A Thoroughly Modern Novel
That Hideous Strength is not without its virtues. There are good ideas: power hungry modernism is bad. Men and women are different. Places are important. Surrealism is dangerous. There are also good elements: a boss who practices astral projection. Lunar sex bots. Merlin in the modern day. A bloody banquet overrun by beasts.
However, I shouldn’t have had to read 400 pages of people talking about these things in order to experience them. It’s really that simple. For all he rails about the danger of grand ideas eclipsing nature, the nature of the book conveys the story dead on arrival and pickled in Lewis’s own conceptual juices. He himself fails to fully convey the rich abundance of the nature that he praises. There are shadows of brilliant moments, such as the banquet. But that should have been when all the characters and movements converged, though they don’t. There was not much movement to begin with, just talking. There wasn’t much character to begin with, either, just talk-pieces. The enemies are dealt with anti-climatically and impersonally, although that one scene with all the naked men covered in blood was surprising.
I think that people who enjoy That Hideous Strength are understandable but misguided. They are the sort of people who agree with C.S. Lewis and are dazzled by his ideas. I, too, appreciate his ideas. But Lewis in so many ways fails his own standard. He spouts so many good, thoughtful ideas about life and nature, but never makes those ideas come to life. He never tells a story.
It’s hard to appreciate some of the ideas because I am seventy years downstream of them, and have either indirectly gotten them from people influenced by Lewis or just stumbled upon them myself. However, there were some personally challenging insights. For example, at one point a main character is placed in a room full of alienating, surreal, and quite funny pictures. They depict such vagaries as a woman with a mouth full of hair, a mantis eating another mantis playing the fiddle, beetles crawling under the table at the Lord’s Supper, fun stuff like that.
These are normally things that I would be greatly amused by, things that I would be pleased to create or propagate. But in context, the paintings are being used by the evil scientists to brainwash the character, to alienate him from the idea that art can be meaningful. This was contrasted with the growing conviction that the main character had of a reality which was Normal and Good and Straight. Without analyzing 20th century art movements, which I still think are valuable to contemplate and simply don’t know enough about to judge, this moment in the book struck a chord with me. I find in myself a growing distaste for the bizarre, one that runs contrary with the custom of my teenage years. Am I slowly becoming normcore? Hm. Maybe I’m just realizing how boring I really am, after all.
Or, maybe I’m bored by the perverse and how long I’ve been occupied by it. By pursuing the interesting (that which delights the eyes) for so long, I’ve become a very boring, slippery person. Hard to talk to. I think there’s something unpleasant about the nonsensical in the way that it can be so easily manufactured and presented delightfully in a given story, and then put on t-shirts at Hot Topic. What does the quirky have to do with pursuing The Ultimate Good? I don’t want to spend my whole life collecting interesting tidbits and images to adorn my head. I’ve already spent my whole life doing that, and I’m tired.
And yet, I am still delighted by a film like a Mood Indigo. Absurdity is not bad. The deep silliness of something like Mood Indigo, though, is still meaningful. Though often nonsensical in the particulars, it is always very relatable to the very straightforward romance taking place, unhindered by the fantastical amusements taking place around it. Though perhaps that is a problem in of itself: if all these odd elements are being depicted onscreen, why do they have zero effect on the characters? Hm.
In the past I wrote a theological defense of the weird. Reading it over, I see that I anticipated a lot of what I’m feeling now and responded to it. But I don’t know if I responded to it well enough. Quirkiness is (much of the time) very shallow, and it’s a way for clever guys to get away with being lazy or effeminate. But, when it goes beyond just signals, it can be the means for something new and healthy and creative coming about. I don’t want to be just a quirky, effeminate man. But I do want to offer something new, healthy, and creative. I refuse to go down the aesthetic road of middle-aged, midwestern bankers that so many say is Normal and Good and Straight.
I suppose I don’t see any way for me NOT to be quirky and effeminate in my day to day life. Where are the trees for me to chop down? Where are the seas for me to sail? Where are the women for me to court? Ah, anyway, if I saw a real tree, sea, or woman, I’d run and hide. I have, and I did.
One thing that immediately rises to the mind is a defense of the mysterious and the arcane, something that is naturally disliked by the mainstream world, secular and evangelical. This would also be opposed to the shallowly surreal or absurd; the mysterious is deeply meaningful and personal and intimate, just not fully understood. The absurd (or attempted absurdity, let’s say), I find to my great disappointment, can often be understood quite well, and divvied up and sold too easily. What can’t be sold? That would be a rare and precious thing, and far from here, and if I did see such a thing I’d run and hide.
To be true to your sex, that is, to be a manly man or womanly woman, you really just have to be faithful in any given garden you’ve been placed in. You have to know your body and what ought to be done with it–to it! Faithfulness and open eyes, I think, will lead one past the quirky and past the boring and quite suddenly into the mysterious, arcane, and beautiful.
With That Hideous Strength, Lewis may not have been faithful to the nature of storytelling. But I think he was faithful to his calling as a man of letters. He thought great thoughts and shared them, and I am grateful to have read them.
Playthings are good. Weird conceptual chimeras can be very fun. I don’t think I need to force myself to stop enjoying the bizarre; it’s worth playing with and contemplating! It can lead to beautiful visions and new insights about natures. But I have played and played and played for so long. I want something Real. I want something Good. Do I need to work for that? I don’t need to work for my salvation, after all. Maybe I am being offered a work that I am unwilling to receive.