Archives For Humor

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg

Be an Inkling

May 3, 2017 — 5 Comments

Lemming Critique

Do you invite others to critique your writing before you publish it? If you want to be successful, you definitely should.

I never cease to be amazed at how presumptuous some writers are. I’m referring to those who deny their work could be improved by having others offer suggestions for improving it.

When I reflect on the fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien subjected their own work to the critical eyes (and ears) of their peers, I realize I must do no less.

Just as their involvement in the Inklings made them better authors, in the same way our participating in writing or critiquing fellowship is vital to our advancing in the art.

Lewis recognized this early in life. Long before the birth of the Inklings, he exchanged “works in progress” with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

Lewis went so far as to declare, in a 1916 letter to Greeves: “It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.”

Benefits of Writing Fellowships

Some profitable results that come from participating in a support group are obvious. Depending on the group, your compatriots identify places where your writing is not as clear as you intend it to be. Some participants may also be good copy editors, and willing to share their skills.

Then there are the proverbial “grammar Nazis” whose contributions are actually valuable, if you desire to write well. (Of course, the comments of others are only suggestions, and all writers are free to implement, or dismiss, the advice.)

In longer works, your writing companions can help you identify when your pace is erratic or your story is going off track. It’s not uncommon for them to offer worthwhile ideas that would never have come to you if you relied solely on your own cranium.

Another benefit comes from gaining new insights into the writing life. For example, one of my writing partners made this observation that continues to guide me. Discussing how frequently I digress to extinguish any possibility of misunderstanding, he said, “The instinct of the journalist is to be concise. The instinct of the historian is to be thorough. You’re a historian.” Realizing that I invariably default to the latter, the historian, helps me to consciously attempt to temper that orientation. (I know, I don’t succeed too well with that, but just imagine what my writing would be like if I surrendered unconditionally to my innate inclination.)

Encouraging Others

Participating in a writing collective means we never have to be isolated, alone with words destined never to be seen by another human eye. At the very least, we share them with our friends. And, potentially, the collaborative process helps see them through to publication

It is well known that without C.S. Lewis’ persistent encouragement, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would never have seen print.

Lewis revealed his nature as an encourager early in his life. The quotation above comes, in fact, from a letter when he is challenging Greeves to continue faithfully sending his work for Lewis to comment upon.

I do really want to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.

However, I told you I would proceed to serious measures, so here is my manifesto. I, Clive Staples Lewis, student, do hereby give notice that unless some literary composition of Arthur Greeves be in my possession on or before midnight on the last night of June in the year nineteen hundred and sixteen, I shall discontinue from that date forward, all communication to the said Arthur Greeves of every kind, manner, and description whatsoever, until such composition or compositions be forwarded. ‘So there’ as the children say. Now let us go on.

This amusing passage reminds us of two final things. First, if we have difficulty connecting with a local writing group, remember that we are not limited by geographic proximity. (Never truer than in today’s wired world.)

A second lesson is that, as in most human relations, humor makes good things even better. Oh, how the halls of Magdalen College and the Eagle and Child must have echoed with their laughter.

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

lindvallIf you want a great volume on C.S. Lewis’ humor to your library—for free—get over to Amazon and download the Kindle version of Surprised by laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis right now.

I recently posted a column on Lewis’ humor, and referenced this very volume by Professor Terry Lindvall.

You never know how long these Amazon sales will last, so do hurry to secure your copy.

This volume is sure to answer any question you have about C.S. Lewis’ use of humor.

One caution, however, which the author includes at the close of his Acknowledgements. Provoking laughter within the confines of the faith community may have consequences . . .

If any cleric or monk speaks jocular words, such as provoke laughter, let him be anathema.

ORDINANCE, SECOND COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE, 1418

Get your copy here.

csl-humorHumor is an essential element of human existence. C.S. Lewis recognized that our very nature was molded to incorporate joy and laughter.

In a great article on the subject, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall introduces the subject with the story of an early Christian monk who wrote this truth.

In the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number.

But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.

But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified as the blessing of hilaritas as essential to Christian living, even if you were an ascetic monk and especially if you are a lawyer or accountant.

Amen. We can all, whatever our vocation, do with an extra dose of hilaritas. After all, it’s good for your health.

I highly commend Lindvall’s entertaining article, which you can read online here or download as a pdf here.

It is filled with references to C.S. Lewis, as one would expect from the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.

One particularly beneficial section of the article is his discussion of the four types of laughter mentioned by Screwtape in his epistles.

If you don’t have access to your copy of The Screwtape Letters, the following quotation will provide the context for Lindvall’s remarks.

Because Screwtape is a devil, viewing God as the “Enemy,” his viewpoint is reversed. Keep that in mind as you read.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell . . .

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.

Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.

It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it,

So, a wise person will savor joy and fun, along with jokes proper that are offered in good taste. But they will remain wary of flippancy, from which more ill than good usually flows.

Have a joy-filled life.

Dangerous Clowns

October 7, 2016 — 15 Comments

clownsThe latest concern here in the United States, aside from who will be our next president, involves “scary clowns.” And this bizarre meme got me thinking about clowndom in its broader expressions.

The current worry comes from people dressing up in sometimes morbid variations of clown attire. It’s not quite so bad as “It,” Stephen King’s 1990 miniseries about a demonic counterfeit.

It, by the way, has been updated lest the current generation be deprived of its arguable glories. The new film is in post-production and is due for release next fall.

Anyway, this film is only one of a legion of movies and cable productions that portray clowns in an ominous light.

So, it appears that the public is primed to expect the worst when people decide to dress up like jesters and do odd things in suspicious places at strange hours.

Expressed that way, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be concerned. After all, one of the most familiar elements of the criminal ensemble is a mask.

