Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Ideal Oxford

I am thoroughly enjoying C.S. Lewis's Weight of Glory. Here is an excerpt from the third chapter:
When I first went to Oxford the typical undergraduate society consisted of a dozen men, who knew one another intimately, hearing a paper by one of their own number in a small sitting-room and hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning. Before the war the typical undergraduate society had come to be a mixed audience of one or two hundred students assembled in a public hall to hear a lecture from some visiting celebrity. Even on those rare occasions when a modern undergraduate is not attending some such society he is seldom engaged in those solitary walks, or walks with a single companion, which built the minds of the previous generations. He lives in a crowd; caucus has replaced friendship. . . . There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude still exists. . . . And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone than when alone. We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship. - C.S. Lewis, "Membership," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Macmillan, 1949), 30-31.
Three random remarks:
  • ...Fortunately, the post-modern practice of blogging counteracts the unwholesome effects of the "wireless." Uh, right.
  • My own tendency has been to abandon those late night (or late afternoon) discussions "hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning" to go back to work on a paper, which perhaps illustrates a comment Lewis makes later on about how examinations come "to prevent young men from becoming learned."
  • The contrast between "a dozen men" listening to "a paper by one of their own number"and "a mixed audience of one or two hundred students" makes me think the sexism I have noticed elsewhere in Lewis* can't be excused by appeal to his early 20th century context. It was rather a conscious choice. The ideal Oxford, for Lewis, was an Oxford in which women were absent. Did he change his mind after encountering a certain Joy Davidman?

*Take, for example, the references to "men without chests" in The Abolition of Man.

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