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REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for the felowship the inklings book

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — as sung by FDR and Winston Churchill in August of 1941 ]
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It seems only appropriate first to bring you the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers as performed by the Manchester Citadel Band and Yorkshire Chorus of the Salvation Army — Christan Soldiers and Salvation Army both having meaning that blends the military with the religious:

As regular readers here will know, the disjunction and conjunction of the spiritual and military is a central focus of my thoughts and posts here on Zenpundit.

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It may seem entirely trivial in comparison with the stunning footage that follows, but the article that brought me to think once again of the military-religious nexus was a piece from Russia’s Pravmir today, titled Bishop of the Russian Church compares Russia airbase in Syria to a monastery:

“The situation is interesting in spiritual sense, it reminds of a big convent without Internet, television and almost without a telephone. All servicemen are involved in sport activities, they have a great demand in reading,” the hierarch said in his interview with the Pobeda radio.

The bishop noted that the servicemen participated in pastoral conversations with great interest.

“This informational blockade helps them refresh their conscience, in result they have a demand to talk about important spiritual moments. It impressed me much,” he confessed.

The church official said he saw “an absolutely new face of our military forces there.”

“Not only weapons and outfit, but their new way of thinking impressed me. It was seen in their discipline, in organization of service, which we witnessed during the week. It differed so much from all the things I saw before that I sincerely rejoiced,” the bishop said.

That’s worth pondering, you know, as we think about Putin‘s Russia and current events in Syria..

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The near-pacifist son of a World War II naval war hero in me was intrigued enough to go searching for Onward Christian Soldiers as a musical match for this article, and it was in search of an appropriate rendering of the hymn that I ran across the FDR / Churchill footage.

I am profoundly glad it did.

In my view today, the most riveting rendering of Onward Christian Soldiers must be the one captured on archival footage here, with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt present on the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales in August 1941:

The other hymn sung in that clip is the quintessential naval hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save with its refrain, O hear us when we call to Thee / For those in peril on the sea..

Obama explaining Trump’s success in 2008? inter alia

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — and why white evangelicals feel Christians are discriminated against ]
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An Atlantic headline yesterday read: White Evangelicals Believe They Face More Discrimination Than Muslims

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That headline carried me back to Obama‘s “they cling to guns or religion” remarks —

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

— which now seem to me to be eerily prophetic of Trump‘s victory, and Hillary‘s very similar “basket of deplorables” —

We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?

The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric.

— both of which must make those who feel addressed — many of them “White Evangelicals” — sneered at.

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If I felt personally slighted by such remarks — and aggrieved by many other small injuries to my faith, monuments carrying the Ten Commandments removed or statues of Baphomet erected to “balance” crosses or crucifixes, for example — I might well answer a question about who faces more discrimination on the basis of that sense that I and my ways are despised — whereas if I am mainline Protestant, Catholic, or unaffiliated, I am less liable to be carrying that sense of personal injury and more likely to answer in terms of the news, in which Muslims (and Jews, why weren’t Jews included in the poll?) are on the receiving end of more overt violence than Christians..

My explanation for the poll results, then, is that “White Evangelicals” have more to take personally than the other groups polled.

And Trump’s victory? Doesn’t that Obama quote tell us pretty much all we need to know?

The phrase ‘time crystals’ is mental clickbait, well nigh irresistible

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — science fiction & science fact meet — JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, strange matter and a sacramental world ]
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Ooh and aah! From Researchers create ‘time crystals’ envisioned by Princeton scientists, Phys Org News, yesterday:

Time crystals may sound like something from science fiction, having more to do with time travel or Dr. Who. These strange materials — in which atoms and molecules are arranged across space and time — are in fact quite real, and are opening up entirely new ways to think about the nature of matter. They also eventually may help protect information in futuristic devices known as quantum computers.

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A system in equilibrium cannot be a time crystal, but non-equilibrium systems can be created by periodically poking, or “driving,” a crystal by shining a laser on its atoms.

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Two groups of researchers based at Harvard University and the University of Maryland report March 9 in the journal Nature that they have successfully created time crystals using theories developed at Princeton University. The Harvard-based team included scientists from Princeton who played fundamental roles in working out the theoretical understanding that led to the creation of these exotic crystals.

What’s in a name?

If they’d called these whatevers “chronosynclastic infundibula” there’s be less excitement, less funding — but fans of Kurt Vonnegut would have had a quiet chuckle.

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But no, they called them “time crystals”. Brilliant, from a PR perspective.

And me? It reminds me of JG Ballard‘s brilliant 1964 short story, The Illuminated Man, which I here juxtapose to the Princeton / Harvard science, in another effort to stitch together the arts and sciences at one of the high arch- points in the nave of what Hermann Hesse called “the hundred-gated cathedral of Mind.”

Some choice quotes:

‘Here in this forest everything is transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of time and space.’

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Something glittered in the dusk behind me. I turned to see a brilliant chimera, a man with incandescent arms and chest, race past among the trees, a cascade of particles diffusing in the air behind him. I flinched back behind the cross, but he vanished as suddenly as he had appeared, whirling himself away among the crystal vaults. As his luminous wake faded I heard his voice echoing across the frosted air, the plaintive words jewelled and ornamented like everything else in that transmogrified world.

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There in the Everglades the transfiguration of all living and inanimate forms occurs before our eyes, the gift of immortality a direct consequence of the surrender by each of us of our own physical and temporal identity. However apostate we may be in this world, there perforce we become apostles of the prismatic sun.

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I shall return to the solitary church in that enchanted world, where by day fantastic birds fly through the petrified forest and jewelled alligators glitter like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers, and where by night the illuminated man races among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels and his head like a spectral crown.

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Kurt Vonnegut:

These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.

JG Ballard:

Here in this forest everything is transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of time and space.

And that brief quote —

There in the Everglades the transfiguration of all living and inanimate forms occurs before our eyes, the gift of immortality a direct consequence of the surrender by each of us of our own physical and temporal identity. However apostate we may be in this world, there perforce we become apostles of the prismatic sun

— that in turn calls to mind Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch’s A Theology of Creation, from which I quoted yesterday in On riding a rapidly accelerating world.. in slower motion:

Absolute personal existence, the Lord as a divine Person, “One of the Holy Trinity,” as our Liturgy says, not only lets himself be contained by the universe at one particular point in space and time, but by realizing at last the vocation of the person, he contains the universe hidden in himself. He does not want, like us, to take possession of the world; he takes it up and offers it in an attitude which is constantly eucharistic. He makes of it a body of unity, the language and flesh of communion.

In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.

On riding a rapidly accelerating world.. in slower motion

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — not by revolution but by centering ]
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If I might shift the angle from which the current conversation views the world situation — rather than looking for revolution or evolution, might we not hope for transfiguration, theosis?

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For what it’s worth, I’m under the impression that the translucence of the world can also be found in the Bezels of Wisdom of Ibn Arabi, in the Mountains and Rivers sutra of Dogen, in The Centuries of Thomas Traherne

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world.

To many of us it seems as though the world is speeding up. The notion is a hopeless paradox — and yet the acceleration itself is both evident and excessive. Both the acceleration and the paradox are solved only in contemplation..


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