Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Jason Pratt on Lewis and getting high

Hey, Victor!

I don't know if anyone ever bothered to look up the fundy anti-Lewis
reference to Sheldon Vanauken's _A Severe Mercy_; but I finally got around
to doing so last night.

The phrase _is_ there. ("We must have some good, long talks together [if
you come to England], and perhaps we shall both get high.")

There is no specific contextual reference to what Lewis meant, either in
the letter, or in Van's text preceding it for several pages (back through
another letter from Lewis.) The only certain inference that can be drawn,
is that Lewis is responding to something Van had written in the
(unpublished) letter to which Lewis is here replying.

Taking the actual _story_ (and _history_) of the situation into account,
however, there are two explanations which would fit to a lesser or greater
degree (respectively).

a.) Neither Lewis nor Vanauken was much for 'high church', though both were
very much fond of the sort of intense aesthetic experiences which 'high
church' rituals tend to communicate. They just both preferred to receive
such aesthetic experiences from a different route. Studying the overt
history of both of them (the positive evidence actually available,
including in ASM itself), it's obvious that they sought this aesthetic
experience in a mystical appreciation of Nature (especially if that
experience could be shared with a friend), and also in intellectual
contemplation of principles of truth. At the same time, Lewis certainly
believed (and so did Van in his own way) that they were being priggish
about not appreciating high church, especially in such a way; and
considered a certain amount of submission to this to be a healthy
mortification of their natural tastes. So,

a1.) Lewis could be referring to the possibility that, between the two of
them, they might finally be able to come to a better acceptance of 'high
church' ritual (i.e. _perhaps_ they shall both "get high");

a2.) Lewis could be referring to the shared aesthetic experiences both of
them actually did treasure (appreciation of Nature and intellectual

If one wonders why two men so strongly inclined to appreciate such things
would _perhaps_ "get high" on such a visit, instead of it being an expected
given, then we only need look at Van's current emotional situation to
understand that at _that_ time such a result would _not_ be such a given;
leading to:

b.) Van was, at that time, grieving horribly for the death of his beloved
wife (with whom he had spent some years previously in sharing the sort of
aesthetic experiences they both appreciated along with Lewis, btw.) This is
what the story in his book has been leading up to (in his authorship of
hindsight), and would soon be recognized by him (thanks to Lewis' help) as
being "a severe mercy" (thus the title he chose for the book): because
before Jean's ("Davy's") death, she had become a considerably more devoted
Christian than Van in some ways, and Van had become somewhat jealous of God
about this--enough so that he had developed an infatuation with a mutual
friend of theirs (named Jane) who reminded him of how Davy _used_ to be.

Not long before writing the letter to which Lewis was replying in the quote
excerpted by the anti-Lewis fundamentalists, Van had (in his grief)
attempted to renounce his Christianity in vengeance against God--and had
failed. (Not many years later, Lewis would do something almost as strong in
his grief over the death of _his_ wife, too.) It is this attempt and
failure and its implications which Lewis spends most of his letter (printed
by Van in the book) addressing; obviously, Lewis would now have an even
clearer idea than before how horribly depressed Vanauken must be.

I expect, then, that Lewis was most probably hoping (by means of a2 above)
to help Van get over his _depression_; the "get high" being a slang
shorthand for this.

Admittedly, none of this logically excludes the possibility that Lewis
would be offering to do drugs of some sort with Van during their trip (one
could even tease a path of temptation toward that from a2); but... well,
damn... {snorf!} What the hell kind of people would imagine, given all this
situation, that Lewis and/or Vanauken would _mean_ that??? It would
actually make more sense (as little as _that_ would nevertheless be) to
imagine them having a tacit homosexual relationship with each other. (There
_is_ at least overt correspondence between them on the topic of
homosexuality--though not in _that_ regard.)

There are some 'Christians' whom I wish I could backhand into eternity.

Then I recall that God is the one Who will certainly be doing that.

(And _then_ I recall that _I_ had better watch out, not to be such a
'Christian' myself... {self-critical grimace} And that if God has to do it,
it's _for_ their sakes, not against them. Whereas I, the sinner, would
honestly prefer to flush and forget them. It's a good thing God is better
than I am. {s})



Jason Pratt said...

