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Long words can be daunting. Even for native speakers. The illustration above comes from The Japan Times, and reveals how the challenge is magnified for others.

I love learning new words. And, since these treasures frequently drift out of my vocabulary because I fail to use them, I often have the joy of re-learning unique words.

Sesquipedalianism is actually a genuine word which can be validly applied in a variety of settings. After all, haven’t we all encountered a sesquipedalianist or two, who uses especially long, and occasionally obscure words?

How many syllables are required before a word grows too long? To a monosyllabic individual, two might be deemed excessive.

Seriously, it’s not the length of a word that matters, it’s the word’s familiarity. For example, “familiarity” has six syllables, and everyone reading Mere Inkling knows its meaning. (I resisted saying “is familiar with . . .”) On the other hand, “carbuncle” is only trisyllabic, and yet the only people likely to know its definition are either those in medical professions, or unfortunate individuals who have suffered from one.

But it’s not only unfamiliarity that causes confusion; misunderstanding can result from a lack of context. Let’s take “trisyllabic,” a word even an active reader seldom encounters. As used in the paragraph above, the context (along with the prefix and root), provide us with more information than a person needs to recognize its meaning.

In a famous letter from 1956, C.S. Lewis included the following advice:

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Great advice, just as one would expect. However, this does not constitute a blanket rejection of “big words.” Lewis is simply reminding us that our prose must not be more complicated than it needs to be. Thus, the title of this column uses a precise word – rather than saying “Please Forgive My Practice of Using Long and Sometimes Obscure Words” – since Mere Inkling readers are quite capable of uncovering a definition if a particular word is unfamiliar.

Plus, as I hinted above, many of us enjoy expanding our vocabularies.

In the aforementioned correspondence, Lewis offered additional useful advice. Another dictum is: “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”

Here too the great writer is astute. However, this caution is not actually about the length of words. Lewis’ desire for clarity in communication leads him to reject “vague” words, which coincidentally happen to be longer than those he refers to as “direct.”

Using longer words than necessary is not, of course, always a good thing. While it comprises neuron-stretching play for word lovers, it can easily be misperceived by others as “showing off.” (Note: I’m not defending those cases in which the writer or speaker really are attempting to impress others with their verbal dexterity.*)

You can easily find collections of the longest words in English. While some cheat, including “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” others are more scrupulous. Despite doing just that, I like the list at grammarly because of their definition of one of the words they include.

Floccinaucinihilipilification
The estimation of something as valueless. Ironically, floccinaucinihilipilification is a pretty valueless word itself; it’s almost never used except as an example of a long word.

I’m not currently planning on adding floccinaucinihilipilification to my personal vocabulary, but don’t let me dissuade you from doing so.

Learning new words often reaps extrinsic benefits. As a historian who enjoys learning about the Latin language, I found the following definition, and illustration, from the Cambridge dictionary quite interesting.

The act of considering something to be not at all important or useful – used mainly as an example of a very long word:

The honor of being the longest non-technical word goes to floccinaucinihilipilification.

The word . . . is “an 18th-century coinage that combines four Latin prefixes meaning ‘nothing.’”

Oh, and one final suggestion. When visiting the Cambridge site, in the likelihood you’ll someday wish to use this word in conversation, take a moment to make certain you learn to pronounce in the U.K. or American manner, as appropriate for your location.


* I am not here referring to the Irish bred Bay Colt for some curious reason named “Verbal Dexterity.”

C.S. Lewis on Stupidity

October 24, 2022 — 9 Comments

Just because someone did something extraordinarily stupid does not mean that another fool should repeat the act. And C.S. Lewis would agree.

This summer a (likely unemployed) Coloradan decided to push a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak – a 14,115 foot American landmark – using his nose. Talk about stupid. His ambition was to be the first person in the twenty-first century to accomplish this pseudo-impressive goal.

That’s right, “in the twenty-first century.” Oddly, he is the fourth man (women are too intelligent, IMHO) to waste time in this pursuit, but the others proved their mettle in the twentieth century.

Simple stupidity is not the oddest motivator of irrational actions. Some people feel compelled to pursue death-defying activities. Those of us who would prefer to avoid danger whenever possible, are confused by others who embrace it.

Quite recently, “the body of an American mountaineer whose daring achievements brought her acclaim among some of the world’s most elite climbers was found . . . on a peak in Nepal.” Apparently, she climbed the “world’s eighth-highest peak” so she could ski down from its peak.

Hilaree Nelson, 49, and her romantic and climbing partner, Jim Morrison, were trying to ski down Manaslu . . . An avalanche apparently blew her off a cliff onto the south face of the mountain, opposite of their intended route of descent.

Tragic, most would agree. Foolish, many would add.

Doing something silly falls lower on the FDS (foolishness disorder spectrum) than does taking arbitrary and utterly unnecessary risks.

C.S. Lewis offers some interesting counsel to a woman who shared concern about the marital frustrations of someone close to her. (Yes, people actively sought his advice.) He ranks ignorance very low on the scale of relationship problems.

