Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Walter Hooper

Walter Hooper died yesterday at the age of 89, of covid. He had been C.S. Lewis's literary executor for decades, and quite prolific in that role. Instead of embarking on a new evaluation and summation of his work, I'm going to reprint a previous post of mine from over a decade ago, on a curious Lewis anecdote Hooper used to tell. nb also the footnote.

Walter Hooper, literary executor of C.S. Lewis, has been going around for years telling a Lewis anecdote that strikes me as disturbingly uncharacteristic of the Lewis I've otherwise read and read about. (Actually, there are a lot of questions about Hooper's personal acquaintance with Lewis, but I'm not going to get into that now.) It's sometimes said of anecdotes that if they're not true, they ought to be, that they're ben trovato. This one is the opposite: if it is true, it ought not to be.

Hooper tells it in print in the preface to the 1980 reprint of Lewis's collection The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, giving it as an example of Lewis's talent for merriment; but if so, it's merriment at the expense of being intentionally rude to a guest in your home.
It took some time for an American, such as myself, to adapt to English "conveniences." I see, for instance, from my diary of 7 June 1963* that during a longish visit with Lewis we drank what seemed gallons of tea. After a while I asked to be shown the "bathroom," forgetting that in most homes the bathroom and the toilet are separate rooms. With a kind of mock formality, Lewis showed me to the bathroom, pointed to the tub, flung down a pile of towels, and closed the door behind me. I returned to his sitting-room to say that it was not a bath I wanted but .... "Well, sir, 'choose you this day,'" said Lewis, bursting with laughter as he quoted the prophet Joshua, "that will break you of these silly American euphemisms. And now, where is it you wanted to go?" (p. 8-9)
OK, maybe Lewis didn't know that in America the toilet usually is actually in the bathroom, whereas in England the bath and toilet are usually in separate rooms. But break him of euphemisms? Surely Lewis - author of a prodigiously erudite historical survey of word usage called Studies in Words (Cambridge University Press, 1960) - would have known that all the common English polite words for the item in question - toilet, lavatory, loo, W.C., restroom, men's room, even latrine or privy - are also euphemisms. Did Lewis expect his visitors to turn to French and ask for the pissoir?

"Bathroom" is a normal American word for the thing, as Lewis surely also knew, else he wouldn't have said "American euphemisms," and not a word adopted out of conscious delicacy. It would have been pretty silly for Lewis to have assumed that Americans were known for their dainty language, particularly about this subject. Lewis had been married to an American woman (by this time deceased), who was described by Lewis's brother Warren as "quite extraordinarily uninhibited. Our first meeting was at a lunch in Magdalen [College], where she turned to me in the presence of three or four men, and asked in the most natural tone in the world, 'Is there anywhere in this monastic establishment where a lady can relieve herself?'" (W.H. Lewis, Brothers and Friends, p. 244)

"Quite extraordinarily uninhibited," he says, over her use of "relieve oneself" - another euphemism.

Searching for records of this material online, I came across a very strange essay arguing that Lewis was obsessed with the urinary. Well, pick over a prolific author's oeuvre closely enough, you can find enough references to prove about anything. Rilstone contrasts Lewis with Tolkien, whom he claims never brings up the subject, but I once published a short article ("Natural Functions in Arda," by Donald O'Brien, Mythprint Feb. 1991, p. 8-9) identifying a couple of "earthy" (there's another euphemism for you) references hidden in the text of The Lord of the Rings. Actually, I think what's on display here is less Lewis's urinary obsession than Rilstone's anti-urinary one. Rilstone scoffs at Lewis's famous remark about how strong need can produce pleasure in contemplating otherwise neutral or obnoxious things, "have there not for most of us been moments (in a strange town) when the sight of the word GENTLEMEN over a door has roused a joy almost worthy of celebration in verse?"** (The Four Loves (Harcourt, 1960), p. 29) Rilstone replies, "Er...no, actually. Speaking for myself, there have not been."

Rilstone attributes all this to Lewis having a weak bladder, but I have a very strong bladder (Me Thog ... me have strong bladder), yet I can recall a couple searingly memorable instances where I felt exactly as Lewis describes - mostly because I had relied on my strong bladder a little longer than I should have. I should have remembered the Queen of England's rule, which is always to use the toilet when you have a chance, because you never know when you'll get another chance - or when the restroom you're relying on will be closed.

But for goodness' sake (euphemism), if you are in England, don't make your inquiries by asking for the bathroom.

*This was, though they'd corresponded before, the first time Hooper met Lewis, as revealed in Hooper's C.S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide (Harper, 1996), p. 116. This was less than 6 months before Lewis died, and prior to 1996 Hooper fudged the date of their first meeting, preferring to give the impression, as recorded in the blurb about the editor on the back cover of the posthumous collection God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970), that he was "a long-time friend and for some years personal secretary of C.S. Lewis." Well, I said I wasn't going to get into this.

**Rilstone also notes, more fairly, that this leaves out 50% of Lewis's potential audience - including the lady in the monastic establishment.

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