C.S. Lewis’ Curmudgeonly Essay

old-man-upIf you were to judge only from the pieces he published in December 1957, you would assume that C.S. Lewis was a classic case, get-off-my-lawn, wide-jawed, beslippered, well aged, first class curmudgeon.

In 1955, he had published a clever piece called, “Xmas and Christmas,” a kind of fake anthropological look at the cynical nature of commercial Christmas. Apparently, writing this essay did not get it out of his system, and he returned in 1957 to write “What Christmas Means to Me.” The second paragraph begins this way:

“I  mean of course the commercial racket.”

The rest of the article is largely in the same tone of condemnation. While the four complaints he lays out are relevant, one can’t help but feel kindness to Twentieth Century magazine for publishing this short rant.

But the truly curmudgeonly piece isn’t “What Christmas Means to Me,” but “Delinquents in the Snow.” Perhaps the title gives it away, but this article is a grievance about some young punks in his neighbourhood, and a lament for a culture that does not reform delinquency, but aids and abets in its criminal nature–both in legal structures and moral encouragement.

I don’t know if Lewis wrote this piece with teeth set on edge or a bit of a chuckle. It is published in a humour magazine. But about this time, Joy Davidman–the new Mrs. Lewis–took up the shotgun as a means of Johnsonian property protection. Reports of her hobbling around the property picking off pigeons and poachers with equal intensity caused one local child to warn friends of the Lewises not to be about in the back garden, in case Mrs. Lewis has got her gun.

How curmudgeonly is this article? I’ve attached the entire thing to show you its full cranky old man force. It includes a complaint about all Christmas carolers, the Dictatorship of the Criminals, and an unsubtle reference to the Ku Klux Klan.

Enjoy, and merry Christmas to all the little old fist-shaking men in bathrobes in each of us!


Marketing-curmudgeon“Delinquents in the Snow” by C.S. Lewis (Christmas 1957)

Voices “off”, outside the front door, annually remind us (usually at the most inconvenient moments) that the season of carols has come again. At my front door they are, once every year, the voices of the local choir; on the forty-five other annual occasions they are those of boys or children who have not even tried to learn to sing, or to memorize the words of the piece they are murdering. The instruments they play with real conviction are the doorbell and the knocker; and money is what they are after. I am pretty sure that some of them are the very same hooligans who trespass in my garden, rob my orchard, hack down my trees and scream outside my windows, though everyone in the neighbourhood knows that there is serious illness in my family.

I am afraid I deal with them badly in the capacity of “waits”. I neither forgive like a Christian nor turn the dog on them like an indignant householder. I pay the blackmail. I give, but give ungraciously, and make the worst of both worlds. It would be silly to publish this fact (more proper for a confessor’s ear) if I did not think that this smouldering resentment, against which I win so many battles but never win the war, was at present very widely shared by law-abiding people.

scrooge cartoonAnd Heaven knows, many of them have better cause to feel it than I. I have not been driven to suicide like Mr Pilgrim. I am not mourning for a raped and murdered daughter whose murderer will be kept (partly at my expense) in a mental hospital till he gets out
and catches some other child. My greatest grievance is trivial in comparison. But, as it raises all the issues, I will tell it.

muppets old menNot long ago some of my young neighbours broke into a little pavilion or bungalow which stands in my garden and stole several objects – curious weapons and an optical instrument. This time the police discovered who they were. As more than one of them had been convicted of similar crimes before, we had high hopes that some adequately deterrent sentence would be given. But I was warned: “It’ll all be no good if the old woman’s on the bench.”

I had, of course, to attend the juvenile court and all fell out pat as the warning had said. The – let us call her – Elderly Lady presided. It was abundantly proved that the crime had been planned and that it was done for gain: some of the swag had already been sold. The Elderly Lady inflicted a small fine. That is, she punished not the culprits but their parents.

grumpy old menBut what alarmed me more was her concluding speech to the prisoners. She told them that they must, they really must, give up these “stupid pranks”.

