Friday, April 07, 2006

Complete text of sensational new "gospel" that will radically re-define our understanding of Christianity

Jesus: Peter will deny me in just a few hours,
Three times will deny me -- and that's not all I see:
One of you here dining, one of my twelve chosen
Will leave to betray me!

Judas: Cut out the dramatics! You know very well who.

Jesus: Why don't you go do it?

Judas: You want me to do it!

Jesus: Hurry they're waiting.

Judas: If you knew why I do it...

Jesus: I don't care why you do it.

Judas: To think I admired you! For now I despise you.

Jesus: You liar -- you Judas!

Judas: You want me to do it. What if I just stayed here and ruined your amibtion? Christ you deserve it.

Jesus: Hurry you fool, hurry and go. Save me your speeches, I don't want to know.

from the apocryphal gospel of Andrew and Timothy, Act 1, Chapter 13

Saturday, April 01, 2006

"Enter Into Thy Closet"

A neglected aspect of the life and works of C.S Lewis

In 1917 C.S Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves:

"Cher ami, j'ai a confession to make. I have told thee a lie. A certain operation is NOT called going North at Malvern. I invented this phraze so that you & I might have some convenient & safe way of referring to that thing. It wd. be unpleasant to have to use the ugly expressions which slang has evolved and this one has the advantage of being quite meaningless to an outsider."

What on earth does he mean? Manners change, but surely a man of 19 doesn't need to invent a brand new euphemism for "toilet" to use in the company of his oldest and most intimate friend -- even when they are in danger of being overheard by strangers. Yet it's hard to know what other subject they could have needed to refer to conveniently and privately while out for a walk. (If they had found themselves discussing masturbation, as one does, they could presumably have called it "THAT", as they did in their letters to each other.)

A decade later, Lewis is telling his brother Warnie a funny story about how an eccentric old lady persuaded him to stay up all night in order to prevent another neighbour, Mrs Studer, from committing suicide. How standing in a street outside her house all night was supposed to help is never explained. Lewis tells his brother:

"My next step was to provide for calls of nature (no unimportant matter in an all night tete-a-tete with a fool of an elderly woman who has had nothing to do with men since her husband had the the good fortune to die several years ago) by observing that the striking of a match in that stillness would easily be heard in the Studer's house and that I wd tiptoe to the other end of the road to light my pipe. Having thus established my right to disappear into the darkness as often as I chose..."

What exactly is going on in Lewis's head? Was it really so unthinkable for him to say "I need to be excused?" in front of an old lady? And what has the fact that she's not been around men since her husband died got to do with anything? Does he think that old ladies don't go to the toilet? Or that they don't know that men go? Or is he assuming that there is a general rule (which Warnie knows but his neighbour doesn't) that men need to go more often than women?

Much later, during Joy Gresham's first visit to Oxford, Warnie offers his own take on the lavatorial theme:

"(She is) quite extraordinarily uninhibited. Our first meeting was lunch at Magdelen, where she turned to me in the presence of three or four men, and asked in the the most natural tone in the world "Is there anywhere in this monastic establishment where a lady can relieve herself?"

Why was this incident worth recording in a diary? Women visitors were sometimes entertained at Magadelen so it could hardly have been unheard of for one of them to want to go to the toilet. I imagine that Elizabeth Anscombe might have paid a quick visit to the Ladies before her famous debate with Lewis at the Socratic Club -- although since she wore trousers long before it was fashionable for women to do so, I suppose it is just possible that she used the Gents. But there must have been a socially acceptable way of asking where it was.

