Friday, June 2, 2017

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis explores some fascinating ideas in what is rapidly becoming my favorite book, The Abolition of Man. He takes those ideas and puts them into fictional form in his Space Trilogy, specifically the third book, That Hideous Strength. He calls this "a modern-day fairy tale for grown-ups." It certainly offered a cautionary tale of life gone awry when subjectivism is taken to its logical extreme. He puts words of wisdom and foolery in the mouths of his characters in order to flesh out the ideas he promulgated in The Abolition of Man.

The book begins with Jane Studdock, musing upon the purpose of marriage and reflecting on the rare time she had stepped into a church as an adult, her wedding day. Her marriage is clearly growing apart and she recognizes that she and her scholar husband, Mark, are living separate lives. Meanwhile Mark is relishing his new-found position in the middle of a powerful Inner Ring of Progressives. He is a research fellow at Bracton College, in the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious and knows he is pursuing a life apart from his wife, but he is unconcerned. Mark's mentor and patron, Feverstone, talks to him of a possible position opening up with N.I.C.E., a sort of NGO/think tank that takes as its mission the remaking of mankind. In describing the allure, Feverstone postulates, "Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest--which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite." (p. 40) The university board votes to allow N.I.C.E. to purchase a piece of hallowed ground on the property, Bragdon Wood, in order to build a new research facility over the hostile opposition of the town. 

Meanwhile, Jane has been experiencing horrific nightmares which lead her to feel deeply unsettled and a little crazy. They are so real and seem to be either prophetic or a glimpse into events unfolding in real time. But her materialistic and rational brain rejects both premises. She runs into some trusted and kind friends who are very interested in her troubles. They refer her to their friend, Miss Ironwood, in the village of St. Anne's, saying only she can help. While her train speeds towards the mysterious encounter, her husband and Feverstone head to N.I.C.E. in Belbury to see what they have to offer. 

At N.I.C.E. Mark is met by the nominal head, Withers, who has a very difficult time making any kind of definitive statements. Although Mark is told that the real head is "the fairy", he is confused as to the managerial structure. He also cannot seem to get a clear version of what it is exactly he is being asked to do at N.I.C.E. At one point, he is met with an Edgestow colleague, Highet, who is disenchanted with his work at the institute claiming they misrepresented what he would be doing. It is not the actual science he was promised, but social engineering. He is determined to leave that evening. Meanwhile, Jane discusses her issues with the odd Miss Ironwood, who seems to have known she was coming. Miss Ironwood speaks in apocalyptic terms and refers to "Us vs. Them" which leaves Jane very uncomfortable. Miss Ironwood tells her that the dreams are real events which Jane is witnessing in real time. All of this leaves Jane worse off and more confused than when she first arrived and she hurries to get home. 

While Mark is staying in Belbury trying to determine whether or not he actually is being offered a job, Jane has another dream, of a brutal roadside murder. Eventually it becomes clear that she witnessed the destruction of Highet when he attempted to leave N.I.C.E. After endless double-talk and misdirection, Mark is invited to write a report on the benefits of the destruction of the town of Cure Hardy. As Mark tours the town and is reminded of his own Aunt Gilly, he recognizes the backwardness and anachronisms the N.I.C.E. is determined to destroy. But even as he is experiencing some ambivalence, his training as a sociologist has him trapped. "For his education had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laborers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow. Though he  had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes" and "populations"; for in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen." (p. 85) When they finally are home together, Mark and Jane pretend all is fine and nothing out of the ordinary is concerning either one of them. Meanwhile, N.I.C.E. has begun its extremely noisy and disruptive construction on the college grounds.

