Years of creative output

One things that strikes me about the Inklings is that many of them led short lives by our standards. Charles Williams died at 58, before retirement age. Same with Lewis, who passed away at 63. Tolkien finally expired at 81, but even that is not so long. Nearly all my grandparents have or will likely surpass them. My grandfather Walter died at 101.

Perhaps I still have time to make an impression on the world. As I approach the age of 30, I have to switch to older models. My standard so far has been Ralph Vaughn Williams, one of my favorite composers, who, notably, didn’t write anything good until he was about 32. This is rather unusual among musicians, who typically show signs of rocking the house by their late teens or earlier. See Mozart, Brahms, etc.

Only Owen Barfield stuck around long enough to see his friend’s names become famous, to be interviewed for documentaries about…himself. He far outlived the rest of them (1898-1997).

Darwin: The great face-saver of science

It was Charle’s Darwin’s 200th birthday recently. There were special events on campus, posters everywhere, etc. I encoded some video lectures about him at work to post on the web. Despite the fact that Darwin’s work was certainly interesting and can be helpful in explaining SOME things, I’m afraid the bulk of it is psuedo-science, his intellectual descendants now often engaged in conjecture of the silliest sort.

Owen Barfield, in exploring epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), had this to say about Darwin:

There is no more striking example than the Darwinian theory of that borrowing from the experimental by the non-experimental sciences, to which I referred at the beginning of this chapter. It was found that the appearances on earth so much lack the regularity of the appearances in the sky that no systematic hypotheses will fit them. But astronomy and physics had taught me that the business of science is to find hypotheses to save the appearances. By a hypotheses, then, these earthly appearances must be saved; and saved they were by the hypotheses of – chance variation. Now the concept of chance is precisely what a hypotheses is devised to save us from. Chance, in fact, = no hypothesis. Yet so hypnotic, at this moment in history, was the influence of the idols and of the special mode of thought which had begotten them, that only a few – and their voices soon died away – were troubled by the fact that the impressive vocabulary of technological investigation was actually being used to denote its breakdown; as though, because it is something we can do with ourselves in the water, drowning should be included as one of the different ways of swimming.

-Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, (1957), (Owen Barfield Reader p.156)

You get that? I had to read it twice.

“Saving the Appearances” means to explain why something is one way, despite appearing to be another. Like explaining that the Sun does not circle the earth (despite the appearance that it does), or explaining that your sister isn’t ugly (despite the appearance that she is rather fat). In this case, it’s explaining that all life is derived from chance, despite the appearance that it is designed.

Barfield contends that Darwin was borrowing scientific ideas from astronomers, who (as far as I can tell), lacking the ability to really test much of what they saw, had to come up with hypothesis so as to save face, that is, not to look stupid.

Actually, Barfield’s commentary in this case is so good, I’m probably just digging myself in a hole by trying to talk about it. I’ll stop that now!

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Confusing love poetry

I always thought it curious that someone should write love songs or poetry outside of their own experience. Tom Petty wrote a lot of standard rock material: break-ups, one night stands, etc. I remember being surprised that he had been married to the same gal for 20+ years. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. If all a songwriter had to explore was their own first-hand experiences, they would run out of material pretty quickly.

Charles Williams wrote 84 romantic sonnets for his wife:

She read them carefully. ‘So lovely they seemed,’ she said. But she also noted – and it puzzled her – that, thought they were addressed to her, their theme was the renunciation of love.

Why should he have consider renouncing love? In part it was simply his awareness that marriage with its many obligations and strains might destroy love: he was never easily optimistic. But, more than this, he was discontented about the very ordinariness of ‘being in love’. His mind was too subtle and self-aware, too capable of seeing endless possibilities in every human thought and action, for the state of loving to seem enough. He asked himself ‘whether love were not meant for something more than wantonness and child-bearing and the future that closes in death’. He meditated on the notion of achieving some spiritual advancement through renunciation, speculating in the sonnets he wrote for ‘Michal’ whether they might not ‘put off love for love’s sake’. And there was another possibility. Turning to his Christian beliefs, he considered the idea that love for another human being might be a step towards God – ‘the steep’, as he expressed it in the sonnet sequence, ‘whence I see God’.

-Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p.79

Williams went on to find a lot in common with Dante and his love for Beatrice. Later in life he wrote about that extensively.

Tolkien on marriage

(I quote this passage on Tolkien’s relations in full from page 168 of The Inklings.)

Friendship with other men played as important a part in Tolkien’s life as it did in Lewis’s. Unlike Lewis, Tolkien encountered romantic love at an early age, for when he was sixteen he fell in love with a girl of nineteen, a fellow orphan who lived in his Birmingham lodging house. But he and Edith Bratt were soon separated by his guardian, and in late adolescence Tolkien was thrown back on friendship with others of his own sex, so much so that by the time he was reunited with her he had, as it were, lost touch with her, and had devoted the greater part of his deepest affections to his male friends.

He and Edith were eventually married and had four children, but family affairs (though of great interest and importance to Tolkien) seemed to him to be quite apart from his life with his male friends. This division of his life into water-tight compartments inevitably caused a strain, and Edith Tolkien resented the fact that such a large part of her husband’s affections were lavished on Lewis and other men friends, while Tolkien himself felt that time spent with the Inklings and in other male company could only be gained by a deliberate and almost ruthless exclusion of attention to his wife.

‘There are many things that a man feels are legitimate even though they cause a fuss,’ he wrote to a son who was about to be married. ‘Let him not lie about them to his wife or lover! Cut them out – or if worth a fight: just insist. Such matters may arise frequently – the glass of beer, the pipe, the non writing of letters, the other friend, etc. etc. If the other side’s claims really are unreasonable (as they are at times between the dearest lovers and most loving married folk) they are much better met by above board refusal and “fuss” than subterfuge.’

