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Critical Essay by Peter J. Schakel
SOURCE: "The Satiric Imagination of C. S. Lewis," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Fall, 1989, pp. 129-48.
In the following essay, Schakel examines elements of satire in Lewis's fiction. Schakel asserts that "Lewis's success as a satirist, which has not been sufficiently taken into account in previous studies of Lewis, must be given attention if Lewis's works, and his literary imagination, are to be fully understood."
Although satire appears prominently in many of C. S. Lewis's works and is an important part of his thought and style, it has been largely neglected, at the cost of a full understanding of his works. Lewis is usually thought of as having the imagination of a romantic and a writer of fantasy, not that of a satirist. Yet, until late in his life, he wrote more and better satire than fantasy, and showed as much of the neoclassical spirit as of the romantic. To examine his attention to and use of satire in his criticism and fiction reveals a good deal about his imagination and the movement of his thought through his career.
Although better known for his work on medieval and Renaissance literature, Lewis read, enjoyed, and wrote perceptively on satire. His section on satire in the 1590s in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is well informed and judicious. Better still are his essays on the great age of English satire, 1660–1800: that on Addison, with its comparisons to Jonathan Swift, is among the finest of his literary essays. Lewis understood satire in Webster's terms, "the literary art of holding vices, follies, stupidities, abuses, etc. up to ridicule and contempt," or, "a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity," and found it well suited to his taste and temperament.
Lewis points out that "satire as a literary kind must be distinguished from the satiric, an element which can occur (like the pathetic, or the heroic) in almost any composition." Thus Gulliver's Travels could be considered a satire, since its main focus and purpose is the humorous exposure and undercutting of folly and evil; Pride and Prejudice contains a satiric element, but it is not a satire because exposure and undercutting of evil are not predominant in it. Lewis himself wrote no satires, but many of his works include the satiric as an important element, and they will be the focus of this essay. The satiric adds a light, often witty, usually trenchant edge to his stories through its use of a mocking tone or spirit, established by such devices as mockery, reversal of normal expectations, exaggeration, and belittlement—and through irony.
Satiric Model: the Pilgrim's Progress
Satire forms an important part of Lewis's earliest two published works of fiction, The Pilgrim's Regress (1933) and Out of the Silent Planet (1938)—in each case influenced by the work which Lewis used as his main source and model. Lewis's title and form point to the work which shaped The Pilgrim's Regress, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (Part I, 1678; Part II, 1684). Like Bunyan's story, Lewis's uses allegorical form to warn against the evils of the world which will lead to damnation, and to illustrate the journey the sinner must follow to reach salvation.
Overt satire in The Pilgrim's Progress is rare, with a passage describing the Pope being a notable exception: "I espied a little before me a Cave, where two Giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old time … But I have learnt since that Pagan has been dead many a day; and as for the other, though he be yet alive, he is by reason of age, and also of the many shrewd brushes that he met with in his younger dayes, grown so crazy and stiff in his joynts, that he can now do little more then sit in his Caves mouth, grinning at Pilgrims as they go by." Such humorous undercutting of positions appears likewise in wry choices of names, such as Talkative, the son of Saywell from Prating-row, Mrs. Bat's-eyes, and Mr. Linger-after-Lust. There is a great deal of irony—especially of the "he who shall save his life will lost it" variety—but it is mostly serious irony, not humorous; and, although Bunyan frequently levels attacks at social and theological evils, they lack the wit and humor typical of satire: "Mr. Gripe-man, a Schoolmaster in Love-gain,… taught them [Mr. Hold-the-World, Mr. Money-love, and Mr. Save-all] the art of getting, either by violence, cousenage, flattery, lying or by putting on a guise of Religion."
The greater part of The Pilgrim's Regress, like The Pilgrim's Progress, is serious, even expository and philosophical for extended stretches. Of greatest significance in understanding Lewis's message, and Lewis's own pilgrimage in the faith, are the long discourses delivered to John by Reason (who shows him how to dissect the fallacies on which modern thinking is based), by Mr. Wisdom (explaining how philosophy can take a seeker partway to faith), and by History (who puts John's experiences into perspective). These discourses, however, are heavy going. They carry many evidences of having been written by a student with a recent first-class degree in philosophy, recounting the intellectual and spiritual struggles he experienced on the road to Christianity.
