C.S. Lewis in a Secular Core: Sex, Love, and That Hideous Strength

Joseph M. Knippenberg
August 6, 2018
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

As I suggested yesterday, a somewhat fuller picture of what Lewis has in mind is available in That Hideous Strength, which he presents as having behind it the "serious 'point' which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man." While in the latter work he does not argue as a theist, his "fairy tale" is full of "magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels." The "theistic" character of the novel enables him to address and describe more fully the human phenomena that open up our understanding of the world in which we live. To be sure, the presence of the Scottish skeptic MacPhee in the St. Anne's circle indicates that one need not be a religious believer to take an appropriately open and genuinely "evidence-driven" view of nature, yet it remains the case that the central clue to the nature of the world in which we live is given by the fact that we are relational and loving beings, whose love is in some way a response to the divine.

The obvious way in which the novel hearkens back to Abolition is through N.I.C.E., the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments. Its purpose is the literal conquest of nature: the replacement of "dirty" organic life with an essentially inorganic planet, dominated, apparently or allegedly, by "pure reason" or mind. Thus, Lord Feverstone tells Mark Studdock that "the main question of the moment" is

which side one's on - obscurantism or Order. It does really look as if we now had the power to dig ourselves in as a species for a pretty staggering period, to take control of our own destiny. If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal.

And Filostrato tells Mark that "The world I look forward to is the world of perfect purity. The clean mind and the clean minerals. What are the things that most offend the dignity of man? Birth and breeding and death. How if we are about to discover that man can live without any of the three"? N.I.C.E. is "for the conquest of death; or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer." Indeed, Filostrato virtually repeats a line from Abolition: "You know as well as I do that Man's power over Nature means the power of some men over other men with Nature as the instrument."

Birth and Breeding and Death: A Love Story

In these aforementioned lines is the signal "novelty" of the novel: Filostrato objects to and wishes to overcome "birth and breeding and death." While the conquest of nature has typically been animated, as in Hobbes and Bacon, by the prolongation of human life and the avoidance of at least violent death, Lewis's character objects to and wishes to do away with all the elements of the life cycle.

The novel begins as the story of Mark and Jane Studdock, a young couple who have an unsatisfying marriage. It ends with their loving reconciliation under the aegis of the gods. That Hideous Strength is a love story, through and through. And the love that is at the center of the story both animates (literally and figuratively) and illuminates nature in a way that Filostrato, who seems fixated on conquest and power, does not understand. He thinks (mistakenly) that he and his colleagues are on the verge of achieving immortality, though the head of the criminal Alcasan, which they think they have animated, is not in fact alive. Leaving aside the way in which they are simply mistaken about their accomplishment, it remains the fact that they have to have a life before they can extend it. They cannot create life, which still requires breeding and birth. What the scientists of N.I.C.E. cannot do, that on which they are dependent, is obviously in a certain sense within the power of Mark and Jane, if only they would free themselves of the ideology in which they have both been educated.

Separating "Fun" from "Fertility"

In this brief essay, I can only assemble a few of the novel's hints about a more adequate understanding of nature. Let me begin with the contrast Lewis draws with the "N.I.C.E. view," articulated by Filostrato. According to the scientist, we have already separated "fun" from "fertility." When the two are separated, even the "fun itself begins to pass away," perhaps because as "mere fun" it has so many other competitors that are, indeed, not nearly as complicated and demanding. Eventually, we can control or dispense with fertility altogether as an "anachronism." The natural connection of fun and fertility in sex makes human beings ungovernable: "There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex." What is true for animals (geldings and oxen are more easily managed than stallions and bulls) must also be true for human beings.

There are two kinds of mastery evident in Filostrato's view. First, there is the separation of one human motivation (fun) from the natural end (fertility) for which it serves as an incentive, but, I hasten to add, not necessarily the sole incentive. Through contraception, we elevate and exaggerate this particular human motive at the expense of the natural purpose it is arguably meant to serve. Second, there is the emphasis on what at least seems to be rational control, instrumentally for the sake of some self-conscious purpose. As all my undergraduates know, sex, which is fun, can interfere with and distract them from the instrumental purposes they pursue or are supposed to pursue on campus.

There are thus ways in which we might find ourselves at odds with the natural conjunction of fun and fertility. The question is how we can understand and conduct ourselves in a manner that is in harmony with this natural teleology.

