Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Back to Back; Belly to Belly

To one of the charges he makes.…I must with shame plead guilty. He has caught me using the word "literally" where I did not really mean it, a vile journalistic cliché which he cannot reprobate more severely than I now do myself.
C.S Lewis

C.S Lewis never won a Hugo award, although he has been retrospectively nominated for two. He was offered a C.B.E. by Sir Winston Churchill but turned it down. His sermon, The Weight of Glory, engages in some fairly rarefied conjecture about the nature of heaven and the afterlife. He speculates that, in heaven, the feeling that the human race has had since the Fall of being alienated from the natural world may be overcome. Perhaps we won’t just admire the beauty of the sunset, but actually be a part of it? 

What is the point of such theorizing? Lewis draws a moving and edifying moral: 

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses…

J.C Wright’s essay on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is clearly influenced by Lewis’s sermon. He asks the vaguely interesting question "Why do the woodland animals help Snow White with her household chores?" and proposes the vaguely interesting answer "Because friendship between humans and animals evokes the innocence of the Garden of Eden." 

In the middle of the essay, he goes off on a tangent:

No doubt by now some readers are puzzled at my repeated use of the words "virgin"and "maiden", and if those readers went to public school instead of getting an education, they are not only puzzled but offended... Much as it appalls the brain dead zombies indoctrinated by public schools, innocence is better than the cynicism or shared guilt or victimology [1] taught by modern thought, and if we place faith in the account Moses told the Children of Israel about Eden, it was lack of innocence that drove the parents of mankind out of paradise. Even more appalling to the zombies, the perfect symbol and image of innocence is virginity…

C.S Lewis once told a child that the secret of good writing was to know exactly what you want to say, and to say exactly that. Don’t say infinite if you mean big or you’ll be stuck for a word when you want to talk about something infinite; don’t say sadism if you mean cruelty or you won’t have a word left when you want to talk about an actual sadist. I think that Lewis would have admitted that there could be such a thing as hyperbole and poetic exaggeration. When a schoolgirl says "My piano teacher is like literally a thousand years old" she knows perfectly well that her piano teacher is not literally a thousand years old. That’s what makes the remark funny. I read in the Guardian that Boris Johnson is popular in London because "London…is solely inhabited by millions of braying, espadrilled berks [2] who communicate exclusively in emojis". Obviously this isn’t literally true, but we get the joke. "People in London communicate exclusively in emojis" is a funny way of saying "Many Londoners spend far too much time on their mobile phones". 

It isn’t literally true that people who went to public-school [3] are brain-dead; a term we'd normally only use to describe someone in an inoperable coma; and it certainly isn’t literally true that they are corpses that have been animated by a voodoo priest. Brain-dead might simply be hyperbole for stupid. The Hugo-nominated Wright thinks that people who went to public school are uneducated, which is hyperbole for poorly educated;  but poorly educated and stupid are not at all the same thing. And in what sense are they poorly educated? Is the complaint that the teaching is rather inadequate — so not very much of what is taught is understood or remembered? Or is the problem that public school children are being taught the wrong things: that they are learning about political and economic geography when they should be learning about fairy tales and flogging (see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)?

The allegation relevant to the subject at hand is that a public school education coarsens people, or is morally deficient. People who went to public school either literally don't know what a virgin is, or else they don't understand why someone might think that virginity was a Good Thing. But how you get from "they have a loose standard of sexual morality" to "they don’t have brains" and "they are like the walking dead" I have no idea.

In the UK sending a kid to a private school costs about £18k per child per year. The average worker earns £26k per year; the legal minimum wage is around £13k. (And if we obey the Pope, sorry, the magesterium, and only use natural birth control, we are going to have to find school fees for an awful lot of kids.) "People who went to public school instead of getting an education" essentially means poor people, where "poor" is defined as anyone whose parents are taking home less than, say, eighty grand. In other words, about 93% of the population. 

The right wing press depicts foreigners as an impersonal blob. Dark skinned people are always pouring and surging into our white and pleasant land in tides and floods and waves. It seems to me that the Hugo-nominated Wright thinks of the poor as an ever-expanding depersonalized hoard that will eventually overwhelm us; carriers of an infection which will eventually destroy us. 

