Posts Tagged ‘Oxford university’

Will This Do by Auberon WaughWill This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh, Auberon Waugh (Century 1991)

If the Holocaust continues to increase its hold on the hearts and minds of all right-thinking folk, it seems quite possible that Auberon Waugh’s body will one day be dug up and put on trial for the disrespect shown by its former occupant, before being ritually burnt and scattered to the four winds.

Unless, that is, other professional victims get their hands on it first. AW told jokes about the most inappropriate subjects, from the “three million years of persecution” suffered by the Jews to the graves of still-born West Indian infants, and remarked of himself that his “own small gift” was for “making the comment, at any given time, which people least wish to hear” (pg. 215). Contemplating his use of this gift and “all the people I have insulted”, he later admits to being “mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist” (229).

But it is the august author of his existence who will concern more readers, and certainly no aficionado of Evelyn Waugh can afford to neglect the autobiography of his eldest son. Waugh père put on a performance for the world and even for his friends, and this book is rather like seeing behind the scenes at a play. Readers will see EW from the wings, as it were, though they should always remember that AW inherited his father’s love of fantasy as well as much of his literary talent. Of one episode from his military service AW remarks: “I have told the story so often now that I honestly can’t remember whether it started life as a lie” (105).

This may also apply to the infamous “three bananas” devoured with sugar and “almost unprocurable” cream by his father under the “anguished eyes” of his children, to whom the fabled fruit had been sent in the depths of post-war austerity (67). The story is a dramatic way of illustrating AW’s judgement that EW’s “chief defect was his greed” and of explaining why AW “never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” It may be untrustworthy for that very reason.

It may also have been an act of posthumous revenge, working off some of the resentment and even dislike AW felt for his father before leaving home. In 1944, dragged away from his games to meet EW, who was home on leave, AW “would gladly have swapped him for a bosun’s whistle” (30); later, he faced the problem of living with a father who set the emotional climate of his entire household:

The dejection which was liable to seize him at any moment — sparked off by little more than a bad joke, a banal sentiment, a lower-middle-class epithet — made him awkward company at times. When he was in the grips of a major depression, or melancholy as he called it, he was unendurable. (36) … He was a small man — scarcely five foot six in his socks — and only a writer, after all, but I have seen generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail in front of him. When he laughed, everyone laughed, when he was downcast, everyone tiptoed around trying to make as little noise as possible. It was not wealth or power which created this effect, merely the force of his personality. (43)

But he did not think his father could have been “pleased by the effect he produced on other people”, and concluded that he “spent his life seeking out men and women who were not frightened of him” — and then usually getting drunk with them, “as a way out of the abominable problem of human relations” (43). Their own relations were marked by “distinct cordiality” (112) in the last five years of EW’s life: after suffering a near-fatal accident on National Service in Cyprus, AW even wrote “a maudlin, deeply embarrassing letter telling him how much I admired him” and sent it to his bank to be released “in the event of my predecease” (112).

Despite this, EW’s death “lifted a great brooding awareness not only from the house but from the whole of existence” (186). That presence played encores, however, as when AW experienced misgivings about his apostasy from Catholicism:

It is hard to believe that these kindergarten assemblies bear much relation to the ancient institution of the Church as it survived through the Renaissance. The new Mickey Mouse church … is surely not a reduction of the old religion. It has nothing to do with it, being no more than an idle diversion for the communally minded. Or so it seems to me. But whenever I have doubts, it is my father’s fury rather than Divine Retribution which I dread. (pg. 187)

These passages will reinforce the image of EW that readers bring to the book; elsewhere, AW may contradict it. It’s surprising to read how EW entertained the “Stinchcombe Silver Band” every Christmas at Piers Court and got “great roars of laughter out of them as he ribbed them about their tipsiness” (49). But AW claims that while the “common touch was certainly not something he cultivated … in rather a surprising way, when he needed it, he had it”. He then defends EW against the accusation, levelled by the real-life model for “Trimmer” of the War trilogy, that EW had been “detested by the men who served under him”. Not so: the reverse was true, according to correspondence AW received after reviewing Trimmer’s autobiography for Books and Bookmen.

The mischief-making apparent in that choice of reviewer is something else that readers may find enlightening, because Will This Do? is describing a particular British class and culture. On his National Service AW saw two Wykehamists rejected by their school-fellows after failing the War Office Selection Board. He noted “the ruthlessness of the British establishment” and the “cruelty” that “flourishes in the law and wherever public school Englishmen are given power over each other”.

AW reveals the limitation of his perspective here, perhaps, because ruthlessness and cruelty are not a monopoly of public school Englishmen, but his readers’ understanding of his father’s novels may be deepened by his descriptions of those things in action, his own amongst them.

