The Oxford Crematorium

In the Oxford Crematorium... off the ring-road at Headington, and just outside the furthest chapel from the entrance... there is a small plaque on the wall. It was placed there at the behest of C.S. Lewis following the death of his beloved wife Joy Davidman.

Smoke on the Mountain (III) Review by C.S. Lewis

Secondly, there is the very theme of the book. What should a Jewish Christian write on if not the Law? But notice that the choice of subject means no relapse into the mere Judaism, nothing that need alarm the most Pauline of us. The author knows quite as well as any of us that Mr. Legality will never bring us to the Celestial City and has got over the fallacies of Moralism fairly early in life. She had good opportunities for studying it at close quarters. She knows that only love can fulfil the Law. That, I think, is the answer to a criticism which someone is sure to make of this book; that in most of its chapters we have much more about diagnosis than about cure. In reality, of course, a "cure" in the sense of some recipe added at the end of each chapter-some "law to be a fence about the Law" and inevitably breeding more Law-is not really being offered at all. The author is not a quack with a nostrum. She can only point, as in her concluding chapter she does point, to the true Cure; a Person, not a set of instructions. Pending that, she is no more inhibited than her ancestors about diagnosis; one might frankly say, about denunciation. A Jeremiad? But should we never read Jeremiads? If it comes to that, should we never read Jeremiah himself? The Canon judges otherwise.

The sins of the Americans (for whom, in the first instance, the book was written) are doubtless not exactly the same as our own. Many of their sins, indeed, we are now hardly in a position to commit. Hence, inevitably, there are passages in this book which English readers may make a bad use of, reading them with complacent self-congratulation. But in the main it is a true bill against all Western civilization. The flaw in us which Joy Davidman seems to me to expose with most certainty will be to some perhaps an unexpected one : the sin of fear, not in Donne's sense but, quite simply, cowardice. Hence she can speak of one minority as being "protected by a fortunate illiteracy from the bombardment of fear propaganda." I am doubtful whether many readers, after reflection, will be prepared to give her the lie. It may be true that great nations have never before faced a greater danger; but have great nations ever met danger with such an appearance of poltroonery? Perhaps it is only appearance. Perhaps, if the moment comes, our bite will prove better than our howls. If not, we shall have to confess that two millennia of Christianity have not yet brought us up to the level of the Stoics and Vikings. For the worst (according to the flesh) that a Christian need face is to die in Christ and rise in Christ; some were content to die, and not to rise, with Father Odin.

I have ventured to use the word "denunciations." This must not be taken to mean anything wild or indiscriminate. On the contrary the quality in this book which, I anticipate, will stand out more clearly the better it is known, is precisely the union of passionate heat with an intelligence which, in that passion, still modifies and distinguishes and tempers. Notice (what I especially value, because it supplies a corrective which I especially needed) how after exposing what is banal, meretricious, and greedy in the popular idea of "Progress," our author unexpectedly, and truly, points out what pure and noble elements originally contributed to that idea. Notice, again, how while admitting the sins worse than murder she shows how disastrously the concept "worse than murder" can be used to confuse and etiolate the reality of murder itself.

I do not of course agree with Miss Davidman at every point. In such a book every reader will have his own crow to pluck with the author. For my own part, what I would most gladly see altered are certain passages where she quotes myself for thoughts which she needed no sense save her own to reach and no pen save her own to express. But every old tutor (and I was not even that to Miss Davidman) knows that those pupils who needed our assistance least are generally also those who acknowledge it most largely.

C. S. LEWIS (1955)

Smoke on the Mountain (II)

Another point of interest in Joy Davidman's work comes from her race. In a sense the converted Jew is the only normal human being in the world. To him, in the first instance, the promises were made, and he has availed himself of them. He calls Abraham his father by hereditary right as well as by divine courtesy. He has taken the whole syllabus in order, as it was set; eaten the dinner according to the menu. Everyone else is, from one point of view, a special case, dealt with under emergency regulations. To us Christians the unconverted Jew (I mean no offence) must appear as a Christian manqué; someone very carefully prepared for a certain destiny and then missing it. And we ourselves, we christened gentiles, are after all the graft, the wild vine, possessing "joys not promised to our birth"; though perhaps we do not think of this so often as we might. And when the Jew does come in, he brings with him into the fold dispositions different from, and complementary of ours; as St. Paul envisages in Ephesians 2. 14-19. 

Before she became a Christian, even before she had (temporarily) considered the possibility of Judaism as a religion, Joy Davidman was keenly aware of this difference in the blood. In one poem, there is a suggestion that the whole "Aryan" ethos could be regarded as a "clinging fog." I suppose when Elijah on Carmel cried out "How long halt ye between two opinions?" he was dissipating a fog. I suppose we Northerners, pagan, romantic and polytheistic in grain, are a kind of people of the mist when seen from the dreadfully unambiguous standpoint of Israel. If "fog" is too severe a word, at least it is no severer than what she says of her own people; "My root Who evolve viciously in the east." Not perhaps viciously, but without doubt fiercely-I cannot help here remembering the lion's governess. The finer spirit of that fierceness, if one must describe it in an abstract noun, is presumably what our fathers called zeal (a word disquietingly absent from the Christian vocabulary these last hundred years or so). But it is best grasped not in an abstraction but in an image, in that glorious, sustained image from the 19 th Psalm where the Sun and the Law became fused in the poet's mind, both rejoicing, both like a giant, like a bridegroom, both "undefiled," "clean," "right," and "there is nothing hid from the heat thereof." One sees the whole desert landscape-no rock nor hillock large enough to throw a shadow in which one could hide from that tyrannous, disinfectant blaze. 