And while we are at it: innocence. A child who doesn't know where babies come from is innocent in one sense; an adult who knows perfectly well but doesn’t believe in sex before marriage is innocent in a different sense. The innocence which is the opposite of cynicism is different again; and obviously all are different from the person who maintains their innocence in a court of law. It is simply wrong to say that "lack of innocence drove Adam and Eve from Eden". In the story, Satan tricks Eve into disobeying God; and God kicks them out as a punishment for disobeying him. It is true that, before they sinned, Adam and Eve are said to have been, like very small children, indifferent to nudity. But no-one proposes that because Snow White was innocent, she would have been just fine joining the dwarfs in the boys' showers after a hard day down the mine. Just the opposite: that kind of innocence implies exceptional modesty. (The Hugo-nominated Wright rightly mocks the idea in some 60s science fiction that future-humans will be naturists.) Isn’t the theological consensus that if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, they would still have had sex, and sex would still have been brilliant, but they would only have wanted as much of it as was necessary for making a sensible number of babies? Which, by an astonishing coincidence, is exactly how the Eldar function in Middle-earth. I digress. 

This kind of thing keeps happening. We are in the middle of a perfectly reasonable point, and suddenly shoot off at right angles into a massively bizarre piece of hate speech. And the more one pokes and scratches, the harder it is to work out what the Hugo-nominated Wright is actually trying to say. 

Two more examples will be more than enough. 

The Glory Game is a novel by the Hugo-nominated Keith Laumer about a military hero manfully avoiding being morally compromised by the political realities of war. (The writing style is "masculine, muscular, brief" apparently.) Hugo-nominated J.C Wright thinks that it illustrates Plato’s question about whether it is better to be good (even though everyone thinks you are wicked) or to be thought of as good (even though you are wicked in reality). Which I daresay it does. It is not to be confused with Hunter Davies’ book about Spurs football club. 

In the middle of the essay, we go off in the following random direction: 

In one glaringly anachronistic scene, a newsman actually asks him for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and reports it. That scene would be laugh out loud funny if someone tried to write it about newsmen of this day and age. Can you imagine a newsman actually being interested in the truth? It is like a whore being interested in chaste romance.

What? Where did that remark come from? 

There has been some bad stuff in England over the last few years about journalists spying on members of the public to get salacious stories. And lots of us are worried about billionaire newspaper owners encouraging their staff to spin stories to fit in with their own political beliefs. On the other hand, we’ve had campaigning journalists uncovering details of MPs dodgy financial dealings, the (ahem) Daily Mail doggedly pursuing the Steven Lawrence case; not to mention hundreds and hundreds of jobbing local reporters diligently reporting what the Mayor said about allotments on the Gloucester road and what the Magistrate said to the guy who exposed himself to a lady on the Downs. Some journalists are honest and some journalists are dishonest. The idea that anyone would find the idea of an honest journalist funny is laughable. 

And there are lots of stories about prostitutes who want chaste romance. Les Miserables for one. La Traviata for another. It's so common that "tart with a heart" is a byword for a literary cliche. No-one finds the idea particularly funny. Because, get this: a prostitute is not an alien life form with different kinds of feelings from everybody else. A prostitute is someone’s daughter and someone's sister and very probably someone's mother, a human being for whom Christ died, who at a particular point in her life (and very probably not at another) has decided to let men have sex with her in return for money. [4]

The Hugo-nominated writer doesn’t think a great deal of The Left — or indeed Marxists, Liberals, Post-Modernists and Feminists. He uses the terms pretty interchangeably. It’s all equally a lot of P.C nonsense, along with climate change and quantum physics. At one point he blurts out:

The demand made by these subhuman genetically defective control freaks is that you, the reader, stop liking the books and stories you like… and start liking the books and stories which these genetically defective control freaks demand you should like, in the name of the glorious cause of whatever the glorious cause is this week.

The control freak bit I get. He thinks that The Left are not really interested in the causes they espouse: the idea that they actually care is like the idea of a prostitute with human feelings, simply funny. According to him, The Left uses the idea of racial equality and women’s rights and environmentalism as a pretext to tell other people what to do. In a certain light, you can see what he has in mind. 

The subhuman part takes more work. I get that he doesn’t think that you can stop people from being racist by preventing them from saying the N-word and that you can't make men and women equal by making people say paramedic and firefighter instead of ambulanceman and fireman. I get that he thinks that the idea that you can amounts to a superstition. I even get, up to a point, that he thinks that those of us who prefer to use inclusive language have been bamboozled by commies. But how on earth do you get from gravely mistaken to subhuman?