It is a great joy to be able to ‘feel’ God’s love as a reality, and one must give thanks for it and use it. But you must be prepared for the feeling dying away again, for feelings are by nature impermanent.

The great thing is to continue to believe when the feeling is absent: & these periods do quite as much for one as those when the feeling is present. It sounds to me as if Genia had a pretty good husband on the whole.

So much matrimonial misery comes to me in my mail that I feel those whose partner has no worse fault than being stupider than themselves may be said to have drawn a prize! It hardly amounts to a Problem. (Correspondence, 1953).

So it is, that while obviously undesirable, stupidity is not a bad thing in itself. In “The World’s Last Night,” Lewis includes the trait in a curious list. And the passage suggests to me the dangers implicit in allowing one‘s ignorance to jeopardize their wellbeing.

Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.

It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.

It is precisely when what I would identify as stupidity inspires dangerous activities, that C.S. Lewis would rule it to be detrimental. And this brings us to the question of why some few people do what the majority of us “saner” people would avoid.

Why Do People Pursue Risky Activities

For our discussion here, I am not including people who face danger due to their vocations. Doubtless some “first responders” and military members relish brushes with death, but they are in the minority. Most are not eager to court death.

It has been debated as to why some people are drawn to the most hazardous of so-called “extreme sports.” The uncharitable might attribute a vulnerability to the siren call of danger to mere stupidity, but there are other factors at work.

However, some people are conditioned by their upbringing to participate in unsafe behaviors (e.g. base jumping, smoking or alligator wrestling). And, in recent years, we have been hearing more about genetic dispositions to such activities. It appears there is some merit to the notion of there being a “risk taking gene.”

A major 2019 study reported in in Nature Genetics “identified . . . 99 [genetic] loci associated with general risk tolerance.” An accessible discussion of the study says, “the genetic variants identified in the study open a new avenue of research on the biological mechanisms that influence a person’s willingness to take risks.”

In any case, DNA is only one, limited factor. Researchers confirmed “non-genetic factors matter more for risk tolerance than genetic factors. The study shows evidence of shared genetic influences across both an overall measure of risk tolerance and many specific risky behaviors.”

Lacking the fear gene is not quite the same thing as being courageous. As noted above, a person may face danger because of a valid reason. Thus “first responders” and most military members I served as a chaplain were not foolhardy. They didn’t take unnecessary risks. But most were willing to place themselves between very real threats and those they were protecting.

If you personally are of an adventurous nature, I encourage you to take sensible precautions. Avoiding rafting on Class VI rapids and cave diving – anywhere – would be a good place to start..

And for the less daring among us, perhaps we can avoid foolish pursuits that are merely a waste of time. It seems apparent to me that time spent serving others in a food bank, or mowing the lawn of a disabled neighbor, constitute a far better use of our time.

Dangerous Facial Hair

March 29, 2022 — 21 Comments

Beards come, and beards go. Yet humanity offers no consensus on their value. Perhaps that is because there are so many diverse styles, ranging from restrained to insane.

C.S. Lewis mentioned in passing the “biblical” style of beards in a 1939 letter to his brother Warnie.

For instance the presence of the revolving bookcase in the study has just introduced me to a book of Minto’s mother’s which is well worth studying. It is called Gems of Literature/Elegant, rare, and Suggestive

The engravings are of a sort you can probably imagine – damsels with those peculiar comic-section or peg-top legs and eyes raised to heaven and old men with what can only be called Biblical beards.

Facial hair is a personal choice. But when that choice becomes deadly, perhaps society should intervene. Take the case of Hans Steininger, a sixteenth century burgomaster in the Austrian-German city that would one day become the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

Some mental disorder apparently compelled him to have scissors banned from his city, lest a single hair on his magnificent beard be severed. Seriously, he died because he tripped over his chin whiskers during a major fire in 1567.

Steininger usually kept his prodigious beard hair rolled up and stuffed in a pocket, but during the commotion he was running around with it hanging free. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to step on his own beard, sending him tumbling down a flight of stairs and breaking his neck…

The full-body illustration at the church shows Steininger’s beard bifurcated into two scraggly strands, stretching down past his feet. And tucked away in the local district museum is the town’s most hirsute artifact: the 450-year-old beard of Steininger.

Even in ancient times, everyone recognized an unkempt beard was a liability, particularly in combat. In The Life of Theseus, Plutarch states this was why Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers in his phalanxes to shave.

They write also that this was the reason why Alexander gave command to his captains that all the beards of the Macedonians should be shaved, as being the readiest hold for an enemy.

Although I sported a modest mustache for a short time back in the day when Tom Selleck starred as Magnum P.I., I’ve never been a big fan of facial hair. Seeing Steininger’s likeness reinforces that.

Add to that the biblical warning from Leviticus: “When a man or woman has a disease on the head or the beard, the priest shall examine the disease. And if it appears deeper than the skin, and the hair in it is yellow and thin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13).

