Did A. N. Wilson read A. L. Rowse before he wrote his Lewis biography?
In A. L. Rowse’s 1965 book A Cornishman at Oxford, he mentioned in passing his basic disagreement with C. S. Lewis: “When one thinks of books about the insoluble problem of pain, C. S. Lewis and the rest, one reflects that it is only insoluble or even a problem to those who assume an all-wise and all-caring providence and are then surprised at the infinite ills experienced by its creatures…. In truth, there is no problem, for the assumption is superfluous, indeed primitive, belonging to the childhood of the race.”
In 1985 Rowse published an entire essay about Lewis in Glimpses ofthe Great, which also includes a dozen other luminaries he encountered, including Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Rebeccah West, Evelyn Waugh, and John Betjeman. Excerpts follow.
“C. S. Lewis was an odd and gifted man, much odder than his numerous disciples knew. Those who observed him from close at hand, like an historian friend of mine who was for years a colleague of his at Magdalen College, Oxford, and observed him closely, knew how odd. It is the business of historians to watch and observe — not dogmatize, like Lewis — and the first thing that my friend observed was that Lewis’s Academy-prized book The Allegory of Love, was not in keeping with the facts of medieval life. K. B. McFarlane was a medievalist, the leading authority on the fifteenth century; he knew that Lewis was theorising as usual and not getting it right. Lewis had an idealized view of chivalric and courtly love which was not in keeping with the facts, which have prime authority with historians. As an historian, I clashed with Lewis, the theorist, at Oxford on similar grounds.
“I am reminded of this by Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, a rather noble book, for Lewis was a good man with the highest standards.” When Rowse read that book he knew that the episode Lewis left out involved the Moores. (Years earlier a couple of professors out for a walk took refuge in the Kilns because of rain, and were shocked to see women’s clothing scattered about.) Rowse was convinced that Lewis was moral, but that he was masochistic or he would not have lived with “these commonplace people.” Rowse’s friend MacFarlane claimed that Lewis was full of fear. He said that Lewis was afraid of surgery, and that it was terror of the approach of World War Two that caused Lewis to accept the Christian faith.
Lewis’s self-abnegating style irritated Rowse. “There is the constant trick of writing himself down. This is very popular with readers who do not realise that it is a way of writing oneself up. Self-deprecation is inverted pride.” Rowse disbelieved Lewis’s claim that except for homosexual experimentation and gambling he was morally flawed. “Lewis was a naturally good man, and evidently an exceptionally innocent boy at school. Exaggeration again — to impress the reader.” A self-described aesthete, Rowse objected to Lewis’s skepticism about the ultimate value of good taste. Furthermore,he said, “All that beer-swilling, pipe-smoking, pub-crawling heartiness of the Inklings, C. S. Lewis’s cronies at Oxford. I thought it vulgar.”
Rowse agreed with Lewis’s claim “For the last thirty years or so England has been filled with a bitter, truculent, sceptical, debunking and cynical intelligentsia.” He added “This is true — and it is even worse today, with the lowering and vulgarisation of standards.”
“My disagreement with Lewis, and his with me, was an intellectual one: we were at opposite poles in war-time and post-war Oxford.” “I was the proponent of historical relativism, and Lewis pinpointed it as the enemy (one of them). He gave it a special name, which no one knows now — ‘Bulverism’.”
Rowse liked Experiment in Criticism. “[Lewis] dislodged Leavis from his position with singularly little fuss. Nothing surprising in this,for Lewis was a first-rate mind, where Leavis was a second-rate one. Lewis was an excellent scholar. Latin and Greek, French, German, Italian, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. Leavis knew hardly any other language but English, and that badly.”
“I think I have read most of his books: I doubt if he had read any of mine. We were once invited to debate on an issue between us, in an upper room in St Mary’s, the University church. [Note: I have described this in A Man of the Thirties.] Lewis spoke first, and after my speech he had to go, leaving me in possession of the field, if not of the argument. In any case, nothing would have persuaded him: he was impermeable, at bottom insensitive.” “Lewis’s absurd book Miracles is enough to undermine anyone’s faith.”
“I do not think Lewis was at his best on Shakespeare: he had a very heavy preference for the epic and the allegorical, which I do not share, but where I am content to learn from him. (Would he learn from me? No, but he was eager to commend such second-rate work as Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, because it fitted in with his prejudices.”
“Common sense and historical sense alike tell one that Jesus was a healer, a not unnatural phenomenon; it also tells one that ordinary humans will believe anything. Lecky, the historian of European Morals, tells us that humans will believe against the evidence; but hardly ever what is in accordance with the evidence. Lewis, no historian, was not bothered by that. Because he wanted to believe he accepted the infantile beliefs of primitive fishermen.” “Having submitted his reason, Lewis — like the Welsh-Ulsterman he was — went the whole hog, to swallow illusions that are unnecessary to reasonable belief.” How nice it will be if Rowse turns out to be an Emeth.
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