Something of that old Hebraic quality has gone into the book to which I am writing this preface. First there is the style. I do not of course mean that Joy Davidman's style is derived from her blood. It comes, like all good writing, from an individual talent, from reading, and from discipline. But how well it fits the theme ! Many writers on "religion" (how odious a word, by the way, how seldom used in Scripture, how hard to imagine on the lips of Our Lord!) have a positive love for the smudgy and the polysyllabic. They write as though they believed (in the words of the late George Gordon) "that thought should be clothed in pure wool." There is no wool here. The author, to be sure, is an American and uses her own language, not always lexically or idiomatically the same as ours; but it is none the worse for that. A test comes in chapter nine where she quotes a great rocky piece of sheer sense from Johnson which would have instantly shown up any vagueness or fustian in its neighbourhood if such had existed, and comes off unscathed. She even dares to lay a stone on top of that grim cairn and it is worthy of its place. ("The pay is bigger nowadays-but then, so are the lies.") For the Jewish fierceness, being here also modern and feminine, can be very quiet; the paw looked as if it were velveted, till we felt the scratch. At the opening of chapter nine, where we English may perhaps feel that some withers are more wrung than our own, the apparent innocence which puts us off with Titus Oates is an example. So, in another passage, is that much needed coinage "others-denial." 


Smoke on the Mountain (I)


JOY DAVIDMAN, who began her career, appropriately enough, as nursery governess to a lion-cub, first came before the public as the poetess of ‘Letter to a Comrade’, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award for 1938. The volume showed, side by side with a delicate precision of imagery (one remembers the crabs "jointed, Japanese, and frail") an occasional orotundity, a deep bell-like note, not very typical of its period; in "The Empress Changes Lovers" and "Absolution" it successfully answered the question we must put to all young poets : "Can you go beyond the pageant of your bleeding heart and the general state of the world, and present a situation?" They all date from her Communist period. 

How she got into the Party and how she got out again she has described in a beautifully balanced little essay, "The Longest Way Round," contributed to Dr. Soper's ‘These Found the Way’ (1951). The adult convert to Christianity is of course a characteristic figure of our age. Joy Davidman is one who comes to us from the second generation of unbelief; her parents, Jewish in blood, "rationalists" by conviction. This makes her approach extremely interesting to the reclaimed apostates of my own generation; the daring paradoxes of our youth were the stale platitudes of hers. "Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Love, art, and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy is only"; thus she describes the philosophy with which she started life. How, from the very first, it failed to accommodate her actual experience, how, as a result of this discrepancy, she was for some years almost "two people," how Communism, too, broke up under the impact of realities more formidable even than itself, must be read in her own words. Re-reading the poems in the light of the essay one is struck by a recurring image; that of the brain within the skull as within a fortress which may, or may not, be held against "the universe." The essay describes exactly how "the universe"-indeed, something much more important than it-broke in. For of course every story of conversion is the story of a blessed defeat. 


A Carol of Amen House

On the anniversary of Charles' death in 1998, I with a friend sought out his grave in the graveyard of St. Cross Church, Oxford. We attached the following of Charles' poems to his grave (changing 'house' in the first line for 'grave') and sat a while in the Spring sunshine thinking of him and his work.

Over this house* a star
Shines in the heavens high,
Beauty remote and afar,
Beauty that shall not die;

Beauty desired and dreamed,
Followed in storm and sun,
Beauty the gods have schemed
And mortals at last have won.

Beauty arose of old
And dreamed of a perfect thing,
Where none shall be angry or cold
Or armed with an evil sting;

Where the world shall be made anew,
For the gods shall breathe its air,
And Phoebus Apollo there-through
Shall move on a golden stair.

The star that all lives shall seek,
That makers of books desire;
All that in anywise speak
Look to this silver fire:

O'er the toil that is giv'n to do,
O'er the search and the grinding pain
Seen by the holy few,
Perfection glimmers again.

O dreamed in an eager youth,
O known between friend and friend,
Seen by the seekers of truth,
Lo, peace and the perfect end!

(Charles Williams)

I might be foolish, but that morning lives in my memory.

The Novels of Charles Williams

The Novels of Charles Williams 
(Thomas Howard, Ignatius Press, 1983) 
Originally published by Oxford University Press 

Beatrice was to Dante Thomas Howard is to readers of Charles Williams, whose novels are not exactly hell to read, but some may yet find them somewhat tough going. It's a pity, because as with the Latin Mass, if we only knew what we were missing we would clamor for more. Thankfully Ignatius Press has reprinted this book by Thomas Howard so that we do have a guide through this marvelous world. In this book, originally published by Oxford University Press, Thomas Howard starts with the party line that Williams is a bad writer, and then shows us why he's a very good one (Thomas Howard can be very sneaky). He explains why CW can't be considered a “major” writer, and maybe not even a good candidate for a minor one, but by the end of the book one is convinced that the label “major” is too small to fit Charles Williams.

Howard is similarly dismissive of his own writing in this book, even though it stands as one of his best (his best to date, in my opinion, is On Being Catholic). He suggests the reader not even read the whole book, but just jump around to the relevant parts for the Williams novel he/she is interested in. Here again I must express a minority opinion: The Novels of Charles Williams reads seamlessly and grippingly start to finish.

Anyone venturing into a Williams novel for the first time might find the water, as it were, initially cold and uninviting, regardless how heartily the swimmers urge him or her to dive in. Howard is like a personal trainer, both preparing the reader and helping them stay in shape when, gripped with the strange madness that afflicts readers of Williams novels, they recklessly swim further and further from shore. Howard is obviously among the initiates, and the more dismissive he is of Williams' standing as a writer, the more you want to read him. ’Nuff said. Dive in. The water's fine.

Gord Wilson (Bellingham, WA USA)