Tuesday, October 7, 2014

C. S. Lewis's Crackpot Friend (Bernard Acworth)



C. S. Lewis's Crackpot Friend (Bernard Acworth)

So, one thing that does not emerge in reading the Acworth/Lewis letters or Frengren's and Numbers' account is that, to put it bluntly, Acworth was far more wacky than he therein appears.

For one thing, he believed that birds didn't migrate. Instead, he argued, they were blown south by prevailing winds in autumn and then blown back north again when the winds switched direction in spring (THIS PROGRESS, Chapter VI). He  further claims that birds cannot feel the air any more than fish are aware of water, and that thus birds cannot feel wind and are completely unaware of, and thus at the mercy of, air currents. And he believed that cuckoos were not parasitic but philanderers -- that the male cuckoo visited the nesting female bird of another species, made out, and flew away, leaving her to hatch a half-cuckoo/half-host bird hybrid. This theory bears no resemblance to observed reality. Despite his own field being that of submarine warfare, he confidently expounded upon topics such as biology ("the prostitute of the sciences") and theology (a merciful god ensured that the damned enjoy their damnation).

He also argued that animals are incapable of thought. Know no fear. Feel no pain. (Chapter XVII).* This is his solution to the problem of animal suffering that Lewis later wrestled with, unsatisfactorily, in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN. Unfortunately, it defies the personal experience of anyone who's ever had anything to do with animals, whether as a pet, a working animal, farm animals, wildlife observed, etc. Certainly the little bird that I saw  today get flushed from its shrub by a nearby leaf-blower, clipped by a passing car, and drop into the street where it fluttered desperately knew fear and knew pain. I managed to rescue it from the street and held it in my hands while my friend Richard and I tried to find someplace to take it to (like the Sarvey wildlife rescue people back in Renton). But to no avail; we’d just gotten a reference to the local humane society (which seemed a long shot) when it gave a few sudden twists and died -- whether from its original injuries or sheer terror was not apparent. It would be very hard for me to convince myself that despite what little I could do it didn't feel pain and didn't know fear during that last five minutes of its shortened life.

Acworth also held a number of quirky opinions that don't directly concern us but tell us a lot about how seriously we shd take him, like his belief that men had definite Jekyll and Hyde aspects but that women were both at once, or his mockery of Einstein, whom he refused to consider a real scientist -- 'real' scientist, it turns out, make things or discover immutable laws of nature; faux-scientist like Einstein just come up with unprovable theories. Or his argument that trains and electric lights were the right kind of invention (being perfectible), whereas airplanes were the wrong kind (being completely at the mercy of wind and weather). Or his attack on "feminists of both sexes", or his belief that pacifist were hypocrites because they favor bombing campaigns against civilian targets rather than support combat by just and merciful Xian sailors and soldiers. (p. 320)** As is so often the case with Acworth's more bizarre statements, there's really no telling where he got this from; certainly I'm not aware of any pacifists who support bombing people, or who could call themselves pacifists if they did.

But then Acworth complicates things for his readers by his heavy use of straw men for his arguments, and his fondness for slipping into a bizarre parody of what he imagines is the point of view of people he disparages; these passages are often only revealed to be the opposite of what Acworth thinks a few paragraphs later. Reading Acworth's THIS PROGRESS made me realize why in CALL OF CTHULHU it takes weeks if not months to read a Mythos tome -- it's the difficulty in following the chain of thought, so that by the end of a paragraph what seem perfectly straight-forward sentences early in the paragraph must not have meant what they seemed to mean back then, and the whole thing has to be re-read and sorted out. Over and over, for more than three hundred pages. In fact, so tangled is Acworth's presentation of his thought that Ronald Numbers, briefly noting Acworth's theory of bird migration, confesses that he has no idea why Acworth thought the whole thing in any way relevant to the main topic of his books: the evils of Darwinism (THE CREATIONISTS, p. 166)

Although Acworth looks like a lone nut from our perspective, he had ambitions to win converts for his ideas. He was a co-founder of the Evolution Protest Movement [circa 1932 & 1935],*** which gathering up the moribund remnants of The Victorian Institute, a group of first-generation Darwin deniers, and relaunched them with a different (more 'scientific', less overtly religious) focus. As such, he merits an entry in Ronald Numbers' THE CREATIONISTS: FROM SCIENTIFIC CREATIONISM TO INTELLIGENT DESIGN (rev. ed. 2006), with a section titled "The Acworth Circle" (166-170; cf also 171-172 & 175, the latter being a brief account of his encounter with Lewis). And he had a brief moment of notoriety on the national stage when he ran for parliament during World War II with a plan to end the war (immediately make peace with Japan so as to focus all efforts on fighting the Germans) that so incensed Churchill that the prime minister personally urged constituents not to vote for Acworth (they didn't).