The more enjoyable parts of The Pilgrim's Regress, the parts one looks forward to as one rereads it, are the ironic and satiric portions. Many of these follow Bunyan, though in a lighter, more humorous vein. Lewis, more witty than Bunyan by nature, infuses Bunyan's serious traits with humor and satire. Lewis's names, like Bunyan's, are comic even as they thrust at specific notions, features, and fashions of his day. Nineteenth-century rationalism, under "Mr. Enlightenment," has built the city of "Claptrap" from a village of forty inhabitants to a metropolis of "twelve million, four hundred thousand, three hundred and sixty-one souls, who include, I may add, the majority of our most influential publicists and scientific popularizers." Lewis jibes at the flappers of the '20s by calling them the "Clevers," and describing them in disparaging terms: "The girls had short hair and flat breasts and flat buttocks so that they looked like boys: but the boys had pale, egg-shaped faces and slender waists and big hips so that they looked like girls—except for a few of them who had long hair and beards." And he gives liberal theology the name "Mr. Broad," and satirizes him through word-play contrasting what he does believe and what he does not: "'Listen!' said Mr. Broad, 'it is a thrush. I really believe it is a thrush,'" though he has trouble really believing any dogmas of Christianity ("as I grow older I am inclined to set less and less store by mere orthodoxy…. It is those things which draw us together that I now value most—our common affections, our common delight in this slow pageant of the countryside, our common struggle towards the light").
Irony is much more pervasive and central in Lewis's story than in Bunyan's. There is a grim humor in John and Vertue's rejection of Mother Kirk, the only person who can gain for them what they desire. More laughably ironic are Mr. Sensible's conviction that he is self-sufficient and independent and Wisdom's children's belief that they are living on the spare diet of Philosophy. In fact both he and they feast on food and drink from other sources. Underlying the entire story is a more powerful irony—that when John reaches his destination, he must regress, go back, return to where he started, for the island he sought is the other side of the mountains a few miles from his home in Puritania. And irony permeates the return journey, as John sees the things he encountered before, but sees them as they really are, sees the pride, ignorance, and indulgence which had been covered over when he passed by them the first time.
As there is more irony in Lewis than in Bunyan, so too there is more satire. The Pilgrim's Regress opens with some delightful satire on puritanism, as the Steward (or clergyman) hands young John a big card with small print all over it and says, "'Here is a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do. You'd better look at it.' So John took the card: but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing: and the number of the rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all." According to his first biographers, Lewis was "furious" when the blurb on the Sheed and Ward edition implied that Lewis was satirizing Ulster Protestantism: "The hero, brought up in Puritania (Mr. Lewis himself was born in Ulster), cannot abide the religion he finds there." This biographical interpretation is too limited, considering such passages as the Steward's "pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext."
The handling of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century rationalism is similarly satiric, undercut by reductive simplifications aimed to render them absurd. Thus, when John asks Mr. Enlightenment how he knows there is no Landlord (God), the rationalist answer is "'Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!'", expressed "in such a loud voice that the pony shied." John doesn't understand.
"Why, it's as plain as a pikestaff," said the other. "Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training. For example, now, I dare say it would be news to you to hear that the earth was round—round as an orange, my lad!"
"Well, I don't know that it would," said John, feeling a little disappointed. "My father always said it was round."
"No, no, my dear boy," said Mr. Enlightenment, "you must have misunderstood him. It is well known that everyone in Puritania thinks the earth flat."
Freudian thought is satirized in part by labelling it the offspring of nineteenth-century rationalism—Sigismund Enlightenment is the son of Old Mr. Enlightenment—and in part by Sigismund's casual dismissal of everything desirable as wish-fulfillment, all "things people wish to believe." Both father and son endeavor to "see through" things, to take nothing at face value. Lewis uses exaggeration and literalization to ridicule them, as John, having fallen under their way of thinking, looks at a woman: "But he did not know it was a woman, because, through the fact, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes."
The satire on twentieth-century thought continues in John's encounter with the "Three Pale Men" in Book 6, chapters 2-4.
"You will fare badly here," said one of the three men. "But I am a Steward and it is my duty according to my office to share my supper with you. You may come in." His name was Mr. Neo-Angular.
"I am sorry that my convictions do not allow me to repeat my friend's offer," said one of the others. "But I have had to abandon the humanitarian and egalitarian fallacies." His name was Mr. Neo-Classical.