Of course I must not accuse the Elderly Lady of injustice. Justice has been so variously defined. If it means, as Thrasymachus thought, “the interest of the stronger”, she was very
just; for she enforced her own will and that of the criminals and they together are incomparably stronger than I. But if her intention was – and I do not doubt that the road on which such justice is leading us all is paved with good ones – to prevent these boys from growing up into confirmed criminals, I question whether her method was well judged. If they listened to her (we may hope they did not) what they carried away was the conviction that planned robbery for gain would be classified as a “prank” – a childishness which they might be expected to grow out of. A better way of leading them on, without any sense of frontiers crossed, from mere inconsiderate romping and plundering orchards to burglary, arson, rape and murder, would seem hard to imagine.

oscar-the_grouch.ls.101513This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age. Criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. One might fear that we were moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy.

But that is not my fear; my fear is almost the opposite. According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter’s murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him. Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited, and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.

saturday-night-live-grumpy-old-manBut the classical theory morally grounds our obligation to civil obedience; explains why it is right (as well as unavoidable) to pay taxes, why it is wrong (as well as dangerous) to stab your daughter’s murderer. At present the very uncomfortable position is this: the State protects us less because it is unwilling to protect us against criminals at home, and manifestly grows less and less able to protect us against foreign enemies. At the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.

And the question that torments me is how long flesh and blood will continue to endure it. There was even, not so long ago, a question whether they ought to. No one, I hope, thinks Dr Johnson a barbarian. Yet he maintained that if, under a peculiarity of Scottish law, the murderer of a man’s father escapes, the man might reasonably say, “I am amongst barbarians, who… refuse to do justice… I am therefore in a state of nature… I will stab the
murderer of my father.” (This is recorded in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides under 22nd August 1773.)

Patrick Cranshaw Jeremiah Ezekial JacksonMuch more obviously, on these principles, when the State ceases to protect me from hooligans I might reasonably, if I could, catch and thrash them myself. When the State cannot or will not protect, “nature” is come again and the right of self protection reverts to the individual. But of course if I could and did I should be prosecuted. The Elderly Lady and her kind who are so merciful to theft would have no mercy on me; and I should be pilloried in the gutter Press as a “sadist” by journalists who neither know nor care
what that word or any word, means.

What I fear, however, is not, or not chiefly, sporadic outbreaks of individual vengeance. I am more afraid, our conditions being so like that of the South after the American Civil War, that some sort of Ku-Klux-Klan may appear and that this might eventually develop
into something like a Right or Central revolution. For those who suffer are chiefly the provident, the resolute, the men who want to work, who have built up, in the face of implacable discouragement, some sort of life worth preserving and wish to preserve it.

Alastair Sim ScroogeThat most (by no means all) of them are “middle class” is not very relevant. They do not get their qualities from a class: they belong to that class because they have those qualities. For in a society like ours no stock which has diligence, forethought or talent, and is prepared to practise self-denial, is likely to remain proletarian for more than a generation. They are, in fact, the bearers of what little moral, intellectual or economic vitality remains. They are not nonentities. There is a point at which their patience will snap.

The Elderly Lady, if she read this article, would say I was “threatening” – linguistic nicety not being much in her line. If by a threat you mean (but then you don’t know much English) the conjectural prediction of a highly undesirable event, then I threaten. But if by the word threat you imply that I wish for such a result or would willingly contribute to
it, then you are wrong. Revolutions seldom cure the evil against which they are directed; they always beget a hundred others. Often they perpetuate the old eviI under a new name.

We may be sure that, if a Ku-Klux-Klan arose, its ranks would soon be chiefly filled by the same sort of hooligans who provoked it. A Right or Central revolution would be as hypocritical, filthy and ferocious as any other. My fear is lest we should be making it more probable. This may be judged an article unfit for the season of peace and goodwill.

226828-up-old-man-2-0Yet there is a connection. Not all kinds of peace are compatible with all kinds of goodwill, nor do all those who say “Peace, peace” inherit the blessing promised to the peacemakers
(Matthew 5:9). The real pacificist is he who promotes peace, not he who gasses about it.