Historical Biases

While well-maintained beards are okay, two additional (historical) factors contribute to my discomfiture. First, as a student of the American Civil War, I find myself repelled by the odd appearance choices of people such as General Ambrose Burnside. Although he gave his name to “sideburns,” that’s hardly what I would call these monstrosities. (Also called mutton chops, which is precisely what the cultured bon vivant should have adorning their cheeks.)

The second reason for my wariness is due to the affinity of too many pastors in my own denomination for beards. I doubt they wear them to wow the ladies. Perhaps they think the beards make them appear more distinguished?

Actually, I’ve become desensitized to most pastors who opt for facial hair – with one bizarre exception. To employ a cliché literally: for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone living in the twenty-first century would opt for a “chin curtain.” I understand the Amish have an affinity for them, but who ever considered those German Anabaptists fashionable?

Sadly, because my church also possesses a strong Germanic strain, I’ve discovered more than one minister bearing this mark of Cain. Perhaps they hope to emulate the denomination’s first president, the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther. If so, my advice is they follow his example of conscientious pastoral care, and dispense with the externals. (I will concede that his black leather suit does look rather dapper, being that the image was captured for posterity in the mid-1800s.)

C.S. Lewis & His Beard

I can forgive C.S. Lewis for aligning with the beard-faction on at least two occasions. That’s because there were extenuating circumstances.

In 1924 he wrote to his father about an illness that led to what may have been his first transgression.

My dear Papy,

I got chicken pox and am only now out of quarantine. I have of course been quite well enough to write for some time but I don’t know whether you have had this complaint and thought it better not to chance infecting you: I am told that the older you are the less likely it will be to ‘take’, but the worse if it does.

I had a pretty high temperature at the beginning and some very uncomfortable nights of intense perspiration, but it soon passed off.

The danger of cutting any of the spots on my face of course made shaving impossible till this very day and I had a fine beard. I have left the moustache which would excite ‘poor Warren’s’ envy, but I shall probably get tired of it in a few weeks. It is very stiff, and all the hairs grow in different directions and it is thicker on one side than on the other.

In a 1931 letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, he mentions offhand as he closes that he has altered his appearance.

I suppose you have heard about Warnie’s peerage – for gallantry during the recent manoeuvres. I have grown a beard – Good night.

In two letters written in 1956, C.S. Lewis would describe the illness-induced beard he had mentioned to his father.  He humorously describes its imperfections. The first was written to a young fan.

Your mother tells me you have all been having chicken pox. I had it long after I was grown up and it’s much worse if you are a man for of course you can’t shave with the spots on your face. So I grew a beard and though my hair is black the beard was half yellow and half red! You should have seen me.

The following month he shared more details with a longtime correspondent.

The Tycoon may count himself lucky to have got chickenpox before he reaches the age of shaving brushes and razors. I had it in my late 20’s and grew a beard which was part yellow and part red though my hair is black – a very striking colour scheme.

Apart from that, though, I think it a very good sort of illness on the whole. A nice long quarantine which by sentencing one to solitary confinement secures one against pupils, committees etc. But no doubt it had no such charms for you.

Seeing C.S. Lewis adorned with a beard would surely make for an odd photograph. Especially one taken in color.

Postscript

Forgive me. I’ve vented more than I intended. Wear whatever hairstyle you prefer. However, I would caution you that if your beard drags on the ground, it’s best to carry an emergency set of shears, lest you stumble during an emergency stampede.

As a treat for those who have read to the end of this column, here is an image from Gems of Literature. I suspect these were two of the “Biblical beards” to which C.S. Lewis referred.

Bonus for beard aficionados: For a curious look at a guy whose quest is to see how many facial hair variations he “can check off from the chart of facial hair types,” visit this site.

One contemporary challenge to democracy in the United States is judicial activism. This is the term for jurists who mistakenly think they are in the legislative branch of the American government.

While too many Courts pursue this unconstitutional path, it is refreshing to see one federal Court actually “legislating” within its actual purview.

The District of Columbia Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has mandated which fonts can and cannot be used for court documents. The National Law Journal says the official shunning of the Garamond font has set “lawyers abuzz.”

The Court—quite correctly—notes that serif fonts are much more legible than sans serif fonts like Arial.

But that has not saved Garamond, which appears slightly smaller than some other serif fonts. Apparently the fact that all documents must also be printed in a 14 point size does not adequately compensate for the difference.

If you would like to read the formal notice you can find it here.

Consistent with the Court’s magnanimity, while briefs “must be set in a plain, roman style,” they will graciously allow “italics and boldface [to] be used for emphasis.”

C.S. Lewis had a proper respect for the legal system. How could it be otherwise for a man whose own father was a solicitor? Yet one wonders what Lewis would have thought about this strict new requirement in the colonial Courts.

Counting Our Blessings

Since the Court has spoken on the matter of fonts, the question must be settled. After all, to whom could it be appealed?

However, we should be grateful that they have limited their judicial caprice to barring sans serif fonts. After all, they could have reinstated Court Hand.

