If 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!
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.
And 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.
Not 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.
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.
This 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.
But 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.)
Much 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.
That 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.
Yet 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.