Source: The Modern Quarterly, Autumn 1946, as posted at: Notes & Reflections on C. S. Lewis);
Transcribed: for marxists.org in February, 2006.
[A review of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy; originally published in The Modern Quarterly, Autumn 1946]
Mr. C. S. Lewis is a prolific writer of books which are intended to defend Christianity. Some of these are cast in the form of fiction. The most interesting group is perhaps a trilogy describing the adventures of Mr. Ransom, a Cambridge teacher of philology. In the first volume Ransom is kidnapped by a physicist called Weston and his accomplice, Devine, and taken in a "spaceship" to the planet Mars, which is inhabited by three species of fairly intelligent and highly virtuous and healthy vertebrates ruled by an angel. Weston wants to colonise the planet, and Devine to use it as a source of gold. Their efforts are frustrated, and they return to earth, bringing Ransom with them.
In the second volume the angel in charge of Mars takes Ransom to Venus, where he meets the Eve of a new human race, which has just been issued with souls. Weston arrives, allows the devil to possess him, and acts as serpent in a temptation of the new Eve. Ransom's arguments against the devil are inadequate, so he finally kills Weston, and is returned to earth by angels, with thanks for services rendered.
In the final book two still more sinister scientists, Frost and Wither, who have given their souls to the devil, are running the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. Devine, now a peer, is helping them. The only experiment described is the perfusion of a severed human head, through which the devil issues his commands. They are also hoping to resurrect Merlin, who has been asleep for fifteen centuries in their neighbourhood. Their aim appears to be the acquisition of superhuman power and of immortality; though how this is to be done is far from clear, just as it is far from clear why a severed head perfused with blood should live longer than a normal one, or be a more suitable instrument for the devil. However, Mr. Ransom is too much for them. He obtains the assistance not only of Merlin, but of the angels who guide the planets on their paths, and regulate the lives of their inhabitants. These angels arrive at his house, whose other inhabitants become in their turn mercurial, venereal (but decorously so), martial, saturnine, and jovial, but fortunately not lunatic. Merlin and the angels smash up the National Institute and a small university town, Frost and Wither are damned, and Ransom ascends into heaven, bound for Venus, where he is to meet Kings Arthur and Melchizedek, and other select humans who escape death. One Grammarian's Funeral less, in fact.
The tale is told with very great skill, and the descriptions of celestial landscapes and of human and nonhuman behaviour are often brilliant. I cannot pay Mr. Lewis a higher compliment than to compare him with Dante and Milton; but to make the balance fair I must also compare him with Rolfe (alias Baron Corvo) and Velenovsky. Dante and Milton knew the science of their time, and Dante was well ahead of most of his contemporaries in holding that the earth was round, and that gravity changed direction at its centre; though Milton hedged as to the Copernican system. Mr Lewis is often incorrect, as in his account of the gravitational field in the spaceship, of the atmosphere on Mars, the appearance of other planets from it, and so on. His accounts of supernatural intervention would have been more impressive had he known more of nature as it actually exists. Of course, the reason is clear enough. Christian mythology incorporated the cosmological theories current eighteen centuries ago. Dante found it a slight strain to combine this mythology with the facts known in his own day. Milton found it harder. Mr. Lewis finds it impossible.
Mr. Lewis is a teacher of English literature at Oxford. The philologist Ransom reminds me irresistibly of the idealised Rolfe who becomes Pope as Hadrian VII; though of course it is even more distinguished to escape death by ascending into heaven than to become a pope. Velenovsky (whose name is not so well known) was (or perhaps is) a botanist who discovered a new species of primrose in the Balkans, and called it Primula deorum, the primrose of the gods. With such a name one might expect a plant even nobler than the purple giants of the Himalayas and Yunnan. Unfortunately it is a wretched little flower, which will not bear comparison with any of our four British species. In his attempts to defend Christianity, Mr. Lewis has also defended the beliefs in astrology, black magic, Atlantis, and even polytheism; for the planetary angels are called gods, perhaps in deference to Milton. Many sincere Christians will think that he has done no more service to Jesus than Velenovsky to Jupiter.
As a scientist I am particularly interested in his attitude to my profession. There is one decent scientist in the three books, a physicist who is murdered by the devil-worshippers before we have got to know him. The others have an ideology which ranges from a Kiplingesque contempt for "natives" to pure "national socialism," with the devil substituted for the God whose purposes Hitler claimed to carry out. As a matter of fact, very few scientists of any note outside Germany and Italy have become Fascists. In France only one, the engineer Claude, did so, though the Catholic biologist Carrel came back from the U.S.A. to support the Vichy government. A very much larger fraction of the clerical, legal, and literary professions bowed the knee to Baal.