The various forms of writing in which English medieval documents . . . are preserved to us are all derived from an increasingly current writing of the same script which . . . are known to us collectively as Court Hand, that is the writing of the Courts. (Palaeography and the Practical Study of Court Hand).*

Yes, I realize Court Hand dates back to the medieval era, and reinstating it in contemporary American courts would seem asinine on its face, but that certainly doesn’t make it implausible in our current judicial milieu.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the quality of Court Hand. In 1943 he wrote a letter to Gerald Hayes (1889-1955), who was Chief Cartographer for the Admiralty. Hayes had provided some maps for one of C.S. Lewis’ favorite authors, E.R. Eddison. Two of these maps can be found at Inventing Imaginary Worlds.

Hayes gifted C.S. Lewis with a copy of one of these illustrations. Lewis responded with an invitation to visit the Inklings, appreciation for the unique “treasure,” and a compliment about Hayes’ skillful handwriting.

You must come & [visit] our little confraternity if you ever are in Oxford & receive in person my repeated thanks for what is one of my notablest treasures. It has given me again what I have not had for years & years, the old pleasure in a ‘present.’ I wish I could write either modern or court hand as you do!

Fortunately, we live in a digital age when we need not labor to replicate ornate fonts. We can simply add them to our computers and voilà, there they are. In case the Courts resume such a requirement, you may want to add a Court Hand font to your computer today. Even if you do not anticipate being involved in litigation, and simply enjoy elegant fonts, you can find a free copy here.


* You can download a free copy of this book—which belongs in every writer’s library—from the Internet Archive.

And, here is a handy reference sheet for the next time you need to decipher court hand.

One of the earliest lessons children learn is how many senses the human being possesses. You know the answer off the top of your head, right? Five. But, apparently, that’s no longer correct. Oh, you may think I must be including that long-time poser, extrasensory perception (ESP), which purports to be a sense of sorts beyond the five we all experience. If you thought that . . . sorry, but you are wrong again.

We all agree on the basic five: the faculties of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. To this list, science has recently added several other senses we experience. They’re not actually new; Adam and Eve knew them too (with the possible exception of nociception). They actually make sense (in the other use of the word), as well. Here they are:

Proprioception – perceiving where your body parts are relative to one another, and the strength of effort being employed in movement

Thermoception – sensing temperature

Equilibrioception – perception of balance

Chronoception – sensing the passage of time

Interoception – feeling internal needs such as hunger and thirst

Nociception – experiencing pain

More expansive lists exist as well. Some are discussed online at The United Kingdom’s Sensory Trust. The Trust is devoted to “sensory design . . . [using] nature and the outdoors to improve the health and wellbeing of people living with disability and health issues.” They describe how “neurological classification” can result in numbers up to fifty-three. (It makes one long for the simplicity of the past when we followed Aristotle’s citation of only five.)

C.S. Lewis’ Celebration of Life

You can pick up nearly any one of Lewis’ essays or fiction, open to any page of his autobiography, read almost any of his letters, and you will see his love for nature. And Lewis is often quite vivid in his description of his encounter with God’s creation. The sights, sounds and smells he describes make the depictions real. Consider his description of Tash, the “god” worshipped by the Calormenes, in The Last Battle.

[King Tirian said] “What foul smell is this?”

“Phew!” gasped Eustace. “It’s like something dead. Is there a dead bird somewhere about? And why didn’t we notice it before?”

With a great upheaval Jewel [the unicorn] scrambled to his feet and pointed with his horn. “Look!” he cried. “Look at it! Look, look!” Then all six of them saw; and over all their faces there came an expression of uttermost dismay.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was gray and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. . . . It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

[They] watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight.

From a more philosophical, even metaphysical perspective, Lewis ponders the senses experienced by angels in his poem, “On Being Human.” He describes the differences between how angels and humanity experience God’s creation. Lewis suggests that in exchange for their unblurred perception of cosmic reality, they lack the more mundane (i.e. earthly) experience of physical perception of creation.*

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know—the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it, all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;
But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
—An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang—can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot,
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges—
An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us, like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charm’d interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

This notion that we comprehend things the angels cannot—for example, the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit—is expressed in the spirit of the First Epistle of Peter. These wondrous miracles are “things into which angels long to look.”

As amazing as our human senses are, we should never delude ourselves into thinking they are infallible. Far from it. As precious as they are, due to our fallen nature, they possess two shortcomings. First, they may misperceive reality. Such is the case with allodynia, in which a person “feels pain from non-painful stimuli,” such as a light touch or a cool temperature.⁑

The second limitation comes in the obvious fact of our finite nature. We are simply incapable of perceiving, much less processing, all the information that washes over us. Perhaps you would join me in identifying with C.S. Lewis’ description of himself in A Grief Observed.

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them-never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?

The number of human senses is not important. Our recognition of their divine source is, however, of eternal import.


* Chris Armstrong, Senior Editor of the Christian History Institute, wrote an exceptional article on the importance of our senses. Citing C.S. Lewis’ “On Being Human,” he declares our senses are the only means by which we can “know God.”