Is it possible that what we are dealing with here is simply a case of transatlantic miscommunication? Walter Hooper reports that, after sharing several strong cups of tea with Lewis at their first meeting at the Kilns in 1963, the young student from Kentucky asked the great English don if he could use "the bathroom". Lewis obediently showed him the bathroom, and even provided him with soap and towels -- but left Hooper none-the-wiser about the whereabouts of the toilet. Hooper wasn't to know that in most English houses at that time, the toilet and the bath were still in different rooms: so to English ears referring to "the toilet" as "the bathroom" sounded completely absurd, if not actually incomprehensible. (Presumably, an American, who expected all the plumbing to be behind a single door, would have been equally bemused by an Englishman asking for directions to "the smallest room.") (1)

A.N Wilson says -- typically without attribution -- that Warnie, being a gentleman, has "considerably toned down" what Joy said after lunch in Magdelen. One wonders whether Joy had already made several requests using some polite American expression which the Englishmen had entirely failed to understand, and had resorted to the unambiguous "Where can I take a piss?" our of sheer desperation.

But I think that what has really surprised Warnie is not that Joy used a plain word rather than a euphemism, but that she mentioned the subject in the company of males. The rule appears to be that men can under no circumstances refer to toilets in front of ladies, and that ladies should not do so in front of men. Of course, Joy had a reputation for plain speaking in other respects, a habit which Lewis found attractive but which embarrassed some of his male cronies. Wilson implies that she was quite foul-mouthed, but the quoted examples are relatively mild ("Who the hell are you?" "Damn it, Jack!") Perhaps the problem was not that she used foul language, but that she didn't understand the rule that men and women didn't say "damn" in front of each other. Or perhaps she was signaling that she wanted to be treated as one of the boys.

In a letter written when her cancer was in remission, Joy told a friend how much improved she was and mentioned in passing that she could now "use the john like the big folks" – which is exactly the sort of harmless, non descript semi-euphemism that normal adults use all the time. Unfortunately for scholarship, Walter Hooper doesn't tell us which word Lewis would have preferred him to use instead of "bathroom". Talking about his prep school in "Surprised by Joy" Lewis refers to "the sanitation"; and in a conversation with Charles Wrong in 1959 he allegedly referred to the "lavatories" at Malvern (also, incidentally, using the schoolboy slang "bumf" (bum-fodder) for "toilet paper".) But my guess would be that left to himself, Lewis would have referred to the "water closet" or the "W.C"

I say this because, in a letter to his brother when their father was seriously ill, Lewis makes the following remark:

"It was very alarming the night he was a little delirious. But (I cannot refrain from telling you) do you know the form it took? The watercloset element in his conversation rose from its usual 30% to something like 100%."

"Watercloset element"? I assume that Lewis must mean that his father "used a lot of scatological language" – not an aspect of his father's character that he mentions in "Surprised by Joy". (The only other interpretations that I can think of are "he was a hypochondriac about his bowels and bladder" and "he was worried about the plumbing in the house" which don't seem consistent with a man suffering from delirium. It's just possible that "watercloset element" means simply "bad language"- as someone might say "potty-mouth" – but this would, even for Lewis, be a curious circumlocution for "Dad swears a lot".) Lewis says that his father's bad habit of melodramatic emotionalism contributed to his own repression by making him fear emotions in general. If his father perpetually embarrassed him with inappropriate toilet-humour this could also have contributed to his extreme reticence about this subject. (2)

Lewis seems to have enjoyed a very close relationship with his bladder. His friend and biographer George Sayer mentions that even as a young man "Jack was in the habit of passing water far more often than most men." He apparently kept a chamber pot in the room adjacent to his study, and (to his students' surprise) would nip out and use it during a tutorial (while continuing to talk about courtly love in Spencer.) In "The Four Loves" he draws a rather donnish distinction between "need pleasures" and "appreciation pleasures". Listening to music doesn't cure our need to listen to music; smelling a rose doesn't stop us from enjoying the smell of roses: these are therefore appreciation pleasures. On the other hand:

"The scullery tap and the tumbler are very attractive indeed when we coming in parched from mowing the grass; six seconds later they are emptied of all interest. The smell of frying food is very different before and after breakfast. And, if you will forgive me for citing the most extreme instance of all, have there not for most of us been moments (in a strange town) when the site of the word GENTLEMEN over a door has roused a joy almost worthy of celebration in verse.", actually. Speaking for myself, there have not been. And if we are specifically talking about the word "GENTLEMEN" there have presumably not been for around 50% of his audience. Is he again slipping into the assumption that going to the toilet is something mainly done by men? But a very weak bladder would obviously have made tracking down public lavatories especially important for him. Again, does he assume that it is a general rule that all men, and no women, have this particular problem?

