Monday, February 10, 2014

The Cosmic Trilogy 3: That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis

This is the one you've been waiting for!

The third book of CS Lewis's amazingly original science fiction trilogy is the most ambitious, the most philosophically dense--and the most prophetic. It's as unlike Perelandra, the previous book, as Perelandra is unlike Out of the Silent Planet. It takes place entirely on Earth, and there are no more than mentions of the bizarrely beautiful world of Perelandra. Instead of space travel, wild worlds of unthought-of beauty, and races that are alien to us in every way, That Hideous Strength is a political thriller crossed with a Charles Williams book, based on a treatise on modernist education. The result is strange and even uncomfortable (it was one of those books I disliked at a first reading, but loved the second time around). After all, one does not expect such a blood-spattered ending from the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Still, if there's one CS Lewis book I highly recommend everyone to read, it would be this one (perhaps even above Till We Have Faces). That Hideous Strength is, admittedly, an odd book. But it may be Lewis's most relevant. It's a book about statism, revolution, perversion, bureaucracy, modern education, scientific materialism, and transhumanism pitted against what one hapless character comes to call "the Straight": Christianity, beauty, freedom, morality, law.

Mark and Jane Studdock have been married six months when Mark, a sociologist at a small university, finds himself (almost by mistake, but driven by an insatiable desire to join the In Crowd) recruited by the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or NICE for short, a kind of nationalised scientific research body--or so they claim. To Mark's puzzlement, he finds himself doing very little sociological research, but a good deal of fraudulent journalism intended to sway public opinion in favour of this almost all-powerful entity. And oh, the first thing on its program, right after "murder the respectable scientist who tries to leave the Institute" and "subject honest criminals to endless programs of horrifyingly 'humane' remedial treatment", happens to be "plunge the local town into anarchy and seize control with the Institute's private police".

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock is haunted by inexplicable dreams. A man with shiny glasses studying her while she sleeps. A murderer in a French prison. A body waking out of its grave. Jane flees to a rural manor-house where an apparently immortal man who claims to have travelled to Mars and Venus offers her--not help, but a chance to fight on the right side. While Mark is drawn deeper into a conspiracy of ultimate evil, Jane finds herself increasingly drawn into an equally terrifying and powerful goodness. Will either of them survive the NICE or its opponents, the godlike powers from Deep Heaven?

As with Perelandra, I can do little more than assure you that this book is worth every minute, so full of good things that no review will ever do it justice. You simply must read it. Let me attempt to explain why.

That Hideous Strength is a forward look at modernity. Its claim that statism, bureaucratism, perversion, and scientific materialism is at heart infernally inspired may make even many Christians squirm, but if so then they need to be made to squirm. This thriller pits angels against demons, and while both sides work through the agency of men, there is no doubt that something more is going on than what is visible on the surface.

Even beyond its clearsighted acknowledgement of deeper spiritual realities, That Hideous Strength is that rare creature, a futuristic book that has unfolded into reality. It depicts a Britain overtaken by statism, through a program of nationalised education and pseudoscience. I had just read Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom when I went to re-read That Hideous Strength. There are surprising parallels. But one thing Dalrymple does not tell us, is that right now in 2010s modernist England there is a very unironically-named NICE. Ben Merkle says,
The United Kingdom’s Department of Health and Safety has given power to local council workers to inspect English homes with the goal of ensuring that parents are providing a safe home environment for English children. Inspectors will be able to check that the smoke detectors are functional, that stairs have gates at the top, that the hot water heaters don’t get too hot, etc. . . The organization tasked with penning the guidelines for these inspectors will be, and I am really not making this up, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – abbreviated as the NICE.
If any of the English are looking at their country, trying to figure out what on earth went wrong, they should try reading That Hideous Strength. It should answer a lot.

I mentioned that That Hideous Strength is based upon CS Lewis's educational treatise, The Abolition of Man. Allow me to take a moment to say that this treatise may be the most important piece of non-fiction Lewis ever wrote. In it, Lewis argued that modern education produced "men without chests"--people who had been trained to do a job well, but who were unable to think or to feel rightly. With untrained affections, these men could not tell between the beautiful and the ugly, the noble and the shameful, or the honourable and the dishonourable. Lewis insisted that education should consist of training in what he called "Stock Responses": to be told what to feel in response to certain things. To be thoroughly trained to love and trust virtue and to hate evil. This theme crops up across all Lewis's works (for one example, it is a Stock Response that makes the Pevensie children trust the robin in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a product of modern education, lacks the ability to function in a real adventure). In That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock represents the "man without a chest". One of the NICE's representatives--Dick Devine, one of Ransom's kidnappers from Out of the Silent Planet--tells Mark:
By real education I mean one that makes the patient do what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it'll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we'll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.
The point of the "man without a chest"'s education is to render him a good worker, easily swayed, incapable of telling the different between right and wrong because his affections have been so thoroughly undermined. It was part of Lewis's prescient warning that this kind of education would turn to "biochemical conditioning". In fact, in prisons and schools (but I repeat myself), drugs have been used as part of the educational program. And the "remedial treatment" given by the NICE to the criminals it gets its hands on in the book closely echoes the terminology of "corrections" which criminology and government departments now use in the place of words like "punishment". Lewis points out, of course, that "humane remedial treatment" is worse than any punishment. Go to Port Arthur, reader, and ask them why the lunatic asylum and the model prison were built so close together.

