29 July 2015

C. S. Lewis, in hospital in France, 12 February 1918




It is nothing unusual for soldiers at war to try to put the best face on their predicament when writing to friends and family back home.  Some years back I read the letters my eldest brother wrote from Vietnam to our parents. If you believe those letters, my brother, who was in the combat engineers, did nothing except build schools and hospitals and airstrips.  He made it sound like he was in the Peace Corps inoculating cows and small children. I know better.

The closest I can remember him coming to writing about the risks to which he was exposed day and night was when he told a story about setting off a dummy booby trap during training. "Boom, I'm dead," he wrote. "Well, I won't make that mistake again."  I found something similar in C.S. Lewis, who remarked to his father that "only once [had he been] in a situation of unusual danger, owing to a shell falling near the latrines while I was using them" (letter of 4 January 1918).  A little earlier in the same letter he told his father that, given "the number of shells that went singing over our heads to fall on the batteries far away behind," he was actually safer in the infantry than in the artillery, into which his father was trying to get him transferred, believing it to be safer. So "if mentioning danger, always make a joke of it," would seem to be one rule my brother shared with Lewis.

Thus the first letters he wrote after arriving in France were no surprise to me.  As so often, he spoke about the books he was reading, about the people around him, and asked about things at home.  All of it little different from the letters he wrote from Oxford, Bookham, or Malvern. This comforting continuity he complements with warm descriptions of how bad things aren't:

You will be anxious to hear my first impressions of trench life.  This is a very quiet part of the line and the dugouts are very much more comfortable than one imagines at home. They are very deep, you go down to them by a shaft of about 20 steps: they have wire bunks where a man can sleep quite snugly, and brasiers for warmth and cooking. Indeed, the chief discomfort is that they tend to get too hot, while of course the bad air makes one rather headachy. I had quite a pleasant time, and was only once in a situation of unusual danger, owing to a shell falling near the latrines while I was using them. 
(Letter of 4 January 1918, emphasis original)

This may be the best piece of persuasive prose of Lewis' young life.  Beginning with a sly concession of the anxiety his father must feel, he piles up phrase after phrase to emphasize how "quiet," "comfortable," "deep," "snug," warm and full of food "trench life" is. Then he underlines the comforts by suggesting that they are excessive. It can be a bit hot, and the lack of ventilation gives him a headache. Nevertheless he declares it all "quite a pleasant time," and concludes with a joke about artillery and latrines.  What a cunning and endearing attempt to allay his father's fears.

His sang-froid isn't quite so icy, however, in the next letter we have.  Writing to his friend, Arthur Greeves, a month later, he says he is "safely ensconced in a bed in hospital, miles away from the line, thank the gods" (2 February 1918). Nor were his fellow soldiers quite the intellectual company he might have wished for ("godless Philistines"), and the charms of the trenches appear not so great as he told his father: "You are lucky you know; it must be grand to look forward to an endless prospect of regular night's sleep & comfortable chairs & good meals & books & everything decent & civilized."

A week later (9 February) he writes explaining to his father that his illness is nothing to worry about: "In spite of its alarming name, Pyrexia is not much more serious than influenza" -- a chilling remark in hindsight --  and being ill was "not a bad thing, as it has kept me out of the line and in a good bed for a season." Again he chooses the right tack, aiming to defuse his father's concerns about his illness by using them against his greater fear. 

In his next letter, however, the ice briefly cracks. Right around the time he wrote to his father on the 9th, he received a letter from Arthur Greeves that his friend had mailed thirteen months earlier. For most of Lewis' lengthy reply, he seems to be writing an ordinary letter like those he had written to Arthur before he went to France, full of books and friends and family matters. But suddenly, in the middle of the letter, a rogue paragraph bursts in:
"Shall we ever be the same again'"[?] Oh, how far we have travelled, you and I.  To think of the things we've done: do you remember that day we walked up the glen in the rain, & everything was soaking? Or the evening up in Tiglath's field at dusk -- the only real evening walk we ever had? Or the days of scheming over Loki when I first showed you any work of mine, and you used to play over bits from the unborn opera?  And the night we first broached the 'nameless secrets of Aphrodite' and walked up and down that bit of road in the dark? And now -- well, umph.  However, we may have good times yet, although I have been at war and I love someone.
(12 February 1918)
What a desperate sense of loss, far beyond the "you are lucky you know" of his previous letter to Arthur.  That was about comfort, even if more serious things lurked in its depths. This is about loss and fear.  Those more serious things have broken through his composure for a moment, even if he regains it by the paragraph's end, and then steers the conversation back to books for the rest of the letter. By the time he next writes to his father (16 February) and Arthur Greeves (21 February) he is all books and assurance once more. 

Now doubtless Lewis had seen more things in his time in the trenches than he lets on, but he had also been quite ill, far from home, and in a hospital which was full of his wounded and dying fellow soldiers.  Into this moment intruded a letter from another time, a time in which this war was not yet his, when shells did not go singing overhead day and night, when he had no need of the dark comedy of nearly being blown up in the latrine, when he had not even arrived at Oxford yet and seen the lives that other men had left behind when they left for the war.  If this letter, written to another Jack in another time, had allowed his fears to emerge momentarily, would anyone be surprised? 

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"Shall we ever be the same again" appears to be a quote from chapter eleven of an 1864 novel by Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards, called Barbara's History.

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