Obedience: An Erotic Necessity

Here I must describe and comment on two conversations between Ransom (the "director" and Pendragon) and Jane Studdock. The first occurs early in Jane's experience with the circle at St. Anne's.

They are discussing her marriage, which she has hitherto understood in essentially modern, egalitarian terms. Ransom contradicts her: equality has its place in our fallen world. It "guards life," but "it doesn't make it." Men and women "who enjoy or suffer one another" are not free companions, entering into the kind of consensual relationship Locke describes in the Second Treatise. For them, "obedience - humility - is an erotic necessity." Because they have not understood this, Jane and Mark's marriage has been unhappy; they "have lost love because [they] have never attempted obedience." Other relationships may well depend on a certain accidental confluence or congruence of interest or experience, where the companions enjoy the same or similar things and where they may also require some protection from one another. Equality may indeed be necessary there. But marriage is different; the focus is not on something external to the partners, but on their being together and on their procreating together. They do not just each individually have fun by using one another's body parts.

Now, I am of course aware that the dominant contemporary understanding of marriage is light years away from this. "We" now think of marriage in a way much closer to Immanuel Kant's cold and almost clinical definition: "a union of two persons . . . for lifelong possession of each other's sexual attributes."

Men, Women, and the Divine

Ransom's second conversation with Jane sheds further light on the topic. She has encountered an unadulteratedly and even frighteningly erotic Venus, which Ransom represents to her as a necessity, given her situation. Mother Dimble, who regards his intellectualized account of these things as mere common sense, experiences the world Venus represents "as a Christian wife"; "she has baptized it."

Here Jane begins to realize that the Christian view is not "spiritual in the negative sense," "some neutral, or democratic, vacuum where differences disappeared, where sex and sense were not transcended but simply taken away." The body is not negated, overcome, or transcended by a larger encompassing spiritual order that is essentially different from and perhaps opposed to it; rather, as she suspects, "there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, stronger, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent." Ransom confirms this: "the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it."

The body and the erotic procreative relationship between men and women are not mere nature, to be manipulated and embellished for whatever purposes we might harbor. They are not mere matter, to be shaped in any way that we please. They are, rather, an indicator of a larger order, something that offers us a clue to that larger order and that has to be understood in the light of it. Nature is not to be overcome by culture, shaped into some arbitrary form, with arrangements suiting the idiosyncratic desires and preferences of the partners. We are not to reduce the high to the low, so as to justify our mastery. Instead, we should understand the low in the light of the high, so that we can see our way clear to submission or obedience. The "erotic necessity" of marital obedience is thus not a patriarchal imposition, but rather a reflection and inkling of our dependence on something "so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it."

This, I think, is a slightly fuller indication of what Lewis has in mind by a more adequate science. There are, to be sure, non-human "animal" phenomena, but they are intelligible as part of an order in which there is a lower and a higher, and can be understood in the light of the latter without engaging in an inappropriate anthropomorphism. But the human must be understood in the light of and as an inkling of the divine, which is not a spirit as opposed to a body or nature, but as a being whose force leaves its imprint on everything. As Ransom says, "there's no niche in the world for people that won't be either Pagan or Christian." One can perhaps see what is wrong with modern science without "ascending" to "theism," but eventually getting it right requires an openness to the divine.

Pagans, Christians, and Moderns

I will close by returning to my original point of departure: the standard narrative of the history of political thought. Lewis seems to place the classical pagans and Christians on one side, and the moderns on the other. Indeed, in his view, the truly "modern" is really humanly impossible, inasmuch as it willfully misunderstands and hence, so to speak, abolishes "man." I do not draw this conclusion for my students. If they come to it, they do so on their own.

For my readers who are not my students, I will add this reassurance. Lewis notes in Abolition that "I do not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as 'Man's conquest." To insist on the human impossibility of modernity is not to reject our politics and society tout court, but only to insist that they have to be understood in a different light, to be "baptized," as it were. In this connection, I can point to the Augustinian appreciation of limited government that we find in the work of the late Jean Bethke Elshtain and the Catholic rereading of America that we see in John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths. These are only suggestions, but they reflect a common view that we would do well to embrace.

The problem with conquest is that it works toward obliterating the distinction between creature and creator, a distinction that is essential for maintaining a humane and non-totalitarian politics. Lewis's work, in both its theistic and non-theistic aspects, calls our attention to this important distinction. For our age, this is a crucial recognition.