Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doubtless I have written many dumb things

...and on the principle of ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ ought to remain silent. But I am weak.

Here is an extract from a letter quoted in a book I have just finished reading:

They keep sheep in Magdalen grove now, and I hear the fleecy care bleating all day long: I am shocked to find that none of my pupils, though they are all acquainted with pastoral poetry, regards them as anything but a nuisance: and one of my colleagues has been heard to ask why sheep have their wool cut off.

It is immediately followed by a second extract from the same letter:

It frightens me, almost. And so it did the other night when I heard two undergrads, giving a list of pleasures which were (a) Nazi, (b) leading to homosexuality. They were: feeling the wind in your hair, walking with bare feet in the grass, and bathing in the rain. Think it over: it gets worse the longer you look at it.

Now, if you knew *nothing at all* about the writer except that he wrote the first quote as well as the second quote, it would be blindingly clear that (s)he has overheard two pretentious undergraduates, with little experience of life outside the city and in obvious reaction to the early 20th century German cult of Nature, saying that these simple pleasures lead to Nazism and homosexuality. The undergraduates are saying that bathing in the rain leads to Nazism and homosexuality.

But, but, this is the ridiculous thing, the guy who is writing the book that quotes the letter doesn’t get it! This is what he says:

‘It is twenty-two years since I read that letter ... and on and off I have been thinking it over. At no time have I been able to see anything Nazi or necessarily homosexual in the listed pleasures, which are precisely of the kind which might occur in a George MacDonald fantasy. But the pleasures are, of course, those of youth, and Lewis at the age of forty seems to have forgotten what it was like to be young. He sees exuberant, and perhaps sensual, pleasure in the natural world ... now such stuff seems to him ‘Nazi’.’

Perhaps this would be excusable if Lewis were a minor figure in this book. But it is a biography of him! Elsewhere in the book, it is clear that the guy who wrote it has read everything C. S. Lewis ever published, as well as reams of unpublished material and things written about him by people who knew him personally. He ought to have gleaned some vague sense of what the fellow is like. In twenty-two years, how could it not have clicked that his reading of the letter was preposterously wrong? Didn’t he show his manuscript to any friends or colleagues who could have pointed out that his reading of the letter was wrong? If he could misread his subject so badly, what is he doing writing a biography of him at all?

Speaking of biography, I read the other day in the newspaper that there is no biography in English of Hu Jintao, despite the fact that he has been in charge of the Renegade Mainland Provinces for five years. This seems to indicate a frightening lack of interest by the English-speaking-world in the non-English-speaking world.

And I see Thabo Mbeki has won a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Congrats!

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