Oh, yay! The paragraphing worked this time! {lol!}

Those gifted with a sense of irony will notice that many Christians, including (I strongly suspect) those anti-Lewis fundies, would insist that God _does_ in fact "flush and forget" His enemies.

But maybe some people will appreciate hearing that not all highly orthodox super-doctrinaires accept _that_ doctrine, though. {s}

(Which among other things would lead to a discussion of what counts as being 'orthodox'... a question of somewhat secondary importance to me.)

Kyle said...

Personally, I'm not so sure that "get high" had anything to do with drugs in the vernacular of the time. A simple etymology of when the phrase came into being might fix everything...

Jason Pratt said...

Probably so.

If I had to guess (before doing the actual research {wry g}), I would expect that our current phrase 'get high' is a truncated derivation from the sort of "a2" usage I described earlier: people certainly have turned to drugs to easily (and mechanistically) induce what would otherwise be 'high aesthetic' experiences; sheerly for the sake of the feeling of it, not for the sake of what was being felt _about_.

(There are, of course, other reasons people do drugs, too. But as a person with an addiction-prone personality myself, I can recognize a strong temptation to acquire the result without the care for the object which would normally be the 'highest' path to that result.)


Jason Pratt said...

urg; no success so far in initial searching. Did discover the first known attestation of the phrase as used for drug euphoria is c.1932.

Notably, its use for euphoria _generally_ seems to go back to literature of the 1600s. Compare with Lewis' day-job... {g}


Giordano Sagredo said...

I fear treading into such shallow waters as this ridiculous topic, but what the heck.

First, who cares if he smoked reefer? Jeez. If he did, it would suggest to me that he was an independent person, less uptight and bound by foolish laws/morals. Where in the Bible does it say not to smoke a doobie with your fellow philosophers? Here is a fun web page about the Bible and Mary Jane. Basically, if any bible thumper thinks it is ok to drink alcohol to relax, but not to do the same with a doobie, they are being a hypocrite.

Second, here are the relevant entries from the OED. My guess is he probably meant drinking. As Jason said, the non-alcoholic drug reference began in 1932 accd to the OED:

high (n,a)
b. Excited with drink, intoxicated. Phr. high as a kite: very drunk. slang.

1627 MAY Lucan x. 496 He's high with wine. 1639 MASSINGER Unnat. Combat III. ii, When we are at the banquet, And high in our cups. 1846 J. TAYLOR Upper Canada 106, I met three gentlemen..and they were all high. 1892 Nation (N.Y.) 28 July 66/3, I was told that Governor and legislators would get high on whiskey illegally sold on the evening of the very day when they had passed a stringent amendment to the [Maine] law. 1939 Amer. Speech XIV. 90/2 High as a kite, completely drunk. a1966 M. ALLINGHAM Cargo of Eagles (1968) iv. 54 He..gave them a champagne lunch in a marquee..and held a sale. By then everyone was as high as a kite.

c. Under the influence of, stimulated by, a drug or drugs.

1932 Evening Sun (Baltimore) 9 Dec. 31/4 High, under the influence of a narcotic. 1940 Amer. Speech XV. 337/1 To be high, to be contented from the drug. 1951 N.Y. Times 13 June 24/5 We would go out together and get high. I used to sleep with him whenever we got high. 1951 San Diego Even. Tribune 28 June A 1/4 He'd been ‘getting high’ on heroin week-end after week-end. 1957 C. MACINNES City of Spades I. x. 72 Hamilton's acquaintances..rocking high with charge. 1961 Spectator 17 Nov. 712 The momentary kick when the drug is taken, when you're ‘high’. 1969 New Scientist 29 May 455/1 It is far safer to drive a car when high on marihuana than when drunk. 1970 ‘D. SHANNON’ Unexpected Death (1971) i. 9 He an his pal Roderick Drover had had some boyish fun last week sniping at an innocent driver{em}probably while high on something.

Victor Reppert said...