Some people might think that it is odd to refer quite gratuitously, and in the context of a series of lectures intended for American religious radio (3) to a subject which caused you so much embarrassment; to make such a song and dance about doing so ("you will have to forgive me") but to still be unable to say the actual word. But Lewis does this kind of thing all the time. He introduces a passage about sexual equality with "This calls for plain speaking.." and proceeds to speak so un-plainly as to leave most of us with no idea why too much equality will prevent women from enjoying intercourse. In his autobiography, he comes to an event in his life which he isn't at liberty to talk about, and spends several lines talking about the fact that he can't talk about it. In the essay "Prudery and Philology" he wonders why it is so much more acceptable for an artist to draw a picture of a a naked figure than for a writer to describe one. He decides that the problem is with the English language. Try to write a description of a naked person:

"When you come to describe those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will find that you will have to make a choice of vocabulary: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find any ordinary neutral word comparable to "hand" or "nose."

As a generalization, this is simply false. There are a number of taboo areas of the human body; and a number of strongly taboo words which describe them. It was, after all, a vernacular reference to Lady Chatterley's buttocks which Mervyn Griffith-Jones didn't want his wife or his servant to read.(4) But if you want to write a description of a nude, you are quite free to use the neutral word "bottom" if you would rather not say "arse" or "gluteus maximus"; "breast" is a perfectly neutral alternative to "tit" or "booby". Lewis's rule actually only applies to one part of the body: "parts of the body which are not usually mentioned" is itself a euphemism for "genitals". But of course, he can't say this: even in an essay about what can and can't be talked about, he can't bring himself to talk about the thing which he's talking about not talking about. Surely, in 1955, the readers of "The Spectator" would not have been scandalized if he had simply said "There is no neutral English word for penis."

Lewis appears to be slightly less reticent about referring to his bowels that to his bladder. In describing a typical day to his brother he feels the need to mention that he "goes to the stool" at around 8.40 in the morning; later, during a very busy week, he asks jocularly whether saying ones prayers could be combined with moving one's bowels. And bottoms apparently do not fall into the category of "those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned". He is quite happy to quote the old joke about the girls-school production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" ("I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see a female Bottom.") The extremely rude poem that he quotes with approval to Warnie is more anal than sexual ("I grabbed him by the hair of his head/And shoved it into a bucket of water/And I screwed his pistols up his arse/A damn sight harder than I screwed his daughter".) (5) And of course when he and Warnie were still toddlers, their nursemaid threatened to smack their "little piggy bottoms". This remark was so astonishingly funny that 60 years later, they were still referring to each other as "Big Piggybottom" and "Small Piggybottom". (6)

This could come from an old fashioned Victorian attitude to "regularity". Properly maintained Church of England bowels can be relied on to perform at roughly the same time every day: they are therefore simply a mundane fact of life, a chore. The bladder on the other hand makes more frequent and unpredictable demands on you: it is therefore embarrassing and even shameful. One also wonders whether Lewis regarded his weak bladder as self-inflicted. Hooper describes him drinking tea by the pint, and Tolkien reported that he regarded three pints of beer at lunchtime as "going short". So is it possible that Lewis regarded his frequent trips to the toilet as in some respects a sin; the result of too much self-indulgence; something to be ashamed of?