Nor is sense-knowledge about God through his Creation, second-class knowledge. Lewis expresses this idea memorably in his poem “On Being Human,” which compares the angels’ incorporeal way of knowing with our way—to the advantage of the latter.

The Christian History Institute publishes the exceptional Christian History magazine, which is offered for a simple donation. They also provide free, downloadable copies of past issues. I strongly encourage your support of this superb ministry.

⁑ From Medical News Today. “Some people feel extreme pain from something minor, such as a paper cut. Feeling increased pain or being hypersensitive to mild pain is called hyperalgesia. Individuals with allodynia, however, feel pain when something is ordinarily painless.”

Where do all the satellites go when their utility ends? No, they don’t all just burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as their orbits decay. Many are too large for that, and they must be escorted to a remote and desolate Spacecraft Cemetery.

While a great deal of debris and smaller satellites burn up upon re-entry, larger items—including entire space stations—need to be disposed of in a way that keeps the hazardous materials out of public circulation. And what better place than the dark depths of the ocean? Among the craft that have been scuttled at the spot are unmanned satellites . . . and, possibly most remarkably, the entire decommissioned Russian space station, Mir.

The isolated location of this unique graveyard is near the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” which marks the location on earth which lies the farthest from any land. The cemetery, which is already the final resting place for more than 260 spacecraft from Russia, Europe, Japan and the United States, lies on the deep seabed approximately 1,500 miles between Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and Antarctica.

This remote locate is truly mysterious. Members of my critique group expressed concern that residual extraterrestrial elements aboard the satellites might birth some variation of ゴジラ [Godzilla]. Another member, steeped in the Lovecraftian lore of the Cthulhu mythos, pointed out that this “oceanic pole of inaccessibility” is virtually identical with the location of R’lyeh, the subterranean cavern wherein Cthulhu awaits his terrible awakening. In response to these observations, I reminded my colleagues that I happen to be writing nonfiction.

The international space race formally launched in 1957 when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. The United States scrambled to catch up, and in 1959, the USSR placed the first human in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was preceded by a precious little dog, the first living being to reach out for the stars. Her name was Laika, and we will consider Laika’s sad tale in a moment.

C.S. Lewis & the Space Race

The realm of space was not unfamiliar to Lewis. From 1938 to 1945 he authored three volumes of science fiction that would come to be known as the Space Trilogy (or Cosmic Trilogy).

In one book he describes the danger posed to spacecraft by interstellar debris. Presumably similar dangers led to the early demise of some of the residents of the Space Cemetery. In the first volume, Lewis describes the protagonist’s initial exposure to the “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.”

The period spent in the spaceship ought to have been one of terror and anxiety for Ransom. He was separated by an astronomical distance from every member of the human race except two whom he had excellent reasons for distrusting. He was heading for an unknown destination, and was being brought thither for a purpose which his captors steadily refused to disclose.

All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorites, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too solemn, for any emotion save a severe delight. (Out of the Silent Planet)

Lewis’ initial foray into space was influenced by H.G. WellsFirst Men in the Moon. In The War of the Worlds, the second chapter is entitled “The Falling-Star.” It describes the terrible dangers that can fall from space. Earth’s “greatest authority on meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about ninety or one hundred miles.” So common are meteorites that “no one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.” However, the next morning they discovered,

An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

It is precisely due to the destruction that would be caused by a crash-landing catastrophe such as this, that the nations of the world have identified an unpopulated spacecraft cemetery.

This international competition, one of the most publicized elements of the Cold War, unfolded as C.S. Lewis was at the height of his professional influence. Unlike many, who regarded sputnik’s orbit as alarming, Lewis offered a measured, yet realistic, assessment of the advance.

I don’t feel that ‘Sputnik’ in itself is anything very dangerous, but one doesn’t like the underlying implication, i.e. that its existence proves that Russia is far ahead of your country in inter-continental missiles. (Letter to Vera Gebbert, 12 November 1957)

Lewis understood that the race to control the thermosphere and exosphere would not be won in a day. His insight was affirmed as the United States overtook the Soviets’ early advantage and planted a flag on the moon.

In his preface to a theological book, Lewis refers to Sputnik in passing, using its fame as a counterpoint to what is truly lasting and of profound significance.

Dr. Farrer is far too wise and workmanlike in his pastoral office to waste any time on being topical. You will find nothing here about the [nuclear] Bombs or Sputniks. What is usually called ‘the contemporary’ is in fact a composite picture of the recent past, based on secondary sources (chiefly newspapers) and touched up with guesses about the future.

Dr. Farrer . . . has no leisure to spare for such a phantom. He deals with what is really and knowably contemporary–with the august and terrible coincidence of the present moment and the eternal, in which each one of us lives. He is never speaking to the abstraction ‘modern man,’ always to you and me. (Preface to Austin Farrer’s A Faith of Our Own)

C.S. Lewis recognized well how the flash of “the contemporary” served to outshine what was of lasting import. He recognized Sputnik’s scientific breakthrough for what it was. And then he turned his attention to more significant concerns.

