I’ve been rereading THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, perhaps my favorite modern novel apart from Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS and Cather’s DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP.
Though I never encountered Lewis as a thinker until taking Professor Kenneth Sayre’s course at the University of Notre Dame on “Philosophy and Science Fiction,” I’ve probably read THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH ten times or so since college. It only gets better with each reading.
In it, Lewis challenges every form of progressivism as an attack on the very nature and dignity of man.
I came across this passage the other day, and I’ve not been able to get it out of my own limited mind. It’s from a conversation between Professor Hingest and Mark Studdock, just right before Hingest is murdered.
I happen to believe that you can’t study men: you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything which makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors.
Such a quote, put in the mouth of a scientist, only makes me realize how wonderfully backward and reactionary Lewis must’ve been in his own day. How many prominent men of letters and of public positions really changed progressivism at its most fundamental level in the 1930s and 1940s? Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, Friedrich Hayek, Roy Campbell, Etienne Gilson, Bernard I. Bell, Pope Pius?
It must’ve been a very lonely path.
Lewis, more or less, considered his THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH a failure. As he noted, without much comment in his letters, the novel had been “universally panned.” Even critiques sympathetic to the novel labeled it merely a satire.
And, yet, in hindsight, what novel better captures the evils of the twentieth century? The evil comes from the West, Lewis argues, and so does it solution. In hindsight, Lewis’s novel has weathered the changes in time more than its counterparts, 1984, Brave New World, and Farenheit 451.
For those who’ve not read it, the story revolves around a group of academic and bureaucratic conditioners–known as the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments)–who take over a small but elite English college as a prelude to a takeover of Britain herself.
To stop “That Hideous Strength,” a new King Arthur emerges in the form of a philology professor, Dr. Elwin Ransom. With the aid of a small group of friends, Ransom awakens Merlin from a fifteen-century sleep.
Modernity perplexes Merlin. In a telling conversation, Merlin states:
This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there. Beyond Byzantium.
You do not understand. The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.
Every one of those damnable ideologies Lewis challenges were born and bred in the West. Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche each served as fountainheads for our present ideologues and supermen.
Today, of course, they’ve spread their anti-humane infections everywhere—in the East and the West. Even our American love of democracy has been tainted with an ideological edge, as we plant our bases and presence around the globe.
So, I salute C.S. Lewis for standing for what’s right, against almost all odds in his day and age. He was truly a man of letters and a patriot of Western Civilization, properly understood. I can’t imagine bestowing greater praise upon a modern man. Well, ok, one thing to note: St. Jack was also a prophet.