Lewis seems to have been well aware of all this. He is blunt in his refusal to Acworth's request that CSL write a preface to his new anti-evolution book, stating that for him to be associated with Acworth's cause would diminish his standing as an apologist and hinder his ability to carry out the good work (COLLECTED LETTERS II.140-141; letter of Oct. 4th 1951).  Even more importantly, Lewis himself describes Acworth in letters as anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-communist, and prone to conspiracy theories -- or, as CSL put it, with bees in his bonnet. Here's how CSL described Acworth to his American friend Dr. Warfield Firor:

"Have you ever heard of Captain Bernard
Acworth R.N., a distinguished submarine
commander in World War I and v. good
Christian of the Evangelical type -- but
his head absolutely buzzing with Bees?
He was with me the other day explaining
that the whole American-English-[U.N.]
set up is absolutely fatal and part of a
plot engineered (so far as I cd. make out)
by the Kremlin, the Vatican, and Jews,
the Freemasons and -- subtlest foe of all
-- the Darwinians . . . But there was a
core of rationality in it. He thinks our
strategy ought to be purely naval, that
we can ruin ourselves by trying to
keep up an army in Europe and, even
so, cannot succeed on those lines."
(COLLECTED LETTERS III.150;
letter of Dec. 20th 1951).


You would think such a rebuff as Lewis dealt wd have put Acworth off, but apparently not. And here's the part in the whole story that really interests me.

We know, from the correspondence, that the two men actually met at least twice, with Lewis inviting Acworth to come and stay a night with CSL and his brother Warnie. Our evidence for this comes from the earliest of the surviving letters (not included in COLLECTED LETTERS), in which Lewis invites Acworth "to spend a night with me next term" [Sept 23 '44]. That the visit actually took place is proven by a phrase in the second letter: "When do you think of coming to see us again? [Dec. 9th 1944; CL II. 632-633].

A second visit is indicated by CSL's letter to Warfield Firor, in which he says of Acworth "he was with me the other day" (Dec 20 1951; CL III.150). And Acworth's son, on the occasion of turning over the surviving letters to that college library in Belfast, reminisced that "his father sometimes stayed overnight with Lewis and his brother when visiting Oxford"; this is supported by one of Lewis's last letters to Acworth, in which Lewis says "My brother . . . remembers you with warmth & would join me in greetings if he were at home" (Sept 18 1959; CL III.1087-1088).

Note that both these documented visits took place during the fall (Michaelmas) term at Oxford. What I would really like to know, which seems impossible to establish at this late date, is whether these visits were just with Lewis and Warnie or whether they included inviting Acworth to the Inklings. I suspect Acworth was one in a string of interesting characters and fellow authors Lewis invited to a night at the Inklings,**** but can think of no way to prove it, unless further evidence shd turn up.  John Wain observed (in his autobiography, SPRIGHTLY RUNNING) that Lewis had a way of making unusual alliances with fellow Xians on whom he disagreed on many points, such as Roy Campbell*****  If so, Bernard Acworth would become one of those folks.

--John R.
current reading: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: a screenplay, by John Boorman; THE BROTHERS CABAL by Jonathan Howard; TOLKIEN IN PAWNEELAND by Echo-Hawk.

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*one of his oddest claims is that if you can get ants to go around in a circle, they'll repeat the circle until they all drop dead of exhaustion. Given how wrong he is about just about everything else, I assume he doesn't know what he's talking about here either.

**does he imagine this is what we got in WW I?

***this group is still in existence, though it now (since 1980) goes under the name Creation Science Movement (CSM)

****although the evening Inklings had ceased by the time of Acworth's 1951 visit, so only the Tuesday pub meets are a possibility there.

*****who was Christian but also a pro-fascist, anti-semite, misogynist, racist, and pathological liar, who liked to hit people.

1 comment:

craig sams said...

Back to the Coal Standard, by Bernard Acworth, is an overlooked masterpiece. He points out the massive subsidisation of the motor industry and highways and the clear economic advantages of railways and trams. The baleful influence of the oil industry was already well entrenched by 1932 and led to the transformation of Los Angeles from a model of urban transportation to a commuter nightmare that set the standard for urban conglomerations globally