Some churches, taking seriously the idea that the effectiveness of the sacraments is based on God's grace, have thrown wide the doors with no concern that the participants have genuine faith or knowledge of what they are doing. Historically, this has resulted in politically- and economically-motivated, or even forced, "conversions," to the great detriment of the Church (not to mention the individuals involved).

As regards its secular, civil religion, America has certainly been guilty of the former. Today, however, we appear to have veered crazily toward the latter. The effectiveness of voting in and of itself is touted as enthusiastically as in the most egregious historical misuse of ex opere operato by the Church.

Everywhere, I am surrounded by the admonition to VOTE! Not a word about being educated on the issues and the candidates, not a word about considering the needs of others and the good of the country rather than one's own self-interest, not a word about casting an intelligent and wise vote—simply VOTE! Cast your ballot and let the magic of voting do its work.

Baptize a man against his will and he becomes a Christian. Require a man to attend Mass on Sunday, and it doesn't matter if he's a Mafia Don.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 5, 2018 at 7:20 am | Edit
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What's this "set your clocks back" warning I heard all over the media yesterday?

What's a clock?

I wonder how archaic this advice really is. I also wonder why people raise so many objections to "changing the clocks" twice a year.

Yes, I know: I've campaigned against the time changing. But that's because I want to stay on Standard Time (aka real time, sun time, normal time) all year 'round and not use Daylight Saving Time—one of Ben Franklin's less reasonable ideas—at all. The change itself is trivial for one accustomed to dealing with time zone changes.

But when you woke up this morning, how did you know what time it was?

I'm betting most people checked their phones—phones which are smart enough to make the time change without our help.

If I had set my computer clock back an hour, it would now be wrong.

Yes, we changed our clocks yesterday—and I remarked that we have far too many of them that need changing. I can't help believing that they are an anachronism. Houses in the future may still have clocks, but I'm betting more and more of them will be smart enough to change themselves. And in any case, people will still rely more on their cell phones to wake them up in the morning and get them where they need to go on time.

The "change your clocks" sermons are being preached to an ever-dwindling congregation.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 4, 2018 at 6:31 am | Edit
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Pardon me while I briefly indulge my Inner Cynic.

Strangers cross your borders unbidden. They are miserable, hungry, and lack the skills necessary to live in your land. You are compassionate. You welcome them, feed them, and teach them survivial skills. You enjoy the boost they bring to your economy.

Ask the Native Americans how that worked out for them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, November 2, 2018 at 6:52 am | Edit
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