"I hope," said the third, "that your wanderings in lonely places do not mean that you have any of the romantic virus still in your blood." His name was Mr. Humanist.
In this case Lewis was satirizing individuals as well as intellectual trends; he wrote later, "What I am attacking in Neo-Angular is a set of people who seem to me … to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad" and "T. S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against." Similarly, any knowledgeable reader in the '30s would have recognized Mr. Neo-Classical as Irving Babbitt and Mr. Humanist as George Santayana. Lewis attacks them together because their thought is marked by denial of the romantic and a negativism typical, Lewis believed, of modern analytical thought. As he put it in the headings he added to the third edition, "These men are interested in everything not for what it is but for what it is not and talk as if they had 'seen through' things they have not even seen and boast of rejecting what was never in fact within their reach." In such passages, George Sayer suggests, we come closer than in his other works to hearing Lewis's voice: "No other book of his is written-with such a light touch, and few are so often witty and profound…. The polemic has a sharpness often present in Jack's conversation but rarely in his later writings." Wit and satire, then, deserve attention, not just as aspects of Lewis's writing style, but because they were deeply embedded in the way he thought and talked.
Satire Model: Gulliver's Travels
As The Pilgrim's Progress formed a model for The Pilgrim's Regress, so Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) provided a model for Out of the Silent Planet. It is not the only model (H. G. Wells and David Lindsay are others), but it is a more pervasive and influential one than has generally been recognized—in overall concept as well as satiric details. Like Gulliver, Ransom is taken to a world that is not perfect (the upper regions have been devastated and the warmth and oxygen needed for life are available only in the valleys), but the lives of the residents have significant advantages over life as he had known it. Most notable is the harmony and cooperation. Although inhabitants of Malacandra are unlike each other in appearance, language, and interests, they are able to live together supportively. The farmers (hrossa), academics (sorns), and artisans (pfifltriggi) respect and value each other's work and accept each other as equals: Ransom tries to discover which species "was the real master" over the others, but in vain, for only "Oyarsa rules." No one profits from another's need: "If the other hnau wanted food, why should we not give it to them? We often do." Work is an enriching, fulfilling activity; no one is forced into mindless, repetitive drudgery so others can work creatively: "All keep the mines open; it is a work to be shared. But each digs for himself the thing he wants for his work. What else would he do?" No one must work to satisfy the "needs" of others: the pfifltriggi like making things but they are not forced, for survival, to manufacture useful things: the other Malacandrians accept the fact that "they have not patience to make easy things however useful they would be." All Malacandrians accept and follow the laws that all rational beings know, "of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like."
As we view Malacandra and hear Ransom express surprise and confusion over its differences from our world, we grasp an implicit critique of our world—as one does in reading Gulliver's Travels. As Gulliver talks to the Brobdingnagian King about the English political and social system, the King asks probing questions about legislators, judges, the national debt, and political and religious wars; Swift has him reply with an outsider's assessment of what he heard: the King protests that recent English history "was only an Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce." Gulliver tries to soften the evidence: "I artfully eluded many of his Questions; and gave to every Point a more favourable turn by many Degrees than the strictness of Truth would allow." In spite of that, the King concludes, in one of the harshest lines in the Travels: "I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth."
Lewis uses the same technique as Ransom talks to the hrossa and the sorns. As the hrossa informs him about the spiritual beings on Malacandra, he "found himself being treated as if he were the savage and being given a first sketch of civilised religion"; and the descriptions of the compatibility of the different species on Malacandra make him feel similarly uncivilized socially. "He [then] had to repay them with information about Earth"—and his reply sounds very Gulliverian: "He was hampered in this both by the humiliating discoveries which he was constantly making of his own ignorance about his native planet, and partly by his determination to conceal some of the truth. He did not want to tell them too much of our human wars and industrialisms." The hrossa, true to their natures, devise poetry rather than analytical conclusions from what Ransom says; conclusions are left for the sorns after a similar question and answer session with Augray and his pupils:
They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history—of war, slavery and prostitution.
"It is because they have no Oyarsa [planetary archangel]," said one of the pupils.
"It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself," said Augray.
"They cannot help it," said the old sorn. "There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau [rational beings] and hnau by eldila [angelic beings] and eldila by Maleldil [Christ]. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair."
And the Oyarsa's later conclusion that Weston had broken all the laws of nature and reason except one, which he had bent to his own purposes, is closely similar to the conclusion of the Houyhnhnm master after lengthy question and answer sessions with Gulliver: "He looked upon us as a Sort of Animals to whose Share, by what Accident he could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our nature Corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us."
