Friday, July 19, 2013

McGrath (rest of the book)

So, I'm now finished with the audiobook of McGrath's new C. S. Lewis biography, ECCENTRIC GENIUS, RELUCTANT PROPHET -- which I liked well enough that I bought myself a copy (of the book itself) when I found one in Barnes and Noble on Wednesday. I'll probably want to read his second book, which is intended as a companion volume to this one, apparently formed of eight essays on major arguments Lewis made or major elements in his (theological) thought.

As for specifics, McGrath did a good job with the origins of the Inklings and also a pretty good job on the composition of  THE HOBBIT. He spent too much time on the Elizabeth Anscombe episode and isn't quite willing to concede that Lewis lost that debate -- or, rather, he admits Lewis got his head handed to him but argues it was because of flaws in his argument, not that he was wrong. Oh, and that Lewis was too much of a gentleman to press his argument against a lady. Oh, and, also, when Anscombe and somebody else re-ran the debate some twenty years later McGrath says the other guy won.  Sheesh! Give it a rest, people. Time to move on. Lewis was wrong, his argument was egregiously flawed, and he lost.*

To my mind he spends too much time on Narnia as well, but others who are fonder of the Chronicles than I am will probably disagree. Fair enough. At least it doesn't dominate the whole book. Though I find it weird for us to have arrived at a state of things where today, McGrath points out, Lewis is known first for writing Narnia, then secondly for the apologetics, with his having been a medieval scholar ranking a distant third. I can't argue that McGrath is wrong is thus describing things, but I do find the image of CSL to emerge in the last ten to fifteen years as weirdly backwards.

The part of McGrath's book likely to garner the most comment is his treatment of Joy Gresham, who he sees as an out-and-out gold digger -- and yes, he actually uses that term, though in a quote (that he agrees with), as well as calling Lewis her "sugar daddy". In essence, he's reverting to something much nearer the original view of Gresham before Lyle Dorsett's groundbreaking work (AND JOY CAME IN) in 1982 completely turned that all on its head by presenting those events from her point of view. McGrath avoids sentimentality such as that depicted in SHADOWLANDS; I don't know that his reading of events will win over all comers, but it'll certainly reopen the debate and, I think, swing the pendulum back some from Hollywoodism.** If nothing else, I think McGrath is on to something when he points out that Lewis's secrecy over his relationship with Mrs. Gresham, extending over a period of years, closely parallels his secrecy over his relationship with Mrs. Moore.

One place where McGrath falls down badly is in his references to Humphrey Havard (whom the reader of the audiobook consistently and mistakenly calls "Dr. Harvard"), relying upon the thoroughly unreliable accounts in Douglas Gresham's and A. N. Wilson's books on this point. I also think he runs off the rails by taking A GRIEF OBSERVED entirely at face value, as straightforward autobiography. I don't think any of Lewis's three autobiographies (THE PILGRIM'S REGRESS, SURPRISED BY JOY,*** and A GRIEF OBSERVED) are straightforward in the least: each is consciously planned out to deliver a moral message. Neither of which negates the value of the biography as a whole; it just shows that it's not  a definitive work, just a v. good one.

I'm glad I approached this work by way of an audiobook, because it turned out this means I got some extras that wd not have been available via the print verison. First off, the audiobook starts with a long (twenty minute) interview w. McGrath explaining what he thinks makes his biography stand out (e.g., his re-dating of Lewis's conversion). Even better, it ends with two audiofiles of CSL himself reading out bits from his broadcast talks. I'm not familiar enough w. MERE XIANITY to identify just where each of these two extended passages come from,**** but they're definitely worth a listen (the sound quality is distorted at the beginning of the second one, but if you keep listening it improves as it goes along). Along w. the tape of THE FOUR LOVES and four short talks,***** I think this means I now have all surviving recordings by Lewis (at least all that have been made public) -- although unfortunately most only on cassette.

So, my overall evaluation: I'd like more in some places, and less in others, and his viewpoint and mine don't agree on some events, but overall a good book. Probably the book to beat for next year's Mythopoeic Award in Inklings Scholarship.

--John R.

*another to argue that Lewis didn't really lose is Harry Lee Poe, in THE INKLINGS OF OXFORD, page 127. To which all I can reply is, Lewis was of a different opinion: he thought he'd been trounced. And, having been the victor of so many Socratic Club debates, he wd have known what victory felt like, and that this wasn't it.

**to give just one example, McGrath points out that Lewis's account of his 'deathbed' marriage does not match the description of events left behind by the man who performed the service, Fr. Peter Bide.

***known among some of the Inklings as SUPPRESSED BY JACK

****thanks to the magic of the internet, I can now report that they're from the third and eleventh chapters, respectfully, of BEYOND PERSONALITY. The first is eight minutes long and the second just over six minutes -- brief, but long enough to get an idea of what the whole series of broadcasts must have been like.

*****four short talks: a talk on Bunyan, a version of his inaugural lecture, a brief introduction to a broadcast of THE GREAT DIVORCE, and a brief talk on Charles Williams; the version I have is a three-cassette set called C. S. LEWIS SPEAKS HIS MIND (1981)

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