That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis: A Lens for Our Day

In C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, there is one computer of sorts that is envisioned, but Lewis does not anticipate a computer that belongs to just one individual, let alone mobile devices. For that matter, the computer, called the Analytical Notice-Board and a Pragmatometer, is envisioned as working on mechanical principles and with human operators, rather than anything electronic, even the relays of the first digital computer. Furthermore, it was posited in a conversation where the person who spoke of it ended up in ridicule.

Nonetheless, it is rather beside the point that N.I.C.E. workmen in all their rudeness do not use a smartphone to deliver a social snub, or even use smartphones to the point of being oblivious to their surroundings. C.S. Lewis is more than prescient, and the overall feel of the text leaves the uncomfortable feeling that Lewis has plagiarized events and trends that occur decades after his passing. The text is powerful in its portrayal of the banality of evil. Moreover, Lewis avoids a syndrome in Faust where the devil comes across as gentlemanly. The villains in the story are total jerks, and the figure Mark Studdock has been described as a character whose only real talent is to get into inner rings of power, and is debauched as he pulls from one inner ring to one that is deeper again and again... but it comes out in the end that the only reason the villains are wasting the time to debauch him is really only so that they can get at his wife and her prophetic dreaming power.

C.S. Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength as an explicit fictional counterpart to his nonfiction The Abolition of Man, and gives a human face to the principles he describes in the latter work in the former. The story is compelling, enough so that to me at least it almost needs pointing out how quaint the technologies of Dystopia were in Lewis's writing. The story is timeless.

But I would underscore "It almost needs pointing out." C.S. Lewis, before technology had made certain intrusions into everyday life, early declares himself "Oxford bred and very fond of Cambridge," and though this may not be intentional, has Mark Studdock debauched mostly one on one, in the image of Oxford's and Cambridge's tutorial system. Today debauchery occurs on a mass scale and includes such things as mobile devices and social media. Possibly we have gone worse than in that picture: but the timeless picture of evil, where "the shadow of that hideous strength, six miles long and more is its length," is poignantly relevant for today. As Lewis openly states, this fairy tale is meant as a setting in fiction the point he attempted to make in The Abolition of Man, and what is going on today is precisely an attempt at the abolition of man, worse today though it already existed in Lewis's day.

Let me digress to make a few comments and predictions regarding my own work, before returning to That Hideous Strength:

  • First, my own work about The Luddite's Guide to Technology will appear dated, at least as much as my second novel, Firestorm 2034 dates itself by my total failure to recognize mobile technologies and their significance to the landscape.

  • Second, we will have things advertised under cyberpunk fiction but we will not be in a Utopia. Think about how much it stinks today to learn to cast a fishing line off a smartphone's accelerometer when one has never had access to a real fishing rod or a body of water that admits fishing. Sensory simulated input from cybernetic implants will stink like bad technology already stinks.

  • Third, if I succeed in my work, it may be relevant as an input to informed decision making notwithstanding my blindness towards things that everybody will know. There will, if I am successful, be certain trajectories in my work that remain relevant despite my placing them in a context of technologies that have, then, gone the way of the horse and buggy.

  • Fourth, we do not live at the end of history, and so my work, geared to technologies and responsible use as of the time of its writing, is a trend in a historic period that will progress to other things. In the future I expect cybernetic implants and an Internet of [Human] Bodies to supersede the Internet of Things. However, I am not trying to future-proof my work except by acknowledging where it will be wrong or at very least incomplete and laying a foundation that will be relevant when future realities are here. I am not treating that the most recently prevalent technologies such as mobile phones are the final technologies in all of our historical processes. Possibly things will develop to a point that it is a quaint concept to watch porn on any kind of external screen.

  • Fifth, I believe that the moralist injunction regarding SecondLife, "Fornicate using your OWN genitals!" will be a precursor to moral injunctions relevant to future technologies.

  • Sixth, I believe that movement towards e.g. increasing cybertechnology will be advertised as bringing Utopia but will turn out to be Dystopian.

