Monday, 16 May 2011

John Wain versus C.S. Lewis and the nature of The Inklings


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 what 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 which they themselves were among that 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.



Dale said...

It's good to see John Wain's fine biography of Samuel Johnson praised. It was overshadowed in the press by another biography that came out at about the same time (Bate's), but Wain's is to be recommended.

Wain also wrote an essay on Lewis for The American Scholar. See the Winter 1980-81 issue, pages 73-80.

Wain's obituary:

bgc said...

John Wain also compiled a good little book called Johnson on Johnson - a kind of autobiography consisting of excerpts from many sources, giving his own life in Sam Johnson's own words.