C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (1945) is one of the most important works of contemporary fiction that I have read in my lifetime. In the epic narrative, which pits the forces of evil against those of good, Lewis engages in a critique of modern society and its materialistic paradigm. Satirizing politics, bureaucracy, journalism, and the objective sciences, Lewis’ protagonists revive tradition as a counter-modern way of being.
For modern readers, this traditional worldview is one of antiquity, as foreign and unfamiliar as the living, breathing Gods which appear in the novel’s text. However, Lewis’ rapturous style of prose brings them to life, putting the modern reader in the awkward position in which he must engage with his own modern prejudices while coming in touch with eternal truths. The return of the pre-modern world stands in stark opposition to the philosophical aperture of the modern age: objective materialism, an idea which takes form within the evil, technocratic N.I.C.E. institute.
As an arm of the state, N.I.C.E. is the harbinger of the old, living world’s demise. Natural law is inverted in pursuit of scientific achievements, God is discarded so that humans may become God in His stead, and the populous is subverted so that N.I.C.E.’s perversions are seen as good, true, and moral.
In opposition to N.I.C.E. stands a group of people housed in a manor in the town of St. Anne’s. Armed with tradition, companionship, and a higher power, the little group endeavors to swing the balance of power back to the time-honored customs of Western civilization.
This war between the materialist objectivists and atavist spiritualists is reminiscent of—if not directly making reference to—Julius Evola’s traditionalist critique of modern civilization. In his works of spiritualist philosophy, most notably within Revolt Against the Modern World (1934) and The Mystery of the Grail (1972), Evola creates a mythical, spiritual review of premodern religions, showing how their threads coincide and codetermine a way of being. This “traditional method” works “ontologically and objectively by the principle of correspondence… presenting [mystic themes] as simple homologous forms of the appearance of a central and unitary meaning” (Evola, Revolt xxxv).
Evola’s review creates a sense of hierarchy and ascribes a sense of importance to themes and ideas which appear as anathema to our modern minds. The patriarchy is privileged over gynaecocracy: “relationships can either be normal or abnormal. They are abnormal when the woman dominates the man” (Evola, Grail 21). The heavenly is privileged over the lowly or earthly. Autocracy is privileged over democracy: “the state derives its origin from the demos and that the principle of its legitimacy… rests upon it is an ideological perversion of the modern world” (Evola, Revolt 24).
Lewis, like Evola, challenges the modern allegiances of the Western anti-traditional world. Objectivism, materialism, secularism, egalitarianism, and statism—those views which we hold to be the most bedrock of our modern morality—are exactly those same tools by which N.I.C.E. is able to subvert the British people.
One of the prime examples of the manipulation of our modern world is N.I.C.E.’s utilization of the media. In a masterful stroke of narrative architecture, Lewis places the novel’s two main protagonists, Mark and Jane, at a fork between the road of tradition and the road of modernity. Mark, a college professor, social climber, and narcissistic intellectual, follows the path of modernity. Contracted by N.I.C.E. to write articles favorable to their goals, one of which rehabilitating the image of Alcasan (a radiologist guillotined for murder), Mark listens as N.I.C.E. police chief Mrs. Hardcastle explains his task ahead:
You begin with a quiet little article—not questioning his guilt, not at first, but just hinting that of course he was a member of their Quisling government and there was prejudice against him. Say you don’t doubt the verdict was just, but it’s disquieting to realize that it would almost certainly have been even the same even if he’d been innocent. Then you follow it up in a day or two with an article of quite a different kind. Popular account of the value of his work. You can mug up the facts—enough for that kind of article—in an afternoon. Then a letter, rather indignant, to the paper that printed the first article….” (Lewis 96).
In this passage, the ideas of journalistic ethics, jurisprudence, and public faith are subverted for the collective aims of the N.I.C.E. institute. Hardcastle understand the weakpoints of the modern, Western world: a blind, fledgling belief in journalistic integrity, an unflinching agreement with the accepted intelligentsia, all tied together with the desire to seem correct.
One might say, “Oh no. I’m not so easily misled. I well versed enough that I can see right through this manipulation.” Lewis anticipates this reaction, as Mark quips: “I don’t believe you can do that… Not with the papers that are read by educated people” (97). Hardcastle responds, “Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles” (ibid). Hardcastle understands that the common man, in this case the traditional man, has a profound sense of incredulity towards the manipulation of fourth estate. Lay people are particularly resistant because they are more in touch with that essence which has been swept away by the modern.
Following the other fork, Jane, Mark’s wife, finds herself involved with the forces for tradition, having to choose between her egalitarian ideas and a greater purpose. Dealing with visions that connote a dark and evil future, Jane seeks solace in the manor at St. Anne’s. However, Arthur Denniston, a member of that party, asks her that she consult her husband before going with him: “the Head—or the authorities her obeys—have rather old-fashioned notions. He wouldn’t like a married woman to come in, if it could be avoided, without her husband’s [permission]” (Lewis 114). Jane is floored, “Do you mean I’m to ask Mark’s permission?” Her mind begins to fill with a “resentment which had been rising and ebbing, but rising each time a little more than it ebbed…. All this talk of promises and obedience to an unknown Mr. Fisher-King had already repelled her. But the idea of this same person sending her back to get Mark’s permission—as if she were a child asking to leave to go to a party—was the climax” (Lewis 114-115).
Jane’s initial reticence and disapproval of this traditional masculine and feminine hierarchy can be juxtaposed with her acceptance and submission after meeting Ransom, the Director and Pendragon at St. Anne’s. After encountering the masculine, traditional, and holy image of the Director, Jane reflects that “whatever she tried to think of led back to the Director himself, and in him, to joy” (Lewis 149). She finds herself appearing more beautiful, yet she acknowledges that her “beauty was made for others. Her beauty belonged to the Director” (ibid). However, as a married woman, she begins to respect the sanctimony of marriage: “when her mind was most filled with another there arose, clouded with some undefined emotion, a resolution to give to Mark much more than she had ever given him before, and a feeling that in so doing she would really be giving it to the Director” (148).
The joy with which Jane returns to her traditional center is as extreme, profound, and efficacious as Mark’s devolution into rationalism, manipulation, and subversion. This is exactly that which Evola describes through his traditionalist critique. While the traditional ideas of the old world seem as foreign as antiquities from another age and another country, they are the lost pillars of our civilization. An exploration of and return to these ideas is not unfamiliar, but familiar in the deepest sense of the word.
— Nathaniel Schwass