    In a Spiritually Speaking Toastmasters meeting, I listened with astonishment when a moral prophet's role was ascribed to e.g. Steve Jobs's public speaking that portrayed a miserable now and a better future. The draw is to covet things ascribed to the future. We have enough now to experience technology as dystopic, with compulsively checking our phone screens a hundred times daily and a technology bad enough that all profitable use of it is necessarily countercultural. The everyday reality of cybernetic implants will make our cell phone use look like a quaint nostalgic yesteryear.

  • Seventh, I do not advise trying to fill out the details of the Book of Revelation, but do not be surprised if parts of Revelation fall into place. It is my understanding that we can get a kind of cybernetic implant... that already exists and is presently available as VIP privilege... that will work everywhere contactless payment is available... and that it will be in the right hand... just... like... the... Mark... of... the... Beast... in... the... Book... of... Revelation. Our world may last centuries or millennia longer, but however murky of a business interpreting prophecy like Revelation may be, and however much I tried to make the point of Revelation and Our Singularity, we are living in a singularity that could open the door to the Antichrist.

I might also briefly digress to say that I don't specifically endorse C.S. Lewis's Arthurian tie-in in That Hideous Strength, which is deeply enough integrated that the story would fall apart if it were subtracted. In my opinion Arthurian legends rank as questionable literature, literature set in a never-never land of long ago and far away when the ink on Arthurian classics was still wet on its pages, delivering escape from reality rather than engagement with it, and after having read thousands of pages of medieval sources I regard it as one of the most damning critiques of the medieval West that its greatest literary legacy is Arthurian legends. However, this is a second digression that I want to put aside, and having stated it clearly, refrain from repeated critiques at every time Arthurian elements appear.

If I may turn and point to a first interesting element of the text itself, I would refer the reader to the discussion of Merlin:

It was rather horrible. I mean even in Merlin's time (he came at the extreme tail end of it), though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn't do it safely. The things weren't bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us. They sort of withered the man who dealt with them. Not on purpose. They couldn't help doing it. Merlinus is withered. He's quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of him. That quietness of his is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It's the result of having laid his mind open to something that broadens the environment just a bit too much. Like polygamy. It wasn't wrong for Abraham, but one can't help feeling that even he lost something by it."

The dialogue is one in which more things were allowed in the past while the possibility of even apparent neutrality vanishing while good hardens into more good and evil hardens into more evil. It is furthermore poignant to speak of an extreme tail end of where you could still use certain technologies innocently, but you couldn't use them safely. The technologies we use wither us, and when we don't have our technological mother's breast, our deflated quiet is like that of a gutted building. We have moved from technological beer and wine to technological whisky and Everclear, and on to technologies that surpass weed.

But I think Lewis has things in reverse. Let me give a vignette that you have probably heard before, and if not, you should:

Let us go to the Egyptian desert, and overhear a conversation taking place between a group of monks led by Abba Iscariot. This took place in the third century and the conversation went like this.

Abba Iscariot was asked, "What have we done in our life?"

The Abba replied, "We have done half of what our fathers did."

When asked, "What will the ones who come after us do?"

The Abba replied, "They will do the half of what we are doing now."

And to the question, "What will the Christians of the last days do?"

He replied, "They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but to those who keep the faith, they will be glorified more than our fathers who raised the dead."

My advisor, who had been a plenary speaker for Christians for Biblical Equality, and disturbingly a scholar who had plenty of contact with texts from other ancient cultures, asked me if I made allowances for greater ignorance in the past, giving an example of how we have a scientific understanding of atmospheric conditions that could make the moon look red.

I replied, "I do not make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable."

And I held my tongue from saying that I saw good reason to make allowances for greater ignorance in the present.

Feminism is one studied ignorance in the present. So are our American values we attach as strings to foreign aid in the form of abortion and gay rights. It has been called the spirit of Antichrist that is showing down with Orthodoxy.