AW also offers insights into Catholic psychology. When he reveals one of his father’s secrets, he has to cover up his role after the secret finds its way into the papers:

‘It was not I who sold you to them, although I have a theory as to who did.’ Readers will observe how, with typical Catholic casuistry, there is no actual untruth in this letter, as I had not actually sold the information to Rose, merely told it to him by way of passing the time of day. (127-8)

And he muses on what might have been had he taken a different degree:

My exhibition [scholarship examination] had been in English, but my father advised me that this was a girl’s subject, unsuited to the dignity of a male. Lord David Cecil had been rather upset when I told him this, staying at Portofino before my first Oxford term. I had forgotten he was Professor of English at Oxford. … Perhaps I should have stayed the course in English, instead of finding myself lumbered with this rubbishy PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]. (148)

For the immediate future, however, the most significant passage in the book may be a description from AW’s National Service during the Cyprus emergency of 1958, when the island’s Greek inhabitants wanted union with Greece and its Turkish inhabitants wanted secession. A party of Greeks were “dropped on the Nicosia-Kyrenia main road” to make their way home after “questioning and document-checking”. Unfortunately, they were dropped near a village of Turks, who mistook them for a war-party:

The Turks poured out of the village and quite literally hacked them to pieces. It was a very messy business. Nine Greeks were killed and many others mutilated. Hands and fingers were all over the place and one officer wandered around, rather green in the face, holding a head and asking if anyone had seen a body which might fit it. (103-4)

EW ended his preface to Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond (1964), set during the Crusades, with the claim that “It is highly appropriate that this, his last work, should end with the triumph of Christian arms against the infidel.” His own son saw the conflict beginning again, as predicted by Hilaire Belloc, the “terrifying old man with a huge white beard” (16) whom AW met in extreme youth in his maternal grandmother’s house at Pixton. Will AW’s maturity prove to have fallen in the sun-lit patch between the shadows of the Second World War and serious racial and religious conflict in Europe?

If it does, EW’s shade may raise a shadowy glass in Elysium. As Britons can see from its vigorous survival in Northern Ireland, religion thrives on hatred and conflict and, Machometo adiuvante, the Church may yet throw off the leaden cope of The Second Vatican Council. Despite the despair such reforms brought to his father before his death, AW’s final, objective judgment is that “Evelyn Waugh detested the modern world but did rather well out of it” (123).

He himself, blessed with a more equable temperament and unridden by the demon of “melancholy”, could be said to have done even better but to have left a less enduring mark. Nevertheless, one of the charms of his autobiography is that it preserves some Evelynian ephemera: had they not been recorded here, history might have lost the handwritten Augustan prose instructing visitors on the vagaries of a lavatory at Piers Court and the Yardley’s Lavender Hair Tonic that EW put on his head when he changed for dinner (43).

EW writes in The Loved One (1948) of how death strips “the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence” from the body, leaving it “altogether smaller than life-size”. Will This Do? preserves a few tufts of his own pelt and although as the years pass the book will, alas, be read increasingly out of an interest in the father, not the son, AW had no illusions about his own importance in the scheme of things. It’s true that he may have laid booby-traps of fantasy and exaggeration in the stories he tells about his father, but what more appropriate rite of filial pietas could he have performed?

[A review first published in 2006.]


Read Full Post »

Front cover of A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. HardyA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

The World Wide Web is also the Random Reading Reticulation – the biggest library that ever existed. Obscure texts and ancient manuscripts are now a mouse-click away. A Mathematician’s Apology is neither obscure nor ancient, but it wasn’t easy to get hold of before it became available online. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. And now I have.

Alas, I was disappointed. G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was a very good mathematician, but he’s not a very good writer about mathematics. And in fact, he didn’t want to be a writer at all, good, bad or indifferent:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. (Op. cit., Section 1)

But is philosophy of mathematics work for second-rate minds? At the highest level, I don’t think it is. The relation of mathematics to reality, and vice versa, is a profoundly interesting and important topic, but Hardy doesn’t have anything new or illuminating to say about it:

It may be that modern physics fits best into some framework of idealistic philosophy — I do not believe it, but there are eminent physicists who say so. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, seems to me a rock on which all idealism founders: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way. (Section 24)

He experienced and explored that mathematical reality, but he can’t communicate the excitement or importance of doing so very well. I wasn’t surprised by his confession that, as a boy: “I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (sec. 29). He says it wasn’t until he had begun his degree at Cambridge that he “learnt for the first time … what mathematics really meant” (ibid.).

In this, he was very different from someone he helped make much more famous than he now is: an unknown and struggling Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sparked Hardy’s interest by sending him theorems of startling originality and depth before the First World War. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England, but barely mentions his protégé here. All the same, his respect and even perhaps his affection are still apparent:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both [J.E.] Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’ (sec. 29)

Very few people could have done that: a mere handful of the many millions who lived at the time. So it would be wrong to expect that Hardy could both ascend to the highest peaks of mathematics and write well about what he experienced there. He couldn’t and A Mathematician’s Apology supplies the proof. That’s a shame, but the text is short and still worth reading. Hardy had no false modesty, but he had no delusions of grandeur either:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It was valuable: that is why Hardy is still remembered and celebrated, sixty-seven years after his death. He is also still famous as an atheist, but you could say that he spent his life in the service of Our Lady – Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World.