Although he thought he was "in" at N.I.C.E., Mark is back to being confused. Withers is the master of obfuscation. In regards to Mark's inability to figure out what he is supposed to do and why Brocton College is convinced he has quit his position there, Withers tells him, "We are, as I have said before,  are more like a family, or even, perhaps, like a single personality. There must be no question of 'taking your orders,' as you (rather unfortunately) suggest, from some specified official and consider yourself free to adopt an intransigent attitude to your other colleagues. That is not the spirit in which I would wish you to approach your duties. Your must make yourself useful, Mr. Studdock -- generally useful." (p. 117) Everyone in any position of authority seems contradictory and increasingly, threatening. Mark has met "the fairy," the totalitarian female head of security. At one point even Feverstone implicitly threatens him if he doesn't shape up and stop asking questions. Jane meets with her friends, the Denniston's, again to tell them of her experience with Miss Ironwood. They are excited and reveal that she is the "seer" they have been looking for. They invite her to join their group and pledge her allegiance to the mysterious Mr. Fisher-King. This is so unlike the wavering and incoherent Withers. Back in Belbury, Mark is asked to swallow any conscience he has left and begin to write newspaper articles, dictated by N.I.C.E. He writes these in order to spin events N.I.C.E. is going to orchestrate, starting with a riot in Edgestow over the construction. "This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner." (p. 127) "And anyway, if he didn't do it, someone else would." (p. 132) He is able to justify his descent into darkness.

Jane is also disoriented and while out shopping one day, she sees a man who has been tormenting her in her dreams, Frost. Panicked, she hurries to St. Anne's where she finally meets the mysterious Mr. Fisher-King, the Director. The ageless man captivates her, but will not allow her to commit to him without the approval of her husband. Her modern feminist sensibilities, which have been troubling her since the beginning, are revolted at such a thought. She tries to explain that her marriage is dying anyways. But the Director will not hear of it. He frankly doesn't care about her ideas of marriage, stating the his master's ideas are the only ones that matter. He cautions her that she has lost love because she never attempted obedience. That word, "obedience" grates on her, but pulls at a heart that knows the truth of the statement. Upon returning to Edgestow, intent on having an honest discussion with her husband, she is accosted by the rioters, arrested by "the fairy," Miss Hardcastle, tortured and ultimately escapes. She returns immediately to St. Anne's. 

Like the Director, Mark's overlords desire his wife to be part of this new life. He immediately demurs saying this is not the world she would be comfortable in. "He would have found it impossible to conduct in her hearing any one of the hundred conversations which his life at Belbury involved. Her mere presence would have made all the laughter of the Inner Ring sound metallic, unreal; and what he now regarded as common prudence would seem to her, and through her to himself, mere flattery, back-biting and toad-eating. Jane in the middle of Belbury would turn the whole of Belbury into a vast vulgarity, flashy and yet furtive." (p. 168) Seeing N.I.C.E. through the eyes of his wife is uncomfortably illuminating. His faux pas is quickly seen for the disaster it is when Withers turns very cold and angry towards him. In order to fully ingratiate Mark and therefore the possibility of his wife, his colleague, Filostrato, who dreams of a perfectly sanitized world, takes Mark to meet "the head." Literally it is the disembodied, human head of a convicted felon, Alcasan. He is hooked up to life-mimicking devices and consulted for his wisdom from beyond. Mark is duly horrified, and realizes his error in not immediately offering to bring Jane. He now understands the danger he is in. While he is feeling less and less connected to his surroundings, Jane is settling in comfortably with the group at St. Anne's, meeting each inhabitant, including Mr. Bultitude, a bear.

The narrator takes this opportunity to comment on Mark, "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 and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling." (p. 182) 

Mark desires to see Jane, but is not allowed to leave the premises. The danger he is in is more than apparent and he realizes he must escape. Jane has also been taken into the confidence of the Director. He describes a world of the supernatural involving angelic beings called eldils who exist in both good and bad forms. He talks of life on other planets and a Master he answers to. He also fills her in on the plan both he and N.I.C.E. have of digging up and restoring to life the ancient magician Merlin at the construction site of Edgestow. They are in a race to see who discovers him first and is able to convert him to the cause. 

Mark finally manages to escape and returns to Edgestow. As he comes to terms with the horrors that he helped create, he runs into a fellow scholar, one he knows opposes N.I.C.E. Talking to him reveals just how low he has sunk. He is able to see himself through the disappointed eyes of the man and rushes out, turning to alcohol, his most trusted companion. Eventually, he is caught and arrested for the murder of Highet. N.I.C.E. has manufactured evidence and he is sure to hang for the murder. Meanwhile, both sides are out at the Wood searching for Merlin. Jane's team thinks they see him, but discover it is only a vagrant.

