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C. S. Lewis’s Anti-Anti-Semitism in The Great Divorce

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 86, Autumn 2000 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

One of 23 essays in Surprised by C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Dante (Mercer University Press, Spring 2001)

In 1933, the year Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, Lewis published his allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress. There he warned of a tribe of black-shirted dwarfs named the Swastici, who were vassals to a bloodthirsty northern tyrant named Savage.

On November 5, 1933, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “…nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said ‘The Jews have made no contritution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.’ Now as the whole idea of the ‘Will of the Lord’ is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity; but for dictators, ‘Nordic’ tyrants and so on — well, read the chapter about Mr. Savage in the Regress and you have my views.”

(Readers of the collected letters of Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien find that on July 25, 1938, he wrote a defiant letter to his German publisher when asked about his racial heritage. “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”)

One evening after the fall of France in June, 1940 — when the invasion of England seemed imminent — Lewis and some of his friends were thinking of passages in their writings that could mark them for elimination under Nazi occupation. Lewis recalled ominously his subhuman dwarfs in black shirts called the Swastici. As Robert Havard put it later, that was not their happiest evening.

On April 15, 1944, Lewis published his little-known essay “What France Means to You” (a response in French to that question) in the journal La France Libre. His brief essay is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of ironic discretion and double meaning. When he speaks of the “worst cancers of the modern world” taking up residence in France, and “the idol of Stupidity” being raised in what used to be the country of Reason, he is overtly referring to modern decadence; but in my opinion he is also tacitly referring to Naziism. After all, when he wrote this the liberation of France had not yet begun.

On November 10, 1944, C. S. Lewis published the first chapter of his serial novel “Who Goes Home?” in a national church-related newspaper called the Guardian. The story ran, chapter by chapter, until mid-April, l945; and shortly thereafter it was released as the book Lewis called his Cinderella, The Great Divorce. In that story Lewis finds himself in a desolate grey city (hell) waiting for a bus that is headed for the outskirts of heaven. The second person Lewis meets on the bus is an intelligent-looking businessman in a round bowler hat. Anyone who has read Lewis’s 1927 “Easley fragment” would recognize this accidental travelling companion of 1944 as a new version of Lewis’s (Dr. Easley’s) accidental travelling companion of 1927; both are outgoing, greedy, materialistic businessmen who wear round bowler hats. But the encounter in the Easley fragment takes place on a boat, and that companion is an Ulster Irishman; the encounter in The Great Divorce takes place on a bus, and that companion is a Jew.

Almost everyone overlooks Lewis’s single clue that “the Intelligent Man” (called that in chapters 2 and 6) is a Jew. This clue is the fact that the Big Man, a spiteful fellow-traveller, calls the Intelligent Man “Ikey” (a term of insult derived from the name Isaac). Needless to say, Lewis is expressing for alert readers his opinion of anti-Semitism; the anti-Semite (“the Big Man”) has already proved himself an obnoxious and violent bully. Nevertheless, the fact that Lewis’s Intelligent Man fits a negative Jewish stereotype will concern some readers in the era of Political Correctness. (In Reflections on the Psalms Lewis mentions the roots of this common stereotype: “For us the very name Jew is associated with finance, shop-keeping, money-lending and the like. This however, dates from the Middle Ages when the Jews were not allowed to own land and were driven into occupations remote from the soil. Whatever characteristics the modern Jew has acquired from millenia of such occupations, they cannot have been those of his ancient ancestors. Those were peasants or farmers.”)

The Great Divorce is C. S. Lewis’s miniature replica of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and in chapters 12 and 13 of The Great Divorce he presents his transcendently beautiful version of Dante’s Beatrice. This Lady radiates the joy and splendor of heaven, and many readers find her the loveliest of all Lewis’s fictional characters. According to George MacDonald, she is “one of the great ones,” but to his surprise Lewis learns that on earth she was no famous saint. MacDonald tells him “Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” Most readers naturally assume that this information has no particular significance; Sarah Smith is an ordinary name, and Golders Green is an ordinary section of London. (On 26 November 1942 Lewis preached his sermon “Miracles” at St. Jude on the Hill Church in Golders Green.)

But according to James O’Fee of Belfast, “London is a city of villages — Southall is Asian, Notting Hill is mainly black, Camden is largely Irish. Thirty years ago I lived in London, and I had a university friend of Jewish background from Hendon in North London, close to Golders Green. The Jews themselves would joke about Golders Green and its Jewishness. [According to a Jewish friend who is aware of the usage of Lewis’s day and unacquainted with James O’Fee, Jews sometimes referred to Golders Green as Goldberg’s Green.] England had small Jewish communities for centuries, but the great wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived before the First World War, and many settled in the East End of London. By 1944 when Lewis wrote The Great Divorce, the Jewish character of Golders Green would have been established.” Why, O’Fee asked, did Lewis have Sarah Smith come from Golders Green? Was it a gaffe on his part, or was it deliberate?

Just as Ikey is the only nickname used in The Great Divorce, Golders Green is the only location used in The Great Divorce. And just as Ikey indicates Jewishness, so Golders Green indicates Jewishness. I propose that beautiful, saintly Sarah Smith (Abraham’s wife Sarah was the mother of Isaac and foremother of the Jews) is in fact a foil to Ikey, the stereotypically greedy Jewish businessman — and the strongest possible rebuke to anti-Semitism.

In the reader’s last glimpse of Sarah Smith, Bright Spirits celebrate her in a 172-word song that echoes Psalm 91.

The happy Trinity is her home; nothing can trouble her joy….

The invisible germ will not harm her: nor yet the glittering sunstroke.

A thousand fail to solve the problem, ten thousand choose the wrong turning: but she passes safely through….

She may walk among Lions and rattlesnakes: among dinosaurs and nurseries of lionets.

He fills her brim full of the immensity of life: he leads her to see the world’s desire.

How is it that a Jewish woman is celebrated in heaven in a modern version of Psalm 91 that incorporates the Christian Trinity? I asumed that her felicity there might simply echo that of Ripheus in Dante’s Divine Comedy and foreshadow Emeth’s in Lewis’s Last Battle.

I ended my first draft of this essay with the following statement: “C. S. Lewis’s life was itself a kind of rebuke to anti-Semitism. Twelve years after publishing The Great Divorce, he married Joy Davidman Gresham, an ethnic Jew from New York City.”

Joe Christopher read the first draft and added his own idea that Lewis might have conceived of Sarah Smith as a converted Jew. He pointed out that two years before their marriage, Joy published Smoke on the Mountain and Lewis wrote the preface. Obviously referring to Joy herself, he said “In a sense the converted Jew is the only normal human being in the world. To him, in the first instance, the promises were made, and he has availed himself of them. He calls Abraham his father by hereditary right as well as by divine courtesy. . . . Everyone else is, from one point of view, a special case, dealt with under emergency regulations.” Perhaps Lewis had his fictitious Sarah Smith in mind along with his friend Joy when he wrote that.

And perhaps Lewis had Sarah Smith in mind again when Joy died. We know he had her predecessor in mind, because in the last line of A Grief Observed he quoted in Italian the last thing Dante said about Beatrice in The Divine Comedy: “She turned from me to the eternal fountain.”