I sincerely hope that this fad doesn’t result in any serious problems. However, even if 99 out of 100 people are simply donning the make-up to be silly . . . that still leaves the 1%.

Attitudes Towards Clowns

I’ve never cared much about clowns, one way or the other. I’ve never considered them particularly eerie or entertaining.

I learned listening to the radio this week that I have that in common with Michael Medved.

Medved is a talented radio personality who coincidentally is a renowned film critic. Today, because of this media attention related to these harlequin lurkers, Medved was questioned about his attitude towards clowns.

He shared that he doesn’t particularly care one way or the other, but his family did have a negative experience many years ago. He related how one of his brothers was able to attend a taping of the San Diego expression of the “Bozo the Clown” program. Curiously, the stage for the broadcast was in Tijuana, but that’s another story.

Readers of Medved’s and my generation will immediately know who Bozo was. (To be distinguished from Bonzo, who was tucked into his blankets by President Reagan long ago.)

Returning to the clown . . . it turns out that Medved’s brother was frightened by the appearance of Bozo, and began crying. That drew the immediate attention of the actor in the intimidating suit, who said—probably in a low, threatening whisper, through the façade of the painted smile—“That’s a Bozo no-no . . .” Pretty creepy.

C.S. Lewis and Clowns

It just so happened that it was time for my next blog column. I wondered if there might be some connection I might draw with the Oxford don, or some bit of wisdom I might be able to apply to the subject at hand with minimal logical gymnastics.

It turns out I needn’t have been concerned. Here’s a wonderful description of Lewis, written the year after his death by his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

C.S.L. of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all.

He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, thought a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him.

That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T.S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny. After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations to poetic laurels oneself.

I like that description of Lewis. As someone who is usually among the first to usher humor into a conversation or situation, I would like to think I might be described in a similar way. Not a “professional clown,” seeking to gain attention and praise. But a “natural one” who promotes laughter, good humor, and emotional health.

Those results are, I assume, the goals of all true clowns.

As for those who work to transform this image of merrymaking into something sinister . . . we can only hope and pray, that the trend exhausts itself soon.

And, at No Extra Cost

If you have never seen Bozo, you owe it to yourself to learn what your parents and grandparents called “entertainment” back in the day! (Trust me, you’ll never be the same.)

 

A Better Wig

April 6, 2016 — 3 Comments

wigHow important is honesty? When is it okay to fudge on the truth? If the main point is valid, how necessary is it to keep all of the details straight?

I just read a bizarre story that got me thinking about this subject. A director of Senior Services in Rhode Island wanted to promote snow removal assistance for the elderly, and couldn’t rustle up a suitable “Cranston Senior Home Resident” to be featured during a news report.

So, she did the next best thing. She manufactured one.

The only apparent flaw in her plan was forgetting that such facilities also have male residents. So, the bus driver she pressed into the role had to don a wig, makeup and earrings. (Perhaps she just thought that an elderly female would elicit greater sympathy.

At any rate, her nefarious plot was revealed when local television viewers did not fall for the questionable disguise. The coup de grâce, or the punch line as you may read it, came in the pronouncement of the salon owner who prepped the man for his debut.

“I probably would have given him a better wig if I had known.”

You see, the problem wasn’t the misrepresentation. The error was in not doing it persuasively.

I suppose this odd story struck me as timely (even though it apparently occurred this past winter) because we in the United States are currently suffering in the midst of a lengthy presidential primary season. (No comments, please, on whether any of the candidates might benefit from wearing “a better wig.”)

C.S. Lewis & the Subject of Deception

C.S. Lewis thought a great deal about the subjects of truth, and deception. For much of his life, well into adulthood, he was deceived by sirens who denied the reality of a loving God.

One of his accurate observations is that deception must be reasonable to be successful.

Nothing can deceive unless it bears a plausible resemblance to reality. (“An Experiment in Criticism”)

Obviously, the incident above did not pass the plausibility standard.

In the same essay, Lewis declared scenarios that represent imaginary realities as being innocent of deception.

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The un-blushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. (“An Experiment in Criticism”).

We would be inclined today to add “men’s magazines” as an equally disingenuous source. I believe Lewis was referring to the kind of story that manipulates one’s emotions and exaggerates reality to provoke the desired response.

Self-Deception as a Danger

As a Christian, Lewis reflected in great depth on how prone you and I are to deceiving ourselves. Some of this self-deception is not intentional. In correspondence with an American acquaintance he discussed Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou.

What I had not yet thought about was your objection, that he ignores the Me. You are probably right. He might even have said that just as the Thou is deeper than the Me, so the I is deeper than the Me. For I believe self consciousness to be full of deception and that the object I call me and think about (both in my moments of pride and in my moments of humility) is very different from the I who think about it.

I agree with Lewis that we are often unaware of aspects of our own personality. And, unfortunately, we are prone to misperceiving what we do observe. This is not a conscious twisting of the truth to our own benefit, as in proclaiming that we are exceptional and never fail.

johariThis raises the question of our self-awareness. The Johari Window is a simple resource that illustrates the four aspects of our identity, based on two axes—what is known/unknown and by whom the traits are recognized.

You can see how it works out in this simple diagram. And you can read a brief description of the tool here.

It seems evident that one key to living with integrity and enjoying greater happiness is to be honest in all of our dealings. Honest with others. And honest with ourselves.

It was good to be reminded once again of that vital truth.

_____

Here’s a piece of Lewisian trivia. The collection of essays available in the United States as God in the Dock was originally published in the United Kingdom with the title Undeceptions. Ironically, the British reference in the American version of the title still creates confusion for those who don’t realize “in the dock” refers to a person who is on trial.