From “The Abolition of Man” to “That Hideous Strength” Part One

oxford_fog

“The fog, which covered Edgestow as well as Belbury, continued and grew denser …”

“The knowledge that his own assumptions led to Frost’s position combined with what he saw in Frost’s face and what he experienced in this very cell, effected a complete conversion.  All the philosophers and evangelists in the world might not have done the job so neatly.”[1]

“I have called this a fairy tale in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled by the first two chapters into reading further, and then complain of his disappointment,” wrote C.S. Lewis in his preface to the third installment of his Ransom Trilogy, That Hideous Strength.[2]  He continues that though it “is a ‘tall story’ about devilry … it has behind it a serious ‘point,’” one that he had made in The Abolition of Man.[3]  That point is that the modern world has found itself in the situation where, for the first time in human history, it is trying to build a system of values from the ground up, without belief in a transcendent moral reality. Lewis was concerned about a future in which the loss of a belief in objective morality, combined with deterministic scientism and technological progress, would lead to “a concentration upon mere power” that would be devastating for mankind.[4] That Hideous Strength is the fictional counterpart, where he explored what this world would look like after several generations of young people had had their “sensibilities starved” under the “general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial.”[5]  The tale follows a young couple who come to an understanding of marriage that is more concrete, earthy, and enchanted in contrast to the “laboratory outlook upon love” that had deadened their relationship at its beginning.[6]  This re-enchantment involves what on the surface appears to be a hodgepodge array of medieval cosmology, Arthurian legend, and Christian theology.  Indeed, one could say that the book is stuffed with myth in a way that seems overdone.  Is the “serious ‘point’” of The Abolition of Man lost in all the mythological noise?  This is an important question, and considering it will help us understand why Lewis chose to transpose his defense of objective morality into fairy tale form, why marriage took center stage in a battle against evil spiritual forces, and the significance he placed on myth in countering the modernist mindset that has emptied the universe of meaning in its conquest of Nature.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis shows that when the reductionist tenets of the sciences are applied to areas such as morality and human reason, Nature wins a disabling and permanent upper hand.  Through such a process we pass from molecules to man and back to molecules by necessity.  Lewis writes, “as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.”[7]

Lewis intended for That Hideous Strength to be a fairy tale exploration of a world where the conquest and sacrifice had advanced considerably.  The forces of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) and its demonic manipulators are set against the Resistance, led by Dr. Elwin Ransom, the main character from Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, the two previous books in the trilogy.  Ransom is a Christian who has traveled to the planets of Malacandra and Perelandra (Mars and Venus, respectively) and has been chosen to be the bridge for the powers of the heavenly realms to both fight the destruction of Earth by its fallen angelic powers and heal the relational wounds caused by the power struggles.

In many ways, That Hideous Strength is as multifaceted as a medieval tapestry and as voluptuous as Botticelli’s ‘Mars and Venus’, a copy of which is said to have hung in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College.[8]  There is not enough space to unravel all of the complexity of this story and its parallels to The Abolition of Man, but a cursory look at a few of its main characters should suffice to reveal whether or not Lewis’s fairy tale retelling was able to deliver “the serious point.”[9]

Gaius and Titius – The Fellows at Bracton College

Until the modern age, the recognition of a transcendent, objective reality and accompanying morality (which Lewis refers to as the Tao), have always formed the basis of ordering human societies.  In particular, he argues, education has hitherto been approached as training the young to “feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which [objectively] really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”[10]  In other words, education for the young involved training them to use their reasoning faculty to align their emotions with an objective truth.  Lewis calls this process the development of what he labels the “chest”, “the indispensable liaison officer” between Man’s intellect and his animal appetites.  Lewis asserts that it is by this very “chest” or “middle element that man is man”.[11]

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis takes to task modern educators for not teaching the young to look beyond this world to order either their reasoning faculty or emotions.  The older generations were not passing on their “chests” for they were too busy paying lip-service to debunking them, all the while hypocritically retaining their own.  In particular, Lewis highlights this subtle debunking in an English textbook for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools.”[12]  He calls the book The Green Book and the authors he gives the fictitious names, Gaius and Titius.  Lewis notes that the text’s authors most likely wanted to teach the children how to think critically, but their own skeptical philosophy had seeped in and, as a result, they left the students unprotected from “extending the same treatment to all predicates of value.”[13]  These educators “see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda — they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental — and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion.”[14]

Gaius and Titius find their counterparts in the Fellows at Bracton Hall, like Old Jules and other academics at Edgestow such as Churchwood and Hingest.  These men are those whose “lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life” they behaved as if these ethics were true.[15]  They had “never thought any one would act on their theories!”[16]  These debunkers were as astonished as anyone with the crass manipulations and lack of conscience displayed by younger Progressive Element, yet “it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognizable, but their own.”[17]

Part Two:  The Pupils – Jane and Mark and the Abolition of Marriage

Part Three: The Innovators – The Progressive Element and the N.I.C.E. and The Conditioners – Wither, Frost, and the Macrobes

Part Four: Why Myth?

Notes:

[1] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York:  Scribner, 2003), 293.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 200.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 16.

[6] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 378.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 83.

[8] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 87.

[9] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 7.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 27.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 16.

[14] Ibid., 24.

[15] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 369.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s