The fiercest satire in Out of the Silent Planet also draws on Swift and involves direct imitation of specific passages in the Travels. When Gulliver arrives in Houyhnhnmland, he finds the most disagreeable animal he has encountered on his travels. Later, in a satire of sudden exposure, Gulliver realizes he is seeing creatures very like himself: Swift satirizes the human form, or rather human pride in physical form, by the shock of seeing that form in its sheer physicalness. Lewis uses much the same technique when a procession of hrossa approaches Ransom, some of them guarding two creatures he did not recognize.
They were much shorter than any animal he had yet seen on Malacandra, and he gathered that they were bipeds, though the lower limits were so thick and sausage-like that he hesitated to call them legs. The bodies were a little narrower at the top than at the bottom so as to be very slightly pear-shaped, and the heads were neither round like those of hrossa nor long like those of sorns, but almost square. They stumped along on narrow, heavy-looking feet which they seemed to press into the ground with unnecessary violence. And now their faces were becoming visible as masses of lumped and puckered flesh of variegated colour fringed in some bristly, dark substance … Suddenly, with an indescribable change of feeling, he realised he was looking at men. The two prisoners were Weston and Devine and he, for one privileged moment, had seen the human form with almost Malacandrian eyes, (ellipsis in the original text)
Lewis gently pokes fun at the human body (he followed St. Francis in calling his own "Brother Ass"), making us see what is so familiar in a fresh way. Gulliver, repelled by the human form, finds grace and beauty instead in horses and even tries to become a horse himself. Swift thus turns the satire on Gulliver, poking fun at his inability to distinguish between human folly and human worth, illustrated in the Portuguese sea captain, Don Pedro de Mendez. Lewis similarly has Ransom find grace and beauty in the bodies of the Malacandrians, who initially seemed repulsive or fearsome, but in his case it is an evidence of Ransom's growth in openness and understanding.
That openness and understanding are illustrated further in another episode borrowed from Swift. When Gulliver attempts to describe human attitudes and activities to his Houyhnhnm Master, he has difficulty finding terms in Houyhnhnm language. The simplifications and reductions effected by explaining English affairs in Houyhnhnm terms are a key part of the satire against human abuses of reason, as when Gulliver explains the causes of wars:
Differences in Opinions hath cost many Millions of Lives: For Instance, whether Flesh be Bread, or Bread be Flesh: Whether the Juice of a certain Berry be Blood or Wine: Whether Whistling be a Vice or a Virtue: Whether it be better to kiss a Post, or throw it into the Fire: What is the best Colour for a Coat, whether Black, White, Red, or Grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty, or clean; with many more.
Lewis achieves a similar effect when Weston, Devine, and Ransom appear before the Oyarsa on the sacred island Meldilorn. As Gulliver struggled to express human evil and folly in Houyhnhnm terms, so Lewis has Ransom struggle to translate Weston's unreasonable philosophy into Old Solar:
"Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copybook maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation."
"He says," began Ransom, "that living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good—no, that cannot be right—he says it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead—no—he says, he says—I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language. But he goes on to say that the only good thing is that there should be very many creatures alive."
It is brilliant satire, mocking an unreasonable and foolish philosophy by reducing it to absurdity.
Out of the Silent Planet, thus, is not "a satire"—criticism of our world is not its main shaping purpose; but such criticism is a very important aspect of it. A satiric spirit is evident in much of the work, as Lewis criticizes the competitiveness, greed, pride, and selfishness he found all around him. Out of the Silent Planet is enjoyable reading as a fantasy, as an imaginary voyage to a new and fascinating place and people. But much of its strength and durability arise from the satiric strain which runs through the voyage.
Ironic Inversion: the Screwtape Letters
The strength and durability of Lewis's next narrative work, The Screwtape Letters, are similarly derived. Published serially in The Guardian from 2 May through 28 November 1941, the letters were subsequently collected into a book, which first made Lewis well known, in America as well as Britain, as a popular writer. The work is based on ironic inversion. To have a senior devil writing letters of advice to his junior-level nephew reverses our normal expectations and values. The first letter, originally presented in The Guardian without announcing its approach, signals the irony subtly, but skillfully. The greeting—"My Dear Wormwood"—supplies the first clue, though for most readers it can be appreciated only in retrospect: "Wormwood" combines the visual element of "serpent" with the overtone of madness from the second-meeting the word carried for the Elizabethans (Lewis would have remembered the famous line "wode within this wood" from A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.192, for example).
