Archives For Insults

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

Not Wholly Contemptible

April 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

cornwallisEveryone loves a compliment. Allow me to rephrase that. Most people appreciate a sincere compliment when it is genuinely flattering.

Actually, “flattering” isn’t a good word choice here. Flattery has a bad rep. The way it’s currently used, it hints of exaggeration and manipulation.

So let’s return to the concept of “compliments” in general. Most, we know, are welcome. It’s nice to have someone tell us we did a commendable job or had a good idea.

Then there are those less sincere “compliments” that require a bit of intelligence or wit to offer. The go by different names, but are commonly referred to as “left-handed compliments” or “backhanded compliments.”

This type of statement might sound on its surface like a compliment, but includes an element that undermines the praise. The Urban Dictionary offers the following example:

“Boy, you’re pretty hot . . . for a fat (or skinny) chick!”

Now, that is nothing but an insult. And it’s an insult of the crassest variety. One that demands no wit at all.

The British, on the other hand, are often capable of offering highly refined backhanded compliments.

I just came across a delightful one, delivered by the commander of the King’s forces during America’s War of Independence. What makes this exquisite is that it was offered in the wake of the general’s defeat at the close of the war.

When finally brought to heel at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis reported, “I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and Soldiers killed or wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.”

You can read more about the context for that statement in an excellent article about the American legacy of “citizen soldiers” published in Hallowed Ground magazine. This excellent journal is published by the Civil War Trust, which works diligently to preserve battlefields from the Civil War. They have recently expanded those efforts to include the Revolutionary War.

C.S. Lewis & Compliments

Lewis included backhanded compliments in his fictional works. Two simple examples follow. The first is found in The Screwtape Letters, where the tempter frequently commends the skill of God (“the Enemy”) in redeeming the lost.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.

Here is an offhanded compliment that Lewis places on the lips of Prince Corin in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is asked where Queen Susan is, on the eve of a battle and he responds like a typical young boy (which he still is at the time). He praises the martial spirit of her sister, Queen Lucy, who is a young adult at this point in the series.

At Cair Paravel. She’s not like Lucy [her sister who is in the ranks of the archers], you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to wars, though she is an excellent archer. (The Horse and His Boy).

The late Bruce Edwards described how C.S. Lewis offered H.G. Wells a backhanded compliment. He did so by following the structure of Wells’ works, but devoting them to a vastly different philosophical purpose.

In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Lewis adapted the general plot outline from H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon in order to tell an essentially anti-Wellsian tale. In Perelandra, Lewis pays a similar backhanded compliment to the man he admired as a speculative writer, but not as a philosopher.

The broad narrative structure of Perelandra resembles another novel by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). . . . In Wells’s novel, this narrative outline provides the basis of a quasi-Marxist fable about effete bourgeoisie and surly proletariat. In Lewis’s hands, a similar story structure tells a very different tale, one in which the ultimate battles are not economic and political, but rather cosmic and spiritual. (C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet).

Compliments: the Good & the Bad

Lewis’ use of Wells’ science fiction template was not meant to slight him. It was actually a tribute. Likewise, in the examples from his fiction, Lewis is simply representing (effectively) the attitudes of the speakers.

Returning for a moment to the abject General Cornwall, we recognize as well the grudging nature of his praise of the enemy. They were certainly rabble—possessing no great military skill, in his estimation. Yet, in terms of bringing the army of the greatest power in the world at that time to its surrender, “they are not wholly contemptible.”

And that, when it came to winning the war, apparently proved quite sufficient.