Rereading Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”

Some people don’t like this book, but it is my favorite Lewis after “Till We Have Faces,” which is his masterpiece and a great book by any standards. I’ve read the Space Trilogy any number of times, and, while Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra are among my favorite books, I find my thoughts most often returning to scenes in the last book of the Trilogy, what Lewis called a fairytale for grown ups.

When we headed out for our little trip mentioned a couple posts ago, I grabbed some books that happened to be lying about to take for in-car reading. Then, again almost on a whim, chose That Hideous Strength out of the pile on the drive up. Perhaps an odd choice for reading on a romantic getaway, perhaps not in our current world. So for the first hour and a half that we drove, before the weather, scenery, and winding roads required we put the top down on the car for the last half hour, my beloved read out loud.

So many quotable passages! Here’s one: Mark Studdock is told to write a piece of propaganda for Fairy Hardcastle, while trying to figure out what is going on with the N.I.C.E:

“I don’t believe you can do that,” said Mark. “Not with the papers that are read by educated people.”

“That shows you’re still in the nursery, lovey,” said Miss Hardcastle. Haven’t you yet realized that it’s the other way round ?”

“How do you mean ?”

“Why, you fool, it’s the educated readers 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. He buys his paper for the football results and the lead paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem: we have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

“As one of the class you mention,” said Mark with a smile, “I just don’t believe it.”

“Good Lord ! ” said the Fairy, “ where are your eyes ? Look at what the weeklies have got away with! Look at the Weeldy Question. There’s a paper for you. When Basic English came in simply as the invention of a free- thinking Cambridge don, nothing was too good for it; as soon as it was taken up by a Tory Prime Minister it became a menace to the purity of our language. And wasn’t the Monarchy an expensive absurdity for ten years ? And then, when the Duke of Windsor abdicated, didn’t the Question go all monarchist and legitimist for about a fortnight? Did they drop a single reader? Don’t you see that the educated reader can’t stop reading the high- brow weeklies whatever they do ? He can’t. He’s been conditioned.”

CH 5

As I’ve frequently said here: it’s not enough for the schools to render their inmates mindless, obedient sheep, they must also immunize them against ever having a thought by convincing them they are the most enlightened, intelligent, and moral people to ever walk the face of the earth.

A second point is to note that propaganda has, as we business people like to say, a target market. Any halfway sophisticated propaganda is written and promulgated with a particular demographic in mind. Lewis, writing during the concluding years of the war, had seen it in action first hand. Propaganda appeals, fundamentally, to people’s vanity. Smart, enlightened people all believe X; only stupid, backward people believe Y. The little people, the workers and shopkeepers and so on, just want to be left alone in peace, and so are a hard target for propaganda. But people who have become convinced that they are the most enlightened, intelligent, moral people ever – and who have been conditioned away from entertaining any other view – are eager to know what the teacher wants them to parrot, lest they be cast into the outer darkness to wail and gnash their teeth with the unwashed.

Before and immediately after the Night of the Long Knives, it was not important to Goebbels and his team what the little people believed. Those little people had learned over the centuries that their leaders regularly knifed each other, and that there was little they could do about it except to keep their heads down. But it was important that no serious pushback for government-sponsored extra-legal mass executions be permitted to simmer. Thus, propaganda was aimed at judges, the police, the press, university professors, and the professional class in general, a class that, like our own, was convinced they were the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people ever to grace the planet.

It was an easy job, in other words. In 1934 Germany, the well-educated wanted to be on the winning team first of all. They were easily convinced that letting their government commit a few thousand murders to prevent what they were told was a coup attempt was not only justified, but mandated by patriotic prudence. Thus, no arrests were made, no trials held, no lectures delivered opposing the murders, no articles published questioning the government. Rule by government murder was accepted and praised by all the best people. The underclasses were hardly a concern, merely unfinished business to be mopped up later.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! While half-truths and fear are often used to soften up the target – to quash whatever residuum of thought might linger after all that schooling – the main appeal of propaganda is vanity. The Kool Kids all think A; only the losers think B. You don’t want to be a loser, do you? All the Kool Kids will look down on you.

Easy-peasy.

Anyway, half way through the reread. Fun stuff, if terrifyingly prescient and depressingly accurate accounts of current events can be called ‘fun.’

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Rereading Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength””

  1. The Space Trilogy is at the top of my list also, but “That hideous strength” not so much. Too close to home, and the deus ex machina ending (almost literally) does not seem to offer much hope for our situation. What stays in my mind is the vision of the ecstatic dance of adoration by all the creatures at the end of Perelandra.

  2. I read it for the first time almost fifty years ago, when I was taking a course in Arthurian literature. (The presence of Merlin qualifies it as a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend.) I’ve read it several times since, and even though I know what’s going to happen, once I pick it up I can’t put it down. It’s that good.

  3. Loved “That Hideous Strength”. It is a truly great book. So much hits the mark. Thank you for reminding me about it. Hadn’t thought about it for a few years.

  4. Have you read Michael Ward’s “Planet Narnia” about Lewis’s weaving of medieval cosmology into his writing? It never seems to have got the attention I think it deserves. Ward quotes big chunks of the Space Trilogy, where such themes are obvious, but he also shows how they are embedded in the structure and imagery of the Chronicles. Fun stuff.

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