The word "materialist" in the first sentence indicates something of the values underlying the work, but as yet their application is not evident: "I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend." Similarly the word "patient" turns deeply ironic once one realizes that it refers to the victim being subjected to Wormwood's temptations—and satiric if "patient" establishes an implicit parallel between the devil and physicians or psychiatrists. Even in sentence three, for new readers—like those reading it originally in The Guardian—the irony still is only latent: "It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches." One's reading remains necessarily ambivalent through the next several sentences: one wants to believe in the connection of "thinking with doing," and not having dozens of abstract and incompatible philosophies in one's head, but customarily or initially at least, one tends to accept a speaker's words as authoritative.
Finally, in the tenth sentence, the speaker's unreliability comes through explicitly: "Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church." And, a few sentences later, the juxtaposition of "the Enemy" with "Our Father Below" makes the ironic reversal fully evident. By the time the speaker recounts his earlier experience of preventing the mind of a scholar in the British Museum from going "the wrong way," one knows that such statements invert the serious values of the work, and that argument, reason, and reality—because they are deprecated by the speaker—are to be held onto as sound and desirable.
What makes The Screwtape Letters successful, however, is that it does not involve just, or wholly, a simple ironic inversion. Much of the time what Screwtape writes is accurate description, straightforward statement of fact: the irony comes not through reversal, but in seeing the truth for what it is—as for example impediments to true worship and spiritual growth (whether they arise from a personal tempter or the disquiet of our own minds):
When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided…. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
In such passages Lewis evinces the keen psychological insights that characterize so many of his works; here the context turns the insights into satire—light, humorous ridicule of the folly of our tendency to allow trivialities and externals to dominate over crucial internal issues.
Screwtape's straightforward statements are accurate summaries of Christian truths, expressions of what Lewis believed and regarded as important teaching. Screwtape's description of Christian humility and self-acceptance illustrates:
The Enemy … wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—as charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created.
Older satiric traditions—the Roman satires of Juvenal, Horace, and Persius, and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British satires of Dryden, Swift, Pope, and Fielding—almost always included positive alternatives to the values attacked; twentieth-century satire typically does not, but is just negative, comprised wholly of attack and exposure. Lewis does include positives (since Lewis intends the book for spiritual instruction, it is essential that he get beyond ironic reversals) and he even improves on Swift as he does so. In Swift's satire, it seems inconsistent when a speaker utters straightforward truths, it breaks the spell for a moment; but in The Screwtape Letters it seems entirely necessary and believable that Screwtape should utter truths as part of the process of educating Wormwood in essentials he missed at Training College.
Ironic Inversion: That Hideous Strength
Lewis's next strongly satiric work seems closely related to, even owes some debt to, The Screwtape Letters. The Hideous Strength in the third volume of the Ransom trilogy is the power of evil incarnate in ambitious humans. What seems initially to be an attempt by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments to seize control of a nation turns out to be a cover for an attempt by Screwtape's secret service to infiltrate and take over the world. The ultimate horror in the book occurs when the reader, with the central character Mark, discovers that the Head of the evil empire is not just a human head severed from its body and sustained by machines, but devils referred to as Macrobes.
That Hideous Strength is indebted to The Screwtape Letters first for its treatment of bureaucratic structures. Basic to Screwtape is its social satire of the bureaucratic system which is today even more pervasive than when Lewis was writing. To depict hell as a bureaucracy places a powerful judgment against a system we have come to take for granted, but which is, in the words of the Preface Lewis added to a later edition, "held together entirely by fear and greed." Initially the bureaucracy in The Screwtape Letters sounds like part of the industrial or business world, but it later emerges as a dictatorial governmental structure, with striking anticipations of the N.I.C.E.: Screwtape refers to the Secret Police and the Infernal Police, which resemble Miss Hardcastle's security police force; the Screwtapian bureaucracy, like the N.I.C.E., has a "Philological Arm"; and the N.I.C.E., like the Screwtapian bureaucracy, regards its victims as "patients"—Feverstone says, in describing N.I.C.E.'s goals, "a real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly."