Edith Tolkien was capable of responding to this attitude with equal obstinacy, and as a result the atmosphere in the Tolkien household at Northmoor Road was sometimes as difficult as that in the Lewis-Moore menage at the Kilns.

Friendship thrives on questions, not answers

Tolkien and Lewis became close friends even though at the time they espoused greatly opposed philosophies. (Tolkien was a devout Catholic, Lewis a flaming atheist). However they shared a love for the same kind of literature. They found beauty and fascination in many of the same places. In The Four Loves, Lewis ascerted that:

“Friendship thrives not so much on agreeing about the answers as on agree what are the important questions.”

Incidentally, the local church may not be the best place to look for friends. Yes, we all largely agree on what the answers to certain questions are, but we all have a lot of questions of varied importance to each of us. It turns out this is not always fertile ground for friendship, despite the appearance that it SHOULD be.

Keeping the workplace interesting

The Inkling Charles Williams worked as an editor in a publishing house for most of his life. This could have been a rather dull job, but he was always spicing it up. In this account, he wrote a rather funny play for the office staff to perform. The “Olympics” from season two of The Office that we rented a few weeks ago comes to mind.

The Masque of the Manuscript, as it was named, delicately mocked the absurdities of the publishing business. It was a remarkable success. It created an extraordinary sense of delight in Amen House; for, by making the daily tasks of publishing into the stuff of poetry and ritual, Williams had transmuted a chore into something seemingly of wider significance. Nor did it end at the finish of the hour’s entertainment. In the months that followed, Williams continued to address his friends by their poetic names, so that they were caught up into a myth of his own devising. In the Library and on the staircase he would involve them in talk on a myriad of subjects, bringing out the best qualities in each of them. ‘He found the gold in all of us and made it shine,’ said one of them, Gerard Hopkins. ‘By sheer force of love and enthusiasm he created about him an atmosphere that must be unique in the history of business houses.

-Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p.87

Man as sub-creator

Tolkien believed that in writing stories man was excercising his identity as a sub-creator, made in the image of God the creator. By doing so we reflect a bit of the face of God. All good stories do this. He explains this most thoroughly in his lecture on “Fairy-Stories” in 1939. He included this poem which he had written for Lewis:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons – ’twas our right
(used or misused), That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

-from Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p.63

Oh God, no more Elves!

One of the Inklings was Hugo Dyson, a Shakespeare expert. Of all the members, he was probably the most interested in just hanging out and having a good time. He is reported to have moaned “Oh God, no more Elves” whenever Tolkien would pull out another draft chapter from The Lord of the Rings. I found this annecdotal story about him to be a crackup:

Hugo Dyson, on his visits to Oxford from Reading, became a frequent and most welcome interrupter of Warnie Lewis’s ornings: ‘At about half past eleven when I was at work in the front room in College, in burst Dyson in his most exuberant mood. He began by saying that it was such a cold morning that we would have to adjourn almost immediately to get some brandy. I pointed out to him that if he was prepared to accept whiskey as an alternative, it was available in the room. Having sniffed it he observed “it would be unpardonable rudeness to your brother to leave any of this” and emptied the remains of the decanter into the class. After talking very loudly and amusingly for some quarter of an hour, he remarked airily “I suppose we can’t be heard in the next room?” then having listened for a moment, “Oh, it’s all right, it’s the pupil talking – your brother won’t want to listen to him anyway”. He next persuaded me to walk round to Blackwell’s with him and here he was the centre of attraction to a crowd of undergraduates. Walking up to the counter he said: “I want a second hand so-and-so’s Shakespeare; have you got one?” The assistant: “Not a second hand one sir, I’m afraid.” Dyson (impatiently): “Well, take a copy and rubn it on the floor, and sell it to me as shop soiled!.” ‘

-The diary of Warnie Lewis, 2/18/1933. (Inklings p.54)

First impressions die hard

Tolkien was on one hand, delighted that his close friend Lewis had become a Christian. But he couldn’t get too excited because Lewis chose to join the church of England, with which Tolkien had a very bad experience with as a child.

Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. He had hooped that Lewis too might become a Catholic, and he was disappointed that he had returned to membership of the Church of England (the equivalent of the Church of Ireland in which Lewis had been baptised [as a child].) Tolkien was strongly unsympathetic towards the Church of England, not least because during his childhood his own mother, a Catholic convert, had been treated harshly by relatives who belonged to it – indeed he believed that this ‘persecution’ had hastened her death. As a result he was particularly sunsitive to any shade of anti-Catholic prejudice.

-Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p.51

I only discovered years later that there was a lot to appreciate in the reformed faith. I was turned off from it because at 17, during my first month in college, a bible study I attended was crashed by some cage-phase Calvinists jerks. Bummer.

No totally depraved story-tellers

Tolkien was Catholic. Lewis was Anglican. Neither of them gave much credence to Calvinism. Part of it shows right here I think. Their own philosophy about the value and beauty of myth-making and storytelling does not jive with the doctrine of total depravity, at least, not with a lot of qualifications.

Tolkien said, man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his throughts ito lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals. Lewis agreed: he had, indeed, accepted something like this notion for many years. Therefore, Tolkien continued, not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth. I making a myth, in practising ‘mythopoeia’ and peopleing the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a storyteller, or ‘sub-creator’ as Tolkien liked to call such a person, is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.  Pagan myths are therefore never just ‘lies’: there is always something of the truth in them.

-Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p.43