- The Loss and the Silence: Aspects of Modernism in the Works of C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien & Charles Williams by Margaret Hiley
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A scene early in C. S. Lewis’s 1933 fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress, describes an encounter between the protagonist, John, and a group of avant-garde artists known as the Clevers. At one point, a Clever poet named Glugly gives an inarticulate recitation that owes more than a little to the performances of Edith Sitwell. John is nonplussed, but the Clevers greet her burbling with enthusiasm:
“It is the expression of a savage disillusionment,” said someone else.
“Reality has broken down,” said a fat boy who had drunk a great deal of the medicine and was lying flat on his back, smiling happily.
“Our art must be brutal,” said Glugly’s nurse.
“We lost our ideals when there was a war in this country,” said a very young Clever, “they were ground out of us in the mud and the flood and the blood. That is why we have to be so stark and brutal.”
“But look here,” cried John, “that war was years ago. It was your fathers who were in it: and they are all settled down and living ordinary lives.”
“Puritan! Bourgeois!” cried the Clevers.(54)
This exchange does not bode well for anyone wishing to establish the existence of a complex relationship between the Modernists and the Inklings, and a running-head gloss added by Lewis in the book’s 1943 edition (“The gibberish-literature of the Lunatic Twenties”) suggests no softening of attitude. Indeed, the general assumption among scholars both of Modernism and of the Inklings has been that, barring a scatter of individual friendships and idiosyncratic enthusiasms, the two groups were on bad terms both artistically and personally. That hostility has been inherited by their heirs, with jibes such as “Bourgeois!” and its modern equivalents being cast at the Inklings’ admirers from many an ivory Orthanc by the champions of a literary canon largely shaped by Modernist critics such as Eliot and Woolf in their own image, as Margaret Hiley points out in this book (10).
As the subtitle of The Loss and the Silence indicates, Hiley’s thesis is that the truth is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good deal more complicated. The promise of a search for “aspects of Modernism” in the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams gives a rather lopsided impression, suggesting a relationship in which the influence was all in one direction. In fact, Hiley aims neither to show that the Inklings were Modernists manqué nor to make the opposite case that the Modernists were [End Page 251] significantly influenced by the Inklings. Rather, she argues that both Modernism and the work of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams can be usefully viewed within their shared historical context as responses to the series of interlinked crises that beset the early decades of the twentieth century: the crisis of politics that culminated in the First World War; the crisis of Enlightenment rationalism and its progressive project for civilization; and the crisis of realist literature engendered by (among other things) the advent of psychoanalysis. These crises dominate the three central chapters of Hiley’s book, which are devoted to “War,” “History,” and “Language.”
Hiley also aims to shake up our thinking, to make us reexamine the conventional boundaries between these literary movements and the individuals and ideas that constitute them. There are, as she is well aware, potential pitfalls in such a project. To compare two such multifaceted bodies of work as those of the Modernists and the Inklings in a book of only 250 pages is to present oneself with manifold opportunities for cherry-picking. How does one even define literary Modernism? Is it a set of artistic tenets (or a set of such sets)? A social network of people who promoted and published each other’s work? A body of texts characterized by certain...