A trenchant comment by Marcel had me looking up the use of ‘rum do’ in that wonderful book (it occurs in that exact form exactly once). Lewis imagines the tramp judging the indignities of being bathed, dressed as a don and dragged around the Institute while Merlin puts incomprehensible words in his mouth as “‘a rum do'”— the rummest do that had ever befallen him.”
Searching for which brought me to the final dinner scene at the Institute, and, having just discussed the Orwellian use of Newspeak as shibboleths, it seems to me meet and just to take a another look at the opening few paragraphs of that epic scene:
Banquet at Belbury
IT WAS WITH GREAT PLEASURE that Mark found himself once more dressing for dinner and what seemed likely to be an excellent dinner. He got a seat with Filostrato on his right and a rather inconspicuous newcomer on his left. Even Filostrato seemed human and friendly compared with the two initiates, and to the newcomer his heart positively warmed. He noticed with surprise that the tramp sat at the high table between Jules and Wither, but did not often look in that direction, for the tramp, catching his eye, had imprudently raised his glass and winked at him. The strange priest stood patiently behind the tramp’s chair. For the rest, nothing of importance happened until the King’s health had been drunk and Jules rose to make his speech.
For the first few minutes, anyone glancing down the long tables would have seen what we always see on such occasions. There were the placid faces of elderly bons viveurs whom food and wine had placed in a contentment which no amount of speeches could violate. There were the patient faces of responsible but serious diners, who had long since learned how to pursue their own thoughts, while attending to the speech just enough to respond wherever a laugh or a low rumble of serious assent was obligatory. There was the usual fidgety expression on the faces of young men unappreciative of port and hungry for tobacco. There was bright over-elaborate attention on the powdered faces of women who knew their duty to society. But if you have gone on looking down the tables you would presently have seen a change. You would have seen face after face look up and turn in the direction of the speaker. You would have seen first curiosity, then fixed attention, then incredulity. Finally you would have noticed that the room was utterly silent, without a cough or a creak, that every eye was fixed on Jules, and soon every mouth opened in something between fascination and horror.
To different members of the audience the change came differently. To Frost it began at the moment when he heard Jules end a sentence with the words, “as gross an anachronism as to trust to Calvary for salvation in modern war.” Cavalry, thought Frost almost aloud. Why couldn’t the fool mind what he was saying? The blunder irritated him extremely. Perhaps — but hullo! what was this? Had his hearing gone wrong? For Jules seemed to be saying that the future density of mankind depended on the implosion of the horses of Nature. “He’s drunk,” thought Frost. Then, crystal clear in articulation, beyond all possibility of mistake, came, “The madrigore of verjuice must be talthibianised.”
Wither was slower to notice what was happening. He had never expected the speech to have any meaning as a whole and for a long time the familiar catch-words rolled on in a manner which did not disturb the expectation of his ear. He thought, indeed, that Jules was sailing very near the wind, that a very small false step would deprive both the speaker and the audience of the power even to pretend that he was saying anything in particular. But as long as that border was not crossed, he rather admired the speech; it was in his own line. Then he thought, “Come! That’s going too far. Even they must see that you can’t talk about accepting the challenge of the past by throwing down the gauntlet of the future.” He looked cautiously down the room. All was well. But it wouldn’t be if Jules didn’t sit down pretty soon. In that last sentence there were surely words he didn’t know. What the deuce did he mean by aholibate? He looked down the room again. They were attending too much, always a bad sign. Then came the sentence, “The surrogates esemplanted in a continual of porous variations.”
Lewis imagines the day when Truth has had enough, and takes from the speakers of lies even what little meaning their words-as-weapons still had. In the erudite Babel that ensues, everyone hears individual words that they may understand, but all meaning has now been stripped away in audible fact as it has always been absent in practice, power being the only animating principle behind what had been allowed to pass as thought. From the inside, infuriating and ultimately terrifying; from the outside, hilarious.
The Institute was a power play, a much more sophisticated and superficially polite power play than what we see in our universities today. The one problem from the point of view of the nested Inner Circles – it’s not their power that is in play. At its heart lies a power with no interest in the desires of the players. It wishes only death and destruction in total, not just the realization of the various revenge fantasies that drive the members.
If only such a drama as the Banquet at Belbury were to take place in our modern universities! I am not eager for the deaths of our enemies, but wouldn’t mind seeing their nests vacated and burned to the ground. Figuratively, of course, after Lewis.
Probably need to reread that book again soon.