Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Undeceptions IV - The Ransom Trilogy and The Great Divorce

In the Ransom series, the number of self-deceived people in the first two books is small, because the number of characters is small. In Out of the Silent Planet, Devine has been deceived by Weston, but seems to have participated in this and embraced it. It is Weston who is entirely self-deceived, fixated on his own importance at first, but tinged with the idea that he is accomplishing some great work that will benefit all mankind. While this great cause seems a mere excuse at first for his personal ambitions, it is clear by the end that he does believe a great deal of it.  Lewis uses a clever device of having Ransom translate Weston's pompous speech to the Malacandrians into Old Solar, in order to lay bare the vacuity of the underlying ideas of colonising unfallen planets. It is a foreshadowing of Perelandra, in which Weston is now very much convinced of the idea of bringing the evil of earth to unfallen Venus.  We see rapidly that Weston is not entirely his own master by this point, infected or even inhabited by something darker. Yet we know that this conquest of his soul has been with his entire cooperation, and even near the end, after Ransom has suddenly turned in surprise and asked "Are you Weston?" he believes he could still come free by an act of will if he would only make some effort. "Pull yourself together. All that stuff you've been talking is lunacy. Say a child's prayer if you can't say a man's."

The third book of the series That Hideous Strength is awash with people deceiving themselves, most of them academics and fringe science-y people. Small wonder that Lewis, very used to watching academics deceive themselves could capture them so convincingly.  The main two stories (of seven, as I recently noted) revolve around Mark and Jane Studdock, nice enough young people who have been on the road to deceiving themselves these last few years but are not yet far gone. (I will have to write soon about how the intrusion of the Merlin/Logres plot, which Tolkien felt was due to the influence of Charles Williams and the destruction of an otherwise decent book, creates the most unfair criticism leveled against Jane. A topic for another day.) Jane brings some self-deception from her own beliefs of what a modern woman in general should be like, which prevent her from seeing some obvious things about herself individually.  Yet it is Mark who is deeper in, more vulnerable, and more in need of rescue.  The various players at the N.I.C.E. are attempting to deceive and manipulate him, yet they are playing off his ambition and need for flattery to achieve it. He gets warnings along the way, including from the only first-rank scientist in the bunch, Bill Hingest, who resigns and tells Studdock to get clear as soon as possible. Mark is being invited, not for his academic value as he supposes, but because of his own facility with words, to be used to manipulate local opinion. (Also, so that they may get at his wife's mystical abilities, part of another plot.) It is in this context that Mark has it explained to him by the head of the rapidly-growing secret police of the N.I.C.E. that the target of this is not the common people he believes so susceptible to manipulation in the press, but his own people, the educated.  It is likely the most often quoted section in the book. 

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. He buys his paper for the football results and the little 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 high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything.

I was as surprised as Mark was when I first read that, but I have seen the truth of it repeatedly over the decades. 


 The Great Divorce is entirely about self-deception, beginning with the title which is a reply to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  Lewis's counter is that however things may appear confused and muddled in this fallen world where good and evil are often mixed, that is not their ultimate state, and the split between them is entire in the end. The structure is that Lewis has a dream about the edges of Hell and Heaven, where residents of the former are brought, if they allow it, to the latter to hear one final appeal to give up their illusion and enter in.  These include a bishop who believes his heretical opinions were all about free inquiry and intellectual courage, only to be reminded by a heavenly soul who was a colleague on earth that these in fact advanced his career and made him famous. The bishop wants to continue to teach heresies about what God is like to those who know know God firsthand. His colleague points out that this is not so much forbidden as just silly. It is a nice touch when the bishop goes back to the bus to return to hell, he is humming a hymn: City of God, How Broad and Far. There are women who want to set conditions of control over their son or husband before they will enter, and man who tries to emotionally blackmail his wife that if she truly loved him she would come share his misery in hell.

Yet you likely have already read this and know these characters, so I won't attempt anything complete. I will give you something of an assist, however.  There are (at least) three ways to read the book.  The most common is to accept the dream as some approximation of what heaven and hell are really like.  That Lewis specifically forbids this interpretation near the end has not prevented this. It is such an engaging idea that we want it to be symbolically true. We might fairly ask why, if Lewis does not want us to take this approach he does not stress that more at the beginning, instead saving it for the last pages. In the last section the narrator is watching all these invitations and debates of others in the company of George MacDonald, who answers his intellectual objections about them. We might reasonably think that the narrator is speaking for all of us, asking the questions anyone would. Only at the end are we reminded that the narrator is also one who has come to the edge, and this one's problem is that he has a host of theological objections why the place right in front of him shouldn't and couldn't really be this way.  Lewis is making fun of himself here, as one more character who has reasons that are mere excuses for not entering in. 