Our mutual friend C.S. Lewis more or less defined humanity as "having a concept of right and wrong". His extended essay the Abolition of Man is a reductio ad absurdium against a school text book which apparently taught that all values whatsoever were subjective and should be debunked. Lewis imagines what would happen if that way of thinking won the day. He pictures a distant future in which mankind has evolved into a race of super-intelligent relativists: a species who believe that morality is purely a construct, and who are capable of constructing new moral values and instilling them into the next generation. He says that if that ever occurred, it would amount to the end of the humanity — the abolition of man. 

I think that this is what Wright has in mind. But where Lewis envisaged a master generation at some remote point in the future, Wright thinks that any liberal — anyone who believes in any kind of cultural relativism; anyone who is skeptical about any aspect of traditional morality; almost anyone whose opinions differ from J.C Wright and the Pope — has already stopped being human. Liberals, like prostitutes, are by definition an alien Other.

Asimov, who was a Liberal, had no understanding of what morality was or what it was for, so it never appears in his stories...

Which sounds very like nonsense.

But even if we accept that liberals and post-modernists have no concept of morality whatsoever, how do we get from sub-human to genetically defective? The Hugo-nominated Wright hasn’t argued for this. I don’t know what kind of genetic defect he envisages which might cause someone to think it’s okay for two guys to fall in love with each other or think that we ought to avoid words which demean people or believe that slightly higher taxes and fewer guns in private hands would be a good idea. But if liberal beliefs are the result of genetic defect, then I can only suppose that the Hugo-nominated Wright thinks that liberalism is part of one's essential nature; hard-coded into one's DNA. But isn't "I’m not a free moral agent, my genes made me do it" precisely the sort of thing that he would denounce as victimology if it were being taught to poor people in a public school?

Lewis’s theological speculations lead him to a renewed love of his fellow-man. Wright’s arguments lead him to a renewed hatred of…practically everybody. The political left are sub-human; prostitutes can never fall in love; news reporters can never tell the truth. It is true that Lewis thought that some human beings might, apart from the grace of God, become nightmarish creatures; and that certain bad philosophical ideas might, if extended out to infinity and beyond, cause the human race to lose its humanity. But for Wright, this has already happened. 

There is a parable in the New Testament about a farmer who found that he had planted wheat and thorns in the same field. There was nothing for it but to let the wheat and the thorns grow up together — but come harvest, the thorns could be separated from the wheat and burned. But thorns are thorns and wheat is wheat and a thorn can't become a wheat however much it wants to or tries. Some of the crop is predestined to be burned come harvest time. If the Hugo-nominated Wright didn’t proclaim his Catholicism on every page, I would suspect him of being a hyper-Calvinist.


1: Logos means word  or reason and -logy usually means the study of: sociology, the study of society; anthropology, the study of human beings; psychology, the study of the mind. For all I know, American state schools may teach victimology, the study of victims, which might be a very interesting subject. (How do courts in different jurisdictions treat victims of crime? How do victims deal with and recover from their experiences?) But I think that when he says that modern education teaches victimology the Hugo-nominated Wright means the modern education teaches children to be, or to think of themselves as, victims (rather than taking personal responsibility for their lives.) I wouldn’t be bothered by this sort of thing if the Hugo-nominated Wright wasn’t so pedantic about neologisms which aren’t to his personal taste.

2: Berk was originally cockney rhyming slang: Berkshire Hunt = cunt. But the word has acquired a much weaker and less obscene connotation — fool and specifically upper class fool. Language is like that sometimes. 

3: Public School in American English is equivalent to State School in British English — a free school paid for by taxation. It probably has connotations like the British Comprehensive School — "the most ordinary or generic kind of education". (c.f Tony Blair’s bog standard comp.). A Public School in British English is equivalent to a Private School in American English. Did I mention that language is sometimes like that? 

4: In the essay After Priggery, What? the aforementioned C.S. Lewis riffs on the idea that the social status of a dishonest journalist ought to be lower than that of a prostitute.("He gives his customers a baser pleasure; he infects them with more dangerous diseases.") I rather suspect that the Hugo-nominated Wright has this passage at the back of his mind, but hasn’t quire remembered what Lewis’s point was.

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