Finished That Hideous Strength – a wise and strange book – in many ways I was continually surprised by the strangeness of it. I believe Alan Jacobs wrote that Lewis was very influenced by Charles Williams when writing it, and whether or not I’m remembering that correctly, it has the ring of truth. It is distinctly Lewis – his philosophy, his style, his sense of humor. But especially in the early chapters I was continually reminded of Williams’ novels, and his interweaving of the spiritual, the bizarre and the modern.
But That Hideous Strength is still Lewis through and through, and bears the marks of his cohesive philosophy. Many talk about his picture of hell as populated by people who choose to be there, and point to his treatment of that idea in The Great Divorce or in The Problem of Pain. But he depicts that same idea here in it’s most frightening form. He does so in depicting the deaths of the academics Wither and Frost, acting heads of NICE (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). In both cases their descent into death (and quite truly, hell) is a direct result of their life-long choices, their basic life orientation and their deepest beliefs.
For Wither (who dies first), the realization that he is going to die is incapable of moving him. “He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.“
So how indeed do the damned go to their damnation? Lewis continues:
The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction.
There it is, same as in The Great Divorce. After a lifetime of choices, in the final, fatal moment of last opportunity, the person chooses a “tiny habitual sensuality”, a trivial resentment, or the indulgence of lethargy rather than surrender to God and true joy. And so:
With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.”
Frost likewise faces a final moment of choice, a small glimpse of clarity, and yet is damned by his own choice and firm belief. A thorough-going materialist, Frost believes there is nothing but matter and that his own self is merely a projection of his body. It is a matter of fundamental faith for him that the soul and all transcendant values, morals and meaning are merely material phenomenon which disappear when seen “objectively”. And so at the end of his story the full ramifications of this belief play out. Nearing death, he is allowed:
“to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul – nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion.
Here it is again, in full. The opportunity to escape damnation – to say to God, “Thy will be done” – was offered. He glimpses this alternate world, the real world of the immaterial that he had denied (souls, personal responsibility), and rather than accept it, he denies it with heroic effort. It doesn’t matter if it is true – he hates the very idea of such a world. “He half saw: he wholly hated.”
And so, his demise is also sealed.
In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.
Here is a frightening depiction of humans rejecting God and instead of surrender choosing damnation. Here too is a depiction of the deeper caverns of volition. What if, prior to reason, prior to evidence, prior to logic, humans are most fundamentally subject to our desires?
And what if our desires are deeply bent? What hope is there for us, if we don’t want, won’t accept, the only heaven and more importantly the only God that there is?
No hope, outside of the deep regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.