Even more telling than the debt That Hideous Strength owes to Screwtapian bureaucracy is the purpose shared by the individuals within the bureaucracies. Screwtape early on reminds Wormwood that "to us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense." The point is closely similar to Wither's, though his expression is typically less direct, when he and Frost discuss initiating Mark into the secrets of their organization: "Of course … nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity…. Any fresh individual brought into the unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction—to—ah—all concerned. I desire the closest possible bond. I would welcome an interpenetration of personalities so close, so irrevocable, that it almost transcends individuality. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive—to absorb—to assimilate this young man."
In view of these similarities, it is not surprising to find That Hideous Strength as heavily dependent on satire and irony as The Screwtape Letters. The satire seems to stand out more in That Hideous Strength than in Out of the Silent Planet, perhaps because the action occurs not in space, but in a small English university town that reminds one of Oxford. Much of the pleasure offered by the story—beyond the simple "what will happen, how will it turn out" level—derives from Lewis's satiric attacks on various aspects of the modern world. Because much of the satire is political-sociological and advocates conservative social values, however, it has given rise to objections from some readers who endorse his satire on broad personal traits.
Most obvious of this sort is the satire on Jane's intellectual pretensions as she struggles with her doctoral dissertation; the placement of two lines from Donne, "Hope not for minde in women; at their best / Sweetness and wit, they are but Mummy possest" juxtaposed with her subject, "Donne's 'triumphant vindication of the body'," sharply undercuts not only her efforts, but the capability of women generally for such efforts. The irony that this modern woman can write about the body but is not at ease with her own sexuality (hates "being kissed," to use Mrs. Dimble's euphemism) undercuts her further. And though Lewis presumably offers Mrs. Dimble as a more desirable alternative to such modernism, to have her say "husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them to concentrate their minds on what they're reading" is not helpful in rebuilding the case for women.
Similarly offensive, potentially, to twentieth-century readers brought up to reverence the social sciences, is Lewis's satire on sociology, first through the words of the good scientist Hingest: "There are no sciences like sociology … I happen to believe that you can't study men, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything which makes life worth living, and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors." Hingest's opinion is confirmed when Cosser, a sociologist helping Mark expose the abuses and anachronisms of a small village, comments on a local pub: "I should have thought it was just the sort of thing we wanted to get rid of. No sunlight, no ventilation…. If people have got to have their stimulants, I'd like to see them administered in a more hygienic way." And the general attack on sociology as a discipline continues, less humorously, in the description of Mark's training: "It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely 'Modern.' The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by…. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge."
More important and less controversial is the larger, sustained satire on autocratic regimes and especially the socio-scientific "expertise" which has come to be used to support them. The acronym N.I.C.E. for an institution dedicated to "sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races,… [and] selective breeding" is one of the best satiric touches: humorous, reductive, and ironic simultaneously. The N.I.C.E. is the imaginative version of what Lewis described straightforwardly in his essay "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," "the first-fruit of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world." It marks the beginning of a new era, "the really scientific era," and will "put science itself on a scientific basis." It initiates a committee system which can be recognized by anyone involved in a major strategic planning study for any large organization, and its methods of inter-committee communication are easily recognizable today, though rendered much faster and easier through the advent of the computer: "There are to be forty interlocking committees sitting every day and they've got a wonderful gadget … by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half-hour. Then that report slides itself into the right position where it's connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports." It creates the ultimate in bureaucratic isolation: "The secretary's office was next door. When one went in one found not the secretary himself but a number of subordinates who were cut off from their visitors behind a sort of counter."
To make the N.I.C.E. not only repulsive but also ridiculous, Lewis directs a good deal of its attention toward "our rivals on this planet." As Feverstone puts it, "There's far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven't really cleared the place yet." The practical implications of what he says become clear only later, as Filostrato explains at dinner why he has ordered a grove of fine beech trees cut down: "The forest tree is a weed. But I tell you I have seen the civilised tree in Persia…. It was made of metal…. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess … no feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt…. It is simple hygiene." That principle of hygiene must be applied as well to human beings: "The real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittles, excretions…. We must get rid of [the body]…. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation." In the story line, all this sets up the revelation to Mark of the "real Man," the guillotined head of Alcasan seemingly kept alive by machines. For the reader well-versed in Lewis, it also makes literal the castration metaphor he uses as warning in The Abolition of Man: the horror of a totalitarian state becomes explicit through the satire as Filostrato concludes, "You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable."
