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October 23, 2007


Joyless Moralist

This post seems rather strange to me, because I didn't have that reaction at all to the pagan myths that make their way into That Hideous Strength. In fact, this seems to me like classic Lewis. Surely you know that Lewis always had a great love for, and fascination with, myths. The major breakthrough in his Christian conversion was when Tolkien convinced him that there was no clean divide between myth and reality. Thus he came to see Christianity as a true myth -- the greatest and truest of the myths. But he thinks that myths of other cultures are lesser echoes of this one greatest myth. And in keeping with that view, he takes it that their myths should be at least partially true as well. This is a typically imaginative scheme for how that might be the case.

I think the picture sketched here makes perfect sense given Lewis' theology. I mean, the cosmology doesn't really work out with what we know about the planets, but leave that aside for now. You have to give a novelist *some* license, and less was known about that in Lewis' time anyway. Metaphysically, it made sense to him to bring the pagan gods into the picture as intermediate beings between us and the Almighty, also subordinate to Him but still superior to us. Note, by the way, that Lewis also specifies at the end of Mere Christianity that he thinks it perfectly possible that there might be alien life on other worlds. Actually, even the medievals would have rejected the picture that most Christians have today, which basically only includes man and God. They thought that various classes of angels filled a whole stack of tiers in between us and our Maker.

As far as atheists not really acting that way in materialist countries... maybe not, and he concedes that this event would be unprecedented in at least some respects. But still the premise is intriguing. One of the most delightful parts of the book (at least for me) is Lewis' harsh and wickedly funny portrayal of Academia. The idea is: all these old duffers in the "Progressive Element" in sleepy little colleges claim to believe in these pernicious philosophies. How would they take it if they actually saw these ideas coming to fruition?

Anyway, it's admittedly a strange tale, but "sifting through garbage for diamonds" doesn't seem to me like the right way to take it.

Nathan Smith

Well, okay: the metaphor is too harsh. I looked for something better, couldn't find it, and decided just to post rather than waste more time thinking about it.

I guess my point is that I think there's a real danger in mixing truth with obvious falsehood the way Lewis does in *That Hideous Strength.* The reader is left baffled as to how to sift them out. The danger is that an on-the-fence reader will think, "Well, if *this* is what Christianity means, I can't give any credence to it at all!" Even in my case, though I'm an ardent admirer of C.S. Lewis in general, and I understand to some extent where Lewis is coming from with his mythology stuff, I really can't figure out how to take the book, how to extract what is true in it from the framing of falsehood.

Of course, I love *Perelandra*, which does the same thing, so maybe I'm being inconsistent. The difference is that it's explicitly set on another planet, so one is not tempted to take it literally. Even then the false theological cosmology is problematic. But in *That Hideous Strength* Lewis brings it too close to home. I think Lewis should have put the mythology stuff into speculative essays or poems. The portrayal of academia is very funny indeed. The book has tremendous merits, and I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong. But I think fiction writers should have a certain kind of scruples which are lacking in this novel.

Nathan Smith

"I think the picture sketched here makes perfect sense given Lewis' theology. I mean, the cosmology doesn't really work out with what we know about the planets, but leave that aside for now. You have to give a novelist *some* license..."

I guess that's the point. Some license, yes. But what kind? I think Lewis takes too much, and the wrong kind, in *That Hideous Strength.*

Joyless Moralist

Different people would take it in different ways, I suppose. Some might be willing to entertain the possibility that Christianity is true, but *only provided that* it is quite clearly divorced from all sorts of other nonsense they don't believe i.e. pagan fairy stories. "Don't spoil our reputation by associating us with all *that*!" seems to be the reaction of some Christians, perhaps including yourself.

Others, even among the untutored and/or unconverted, might find the partial-vindication of pagan beliefs to be a really attractive part of Christianity. I call to mind a conversation overheard between our own younger sister and brother a year or so back: they were discussing whether or not there were really such things as ghosts and demons. She was inclined to think not, and he was somewhat warmer to the idea.
(I had retired from the discussion after disclosing that I do absolutely and unapologetically believe in demons.) They discussed some of the relevant "evidence" for awhile, but then he made an interesting admission. "I sort of *want* to believe in them," he said. "Doesn't it seem that it would be somehow better if such things did exist?" She was utterly confused this remark. "Well, you know," he went on, "it would seem then like there was more in the world than just science and... stuff."

