Monday 16 May 2011

Were the Inklings truly instigators and incendiaries?


The English 'man of letters' John Wain

published an early autobiography called Sprightly Running in 1963, the last year of C.S. Lewis's life, in which he reflected on the period when he was a member of The Inklings.

Although Wain liked and respected the Inklings, especially revering Nevill Coghill about whom he wrote an intensely-felt memoir, he conceptualized them as not only reactionary, but actually a counter-revolutionary group:

"The group had a corporate mind" that was both powerful and clearly defined. They were "politically conservative, not to say reactionary; in religion, Anglo- or Roman-Catholic; in art, frankly hostile to an manifestation of the 'modern' spirit", "a circle of instigators, almost incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life."


C.S. Lewis immediately published a long letter strongly disputing this analysis of the Inklings in the January 1963 edition of the journal Encounter (he had presumably seen a review copy of the book) in which Lewis - while graciously thanking Wain for saying many kind things about him, and stating clearly that he regarded Wain as a friend ('friend' being a word Lewis used sparingly and rigorously).

Lewis focused on the ideological differences between various Inklings, the non-overlapping nature of some of the friendships within the group, and stating that "Mr Wain has mistaken purely personal relationships for alliances."

In essence, Lewis hotly denied that the Inklings were self-consciously an explicitly strategic, reactionary, counter-revolutionary 'cell'.


Yet, of course, as we now recognize, Wain was substantively correct in every respect except that of supposing that the Inklings was self-conscious in their instigation and incendiary activities.

The Inklings were indeed - at their core of Jack Lewis, Tolkien and Charles Williams, and during their peak years of 1939-45 - a group of Christian reactionaries with very large scale ambitions to redirect the current of modern art and life.

This was very obvious to Wain who opposed this re-directing of art and life back to a pre-modern and religious spirit (at least, he did during the early decades of his life, when he was known as an anti-establishment figure, one of the 'Angry Young Men' of the 1950s - although in later years Wain's work, for instance on Samuel Johnson, strikes me as itself reactionary - or at least nostalgic for the pre-modern era).

That was why the Inklings were friends, that was an essential basis of their friendship: necessary but not sufficient.


The reason for the continued interest in the Inklings is precisely that which Wain stated.

But of course, Wain's analysis was itself from a 'modern' perspective; a perspective which sees 'political' activity as necessarily self-conscious and explicit.

Whereas the reality was that the Inklings did not subscribe to this view of politics.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were individually, and passionately, engaged in recovering a pre-modern, a Christian spirit for life - with re-connecting with the thread of this spirit as it came down through the centuries - a thread which was almost broken, a spirit of which it could be said that they themselves were among the last examples.

And this, at least, was explicitly perceived - Lewis spoke of himself as a dinosaur left over from a previous era, Tolkien spoke of fighting the long defeat, Williams blurred pre-modern past and present and expounded (in The Descent of the Dove) a history of Christendom in which he discerned a two thousand year thread coming through Anglicanism right down to his own spiritual engagement.


The substantive disagreement of Wain and Lewis over the true nature of the Inklings was only, therefore, a quibble over the degree of self-consciousness with which their counter-revolutionary activities was being pursued; there was no disagreement of the fact and tendency of the Inklings endeavors.

The Inklings were thus in effect precisely as Wain described them: instigators and incendiaries.



dearieme said...

The only book of his that I've read is this one, which surely dates me.

Bruce Charlton said...

Yes - I didn't much like Hurry on Down.

It was like Lucky Jim minus the jokes

(Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, is perhaps the funniest - ROTFL-type funny - novel I have ever read. So if you could imagine that the jokes were taken away... well, for me there wouldn't be much left-behind!)

Alex said...

The recovery of a 'pre-modern and Christian spirit for life' - if it ever takes place - would require the conscious efforts of whole armies of instigators and incendiaries.

It's more likely, I fear, that a global catastrophe, natural or man-made, will be a necessary condition of large scale reconversion. Vast populations are zealously attached to the gewgaws of modernity. It is most unlikely that they could be peaceably detached from their delusions by amiable arguments, or fired with a medieval religious enthusiasm.

Those of us who think on such matters, perhaps the superannuated hermits of our time, can only wait on events. In the meantime, and this isn't a 'joke', we should occupy ourselves by reading In Search of Lost Time over and over again.

Brett Stevens said...

What great artists are not instigators and incendiaries?

Do we get credit now for minor variations on the prevailing dogma? (Some do: clearly J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer made a killing parroting the dominant narrative.)

But in my readings, those who stood a head or more above the crowd were those who struck out ahead toward entirely different thoughts.

Of course the Inklings were revolutionary -- in the best sense of the world -- they wanted to fix problems that up until that time, had been addressed with a purely technological view, e.g. "Add more freedom and democracy, and all will be well!"