Category Archives: C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis on neoliberalism in 2017

From The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, written as a weekly newspaper column in 1941 and published in book form in 1942:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

Lewis puts these words in the mouth of his character Screwtape, a senior devil instructing his nephew on how to undermine a human’s progress as a Christian and as a person. They are intended to be too ludicrous to be taken seriously as anything but a satire of the most destructive and appalling philosophies on the market.

Yet somehow this has become completely conventional mainstream political theory in the UK, and now governs everything from how our universities and funded to the progressing privatisation of the NHS.

Discuss.

Politics: the end

Imagine you’re in a job that you’re not enjoying, a job that’s sucking up your time and energy and affecting your emotional state. One day it occurs to you that you don’t actually have to do the job: you can walk away and do something different. Doesn’t that feel good?

Or suppose you’re in a relationship. You drifted into it without ever really making a deliberate choice, and a couple of years in you realise it’s making you unhappy and irritable. You know what? You’re not married or anything: you can just walk away.

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“As though God were a god”

I’ve just finished re-reading C. S. Lewis’s first Christian book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Published in 1933, just four years after he “gave in and admitted the God was God … perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in England”, the book is an allegorical account of his own journey into Christianity, which was largely a philosophical rather than emotional or personal one.

pilgrims-regress-map

I very much enjoyed the first three quarters or so; but as the book draws towards its climax, the characters display a regrettable tendency to break into poetry — a form which I have always struggled with.

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These are a few of my favourite novels

A colleague is flying out from the USA to England tomorrow, and asked for recommendations of novels for the flight. Here’s what I suggested.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (John Le Carre): hard-edged, fascinating, realistic. Sparse, sparkling prose. Justly rated a classic.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis): written for children, but still the most moving book I know.

The Silmarillion (J. R. R. Tolkien): brutally difficult, but so full of goodness. Absolutely fascinating. If you liked The Lord of the Rings and have the discipline to get through the first 20 pages of near-poetry, it’s endlessly rewarding.

Carry On, Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse): absolutely frivolous, and utterly delightful

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): a restrained, brittle comedy that’s consistently misinterpreted even by people who love it.

Ringworld (Larry Niven): a truly amazing amount of invention in such a slim SF story.

Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke): a completely different take on broadly similar SF premise. Very believable.

The Owl Service (Alan Garner): profound, bewildering, engaging, rewards re-reading but remains somewhat baffling even then.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons): fully deserving its reputation as the greatest superhero story ever told, and the only graphic novel to make the New York Times list of the top novels of the 20th Century.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (David Nobbs): a light comedy with disturbing undertones and perfectly drawn characters that live in the memory.

The Once and Future King (T. H. White): unbearably lovely and truly unique

The Man who was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton): the kind of book where you only figure out what it’s about as you’re reading it. Constantly surprising, forever delightful.

There are many more, but those are the ones I mentioned. The only conclusion I can draw from this list is that I really like books by authors who use initials instead of first names.

How I came to buy the DVD of series 2 of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

A true story:

  • My favourite author in the world is C. S. Lewis. I’ve read everything of his that I’ve been able to find, most of it four or five times. I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve read the Narnia books.
  • Long ago (in Internet years) I searched for a C. S. Lewis FAQ, and found one that was written by someone called Andrew Rilstone.
  • I started reading the rest of Rilstone’s web-site (as it then was), then his blog once he started writing in that format. Highly recommended, by the way: full of insight, wit, and a gloriously eclectic mix of high literature and pop-culture.
  • One of the more frequent commenters on Rilstone’s blog was Andrew Hickey, whose blog Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! I also started to read.
  • In one of Hickey’s link round-ups, he linked to an article about James Ward’s fruitless efforts to change his name to James Ward.
  • I immediately liked Ward’s blog, I Like Boring Things, and started to keep an eye on it. (Also highly recommended, by the way. He repeatedly demonstrates that, really, nothing is boring.)
  • A post on Ward’s blog included a video of his talk at The Lost Lectures. At about 4:55 on the video he very briefly mentions Stewart Lee’s book How I Escaped My Certain Fate [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]. It was the first time I’d heard of Lee.
  • On a whim, I bought the book — something I can hardly explain, as Ward in his video says nothing at all about it except that it quotes someone else he wants to discuss. It turned out to be very funny and insightful. Among other things, it mentioned Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, a TV series (consisting so far of two seasons of six episodes each.)
  • Having read quite a bit of Lee’s stand-up (the book contains exhaustively annotated transcripts of three of his full-length shows), I was interested to see how it worked in performance, so I torrented the first series [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk].
  • And then I liked that so much that I bought the second series on DVD [amazon.co.uk; doesn’t exist on amazon.com except as an expensive region-2 import].