As the unfortunate recipient of a model modernist education, Mark is an easy tool for the NICE to use. Weak, ambitious, and morally clueless, Mark never developed the character either to avoid evil or to escape it when it seizes him:
It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical--merely "Modern". The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.
If Mark's storyline chronicles his slow education in good and evil, the other major theme in That Hideous Strength has to do with Jane Studdock's voyage out of feminism and egalitarianism, together with many meditations on marriage. This is also a deep theme: Jane's rather understated conversion to Christianity hinges upon realising that she was not made for herself--or even, on the deepest level, for Mark--but for Someone Else. Jane has all the prejudices of the modern woman against submission; when she does at last begin to feel it, it is a twisted thing that pulls her, not towards her maker or her husband, but towards Ransom, the one who first speaks to her of obedience:
"You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience. [...] They never warned you. No one has ever told you that obedience--humility--is an erotic necessity."
When she understands, this concept slowly begins to change Jane's attitude not just to Mark, but also to God:
Supposing one were a thing after all--a thing designed and invented by Someone Else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one's true self? Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was? Supposing [God] on this subject agreed with them and not with her?
One of the most obvious differences between the NICE and Ransom's group of reformers at the manor at St Anne's, in fact, is their view of the sexes. The last chapter is titled Venus at St Anne's, when the influence of Perelandra prompts quite a lot of pairing up. An earlier chapter is titled Moonlight at Belbury. Belbury is the headquarters of the NICE; in Lewis's fictional cosmology, the Moon is half inhabited by an ancient and evil civilisation marked by hubristic scientism: "on this side the womb is barren and the marriages cold....Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place." The NICE find the sterile civilisation of Sulva thoroughly inspiring for their own work. Their head men and women have diseased or sterile names like Wither, Frost, Feverstone, and Hardcastle. Miss Hardcastle is implied to be a lesbian, and even the almost human scientist Filostrato interjects into one conversation, "What have I do to with men's wives? The whole subject disgusts me." If healthy marriages characterise almost every relationship at St Anne's, the NICE is given over to the sanctions of Romans 1:18-25: their appetites are either stunted or deranged.

These are only the two major themes of the book. There are many others. McPhee, St Anne's resident skeptic, delightfully objects that "It may have occurred to you to wonder how any man thinks we're going to defeat a conspiracy by growing winter vegetables and training performing bears"--clearly he fails to understand the distinction between revolution and reformation. Mark, trying (for the first time in his life) to resist temptation, realises that you cannot be tempted to do something good, for temptation relies on evil for its strength: "Nothing that lacked the tang of horror would have been quite strong enough to satisfy the delirious excitement which now set his temples hammering." And there is Dr Dimble's famous speech on eschatology:
"If you dip into any college, or school, or parish--anything you like--at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren't so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."
That Hideous Strength is one of the deepest works of fiction you will ever read--and one of the most profitable. It spans the genres from science fiction to Arthurian fantasy, from political thriller to philosophical literary fiction and even, by the end, gore-spattered horror (in a good way). Not for young children, of course (don't let "By the Author of the Chronicles of Narnia" confuse you). But I highly commend it to all the rest of you.

Review of Book 1, Out of the Silent Planet
Review of Book 2, Perelandra

For more resources on That Hideous Strength, I highly recommend the following:

Quotations and Allusions in That Hideous Strength
"A Confession"--poem by CS Lewis on Stock Responses
And of course, do read The Abolition of Man.


Willard Family said...

Thank you Suzannah! Your reviews and thoughts are always most helpful. This series has long been one of my favorites, though I know I've hardly understood or grasped the depth of them. Could you shed some light on the whole resurrection of Merlin business?

Suzannah said...

I'm not sure, but let me try! In the original Arthurian legends, Merlin never died--he was just put to sleep underground. Unlike Arthur, there was never any hint of him coming back, but CS Lewis did it with Merlin in this book. I don't think there's much significance about it: Lewis just wanted to use the character as an example of someone who existed at an earlier time, before the antithesis had gotten as sharply-distinct as it is now.

There could be a lot of interesting discussion as to whether the antithesis does act as CS Lewis suggests--always getting sharper. I think it's partially true, but whether that means things that are unlawful now were sorta-lawful centuries ago, is quite the question ;).

Willard Family said...

Thank you, that is helpful. I would be very interested in your review of Till We Have Faces. Also, thank you for your recent article on LAF. My sister and I found it very encouraging.

Suzannah said...

Glad you found the article encouraging! I'd love to review Till We Have Faces one day, but it's such a deep book that I'm not sure how well I'd do!

If you're interested in CS Lewis's worldview and some of his creative inspiration, I really recommend Michael Ward's excellent book "Planet Narnia".

Christina Baehr said...

Well, don't tell Rachel Held Evans about that Ransom quote....she'll have Lewis posthumously hauled before the House Committee on Misogynist Activities!

Very meaty review - reminds me of just how heady the novel is to read. Thanks!

As to your comment on Port Arthur, when you get around to reading "God's Architect" you'll love the illustration Pugin drew contrasting modern, progressive (in the 1840s) rehabilitation - the new Panopticon, just like at Port Arthur - with its equivalent in the Middle Ages. Ouch! (Of course, the Panopticon actually looks rather pretty compared to our prisons - Lewis's antithesis again...?)

Rather further off-topic, I must recommend a very illuminating biography of Elizabeth Fry called "Betsy", by Jean Hatton. It explained quite a lot to me about the context of transportation to Australia, the Quakers, Fry's massive effect on female leadership of charity and reform work, and the current overwhelming opposition to capital punishment.

Ok, I'll stop hijacking your blog now.... :)

Thanks for the awesome review, I'm sure it will be especially helpful for people just finding their way into Lewis's world.

Suzannah said...

Oh, interesting! I'll look forward to reading those two books when I can!

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