The central reason why I am mentioning That Hideous Strength is that it captures something of the nature of good and the nature of evil. Evil is banal; good is interesting. As Lewis states in the preface, the context of a small college is posited because it offers certain conveniences for the sake of fiction. Good and evil are also portrayed in ways that create conveniences for fiction; a blow-by-blow account of one-on-one debauchery of one man is much simpler than a similarly detailed account of the debauchery of a whole society. However, the means of the Progressive Element in the first chapter, "Sale of College Property," shows a manipulation that is of a piece with what a real-life top-notch political speechwriter advocates in Simon Lancaster's Speechwriting: The Expert Guide. The evil "N.I.C.E." does vile biological experiments: and such also appeared in Word War II's Germany and Japan, the latter of which had a medical experimental unit that, for instance, vivisected men experimentally infected with diseases without even anaesthesia. And it is of a piece with the N.I.C.E. that majority usage checks our cellphones easily a hundred times per day. That Hideous Strength was copyright 1945, meaning most likely first drafted before the copyright date, and I'm not sure then that the full scale of Nazi concentration camps was known to Lewis; or the even larger scale of Marxist concentration camps such as continue in China today. Furthermore, even though Lewis never mentions manufacture of everyday property made under inhuman conditions, it is only more of the spirit of the N.I.C.E. to be comfortable by means of the products of Chinese sweatshops. Furthermore, it is difficult to read C.S. Lewis's condemnation of vivisection and knowingly find it innocent to have cheap meat by the raising animals under the inhuman conditions of factory farming. Ms. Hardcastle is a lesbian sadist who is a welcome member of the N.I.C.E. even if she does not think to champion gay rights. The only real aspect of the N.I.C.E. I can think of that is not rampant today is the desire to wipe all organic life off the earth, but there are points of contact at least with transhumanism, which does not regard it as satisfactory to have plain, old-fashioned human minds in plain, old-fashioned human bodies.

On the opposite side, good is presented rightly as interesting, and it is not only Merlin that one is drawn to at St. Anne's. The discussions and comradery among the company at St. Anne's have nothing on the family that is my monastery, and the works of Archimandrite Zacharias. One friend said that when she reads That Hideous Strength she reads the whole book, and then reads the bit about the company at St. Anne's a second time. I am in sympathy here. Not, exactly, that our monastery will save the world; sometime, whether or not you or I live to see it, the Antichrist will rise to power and will be put down by the return of Christ Himself. But there is something cosmic in every sin and every repentance and good, and our monastery is not too different from the celery trenches tended to by MacPhee. The power at an Orthodox monastery is captured in the two words, "Save yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved," and "Make peace with yourself, and Heaven and earth will make peace with you." And, in the meantime, tending to gardens is possibly more important than politicking.

I am not sure the reader will believe me thus far; it takes some believing, all the more because what we think is normal has our lives as a reference point and not the thousands of years civilization has had records or the hundreds of thousands of year we hunter-gatherers have lived as Homo sapiens sapiens. The singularity that is unfolded in the caricatured work Philip Sherrard's The Rape of Man and Nature may continue to unfold into the appearance of the Antichrist before the total victory of Christ. However, some readers may have another question besides "What's next?", and ask, "How should we live then?"

My answer then also looks at and with the lens of That Hideous Strength, and say that Lewis was wise as an author to keep MacPhee working on celery trenches and washing the bear when he could have gotten a lobby politicking by then if he had been allowed to do such. The classic Orthodox perspective, as valid in days of final apostasy as much as anything else, is, "Do what is before you." If you are raising children, raise them as you can. If you are working in a garden, work the garden. If you have have joined a family or started a family, serve that family. If you have not yet done either, do what is before you even if it does not help you be closer to obedience to the mandate to join a family and start a family. And repent. Where politics fails, when guns fail, when regimes fail, personal repentance is a cosmic good. Even, or especially, if what you do seems utterly insignificant in the face of the problems we face.

On to rereading Archimandrite Zacharias, Monasticism: The All-Embracing Gift of the Holy Spirit...