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Alan Jacobs


The Uses of Ignorance

C. S. Lewis in America

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I'll say more about the passage I read later, but for now I'll just note that Lewis's introduction to Sister Penelope's translation of Athanasius is one of my very favorites among Lewis's writings, and one that I turn to often for comfort and reassurance. It is a foundational document, an essential one, for an understanding of CSL.

Throughout the 1950s, the young but already well-known historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote long, elegantly crafted letters to the great art historian Bernard Berenson about life in Oxford. (Berenson was at this point elderly and in poor health, and Trevor-Roper strove to entertain him.) In January of 1951 he wrote,

Do you know C. S. Lewis? In case you don't, let me offer a brief character-sketch. Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reever or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity; a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature, and, of course, poetry; a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favorite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of best-selling prurient religiosity and such reactionary nihilism as is indicated by the gleeful title, The Abolition of Man.

Two points before I proceed. First, please do not think that this letter indicates some distinctive animosity toward Lewis. Trevor-Roper habitually took this tone, especially in these letters to Berenson, which were meant to enliven the days of an old and somewhat isolated man; and if you think this is rough stuff, you should see his reviews of Arnold Toynbee, whom he cheerfully referred to as "the Apostle of the Half-Baked," or of Lawrence Stone, on whose work he kept a file in his office labeled "Death of Stone." (The publisher Hamish Hamilton once wrote to Berenson that he had been at a country-house party where their common friend was present: "Hugh Trevor-Roper was there, and we found ourselves wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people.") Second, the portrait of Lewis is obviously and absurdly wrong: to portray CSL of all people as a despiser of poetry, to think that "the abolition of man" is something he advocated—yes, of course, one could not possibly be farther off-base.

But Trevor-Roper, fifteen years younger than Lewis and at that point in his life a fellow of Christ Church (having been an undergraduate at Merton), is essentially serving here as a wholesaler of Oxford gossip: the Lewis he describes is an Oxford "character," like the classicist Maurice Bowra or the famous Reverend Spooner of "spoonerism" fame; the portrait distills Senior Common Room chatter, and nothing is more essential to such chatter than knowing—or "knowing"—just enough about people that they and their ideas can be dismissed.

Let us compare this letter to something that at first might seem to be its opposite: a comment by Tolkien in a still unpublished, and currently inaccessible, essay on his friend (as quoted by Humphrey Carpenter):

It was not for some time that I realized that there was more in the title Pilgrim's Regress than I had understood (or the author either, maybe). Lewis would regress. He would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant.
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