Since we have raised the subject of penises and bottoms, we probably at least ought to mention buggery. There were, of course, a lot of gay relationships between teenagers and younger boys at Lewis's second boarding school. Lewis insists that "the vice in question" was one of only two which he has never been tempted by. But he adds that he find it "opaque to the imagination". I have always thought that this was an odd turn of phrase. Maybe he doesn't mean anything more than "I really can't think why anyone would want to do that." But is it possible that he means it literally: "I've been told what they got up to; but when I try to form a mental picture of it, I simply can't."

So: we have a man with a very weak bladder, possibly the result of an undiagnosed medical condition. He has to be perpetually thinking about his next trip to the toilet; coming up with silly stories to excuse himself, inventing spurious euphemisms; looking out for public toilets in strange towns and even placing a chamber pot in the room next to his study. He thinks that this is a male phenomenon, one that all men but no women would understand. He also thinks that it is self-inflicted, even sinful, because of the amount of tea and beer which he drinks. But this sense of being controlled by unpredictable "calls of nature" fits in rather closely – and may actually inform – his dualistic theology, in which "the body" is sometimes an enemy one has to defeat and sometimes a beast one has to tame. His father, who he had a complicated relationship with, used to talk all the time about lavatories, which makes him almost afraid of any reference to them. And he is more than usually repressed about sexuality: he has spent years trying to resist the temptation to masturbate because of the violent fantasies which were associated with it; he finds the word "penis" unmentionable; and he finds it impossible to form a mental picture of a homosexual encounter between two men. So to say "Excuse me, I am just going upstairs for a second," in front of a woman is something which he is pathologically unable to do: because it would involve admitting the existence of his penis. Freud talks about the stages which infants go through before they understand the anatomical difference between men and women; and suggests that at an unconscious level, some people continue to "believe" in their infantile constructions (so a man may have a subconscious belief that women have penises; and that the ones he actually sees naked have been castrated for some reason.) Is there something childish in Lewis's unconscious which says "Urinating is a specifically male concept, since it is done with one's penis: women, not having penises, do not urinate." Some psychologists tell us that sex arouses feelings of shame is because of the proximity of the organs of procreation to the organs of excretion: we can't help feeling that sex is dirty. One wonders whether Lewis, (like the man who disapproved of sex because it might lead to dancing) was exceptionally disgusted by toilets because they forced him to admit the existence of sex.

In 1961, at the age of 63 C.S Lewis was diagnosed as having an enlarged prostate gland. He was initially fitted with a catheter, but this seems to have caused his kidneys to become infected, which in turn led to a heart problem which made it impossible to operate on him. He died two years later of kidney failure.

(1) Studies in words: A "toilet" was originally a place for ladies to "make their toilet" i.e wash and apply make-up. ("And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed/ Each silver vase in mystic order laid.") And a "lavatory" was originally a place to "lavare" i.e to wash. So both words do in fact mean more or less the same as "bathroom". The O.E.D claims that "lavatory" was first noted as a euphemism in 1924 -- seven years after Lewis apparently told Arthur that he needed to "go north". But Lewis appears to use "lavatory" in the older sense: when his is living with Mrs Moore he mentions in his diary that the plumbing has gone down, and that he has to go to college to use the lavatory: which must surely mean "to take a bath" rather than "to go to the toilet."

(2) Incidentally, this reticence appears to have been shared by Lewis's uncles. Lewis quotes one of them as having said: "Now Dick, you'd better go and take off your collar and wash yourself and that sort of thing and have a bit of a shave" (my emphasis.)

(3) It will be remembered that the station he had been commissioned by were so coy that they objected to the fact that he had "several times brought sex into his discussion of eros."

(4) ."Tha'rt not one o' them button-arsed lasses as should be lads, are ter! Tha's got a real soft sloping bottom on thee..." etc etc etc

(5) It is interesting that he finds this funny; that he admires the "Miller's Tale"; but that he is exceptionally disgusted by the idea of gay sex.

(6) The fact that Walter Hooper has made sure that we know about Lewis's interest in spanking may put a slightly different slant on these nicknames.

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