This leads us in to the second way of reading The Great Divorce.  All these debates are taking place within ourselves. Lewis uses the older form of dream-narrative, as in Dream of the Rood or Piers Ploughman but readers always knew those images were symbolic forms to teach a lesson. No one in the 10th C thought the cross of Christ was by then encrusted with gems. It pays then, to view each of these debates as something happening in ourselves.  This is unpleasant, as we prefer to think about how much that obnoxious boss who is demanding his rights is like a man we knew years ago, or the woman worried about her appearance is reminiscent of so many of the women we work with. If I were to write a group study guide for the book it would be simple.  After every encounter all the way back to the bus stop I would ask "Who does this remind you of?" and allow time for discussion.  I would then ask "How is this like yourself?" and when no one wanted to discuss that*, I would ask them to quietly write it down and keep it, deeply hidden somewhere. At the end of the study, I would tell the group that they should find some one person to share some of these with.

The third way is to regard the bus ride and encounters as what is happening on earth.  God delivers people with excuses to various Solid People, his children here, and we are to help them past their illusions.

*Well I might, but you're not in a group with me.


Texan99 said...

All of the encounters reminded me of me.

PenGun said...

So its CS Lewis and Tolkien that set your mental stage? Interesting, and a bit disturbing.

Thos. said...

Yes, if you hadn't been ruined by those ridiculous fantasists, then you would be able to see how much better life is when you take your escapism in the form of massive multiplayer online gaming.

David Foster said...

I wrote a fairly long review of That Hideous Strength, here:


lelia said...

I hope you don't mind that I am sharing your articles about self-deception to the C.S. Lewis society group I attend.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't mind in the least. Greet them in my name, please. I wish I had one myself.

My next project is to read more of his academic work, of which I have read little.

PenGun said...

"when you take your escapism in the form of massive multiplayer online gaming."

Way back when I had a house and property, the JWs would come to my door, for a while anyway. They would always be an older guy and his apprentice. They bought little books with large print and tried to convince me about what they believed. I had big damn books with tiny type, like the Bhagavad Gita and Buddhist tombs of various types and would try to shake their faith with reason. They quit coming around.

I have read and watched the Tolkien books and movies and they, as all great arching works, have a lot of generally good advice. I have not read CS Lewis more than a few bits, and I'm sure he too provides useful advice and insights. I have read rather a lot of books and have the Tibetan Book of Great Liberation, an Evans Wentz translation, a few feet away as I am going through, well really exposing myself, to the deep wisdom contained in that book. The nun was reading from this a few posts back, I'm sure you all ignored. I also posted her reading from Thomas Merton, a Christian mystic, who is basically saying the same thing. ;)

Anyway, I'm old and have a lot of time on my hands, and I have been playing video games since the nighties. I love them as they are serious works of art, involving hundreds of people in their creation. For sheer lore, interesting ideas and lessons I would happily put The Elder Scrolls above The Lord Of The Rings as a useful work of art. Its bigger, has far more variety and I can get in the game and play it. The lessons are there too, all over the place. I have actually started up the Elder Scrolls MMO, most are single player games, as a friend who is challenged on several levels from a logging accident, wanted to play it. He is a lovely guy and like me just lost a close friend, the same one. He was his best friend though, and he really misses playing games with, and being with Dan. We can play this one together.

The complexity of these games is amazing and require a great deal of learning and when you are playing them skill, which takes time to develop. They challenge this old mind and keep it sharp, and that is part of why I play. As well as I have been doing this for almost 30 years and my chops are built in now. I don't have to think about my movement and combat in a normal game. The more complex MMOs do require more input methods so they are fun to learn.

tl/dr Its fun. ;)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ David - Thank you for reminding me. I had forgotten. You saved me a lot of trouble, as I only have a bit to add from here. I am waiting until I am quite sure I am done with the Undeceptions part before I go over to my few comments on the book. I will link to you then, perhaps with an excerpt.

Unknown said...

}}} I wrote a fairly long review of That Hideous Strength, here:


So, David, are you saying that it's Hideously Long?


Unknown said...

Penny, if you want to keep yourself sharp, you might also connect on Steam with a number of board games -- most can be played against the AI, esp. relevant right now. And board games have come a very very long way since "Monopoly".

You may hear the term "Tabletop Games" in place of board games, since
1) Not all of them have a play board
2) To render a distinction between modern gaming and "Board games" as most people think of them: Monopoly, Life, Chutes and Ladders, Parchisi, etc.

The mechanics of various TTGs are much more varied and complex.

A couple to consider, which I know have Steam versions, which are intriguing, but relatively easy to comprehend:
Ticket to Ride

These are also pretty good, slightly more complex.
Twilight Struggle

These are decidedly more complex
Terra Mystica

If you want to know about these or any other TTGs, the site "Board Game Geek" has play-throughs and reviews of just about anything.


P.S., You've been playing since "the nighties"? :-P

Whose nighties? And who was wearing those nighties?

Unknown said...

BTW, I have not read a lot of Lewis, but, frankly, The Great Divorce is an exceptional rebuttal of the argument of the "How/why does an omnibenevolent God keep a private torture chamber?" argument. It also explains, I think, why He "allows bad things to occur."