Inseparable from the satire on the N.I.C.E. is the humorous depiction of its Deputy Director, Mr. John Wither, especially his use of language. His first words to Mark, clarifying Mark's position if he joined the organization, illustrate nicely his constant manner of expression: "I assure you, Mr. Studdock,… that you needn't anticipate the slightest … er … the slightest difficulty on that point. There was never any idea of circumscribing your activities and your general influence on policy, much less your relations with your colleagues and what I might call in general the terms of reference under which you would be collaborating with us, without the fullest possible consideration of your own views and, indeed, your own advice" (ellipses in the original text). Wither has brought the technique of bureaucratese to ultimate indeterminacy; as Miss Hardcastle puts it, "Making things clear is the one thing the D.D. can't stand," and as Wither himself says to Frost, "It is one of the disadvantages of that extreme simplicity and accuracy with which you habitually speak (much as we all admire it) that it leaves no room for fine shades." It is ironic, then, that, in contrast to the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., the Director of the company at St. Anne's is a philologist, author of Dialect and Semantics, one who himself speaks with great clarity and precision. And even more ironic, the destruction of the N.I.C.E. is the result of Merlin's use of Old Solar, the original language which expresses things precisely as they are, to reduce Wither's talk, along with that of his entire organization, to gibberish, the inevitable culmination of the bureaucratese he cultivated with such care.
Focus on the Satirist
Neglect of Lewis's irony and satire has led, in some cases, to misreading his works. For example, some readers have regarded The Great Divorce as a book about heaven and hell as places, despite Lewis's warning that it is not, but is about the way choices lead to salvation or damnation. The Great Divorce is based on ironies of the lack of self-recognition. As the Ghosts from hell who have come for a day's outing in heaven talk, each reveals the self it has developed through its choices: most of them have put themselves in a hellish condition by not getting beyond self in thoughts and concerns. What a Spirit asks of one ghost applies to all of them, "Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?" The running irony is that readers see through the empty claims and self-congratulation as each ghost talks, though the ghosts themselves cannot—they do not see their antagonisms, arrogance, hatred, and possessiveness for the consuming evils they are. Thus they cannot open themselves to the Love which would free them from evil and put someone else ahead of self. As one Ghost puts it in a line loaded with double meanings and ironies, "I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity"; but that of course is exactly what he must ask for to find freedom from self and salvation.
Individual ironies abound in the book. There is verbal irony as the Big Ghost refuses to stay in heaven: "Tell them I'm not coming, see? I'd rather be damned than go along with you" and as the fashion-conscious Ghost claims "I'd rather die" than go around heaven looking the way she does. This is situational irony as the Episcopal Ghost, on holiday from hell and standing in heaven, laughs at the way his friend, before they both died, had been "coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!" and as tub-thumping Ghosts, in thin, batlike voices, urge the blessed spirits "to shake off their fetters, to escape from their imprisonment in happiness, to tear down the mountains with their hands, to seize Heaven 'for their own.'" There is a sort of theological irony that a repentant murderer is in heaven while one who "done his best all his life" is in hell, and a cosmic irony as the Episcopal Ghost laments the crucifixion as a disaster: "What a tragic waste … so much promise cut short" (ellipsis in the original text). And there is the ultimate irony that hell, which initially seemed so huge as inhabitants live millions of miles from each other and frequently decide to move further still, actually is smaller than an atom at the bottom of an almost invisible crack in the soil: that is room enough, "for a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself."
Through the book also runs a line of satire, not the political-societal satire of That Hideous Strength but an intellectual-social satire on personal follies that disturbed Lewis throughout his life. There is satire on the tendency to blame our problems on economic systems and on others, as the Ill-Used Ghost does at length; and satire on materialism, as Ikey tries to bring solid "things" back from heaven (which, ironically, could not fit into hell anyway) in order to create "Needs" as the proper basis for economic life; there is satire on domineering wives, in the wonderfully ironic five-page dramatic monologue delivered by Hilda's friend, and the satire on stifling, possessive parenthood, which Michael's mother can recognize in Winifred Guthrie but not in herself. Most powerful, however, is the lengthy satire on liberal theologians, especially unbelieving church officials, in the depiction of the Episcopal Ghost, which recalls the satire on Mr. Broad in The Pilgrim's Regress. In framing his exposure of unbelieving clergy and their failure to leave the church when they no longer accept what is fundamental to the church's existence, Lewis may well have had in mind the last Bishop of Birmingham, E. W. Barnes, author of Rise of Christianity, in which he tried to explain away the miraculous. Later, however, Lewis would say similar things of John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, author of Honest to God, as he presumably would now of the Bishop of Durham; what he complains of elsewhere in straightforward terms, here he ridicules and renders laughable through exaggeration and comic inconsistency.