The space race, however, never ended. Today we see another shift in the transnational race for space with many nations vying for a role in exploration of the solar system. Likewise, after a period of rewarding international cooperation, the three superpowers are now all actively pursuing the militarization of space. Where it will end only our descendants will witness.

Still, like C.S. Lewis, we have personally witnessed much progress when it comes to humanity’s desire to touch space. And many of the most powerful memories have involved tragedy.

Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971) cost four lives. In the West, entire crews were lost in three disasters: Apollo 1 (1967) and Space Shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). Humans, though, were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives in the exploration of space. In our next post, we’ll reflect on the price paid by animals in beginning this extraplanetary journey.

Peculiarities of Punctuation

September 17, 2019 — 19 Comments

I question how we can ever secure world peace, when we can’t even agree on how to punctuate. And this is not only an international controversy—although it certainly possesses intercontinental ramifications.

Writers who have submitted their work to editors know exactly what I’m talking about. The world abounds with critics who are positive they know how to “fix” your manuscript, so you can more effectively communicate what you are trying to say.

A fine example of this is found in the case of Samuel Clemons. As I described several years ago, Mark Twain considered editors to be a plague. He sums up his irritation in a letter to a friend.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own. This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it.

C.S. Lewis experienced similar challenges in working with his editors. In 1959, Lewis was responding to edits made by his longtime editor, Jocelyn Gibb, on the manuscript of The Four Loves.

I enclose my emendations, concessions, and resistances. . . . as regards my emendations, will you be so kind as to type them and send them to Harcourt Brace for the American edition. Otherwise we shall create a ‘textual problem.’

After arguing for several points of substance, Lewis offers a preemptive surrender on the field of punctuation. “Do anything you like (in reason) to the punctuation.” Lewis’ qualified capitulation was in response to this editorial comment from Gibb:

Do you really favour a comma before an “and” which seems to run all through? If so, why not: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It’s curious Lewis’ editor would question his inclusion of commas in this manner, since it is not uncommon in British literature. In fact, punctuation in this context is often called an “Oxford comma.” You can read a decent discussion of the subject here. And, lest you deem it an inconsequential matter, check out this interesting article describing how it became “the crux of a $10 million class-action lawsuit . . .” The author of the article notes:

Many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association (APA), and American Medical Association (AMA), recommend the use of the Oxford comma to prevent ambiguity.

Yet others, including the AP style guide, Canadian Press (CP) style guide, and (shockingly) the University of Oxford style guide itself, use the Oxford comma only when a sentence could be misinterpreted by the reader without it.

Here’s the problem, though, for those who do not consistently use the Oxford comma: when writing a sentence, you don’t always realize that what you’re writing could be misinterpreted.

A Nineteenth Century Tribute to Punctuation

Punctuation can provide insights into a writer’s personality, as I have discussed here. Recently I encountered this personally published poem from 1861. You can download Ephemeral Effusions, the quaint volume in which it appears, at no cost via Internet Archive.

Easy Rules for Punctuation

Written for the amusement
of a valued Friend,
who was a great stickler
for correct punctuation.

I.
Whene’er you pause, to dip the pen,
A comma you must place;
If at a loss to find a word,
A semicolon trace.

II.
Should thoughts flow slowly, fill the gap
With colon, or with rest;
And when the sentence is complete,
A period answers best.

III.
A bright idea always claims
A note of admiration;
And, if you doubt, a crooked mark
Implies interrogation.

IV.
Inverted commas indicate,
Your wits are at an end;
And, your ideas failing,
You borrow from a friend.

V.
Parenthesis (example take),
I won’t say much about;
It guards a sentence, which sometimes
Had better be left out.

VI.
The little star of secrecy,
Tho’ last, not least in fame,
Is aide-de-camp to mystery,
And asterisk its name.

These rules are all so clear,
they need no explanation;
And constitute the art
of modern punctuation.

Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

Recently I came across a sad record from the American Civil War. It described a too-common occasion during the later years of the war—the execution of Union deserters. Yet this story was unique. One of the three men sentenced to death, was spared. And this wonder occurred because of a simple misspelling.

As we know, most misspellings are inconsequential, while others are significant, such as making a mistake with the Lord’s name.

On New Year’s Day in 1960 The Times Educational Supplement published a letter from C.S. Lewis on the subject of spelling.

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography. Most men of my age remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible

In the case of the Civil War deserter, the misspelled name was not significant. Everyone in the regiment knew the three guilty parties. After their initial arrests, the men had escaped from confinement, and then been recaptured. Not once, but twice.

According to the regimental history of the Sixth Connecticut Infantry, the circumstances followed a common pattern.

Volunteering having partially subsided in the State, and as the government was in need of more troops, drafting commenced in other States as well as in Connecticut. The Sixth received about 200 men in October; some were conscripts and others drafted men, as but few volunteered for the service. Their advent was not hailed with much pleasure or satisfaction by the old regiment, as they claimed that “forced” men would not fight and could not be trusted in case of an emergency.