While Mark languishes in jail, he is visited by Frost, the man haunting the dreams of his wife. Unlike Withers, Frost is crystal clear in his pronouncements. And they do not bode well for Mark. He tells of the Macrobes, heavenly beings directing humanity and history itself. He paints a picture of a world in which the Macrobes and the particularly enlightened humans will rule together. Of course Mark can choose to be part of this next phase of history or he can be destroyed. After Frost leaves, Mark has an experience in which he comes face to face with Truth. Realizing his own utter helplessness, despite his well-condition response that he was master of his own fate, he resigns himself to doing all he can to join Jane and do what he intrinsically knows to be right. However, Belbury is suddenly interrupted with the news that Merlin has been found. 

Back in St. Anne's an intimidating stranger shows up and makes his presence known in the house. The Director is finally able to convince the stranger, that he, the Director, also known as Ransom, is the Pendragon. At this news, the real Merlin falls to his knees. They join forces knowing the enemy has made a fatal mistake. He has bridged the heavenly gap that separates the truly evil eldils from man and has brought deep heaven down on his head. 

Mark is given the job of watching over the imposter "Merlin" and discovers him to be just a vagrant. But he keeps the secret and this bit of rebellion allows him to resist the brain-washing conditioning Frost is subjecting him to. Jane is beginning to understand the religious aspect to all she is experiencing and is able to let down her materialistic defenses and give herself up to it. 

The 'gods" (angels) come to visit the house at St. Anne's, giving Merlin great power. Merlin responds to an ad asking for an interpreter to work for N.I.C.E. Apparently they believe "Merlin" speaks an unknown ancient tongue. While there, Merlin is given a tour with Withers as his guide. The supreme figurehead, Jules, arrives and a feast is thrown to honor his presence. But soon, the dining hall is thrown into deadly chaos. Merlin's presence has unleashed destruction and the evil handlers are all too willing to destroy their own creation. When Wither realizes that the gap has been breached, his subjectivistic mentality leaves him unable to respond. "It is incredible how little this knowledge moved him. It could not, because he had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself. What had been in his far-off youth a merely aesthetic repugnance to realities that were crude or vulgar, had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself. He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain. He had willed with  his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him." (p. 350) The "head," now revealed to be nothing more than a conduit to the evil supernatural world, leads those who turn to him for respite to gruesome murder as Withers is compelled to kill and in turn be killed himself. Even Frost is so removed from objectivity reality that he willingly kills himself, unable to see why he should not. Feverstone flees to Edgestow, only to be swallowed up by the convulsing earth set about to destroy the entire place.

At the house in St. Anne's the women prepare for a banquet of their own. Mark has escaped and is staying at a nearby inn, thinking about who he is, what he has become, and what an amazing woman he married. After dinner, Ransom tells those gathered that it is time for him to go. He has done what he came to do. Jane learns the story of the Pendragons going back to King Arthur. Britain has always had competing forces of good and evil and in each generation a Pendragon has been given the job of preserving the good. When they lament the wholesale destruction of Edgestow, one of their own puts it into perspective, "Was there a single doctrine practiced at Belbury which hadn't been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Of, of course, they never thought any one would act on their theories! No one was more astonished than they when what they'd been talking of for years suddenly took on reality. But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognizable, but their own." (p. 269) 

Into these musings, Mark approaches determined to free Jane of a man such as himself. But the Director has other plans. He arranges for them to meet in a romantic hideaway on the property at St. Anne's. While Mark reflects upon his unworthiness, Jane walks towards the cabin with fresh thoughts of sacrifice, children, pain and death. She recognizes the suffering Mark has endured. She feels hope for a new beginning... and walks in.

I really liked this book. It might have been a bit helpful to have read the first two in this trilogy, but it was not really necessary. I should probably read it again and reflect on all that Lewis is trying to convey. I can see his connection to The Abolition of Man in the thinking of those of N.I.C.E. They have taken the subjectivism he warns of to its logical extreme. They eschew all ability to actually know anything and live in a world of upside-down confusion. All they are sure of is that it is they who must rule. For what purpose and to what end is unknown. All has devolved into a raw grab for power. This is what Lewis predicted when he said our desire to make our own truth simply becomes an attempt to exercise power over others. While the story is far-fetched and involves extra-terrestrial beings, the possibility of intellectuals taking their theories to heart remains viable. 

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