To the Episcopal Ghost, God is "purely spiritual," heaven and hell are superstitious or mythological, and stagnation is the most soul-destroying of intellectual errors. All this he came to, his friend asserts, not through honest intellectual searching, but by plunging into a modern and successful current of ideas; his rejection of orthodox doctrines was not honest and risky, but a sure road to success: "What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?" He eventually decides not to remain in heaven because it lacks "an atmosphere of free inquiry" and requires belief in God as "Fact," and because he has to be back in hell that Friday to read a paper to a theological society on what Jesus's mature views would have been if his life had not been cut short tragically by the crucifixion. He strolls away, "humming softly to [him]self 'City of God, how broad and far.'"
Satire, therefore, forms a major part of tone and theme in Lewis's stories through the mid '40s, and a full understanding of Lewis's work and his literary imagination requires giving attention to it. Assessing its importance, however, requires looking not just at works in which satire is present, but also at those from which it is absent. There is no satire in Perelandra, very little in the Chronicles of Narnia, and none in Till We Have Faces. Thus the works which are the most mythical are the least satiric. The imagination which gives rise to myth or fantasy and that which creates satire commonly seem to run in opposite directions. The former, the "romantic" imagination, identifies with its subject, appreciates it, and infuses it with personal emotion; the latter, the "antiromantic" imagination, stands back from, analyzes, and critiques. When Lewis is fully engaged in the type of imagination necessary in depicting a different world, there seems to be no room for the analytical, dissecting imaginative activity involved in satire.
I have argued elsewhere that a change in Lewis's thought and writing occurs in the late 1940s, partly at least as a result of Elizabeth Anscombe's attack on Lewis's argument in the third chapter of Miracles. As he recorded in Surprised by Joy Lewis lived much of his life in a tension between his reason and his imagination—drawn to the imagination by his romantic longings, but held back by his reason from yielding himself unreservedly to the imagination. In the late '40s a shift seems to have occurred, a lessening of the strong reliance on reason which marked his writing in the '30s and '40s and a greater use of and trust in the imagination. The pattern of satire in his works tends to confirm that movement. Although the creation of satire requires imaginative activity of the highest order, satire retains a significant involvement of the intellect in literature; that Lewis wove satire into most of his creative works in the '30s and '40s substantiates his unwillingness or inability—whether consciously or unconsciously—to give himself wholly to the imagination. The disappearance of satire from his stories in the '50s reflects trust in imagination, a readiness to allow his stories to work on readers wholly through the imagination and emotions.
It should be noticed, however, that, though satire largely disappears from Lewis's prose after 1947, it finds expression elsewhere, in his poetry. Satire was too deeply engrained in him to be given up completely even though full commitment to the mythical imagination forced it from the stories. Lewis's early poetry—that in the volume Spirits in Bondage (1919), that included in The Pilgrim's Regress, and much of that printed in Part I of the volume of poetry edited by Walter Hooper—was mostly serious in tone, but many of the poems published in the mid-'50s are satiric. He has great fun in "Evolutionary Hymn" (1957), for example, twitting intellectual follies he had satirized earlier, in works discussed above:
Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future's endless stair:
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.
Similarly amusing, and biting, is the satire on literary critics in "Odora Canum Vis" ("Come now, don't be too eager to condemn / Our little smut-hounds if they wag their tails") and on the space program in "Science-Fiction Cradlesong" ("From prison, in a prison, we fly; / There's no way into the sky"). Lewis had an affinity for the epigram and epigrammatic expression, which have always been closely associated with satire. If these poems gave an outlet for Lewis's satiric wit, they also result in some of the most entertaining verse he wrote.
Lewis may have been a romantic at heart, but he had a neoclassical head. He has been appreciated for his achievements in the genres of myth and fantasy; he deserves recognition also for his achievements in the mode of satire. Lewis's success as a satirist, which has not been sufficiently taken into account in previous studies of Lewis, must be given attention if Lewis's works, and his literary imagination, are to be fully understood.
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