Some were vile roughs and were frequently in the guard house; while others manifested a disposition to do their duty, and did make very good soldiers. Three of the substitutes deserted from the regiment while on picket . . . (The Old Sixth Regiment by Charles K. Cadwell)

The three deserters shared a common background, and were destined for a common fate.

[Following their first escape] they were tried for desertion before a court martial . . . found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death by musketry. They were then chained hand and foot to a post inside of the provost quarters; and, notwithstanding these precautions, together with a strong guard, they succeeded in getting away again.

They took a boat near the pier and made off; but while in Warsaw Sound near the shore, their boat grounded and they were captured by a picket boat from the gunboat Patapsco. They were very bold, ingenious men, and their skill and perseverance might have won them honor if rightly applied. The culprits were Germans by birth: privates Henry Schumaker, of Co. C, Henry Stark, of Co. E, and Gustav Hoofan, of Co. B. (The Old Sixth)

The execution was conducted in the traditional, solemn manner of the era. However, one of the condemned soldiers would survive another day.

[Two of] the prisoners were taken from their cells at about two o-clock, placed in army wagons and seated on the coffins in which they were to be buried. . . . The funeral escort, consisting of a corporal and eight men, marched to funeral music, with arms reversed.

Slowly the procession proceeded to the appointed place; the square was formed on three sides, and the victims were driven around once that all might see them and avoid their fate. They maintained a calm demeanor to all, except as they passed our regiment they took off their caps several times to their old comrades. On reaching the end of the square they were assisted to alight from the wagons, the coffins were placed on the ground, the culprits sitting down upon them while the Provost Marshal read the charges, findings and sentence.

After a short prayer by the priest they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind them and made to kneel upon their coffins, facing the center of the square. The firing party came up and were halted at six paces distant, when, at a signal from Capt. Babcock, they fired and the victims fell upon their coffins. . . . They lay just as they had fallen till the whole command marched past them on the way to camp, when they were put into the coffins and buried. (The Old Sixth)

Only two of the three deserters had perished in the fusillade that riddled their bodies. Gustav Hoofan survived. Alternative spellings in Civil War records were common. In the rosters as maintained by the National Park Service, Hoofan’s name was also spelled Hoffan and Hofen. The unfamiliarity of Hoofan’s name—combined with the mercy of a commander—were his salvation.

In the case of the [the third deserter] an error was discovered in writing his name, the name Hoofan having been written Hoffman by the Judge Advocate. Col. Duryee wishing to be merciful to the full extent consistent with duty, availed himself of this technical error and protested against his execution. This protest was allowed, and he was saved from death and ordered to return to duty with his regiment. The man was more than pleased at this announcement, but the Judge Advocate, a lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania regiment, was severely censured in general orders for his inexcusable carelessness and fatal error. (The Old Sixth)

I was unable to ascertain what eventually became of Private Hoofan. Apparently he completed the rest of this service commitment and returned to civilian life with a profound sense of gratitude.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling

I shared above the beginning of Lewis’ letter to The Times Educational Supplement. The remainder of it is well worth reading. It is clear that he regarded the communication of information (i.e. the actual function of writing) to be far more important than the execution of arbitrary rules.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly. A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

It’s so refreshing to see that even a renowned scholar can exercise such common sense.

csl forgetica

Do you have trouble remembering what you read? Read on for a solution to your problem.

C.S. Lewis possessed an amazing memory of what he had read. While eidetic memory remains theoretical, many attributed a “photographic memory” to the Oxford don. Owen Barfield, Lewis’ close friend, described this gift.

He had that very pictorial imagination. I know when we used to go on walks, I used to envy him that. . . . He had what I think is called by some people an “eidetic memory,” when your imaginative pictures are almost photographic. (Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis edited by G.B. Tennyson)

Describing Lewis’ earnest patience with others, however “ignorant or naïve” (Barfield’s opinion) the person, Barfield describes how readily Lewis recalled pertinent facts.

First he would speak as one simple man exchanging experiences with another, and only afterward (if the occasion seemed to call for it and always without the least nuance of didacticism) would he bring to bear, out of his wide reading and phenomenal memory, some pithy utterance—it might be from Aristotle’s Ethics, it might be from an Icelandic saga, it might be from George MacDonald—that contained the very substance of what the two of them had just discovered they had in common.

There appears to be hope on the horizon for those of us who are not blessed with Lewis’ talent for recalling what we read. RMIT University (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) has devised a new font that uses a psychological principle called “desirable difficulty” to help readers retain more.

Take a look at Sans Forgetica in its own font. forgetica

 

 

The “difficult” part is evident in the lacunae that force one’s mind to fill in the gaps and make sense of each letter and word. The “desirability” comes with the way that our brains are able to decipher with just enough effort to imprint the material more deeply in our minds.

This principle reminded me of something written by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. He describes the importance of concentration on our spiritual growth, as we seriously examine and process whatever is worthy of thinking upon. (Philippians 4:8)

I have mentioned the disciplines of service and worship. There are many others. Inward disciplines, like meditation, prayer, fasting, and study, cultivate our heart and mind toward the way of Christ. Meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.