Some of you seem to take this issue more seriously than I do. I just consider it an example of an inference to the worst explanation, of biographical speculation gone out of control. (Oh well, there's that Lady Hope rumor about Darwin repudiating evolution at the end of his life, also nonsense.) The Turkish Delight in LWW is a tool of the evil Witch, so if anything that that would be an anti-drug message.

A lot of Christians, I think, would argue that it is wrong to violate Romans 13 (obedience to the government) for recreational purposes.

Lewis, of course, was never an anti-drug crusader who favor stiff sentences for users, unlike a certain right-wing political pundit that many Christians, unfortunately, rely upon for their political commentary, who is now a confessed addict.

Jason Pratt said...

Well, the topic does touch on some things in Lewis' life which he himself considered to be somewhat dangerous. He occasionally admitted, for instance, to having what he called a "lust for the occult": and his descriptions of how he related to this do indicate a certain amount of addiction prone-ness. (The same would appear to be true in his occasional veiled references to the danger of sexual addiction.)

Whether or not Lewis originally intended the White Witch's TD to be an example of the perils of addiction, it seems clear enough that he wouldn't have thought much of the notion of doing anything that would impede rational discourse on serious matters, even recreationally. The Green Witch in _The Silver Chair_, for instance, uses a drug-like incense to hamper the thoughts of the protagonists near the end of the story, coming close to enchanting them into (in essence) abandoning God through sophistry thereby. Only when Puddleglum stomps the incense-fire with his foot (painfully burning himself in the process), are they able to fight free into clearer reasoning against her. (After which she abandons the sophistry altogether and tries main force.)

I doubt Lewis, of all people, would have conceded that hampering one's reason (whether by alcohol or some stronger drug) was okay when the philosophers were considering _for_ God instead. (And, whether he had direct experience with modern marijuana or not, as a scholar of literature and history he would have had prima facie expectations _not_ to expect the use of "hashish" to be a truly clarifying aesthetic experience.)

He and his friends did drink (though I didn't notice anything specially evident about _Van_ being a drinker); and I suppose that it isn't impossible he might have been planning or offering to get Van significantly inebriated (though never dangerously drunk) in order to help him get over his depression. I can only record, that being familiar with Lewis' thoughts _as_ a Christian (of a particular sort, and with a particular history), it seems far more likely that he would have tried to achieve the same goal a different way: a way that wouldn't involve _in_-ebriation. (i.e. inducing an _in_capacity.)

Van gives loads of evidence of what kind of aesthetic experiences he _did_ appreciate (alcoholic inebriation not registering high on the list, if at all): the kind that led him, and Davy his wife, to Christ in the first place. The kind that he and Davy appreciated in reading Lewis, when they first began to seriously consider studying Christianity. The kind that he and Davy shared with each other before becoming Christians, and shared with each other (though less than Van was used to doing) after becoming Christians; and which they shared with Lewis whenever they personally wrote or met with him.

That's the sort of 'high' I would most reasonably expect Lewis to mean, in answer to Van.

(But yes, I agree, the fundies' attempt at slander is a good example of an insistence on finding the worst possible explanation, whether it makes any sense or not. Jesus' harshest condemnation was leveled at Pharisees who did the same thing against Him.)

Thanks to Giordano for doing more research on tracing the usage!


Anonymous said...

a1.) Lewis could be referring to the possibility that, between the two of
them, they might finally be able to come to a better acceptance of 'high
church' ritual (i.e. _perhaps_ they shall both "get high");

From my reading of Lewis and Van whosis over the years, this seems the most likely sort of thing for Van to have said and Lewis to have echoed. (Including maybe a pun like "It would take drunkenness to get us two into that particular High Church attitude or idea even for an evening.")

But really it would be a matter of reading all Van's stuff to get some idea of what he said. Lewis might have echoed just about anything Van had said in such a context.

In other contexts Lewis might well have got drunk and described it as 'we went to the pub and all got high except ___, who was driving' or something like that.

I'd be surprised if Lewis cared for marijuana. If Van had wanted to get together and have some, Lewis might have accepted, I suppose. But it seems an odd way to talk about it.

If I look back to see whether he put get high in half-quotes, I'll probably lose this post. Anyway, he did once say he didn't think half-quotes were funny. :-)