Read Full Post »

C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrathC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

I wasn’t expecting much from this book: Alister McGrath is a Christian who appears on the BBC, which means his theological opinions are bland and Guardian-friendly. So I assumed that C.S. Lewis: A Life would be badly written, smarmy and smug and that I wouldn’t manage to get very far into it. I was wrong. The prose could have been better, but it’s an easy and interesting read and McGrath does what he promises to do in the preface:

This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings. This task has been made easier by the publication of virtually all that is known of Lewis’s writings, as well as a significant body of scholarly literature dealing with his works and ideas. (pg. xiii)

And yes, readers will understand Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) better after reading this book, from his roots in Northern Ireland to his silence about the First World War, from his distaste for T.S. Eliot to his late romance with Joy Davidman. And there isn’t much lit-crit jargon en route. McGrath has the same Irish roots as Lewis and I think that gives him an advantage over previous biographers. He’s also good on Lewis’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. He doesn’t write about them to show how clever he himself is a critic, but to show how clever Lewis was as a writer. Or how clever Lewis wasn’t, as the case may be: McGrath’s assessments are objective, not hagiographic. The cover calls Lewis an “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”, but I think that’s publisher’s hyperbole and aimed at the American market.

McGrath also discusses a fascinating theory about astrological symbolism in the Narnia series. The Middle Ages recognized seven major heavenly bodies, there are seven books in the series and Lewis was a dedicated medievalist. So the Oxonian scholar Michael Ward suggested in 2008 that Lewis assigned each book to a particular heavenly body:

For example, Ward argues that Prince Caspian shows the thematic influence of Mars … the ancient god of war (Mars Gradivus). This immediately connects to the dominance of military language, imagery and issues in this novel. The four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia “in the middle of a war” – “the Great War of Deliverance”, as it is referred to later in the series, or the “Civil War” in Lewis’s own “Outline of Narnian History”. (ch. 12, “Narnia: Exploring an Imaginative World”, pg. 299)

Elsewhere, The Silver Chair is assigned to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, and so on. It’s an ingenious theory and it makes me think again about the Narnia books. I used to find them confused and incoherent. If Ward is right, I was missing a lot.

And McGrath has a theory of his own about the true date of Lewis’s return to Christianity as an adult. He proposes that Lewis finally accepted “the divinity of Christ” not in September 1931, as previous biographers have thought, but in June 1932. McGrath argues that the latter date better fits the description Lewis gives in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the “final stages” of his conversion. Lewis mentions a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, “birds singing overhead and bluebells underfoot”. So birdlore and botany shed light on biography. McGrath says that the bird-song strongly suggests that the bluebells were the early-flowering English kind, not the late-flowering Scottish kind, “known as the ‘harebell’ in England” (ch. 6, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Making of a Mere Christian 1930-1932”, pp. 152-6). This is careful scholarship: I like a literary biography that bandies names like Hyacinthoides non-scripta (the English bluebell) and Campanula rotundifolia (the Scottish).

Lewis would certainly have approved: like Landor, he loved both nature and art. But would Lewis have approved of all his modern admirers and spiritual protégés? I strongly doubt it. Christianity has degenerated since his day – or rather, has continued to degenerate. Whatever some of his supporters might claim, Lewis is an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. “Mere Christianity” would not have been accepted by the Middle Ages and though it might be useful for individuals, it’s not useful for institutions. This helps explain why Lewis became so popular in America, which has always been full of Christians but has never had a national church. And Lewis’s popularity in America helps explain his popularity in Britain – and his rejection by Ireland. McGrath notes that there is “no entry for ‘Lewis, C.S.’ in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)” (ch. 1, “The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood 1898-1908”, pg. 13).

Why? McGrath explains that Lewis was “the wrong kind of Irishman”, an Ulster Protestant who rejected Catholic Dublin and Irish nationalism without ever losing his love of his birthplace in the north. Lewis became a friend and ally of the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, but that didn’t help his popularity in the south. Tolkien too was an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. Like Narnia, Middle-earth is syncretic and heavily influenced by pagan myth. Yes, as McGrath explains, Lewis thought Christianity was a myth that had the unique virtue of being true. But that again is not something that the Middle Ages would have accepted. And like Narnia, Middle-earth achieved most success in rootless, restless, multi-denominational America. McGrath discusses the flowering and fading of that friendship and sets it into the context of scholarship and university politics at Oxford, which was “late in recognizing the importance of English literature as a subject worthy of serious academic study” (ch. 4, “Deceptions and Discoveries: The Making of an Oxford Don 1919-1927”, pg. 98).

Good for Oxford. And when it did finally succumb to EngLit, it held off further rot by employing men like Tolkien and Lewis, who did not like literary theory, psychoanalysis or modernism. Lewis might have been the wrong kind of Irishman, but he was the right kind of scholar. Like his religion, his subject has degenerated sadly since his death. McGrath’s biography shows that the degeneration isn’t complete, but McGrath is more than simply an illuminating biographer. He’s a laudator temporis acti too, a praiser of times past, whether he intended to be or not. Either way, he’s done justice to an interesting and complex writer. If you want to understand C.S. Lewis better, this is a good place to start.

Read Full Post »