Sunday, 11 October 2015

A Neglected Side to Joy Davidman

I’ve just been reading a new biography of Joy Davidman by Abigail Santamaria. Joy was, as the subheading puts it, the “poet, seeker and the woman who captivated C.S. Lewis”.

A lot of people probably know their story from the movie Shadowlands, or the earlier (and much better) BBC Everyman TV film of the same name. In it, there is one of her poems, which was written in 1937 in response to the 3 year siege of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

Snow in Madrid

Softly, so casual,
Lovely, so light, so light,
The cruel sky lets fall
Something one does not fight.
How tenderly to crown
The brutal year
The clouds send something down
That one need not fear.
Men before perishing
See with unwounded eye
For once a gentle thing
Fall from the sky.

And you get the impression from the films of this literate, clever Jewish lady from America, with her two children – the early BBC film is accurate here – coming to England, and the love story in which they fall in love. The poem is intoned as a voice over, and it is a very serious comment on the war.

What is missed completely from that narrative however, is that impish sense of fun which is deployed cleverly to effect in her book on the Ten Commandments – “Smoke on the Mountain”.

With almost each chapter, she starts with a short thought provoking piece, usually fiction, which is also full of clever humour and wit. How I wish the movies had managed to convey something of that other voice, that humour, that fun, which was clearly also present, and undoubably also appealed to Lewis.

In a “A Grief Observed”, Lewis’short work recalling his short but very happy time with Joy, he refers to her as a woman whose strength, faith, honesty, humour, and loyalty made her the best of companions, and brought out the best in him.

But where do we see the humour? I think a good example of it can be seen in this chaptre of “Smoke in the Mountain” where she uses the humour to disarmingly point out how we behave on Sundays before exploring the meaning of Sunday today.

A Martian Observing Sunday

The Martian Student, swooping dangerously low over the United States in his flying saucer, scribbled furiously with his writing tentacle. He had chosen an ideal morning for taking notes-a fine summer Sunday, with all the natives coming out of their houses and obligingly spreading themselves around for his observation. But he was in a desperate hurry. Only one more week till his thesis was due, and without it he hadn't an earthman's chance of passing his comparative anthropology course.

As it turned out, though, he needn't have worried. The report he wrote was brilliant, comparing favourably for accuracy and insight with the best work of our earthly anthropologists. In several Martian colleges professors have read it aloud as a shining example of what modem scientific methods can do.

"Like so many primitive life forms [thus went the Martian's report] the creatures of the third planet are sun worshippers. One day in every seven is set apart for the adoration of their deity, weather permitting. Their rituals vary, and each apparently involves a special form of dress; but all are conducted in the open air, and most seem to require the collection of enormous crowds. "

"Some creatures gather in vast arenas, to watch strangely garbed priests perform elaborate ceremonies involving a ball and variously shaped instruments of wood. [The significance of the ball as a solar symbol, of course, is known to every Martian schoolboy.]" 

"Others, no doubt the mystics and solitaries of their religion, prefer to address the ball themselves with long clubs, singly, or in groups of two or four, wandering in green fields. "

"Some, stripping themselves almost naked in their ecstasy, go down to the seashore in great throngs and there perform their rites, often hurling themselves into the waves with frenzied cries. [This practice is unmistakably based on the dogma, found also among the semi-intelligent crustaceans of Venus, that the sun is a sea-god born anew each morning from the ocean; the use of large brightly coloured balls in these seaside rituals is confirmatory evidence.] After the ceremonial immersion, devotees have been observed to anoint themselves with holy oils and stretch themselves out full length with eyes closed, in order to surrender themselves entirely to silent communion with the deity."

"Human sacrifice, sad to say, is also practised, the instrument of death being a four-wheeled metal car which may be employed in various ways. Often a chosen victim is run down and crushed. Even more frequently the sacrifice is voluntary; devotees enter the cars, and either work themselves into a frenzy by travelling at high speeds until they dash themselves to bits against other cars or stationary objects-or else congregate in vast throngs, too closely packed to move, and allow the sun's rays beating upon the hot metal to cook them slowly to death."

"There exists, however, a small sect of recalcitrants or heretics that does not practise sun worship. These may be identified by their habit of clothing themselves more soberly and completely than the sun worshippers. They too gather in groups, but only to hide from the sun in certain buildings of doubtful use, usually with windows of glass coloured to keep out the light." 

"It is not clear whether these creatures are simply unbelievers or whether they are excommunicated from sun worship for some offence -we have not been able to discover what goes on within their buildings, which may perhaps be places of punishment. But it is noteworthy that their faces and gestures show none of the almost orgiastic religious frenzy with which the sun worshippers pursue their devotions. In fact, they usually appear relaxed and even placid, thus indicating minds blank of thought or emotion; in this connection, see Dr. Duerf's monumental study, Totem and Taboo Among the Giant Centipedes of Mercury."

Was the Martian wildly wrong, or fantastically right?

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