The Long View 2007-05-24: That Hideous Strength & 1984; The Mortuary State
The Orwell review of C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength that John Reilly mentions here fascinates me because I almost agree with it.
Much is made of the fact that the scientists [in the book] are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.
I can imagine the kind of story that Orwell is complaining about, one which relies on the dreaded deus ex machina to save the day. I don’t really enjoy that kind of story either. Yet there is also a large number of very good, reasonably dramatic works of fiction that take as a premise that God wins in the end. I take this as an existence proof that the ultimate triumph of good over evil is not the death of fiction. A major theme of many of my own book reviews is Providence, which I take to be very different than deus ex machina.
One of the primary differences is that that no matter anyone’s stated intentions, you can never be really sure whose actions will ultimately serve the good. Providence uses the acts of the wicked as readily as the acts of the just. A corollary of this is that you are never really sure, until the end, of what side anyone truly serves. We cannot, in general, scry the hearts of men, nor know the mind of God, so the workings of Providence remain fundamentally mysterious.
A key frame-shift that makes this possible is the relocation of drama from the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil, to the far more personal question of whom shall I serve, at the end of all things? Knowing the ending in advance does absolutely nothing to tell you what will happen to you, or your nation, or your cause. The very different philosophies of Eric Blair and Clive Staples Lewis inevitably produced very different ideas of fiction.
That Hideous Strength & 1984; The Mortuary State
Here is a book review I had been looking for: George Orwell's 1946 review of C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, which, as I have noted in this space a tediously large number of times, is my favorite supernatural thriller. Orwell liked the book, too, though he wished it were different in certain ways:
On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them. Still, it is possible to think of a fairly large number of worth-while books in which ghosts, magic, second-sight, angels, mermaids, and what-not play a part.
Mr. C. S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength” can be included in their number – though, curiously enough, it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it.
In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, it rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s "The Man Who Was Thursday."...
Much is made of the fact that the scientists [in the book] are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid. However, by the standard of the novels appearing nowadays this is a book worth reading.
As a preliminary matter, we should note that few books so little resemble The Man Who Was Thursday in atmosphere. The Lewis book resembles the Chesterton book in outline in that there are revelations throughout the story, but it most emphatically lacks the principal device of The Man Who was Thursday, which is that no one is what he at first seems.
In any case, I mention the Lewis-Orwell connection because it seems to me that Orwell took his own advice and wrote a miracle-free version of That Hideous Strength, which is 1984. Consider:
* They both feature sinister official euphemisms; Lewis's "National Institute of Coordinated Experiments" (N.I.C.E.) is first cousin to Orwell's "Ministry of Truth."
* They both feature a torture-tutorial in which an agent of evil explains the power of nihilism to the protagonist.
* They both emphasize the gullibility of the educated and contrast it with the essential sanity of the common man.
* The protagonists in both books reject the forces of evil because of a visceral intuition of right and wrong; each must fight theory to apprehend reality.
Of course, in 1984, the protagonist was ultimately defeated, but this is consistent with Orwell's thesis that novels are better without divine providence.
Lewis also favorably reviewed 1984 and Animal Farm (I don't have a link or a citation). He preferred Animal Farm to 1984, however. He believed that Orwell injected some Edwardian-Progressive notions about sex into the latter book that he still needed to think through.
* * *
Meanwhile, First Things has taken a Gothic turn, if we may judge from editor Joseph Bottum's feature article in the July/August issue, Death & Politics. In that piece, the author looks for an alternative to the social-contract theories of social formation. He finds it in mortality, in ways that can range from our apprehension of other persons' mortality to the physical presence of cemeteries as ritual centers:
Death is the anchor for every human association, from the family all the way up to the nation-state.
This sounds familiar, and the article duly ticks off the precedents: Fustel de Coulanges' mortuary-society theory of the Roman state; Heidegger's notion of death and liminality (which Bottum turns on its head); and, inevitably these days, Rene Girard and the community-building lynching. The article's analysis produces three propositions for our consideration:
(1) The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture,
(2) The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral,
(3) A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.
Bottum takes these notions in some directions that are novel (at least to me). For instance:
[F]reedom of the will is closely tied to a world with death in it: If nothing really dies, then we have no freedom of choice; if we lack significant freedom of choice, then death will prove unreal.
He gets to this conclusion by a modal argument which, like most modal arguments, is a lot of fun, but maybe does not prove quite what it claims to prove. But let us turn to the thesis as a whole.
On one level, indeed one might say at the popular level, the article's thrust is unexceptionable. The Gettysburg Address was delivered at the inauguration of a cemetery, to take an obvious example. And then there's My Country Tis of Thee:
Land where my fathers died;
Land of the Pilgrim's pride
One of the reasons the assimilation of immigrants traditionally worked so well in the United States is that immigrants were understood to acquire a new set of ancestors, like getting a set of new in-laws at marriage, but that's another blog entry.
As the author is well aware, the acknowledgement that there is close connection between death and the state has been one of the recurring themes of the Counter Enlightenment, and it has sometimes been taken in creepy-crawly directions. I wish I could find the citation, but someone once acutely characterized Alfred Rosenberg's ideological project as an attempt to turn the Nazi Party into a funerary cult with Hitler as its high priest. Of course, maybe the fundamental objection to that project was that it was a project. It's one thing to maintain social identity through honoring the dead; it's another to engineer the unity by producing corpses.
The fundamental objection to the theory of the mortuary state is not that it's wrong but that it's obviously incomplete. It may or may not anchor every human association from the family to the nation-state. It certainly does not anchor the Empire in Dante's sense of the intuitive necessity for an institutional expression of human unity, the intuition that now undergirds the social doctrine of the Catholic Church as it applies to the international system.
It was Dante's notion that all legitimate sovereignty was a reflection of the sovereignty of the Empire. That formulation would be a little too uppity even for the most enthusiastic supporter of the UN. Still, one might look up as well as down for the predicate of the state.
---John J. Reilly
Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly
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