I've often thought that he does, in fact, have an inchoate sense for many of the deficiencies of the modern era. But in any case, that's the sort of impulse that would attract a person to all the mythology in That Hideous Strength. In myths CS Lewis found an appreciation of joy, beauty, and virtue that has largely been deadened in the modern age. I think the in-your-face use of mythology is quite essential to what he's trying to do in this book, and the fact that it's superimposed on top of a world we recognize is an important part of the strategy. To the skeptic who asks, "but surely, even if you *must* go to church, you don't believe in devils and fairies and all THAT sort of thing" he wants to answer gaily, "Oh, absolutely! All those and more!" And to your criticism that we know these myths to be "obviously false" I think he would reply, quite seriously, "We know nothing of the kind, and I suspect they are much truer than many things that you take for granted."

Have you ever read "The Abolition of Man"? There he puts in plain prose many of the philosophies that he explores more imaginatively in "That Hideous Strength." You should read it, if you haven't; it's quite short. But I should warn you: it is (like That Hideous Strength, in fact) a pretty scathing critique of modernism. Maybe that's why it annoys you? ;-)

Nathan Smith

I am not denying the existence of angels or devils. But inasmuch as these views are controversial nowadays even among Christians, and in the broader world are widely regarded as absurd or ridiculous, it is all the more important, if one is to present a literary representation of them, to represent the truth about these entities inasmuch as we can know it, and not to intermix them with all manner of arbitrary and self-serving fantasizing which will only underline the falsity of the views for those who disbelieve in them, while shaking the faith of those who, like me, a bit tentatively believe. It is precisely because this is one of the most puzzling, surprising, and controversial parts of C.S. Lewis's philosophy that he ought to have been especially careful in insinuating them into literature. Instead, he has written something perilously close to a sort of Christian pulp fiction.

re: "In myths CS Lewis found an appreciation of joy, beauty, and virtue that has largely been deadened in the modern age."

I wonder if Lewis would frame it that crudely. If he did, he would certainly be wrong to do so, and one needn't look beyond his own writings to see why, for many of the writers who inspired him-- Wordsworth, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, whoever wrote *The Ring*, etc.-- were moderns.

In any case, I don't think you do any credit to *That Hideous Strength* by calling it "a pretty scathing critique of modernism." The word modernism seems to me a meaningless straw man, anyway, but if "modernism" is supposed to be identified with the philosophies current at Belbury and Bractow, it's clear that nothing like these have ever been very widely embraced, and to claim that they typify "modernity"-- historians define the modern age as everything after the 16th century or so-- is lunacy. To the extent that Lewis is trying to criticize modernity, his critique is ludicrously unfair. The most charitable reading is to treat the book as what Lewis himself calls it: a mere "fairy tale."

The worst passage in *That Hideous Strength* is Ransom and Merlin's conversation, the one which climaxes in Merlin's despair that there is "no emperor." One can't wholly blame Merlin: he was a man of his times. The horror is that Ransom *endorses* Merlin's despair, going off on a diatribe against his own times of which I remember one morsel-- "everywhere... the barren beds..." This was written in the midst of one of the greatest accelerations in human population growth in the history of the world. A respectable medieval-ophile might be able to make the case that there is something admirable in the *High* Middle Ages, even that we could profitably emulate them in some ways. But Ransom here looks with nostalgia to the *sixth century,* when the European continent was plunged in chaos and violence, when learning was being lost. Yes, it is offensive to see this mindless obscurantism identified with the Christian worldview.

To the extent that C.S. Lewis was expressing serious fears about the direction of the modern world in *That Hideous Strength*, we can safely say with 50 years' hindsight that he was completely wrong. An honest mistake? But I think he's a smart enough man that he should have avoided that mistake.

Joyless Moralist

"The most charitable reading is to treat the book as what Lewis himself calls it: a mere 'fairy tale.'"

Fair enough, but of course you have to remember that, for Lewis, fairy tales are a serious business.