Now.

There are a few things we can learn from this.

  • You can’t predict how a sale will be made. There’s nothing Stewart Lee could possibly have done to make this sale happen. It happened because of chance, and also because he is good at what he does. My conclusion? You can’t control the chance, but you can control whether your’re good at what you do. Be good.
  • Over a period of a decade, the Internet can take you somewhere very different from where you started. Part of why I love C. S. Lewis’s writing is because it shines such a clear light on, and through, Christianity. Stewart Lee is absolutely not any kind of Christian. But I love his work because there is a common thread of insight and wit that leads through Lewis, Rilstone, Hickey and Ward to Lee.
  • Piracy is good. It leads to sales. If I had not been able to pirate Comedy Vehicle series 1, many publishers like to think the alternative would be that I’d have bought it instead. But I wouldn’t; the only difference would have been that I’d never have seen series 1 so I’d never have bought series 2 either.
  • Finally, unavailability leads to piracy. Since series 2 of Comedy Vehicle is not available as a region-1 DVD at any price, Americans who want to watch it have a choice: buy an overpriced import and watch it on an illegally region-unlocked player, or torrent it. Which do they imagine will happen?

The publishers of Comedy Vehicle can only hope that Americans will torrent series 2 and like it enough to buy series 1 — the opposite of what I did.

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe: first thoughts

Utterly, utterly brilliant.  I laughed, I cried.  Simultaneously, at times.

How rare is it that a long-awaited Christmas special lives up, or even exceeds, expectation?  Rare.  But tonight: yes.  Moffat pulled it off last year, and now he’s done it again.

That’s all, for now.  Just needed to get that out of my system.

More from C. S. Lewis on lowbrow and highbrow art

I know I shouldn’t keep just retyping passages from Chesterton and Lewis and calling them blog entries, but really — Lewis is just too clear-sighted not to use.

Another common way of using the distinction tends to fix on ‘popular’ as the best adjective for class A [i.e. lowbrow books].  “Popular’ art is supposed to aim at mere entertainment, while ‘real’ or ‘serious’ art aims at some more specific ‘artistic’ or ‘aesthetic’ or even ‘spiritual’ satisfaction.  This is an attractive view because it would give those who hold it a ground for maintaining that popular literature has its own good or bad, according to its own rules, distinct from those of Literature proper.  […] And since I observe that many my highest-browed acquaintances spend much of their time in talking of the vulgarity of popular art, and therefore must know it well, and could not have acquired that knowledge unless they enjoyed it, I must assume that they would welcome a theory which justified them in drinking freely of that fountain without forfeiting their superiority

— C. S. Lewis, High and Low Brows.

And a little later in the same essay:

What survives from most ages is chiefly either the work that had some religious or national appeal, or else the popular, commercial work produced for entertainment.  I say ‘chiefly’ because the work of the ‘pure’ artists is not always ephemeral; a little, a very little, of it survives.  But the great mass of literature which now fills class B [i.e. works now considered highbrow] is the work of men who wrote either piously, to edify their follows, or commercially, to earn their living by ‘giving the public what it wanted’.

— C. S. Lewis, High and Low Brows.

It’s striking that that last quote is so near to be being exactly what Ian Harac wrote in his comment on the Chesterton post.