Prayer is ongoing dialogue with the Father about what God and we are doing together. Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.

Study is the process through which we bring the mind to conform to the order of whatever we are concentrating upon. (Becoming Like Christ)

On the Elegance of Fonts

Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well aware of my personal fascination with fonts. This link will reveal posts I’ve tagged with the subject. It reveals that different fonts exist for more than aesthetic reasons.

While some are simply created for decorative or mood-setting purposes—such as typefaces that mimic monastic scripts or the text created for the first Narnia film—others are devised for more practical purposes. The latter collection includes one created to aid those who suffer from dyslexia (Dyslexie). The intentionally useful category will now include Sans Forgetica.

Sans Forgetica is available for free. As evidence of either its merit or the promotional skills of its creators, they have already created an extension for the Chrome browser. It allows users to convert internet text on their screens to the memorable font.

I would suggest that such an application be used sparingly. Most of what we read on the internet is not worth recalling, much less clogging our brains with trivia and worse. Still, if applied selectively, it could be useful. After all, if it only moves us a centimeter in the direction of retaining information like C.S. Lewis, that’s a move in the right direction!

 

C.S. Lewis the Irishman

August 31, 2018 — 11 Comments

irish aslan

Contrary to the common assumption that C.S. Lewis was English, he was actually an Irishman. He was born in Belfast, and those who know him attested to how his Irish-ness lasted the whole of his life.

Lewis was proud of his roots, and celebrated them. When he first journeyed to England, he experienced a culture shock. “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Lewis always loved Ireland. He vacationed there regularly, and chose the island for his honeymoon, late in life. One of his Irish students, David Bleakley, related that the transplant professor declared, “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down.” (C.S. Lewis at home in Ireland)

Several years ago, David Clare of the University of Limerick wrote “C.S. Lewis: An Irish Writer.” It appeared in Irish Studies Review, and the abstract is illuminating.

This article examines the effect of C.S. Lewis’s Irish background on his work. It attempts to contradict the assumption that this Belfast-born writer should be included in the English and not the Irish canon. It emphasises that Lewis saw himself as Irish, was seen by others as Irish, and that his Irish background, contrary to what some have written, was important to him throughout his lifetime.

It goes on to demonstrate the ways in which his work was influenced by his youth in Ireland and by the Irish mythology that he loved. Furthermore, this article maintains that, as a child of pre-partition Ireland with roots throughout the island, Lewis was influenced by the country as a whole, not just his native Ulster. Finally, it attempts to understand why Lewis, a proud Irishman, did not do more to promote himself as an Irish writer.

Clare’s argument is necessary because of Irish political correctness. In Surprised by C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath describes the prejudice.

So why is Lewis not celebrated as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time? Why is there no entry for “Lewis, C.S.” in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)? The real issue is that Lewis does not fit—and, indeed, must be said partly to have chosen not to fit—the template of Irish identity that has dominated the late twentieth century.

In some ways, Lewis represents precisely the forces and influences which the advocates of a stereotypical Irish literary identity wished to reject. One of the reasons why Ireland has largely chosen to forget about Lewis is that he was the wrong kind of Irishman. . . .

Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.

It should be noted, of course, that countless Irish men and women are proud of Lewis, and count him as one of their own.

There’s No Other Place Quite Like Ireland

On a less serious note, and at the risk of contributing to a stereotype, I want to share with you an incident that occurred in Dublin.

First some context. Some people suggest that people in Ireland have a particular affinity for alcohol. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, since they are only ranked twenty-first in the world (for alcohol consumption).

The 1875 tragedy goes by several names, but one is the “Dublin Whiskey Fire.” A malt house and a whiskey warehouse caught fire, and as thousands of gallons of their contents poured down the street in a fiery channel, the blaze spread to many homes and businesses.

Miraculously, the fire did not take any lives. That does not mean, however, that there were not a number of fatalities. A dozen people died from alcohol poisoning. Tempted by unrestricted access to the alcohol, many Dubliners cupped their hands or used their boots to gather up the liquid and drink themselves into oblivion.

You can read an account of the bizarre occurrence in The Irish Times.

I wonder what Lewis thought about this revolting event, since he was surely aware of it. The deranged consumption of filthy and burning alcohol would be condemned by any sane person.

Among teetotalers, however, even a sip of alcohol is objectionable. Many attribute their aversion to their faith. While the Christian Scriptures strongly condemn drunkenness, some verses tacitly affirm the drinking of wine in moderation.*

C.S. Lewis and Drink

C.S. Lewis was among the majority of Christians who accept drinking while avoiding drunkenness. I have written on this subject at length.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis says,

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers . . . Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

This is wise counsel. Recapturing the original meaning of temperance—and living as temperate people—results in happier lives and a more peaceful world.


* For those who God expressly commands not to drink, should avoid it completely. For example, an angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist, “must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). John’s cousin Jesus, on the other hand, miraculously created wine for a wedding party, and offered the Passover wine to his disciples with the words “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)