The Incarnation and the importance of the embodied life in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Cover of "That Hideous Strength"

In this post from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we look at the important lesson from Christ’s Incarnation that Lewis draws for us in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.

Another facet of the Incarnation that captivates Lewis is the way that it ennobles our humanity – even our very materiality. To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings. That Hideous Strength shows us in imaginative form how modern technocrats (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments or N.I.C.E.) might try to eliminate that crucial materiality in a Gnostic quest for pure spirit. N.I.C.E.’s agents, in the attempt to eliminate the bodily—in fact, all biological life on earth—and retain only mind, lose their morality and their very selves. A sample of the dialogue gives a sense of the chilling vision at work here:

“And what is the first practical step?” [asks Mark Studdock to Feverstone, whom he is trying to impress in his effort to be counted one of the “inner circle”].

“Yes, that’s the real question. As I said, the interplanetary problem must be left on one side for the moment. The second problem is our rivals on this planet. I don’t mean only insects and bacteria. There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet. First we couldn’t; and then we had aesthetic and humanitarian scruples; and we still haven’t short-circuited the question of the balance of nature. All that is to be gone into. The third problem is Man himself.”

“Go on. This interests me very much.”

“Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest—which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.”

“What sort of thing have you in mind?”

“Quite simple and obvious things, at first—sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. . . .” [He continues: “Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain. . . .”]

“But this is stupendous, Feverstone.”

“It’s the real thing at last. A new type of man: and it’s people like you who’ve got to begin to make him.”[1]

Over against their machinations, the redemptive community found at the household at St. Anne’s is so everyday, earthy, prosaic, ordinary in its routines, its talents (lack thereof) and especially its morality—“leftover Great Western morality.” Throughout the book this prosaic, common, ordinary, traditional morality is threatened, along with the goodness of our bodies and our material lives. In the end, the gods come down to save the embodied, moral lives of Mark and Jane. Their sexual intimacy has been progressively destroyed as Mark has become drawn into the gnostic machinations of N.I.C.E.

But “male and female he created them,” and Christ came not just as a man but as a fetus in a woman’s womb. So at the end of That Hideous Strength, Mark and Jane are reunited in intimate sexual union. Throughout the book, women serve to draw the characters back to the divine in human embodiedness: Mother Dimble, an “earth mother” representing fertility, serves Jane in this way. Mother Dimble and Jane herself are channels of Charity, agents of salvation. Jane becomes a theotokos–a “God-bearer”–to Mark, saving him in something very much like the way Beatrice saved Dante. This was a theme in Dante’s life and work that fascinated Charles Williams, and Lewis was drawing, throughout That Hideous Strength, from his friend Williams.

To ignore the “earthiness” of human beings – our embodiedness – as if what is important to us is only our rationality, is to remove traditional understandings of what human beings are, and thereby to destroy traditional morality. It is, in fact, to “abolish humanity”—to unmake us as creatures of God (think of the demonized “Un-man” in Perelandra), and thus prevent us from reaching God as well (we end up with the Abolition of Man).

[This contains some repetition of a passage used in an earlier chapter; rectify that by referring back and cutting down the verbiage here and possibly there as well:] Medievals did not do this. They kept the sublimely metaphysical and the crassly physical together. In his Sixteenth-Century Literature, Lewis describes the mindset–simultaneously exalted and earthy–of a medieval boy who started at school, where he would learn “farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy.” This practical, concrete knowledge, he says, “mixed with their law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology, bred an outlook very different from our own. High abstractions and rarified artifices jostled the earthiest particulars . . . They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots, and boats. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth: the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller. Hence, as it seems to us, both the naivety and the energy of their writing . . . They talk something like angels and something like sailors and stable-boys; never like civil servants or writers of leading articles.” (Sixteenth-Century Literature, 62)

This simultaneous exalted spirituality and physical earthiness came together for the medieval Christian in their emotional devotion. Among the varied aspects of our human nature, our emotions seem especially closely tied with our physical bodies. We use the same words, “feeling” or “being touched,” for the physical senses and for emotional experiences. Medievals “got” that, and it is everywhere present in their worship and spiritual lives, as we saw in the affective devotion chapter.

[1] That Hideous Strength [cite edition], 42.

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