I'm sort of torn here. Part of me says, "You don't really have time this week to get into another debate on modernism." Another part is fascinated, particularly to know what you take to be the "false suppositions" that have grown into whole philosophies of the universe. Why does it offend you so much to see pagan myths worked into the story? How do you know that angels (which seem to be more or less what the olyarsa and eldila are) don't play something like the cosmic roles Lewis gives them in the trilogy? How do you know that the pagan myths were not, as he supposes, partial reflections of that more complete truth that is revealed in Christianity? Lewis was a specialist in the classics, and in myths more specifically, so it's entirely natural that he should be fascinated by the relationship between these myths and the Christian faith to which he subscribed. And he wanted to lay out the canopy of older views so that he could better illustrate the contrast with the soul-destroying philosophies of the modern age. Why should he care if his thoughts on the subject are "controversial" in a wider sphere? A lot of the theological views he defended are "widely regarded as absurd or ridiculous" in the larger world, and that didn't normally seem to bother him. Why get squeamish now?

I guess it seems clear to me at this point that I hit the mark when I pointed out that *That Hideous Strength* is a critique of modernism. You can assert that the word is nothing more than a "meaningless straw man" but, as I've pointed out before, an impressive battery of people -- including Lewis -- have seemed to think otherwise. Of course they didn't use the word to refer only to the period in history after 1600! It denotes a substantial shift in thinking, most obviously on the part of intellectuals and writers, but also, eventually, on the part of people at large. To call a person a "modernist" is to indicate, not merely that they were born after 1600, but that they exemplify the philosophical ideas that are characteristic of the modern age. In that sense MacDonald and Chesterton are not modernists. Chesterton, I'm sure, would be quite tickled to be remembered literally as a mortal foe of the modernists; I can't say much about MacDonald since I haven't read him, but certainly most of the people who admired his works were famously critical of the modern era. Wordsworth, together with most of the romantics, occupies a middle ground -- though in revolt against some of the mistakes of modernism he nonetheless falls prey to some. Still, I think Lewis admired Wordsworth primarily for his love of beauty and his rejection of the reductive materialism of his age.

Almost nobody, I think, disagrees that the early modern era saw major upheavals in the way most people understood the world and their lives within it. I could say a lot of things about the nature of that change. I could talk about moral philosophy, and point out that teleological conceptions of the universe were largely abandoned, leaving us to try to cultivate a new understanding of morality in the rocky soil of Kantianism or utilitarianism. Or I could talk about epistemology and metaphysics, and point out how the former, rather than the latter, came to be seen as "first philosophy." There are other things I could say, but we've talked about this before and you get the idea: things changed considerably, and the majority more or less assume that this was for the better.

But there is also a group of critics who think that the philosophical views that lie at the root of those changes are seriously erroneous. Lewis is among them. The passage you cite as the worst in the book is quite obviously in this vein ("the poison was brewed in these West lands, but it has been spat itself everywhere by now. Wherever you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds. Men maddened with false promises and true miseries, worshipping the works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their Mother and from their Father in Heaven...") but the whole book is largely an exploration of these themes. And if you don't believe me, just read *The Abolition of Man* which is, as I've said, a straightforward philosophical exposition of the same ideas explored in *That Hideous Strength.* There he explains a) how people's ways of understanding the world have changed since ancient and medieval times, and b) why this is essentially destroying the human race. Actually, the title sort of speaks for itself.

Above all, I think you at least need to grant that there is no bad faith on Lewis' part here. He is fully behind the position that he takes up in this book. But I'd also exhort you to do your best to be fair. We may not see many people who actually behave like Wither, Frost or Miss Hardcastle, and the particular manifestations of modernist ideas will change a bit over time. But Lewis doesn't expect us to actually know many people like that; the point is that this is what the philosophies of the "Progressive Element" would amount to, if taken to their logical conclusions. And who's to say that someone won't take them to their logical conclusions? I think we still have, at the least, plenty of groups like the Progressive Element. One of the morals of the trilogy is that evil can sometimes reside in -- and be furthered by -- non-threatening personages. The lack of moral seriousness that is endemic to our age allows us to ignore the horribleness of many of the views we basically take for granted. (Mark and Jane Studdock are both clear cases in point.)

"To the extent that C.S. Lewis was expressing serious fears about the direction of the modern world in *That Hideous Strength*, we can safely say with 50 years' hindsight that he was completely wrong."

Really? Only in the sense that we could say of *1984*, "That silly George Orwell! I remember 1984 and it was nothing like what the book predicted! I thought he was smart enough to avoid those kinds of mistakes." *That Hideous Strength* is not a literal prediction of what events will come to pass in the next 50 or 100 years. It is a diagnosis of many of the ills of the modern era. If CS Lewis were alive today, I don't think he would take his views to have been discredited in the least.

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