Ashes to Ashes: But…But

A jolt is very often salvific, especially if it joggles in us the Deadly Sin of superbia (pride, if your Latin is in tatters).

Some months ago I was asked by a British company if I would agree to appear on camera as a sort of commentator in connection with a dramatic television documentary they were proposing to make about C. S. Lewis. Naturally I agreed: I mean, after all, who is better qualified? I have read every syllable Lewis ever wrote, including all the books no one else has read (on Edmund Spenser, for example); and I corresponded with him back in the 1950s when I was in the army and young and brash; and I wrote a book about his imaginative works (which sank without a ripple). And I actually met the man, forsooth: There’s a cachet for us all. I trundled out to the Kilns (at Lewis’s invitation, let it be pointed out) one day in 1963 when I was living in England and bored him for about 40 minutes. His sanctity radiated in the simple fact that he acted as though there was no one he would rather spend 40 minutes with; and the conversation was lively, merry, patient on his part (although he never seemed to be exercising patience), and much too prolix on mine.

Anyway, these people asked me to be a commentator, appearing in between the various chronological dramatic scenes from his life. Two or three other men had also been asked to appear in this way—all of them most excellent Lewis cognoscenti, by the way, one of them being Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson.

The DVD arrived in the mail one day a few months ago, so my wife and I put it on that evening to watch the footage in question. Very exciting.

But it was inch-age, not footage. The other men had long, glorious sections of the film to themselves. I think I appeared for a thunderous total of 20 seconds in two separate glimpses (or bites, if I’m using the appropriate vocabulary).

Wait a minute, says one’s inner man. Those people had me on camera most certainly for 30 minutes at a minimum, and they acted thoroughly delighted and agog at all the golden insights that I offered. Clearly these priceless insights all landed on the cutting-room floor.

What we have here, it seems to me, is a small adumbration of the Last Judgment. What is worth what? Unhappily for one’s own self-assessment, not much was worth much. Or perhaps there is another way of coming at it: What I thought tipped the scales at so many ducats is the very stuff that will blow away like chaff. On the other hand, one hopes, in one’s wild and melancholy musings on the matter, that something else—some biting of one’s tongue in a feeble effort at charity? Some averting of one’s lecherous eye from a passing figure? Some effort at courtesy to a bore?—turns out to tip the scales ever so slightly.

It is always a tricky business to spend much time trying to descry just how the scales sit with respect to one’s own case. That is the business of the Divine Mercy alone. We are doing much worse than we suppose, probably; but, ironically, and against all probability, we are promised crowns.

Given my own sadly mixed motives and attitudes, I would not at all have minded the “crown” of much more footage in that film. I mean—who is the man (and I mean man here: Women have other forms of vanity to cope with) who will not preen his scraggly feathers in front of the camera? Tenure? Rank? A purple doctoral gown to upstage my colleagues in the baccalaureate procession? My name in a footnote? What farthings do we all scrabble for, when the sweepstakes are nothing less than the Divine Munificence?

  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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