Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hell and the University

The Biblical prophets told stories of spiritual death and destruction that flow from the palace, from the temple, from the high places, or from foreign lands.  In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis offers an apocalyptic tale of destructive evil that spreads from the local college.

Lewis's Bracton College sounds so familiar: more talk of power than of curriculum, the marriage of education and business, faculty meetings in which "discussions" consist of various opinions serially stated, the young professor who wants to be an insider no matter what he is inside of, and the denial of the old values of goodness, beauty, and above all truth.  Did Lewis just write about an annoying quirk of his time, or did he really see this coming?  Either way, this third part of his space trilogy stands as a warning for our time.

The one aspect of the scenario that doesn't ring true in my experience is the justification the innovators give for the changes they want for the college: we must serve Humanity rather than humans.  I know this kind of talk goes on in the modern university, but I don't hear it much in the College of Fine Arts.  Once we find, though, that this justification is only a front, things become sadly much more familiar.  As readers follow Mark Studdock circle by circle into the heart of N.I.C.E., we peel through layers of justifications.  Later Mark discovers that Humanity is merely a goal that the public will accept.  The real purpose is the rule of the elite.  Behind this justification, however, lies naked, selfish power grabbing.  Further in, though, we discover the reality that self-serving people cannot exist as such: in the larger scheme, we all serve someone greater than ourselves, and in the spiritual realm there are only two choices.

The book is usually categorized as science fiction and will probably disappoint the reader expecting space travel or imaginative technology.  Lewis does show us a machine that provides nourishment to a moving severed head that may or may not be alive, but that small bit isn't sufficient for the classification.  The book certainly fits in with the first two installments of the trilogy, both of which involve space travel, and perhaps that connection makes it a science-fiction yarn.  But I want to suggest that in this novel, Lewis has redefined "science fiction" with an interesting twist.  The genre usually explores a society and technology different from our own but made possible by imagined innovations in science.  In That Hideous Strength, Lewis imagines a twentieth-century world in which an outmoded scientific view proves to be true.  Here, the ancient cosmology, as Lewis so helpfully depicts it in his The Discarded Image, reigns.  The palpable Heavens are full of light.  The moon's orbit stands as a border between corruptible earthly existence and the unfallen remnant of the universe.  The planets are moved by angels, each with a unique character and each influential on earthly life.

This rich book is mystifying at first and definitely rewards rereading.  But its basic story is very clear.  If N.I.C.E. is the best we can do, our culture will end in panic, frustration, and death.

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