Peace, peace… we won’t be hard on you… it was only a boyish prank… you had a neurosis… promise not to do it again… out of this in the long run I do not think either goodwill or peace will come. Planting new primroses on the primrose path is no longterm benevolence.

There! They’re at it again. “Ark, the errol hyngel sings.” They’re knocking louder. Well they come but fifty times a year. Boxing Day is only two and a half weeks ahead; then perhaps we shall have a little quiet in which to remember the birth of Christ.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Curmudgeonly Essay

  1. jubilare says:

    Curmudgeonly he may be, but the man, as usual, has a point. In true Lewisian fashion, he’s not shaking his fist in a “call to arms,” but offering a sharp glance at probable consequences.

    I love his Xmas vs Christmas essay, though. It’s what I hate and love about this season, too!

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  2. And your photos along with the article are priceless. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Reading this, I wonder how long Lewis gave his ten-week “Political Philosophy” course for undergraduate historians – right up until his academic move to Cambridge? Interesting, too, that this is three years after his treatment of ‘state sovereignty’ and so on in his OHEL volume introduction. It strikes me as also having an interesting connection with his “Meditation on the Third Commandment” from nearly 17 years earlier.

    “This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age” makes me think that this appeared only two years before Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, with its imagined looking back on a (doomed) civilization having reaching more or less the conditions Lewis describes.

    “I don’t know if Lewis wrote this piece with teeth set on edge or a bit of a chuckle. It is published in a humour magazine.” The humour seems pretty sharp and bitter, given the seriousness of immediate situation (though Joy was able to walk around the house and garden by this point), and of the general situation and “conjectural prediction” of what he thinks a possible future ‘backlash’ situation. But… Walter Hooper, in first reprinting this in 1970, says it “first appeared in Time and Tide”, which I would not particularly characterize as a humour magazine. Another bit of interesting context for part of its humour, some of the details about the informal carolers, is the remembered caroling in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales (which first appeared in book form in 1955) – I wonder if Lewis knew it? Speaking of which, “It includes a complaint about all Christmas carolers” – “all” in the sense of ‘far-too-numerous’, but not equally a complaint in the strict sense of “all”: “once every year, the voices of the local choir” (the choir of his parish church?) seems favourably contrasted with the rest (even though he may have no more taste for carols than for hymns – but, do we know that?).

    As if I had not gone on too long already, Lewis’s “conjectural prediction of a highly undesirable event” reminds me of Peter Hayms’s film, The Star Chamber (1983).

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    • Hooper actually surveyed Lewis’ teaching in an article, which I have. Yet I cannot tell you how often or when he gave the philosophy tutorial or lectures. Certainly in the 1920s, in the first 6 years of his work at Oxford. But I’m not sure when.
      I’m in the middle of “Childhood’s End” by Clarke–don’t tell me where it goes!–but it feels like a post-Dr. Spock sort of utopia, where delinquency is just something to overcome.
      I haven’t seen Star Chamber, but I have watched the TV version of a CHristmas in Wales–a brilliant atmosphere.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A.G. Dickens told me a lot about the “Political Philosophy” course when I interviewed him for the Wade, but I don’t remember lots of dates by heart. ‘Social contract’, etc. is also a big feature of Barfield’s Poetic Diction (or so I remember it).

        I don’t remember that aspect of Childhood’s End (brushing up called for!). I’m just getting reacquainted (via a fine David McCallum audiobook) with Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” (published in 1936) and noticed a rather lighthearted passing remark about boys’ universal tendencies to vandalism! (I must try that TV version of Child’s Christmas in Wales when I can – I keep hearing good of it!)

        What are our sources for Joy’s shotgun? (I just heard Douglas Gresham talking about it in Oxford, 27 October.)

        Something striking about this essay (in contrast with “Meditation on the Third Commandment”), is that it sketches different problematical actual and possible developments, but offers no concrete positive counter suggestions. (An interesting comparison with THS suggests itself, here, without the dei ex machina.)

