Monday, June 13, 2016

Cockshut on Lewis

So, I've been reading through the latest issue of THE JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES w. great interest, starting from the back; the round-table discussion of Lindop's new biography of Wms by eight Wms scholars, who are clearly trying to get their heads around some of the revelations of said book.

The next part to seize my attention was "Lewis in Post-War Oxford" by A. O. J. Cockshut, who was a student there in the early postwar years. Cockshut has a number of interesting things to say about Oxford and Lewis's role in it during his time there. Perhaps the three most important deal first with Lord David Cecil's election to a professorship in 1948. Although Cockshut was being tutored by Cecil and viewed him as a personal friend, he felt Lewis was the more substantial of the two* and shd have gotten the post.

The second comes in Cockshut's passing judgment on 'The Great Kirk', Lewis's tutor who had trained him in logic and argumentation: 'Many [who have read SURPRISED BY JOY] will have been struck by the admiring way Lewis describes [Kirk's] perverse and stupid style of reasoning . . . Here was a man -- if we are to believe Lewis's account -- to whom it had never occurred that reason is a tool of the intellectual life, which can perform some tasks and not others' (Cockshut p. 74)


The third and perhaps more important event was the fight over whether to expand the syllabus to include works written since 1830 (i.e., all the Victorians and perhaps the early Moderns). Cockshut says Lewis sent a circular signed by himself and two other dons (who go unnamed) to everyone attending the faculty meeting held to decide the matter (chaired, we are told, by Cecil): this document urged rejection of the expansion. But the reason Lewis gave was, according to Cockshut, disingenuous to the point of being specious.

As Cockshut tells it, Lewis at the meeting argued that the Victorian age was one of the greatest in English literature, even rivaling "the great seventeenth century" (the era of Shakespeare and Milton and Donne).  ' "And that is why we should not allow undergraduates to study it. Think of the things they would have to know before they could begin to understand it." He then gave a list of background material that might occupy a professor for years'. (Cockshut p. 74). Cockshut believes that Lewis was being deliberately sophistical. 'Moreover, some would have felt that as it had already been announced that he was leaving Oxford for Cambridge, it would have been tactful to leave his colleagues to themselves in deciding their syllabus and the content of what they would have to teach' (Cockshut p. 75)'.  Cockshut's final conclusion is devastating: that at that meeting '[Lewis] was guilty of the serious offense of regaling people who were his intellectual and professional equals with sophistry' (Cockshut p. 75-76)

On the whole, an interesting piece, and one I'm glad to have had the chance to read. Even leaving aside Cockshut's opinions, he provides some new details previously unknown to me about this significant event.  I'd like to see a copy of that circular, for example, and to know who the other two who signed it with Lewis were.

--John R.
current re-reading: AND THEN THERE WERE NONE


*I think this underestimates Cecil's achievements, but pass over that for now since I've posted about  that elsewhere.

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