For a book with so many flaws, it certainly sets me thinking. Elements of this post will be used in a later essay on enforcing culture on others.
The description of Belbury, the Inner Ring, and Mark Studdock's temptations to it may be the only strong point of the book, but it is handled artfully enough that one feels sure Lewis understood this temptation from the inside.
Why did this grip me so as a young man, and again now, when the danger is (hopefully) past? I saw myself clearly in these temptations, and took the warning quite seriously. I think I took it as an admonition of what could happen to you "in business," or perhaps politics, or some other large organization. I wouldn't have said I had already experienced much of this.
The N.I.C.E - National Institute for Creative Experiment (ironically and unfortunately the acronym for the QA wing of the National Health Service in the UK) at Belbury is not that different from a college theater department - mine anyway. Mark Studdock's insecurities were familiar because I had been living them not long before. The delicate calculation of who Belongs and who is a mere visitor dominated my social life for a few years. I was not fully conscious of this, yet if I needed evidence for the truth of it, my ability to retrieve that social data instantly, though I had not thought of it for 35-40 years, should be enough.
The network was never static - each round of Directors Workshop productions brought in new talents on the rise; each musical brought in singers and dancers staking out territory, some even commanding places of acceptance even though they were not theater majors, and elevating the status of those in the department who could sing or dance well. Then on to the long slog of the status of those who liked their theater grim versus those for fun, the modernists versus the classicists, the technical and production cliques versus the onstage. Move too far in one direction and you could excite enmity. Many who wanted in could not crack the core, and could never know why.
This is too negative a portrait, of course. There was genuine affection, real camaraderie, and willing humility of acknowledging superior talent. I was not a skilled player at the status game for good reasons and bad. These questions were originally not part of my entry into a career. When they did emerge later, as power started to redistribute in the 1990's, I played and played badly, quite vulnerable to those who assured me of their protection and influence. I was spared most of all, quite in accordance with what Lewis predicted, by genuinely liking some people who were of no advantage to me, and genuinely disapproving of others whose goodwill was necessary. My knack for offending those in authority protected me from ever going too far down that Belbury road.
I do worry how much this attitude was part of me unawares at our last church. I was a central player there - I was inner ring. Such folk seldom have the slightest awareness who they are subtly undermining and excluding. Thus my lack of awareness of exclusion proves nothing. Even contrary evidence - of my encouraging and including others - may only obscure the truth.