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        • Believe it or not, I haven’t done any Lovecraft since chlldhood, and look forward to returning.
          The source for Joy’s shortgun is Doug Gresham, through Santamaria’s book. I don’t remember the source for the child talking about Mrs. Lewis.
          I think it is probably easier to determine Lewis’ anti-political philosophy than his actual one, besides democracy in general.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            In both “Meditation on the Third Commandment” and Lewis’s preface to How Heathen is Britain (reprinted later as ” “On the Transmission of Christianity”), the publications of which bracket that of THS, he emphasizes voluntary, practical activity, as concrete Christian people, singly and/or together.

            (This might be a good place to note Arend Smilde’s attention to the author and editions o How Heathen is Britain?, with complete text of the 1948 revised version:

            http://lewisiana.nl/sandhurst/index.htm

            I haven’t collated but do not think Lewis revised the Preface.)

            Perhaps you know the source for the following: I seem fuzzy on both details and source. At some point during W.W. II (so I’ve heard or read), Lewis disposed of his W.W. I service revolver, by dropping it in – I think the Cherwell from Magdalen bridge, but perhaps in the pond at The Kilns, with an eye to avoiding being caught with it, in the case of a successful Nazi invasion. I would have thought you’d want to hold onto such a weapon (well-hidden) in case it would be useful for Resistance work, in those circumstances.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks to someone somewhere on YouTube, I’ve just made the acquaintance of Queen Elizabeth’s first televised Christmas message – from this same year, 1957 – and found its matter generally very Lewisian!

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Enjoying a 1954 (or – according to Wikipedia – 1955) radio-play version of that Holmesian Christmas story, “The Blue Carbuncle”, I was surprised to find Holmes referring to “those infernal waits who are making night so hideous on our humble doorstep” (at c. 14:15) – a detail not in the 1892 original. Is this some kind of (recent?) topos?! :

    It is in fact set up near the beginning by Holmes’s reference to “a confounded din from the street” (c. 2:15) which leads to his asking forgiveness near the end for his earlier (c. 25:15) “being so surly”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just ran into a sort of other one, with Fibber McGee, from 1943 – where his objection to carollers seems to turn out to be becoming too soft-hearted and practically ‘charitable’ (from c. 20:25):

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    • My son thought this was hilarious, but even at 11–and tho we don’t listen to a lot of this–he knew it was “from the war.” This McGee curmudgeonly ways seem to be because he is a sucker for the feeling of it all!

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        What fun – I had an LP set of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and various radio highlights when I was young, but my impression is that in the last ten years or so it’s become easy to make the acquaintance of old radio programs like never before for decades.

        Yes – a nice twist!

        We used to sing that adapted setting of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ when I was in high school – indeed, taking it around, effectively carolling.

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just ran into a very different approach, in an 1888 reprint of what is apparently an 1836 book! With luck, the link will lead to the right section, starting on page 192:

    https://archive.org/stream/bookofchristmas00herviala#page/192/mode/2up

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just ran into an article saying, “Happiness in Britain peaked in 1957” and linking a new academic policy report, “Understanding Happiness”, as the source for this:

    http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Social-Market-FoundationCAGE-Report-Understanding-Happiness-1.pdf

    1957, when Lewis wrote this little article!

    None of the ‘Lewis’ references my word-search through “Understanding Happiness” found were to C.S. Lewis’s “We have no ‘right to happiness’”….

    Here’s where I ran into the 1957 note:

    http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/rebel-priest-rev-jules-gomes-happiest-1957-highly-religious/

    To applying a perhaps dubious combination of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with a popular trope about optimists, pessimists, and a glass, was the Lewis woods, as it were, half-full, or half-empty, with a sort of Jadisian snow, in 1957?

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    • Can “happiness” be measured by social science? I don’t know. Apparently Canada is holding steady but the US slipping.
      Still, your connection point is kind of interesting. Although I think Lewis was disconnected from pop culture, he wasn’t disconnected from youth culture (school) or the general zeitgeist. He was probably thinking of things on multiple levels and this came out in a relevant way.
      “Jadisian snow,” well done. Perhaps post-WWII to Lewis–our entire intellectual tradition–is a century-long winter, with no Christmas.

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