Weston is recognisable as a scientist; Frost and Wither, the devil-worshippers, are not. They talk like some of the less efficient of the Public Relations Officers who defend Big Business, and even Mr. Lewis did not dare to assign them to any particular branch of science. At a guess I should put them as psychologists who had early deserted the scientific aspect of psychology for its mythological developments.
Mr. Lewis's idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell. This world is largely run by the Devil. "The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus," and the best we can do is to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Revealed religion tells us how to do this. Any human attempts at a planned world are merely playing into the hands of the Devil. Auld Hornie, by the way, to use the pet name which the Scots have given him, perhaps in thanks for his attacks on the Sabbath, has been in charge of our planet since before life originated on it. He even had a swipe at Mars, and removed much of its atmoshpere. Some time in the future Jesus and the good angels will take our planet over from him. Meanwhile the Church is a resistance movement, but liberation must await a celestial D-Day. The destruction of Messrs. Frost and Wither was only a commando operation comparable with the bombardment of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In so far as Mr. Lewis succeeds in spreading his views, the results are fairly predictable. He will not have much influence on scientists, if only because he does not know enough science for this purpose. But he will influence public opinion and that of politicians, particularly in Britain. I do not know if he is a best seller in America. He will in no way discourage the more inhuman developments of science, such as the manufacture of atomic bombs. But he will make things more difficult for those who are trying to apply science to human betterment, for example to get some kind of world organisation of food supplies into being, or to arrive at physiological standards for housing. In such cases we scientists are always told that we are treating human beings as animals. Of course we are. My technical assistant keeps a lot of mosquitoes in my laboratory. Their infantile mortality is considerably below that of my own species in most countries, and I hope to get it down below the level of English babies. But meanwhile I should be very happy if all human babies had as good a chance of growing up as my mosquito larvae. Mr. Lewis is presumably more concerned with their baptism, which is alleged to have a large effect on their prospects after death.
More and more, among people who think about such matters, the division is appearing between those who think it is worth while working for a better future (which, since the various members of our species now form, for some purposes, a single community, must be a better future for all mankind) and those who think that the best we can do is to look after our immediate neighbours and our noble selves. Clearly anyone who believes that he or she stands to lose by social changes will be pleased to find arguments to prove that they are impracticable or even devilish. So Mr. Lewis is a most useful prop to the existing social order, the more so as his Martian creatures seem to practise some kind of primitive communism under angelic guidance; so a good Lewisite can get a full measure of self-satisfaction from condemning capitalism as a by-product of the fall of man, while taking no concrete steps to replace it by a better system.
It is interesting to see how Mr. Lewis's ideology has affected his writing. He must obviously be compared with Wells and Stapledon, rather than with the American school of "scientifiction," which is a somewhat lower form of literature than the detective story. The criteria for fictional writing on scientific subjects are similar to those for historical romance. The historical novelist may add to established history. He must not deny it. He may describe the unknown private life of Hal o' the Wynd or Fair Rosamund. He must not contradict what little is known about them without sound reason given. In a scientific romance new processes or substances may be postulated, for example Cavorite, which is opaque to gravitation, or animals which reproduce by clouds of pollen. But apart from special cases our existing knowledge of the properties of matter should be respected. Wells occasionally broke this rule; for example, the giants in The Food of the Gods would have broken their legs at every step; but much may be forgiven a pioneer. Stapledon is much more scrupulous. Lewis's contempt for science is constantly letting him down. I wish he would learn more, if only because if he did so he would come to respect it. I do not complain of his angels or "eldils". If there are finite superhuman beings they may well be as he describes. I do complain when, in the preface to The Great Divorce, he writes: "A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working afresh from that point, never by simply going on." I happen to be an addict of the kind of "sum" called iteration. For example, I have recently had to solve the cubic equation
7009X3 - 7470X2 - 7801X + 516 = 0
This equation arises in the theory of mosquito breeding. Writing it as
X =516/7801 - X2 [1 - X - (331 - 792X)/7801]
I put X = .06 on the right-hand side, and get X = .0629 as a better approximation. Then I substitute this value on the right-hand side, and so on, finally getting X = .06261. If I shall make a small mistake it gets corrected automatically, and may even speed up the approach to the final result. I think the process of solving a moral problem, for example of arriving at mutually satisfactory relations with a colleague, is a good deal more like iteration than the ordinary method of solving such equations.
If Mr. Lewis would learn mathematics and science he might change his views on other matters, for he is intelligent enough to make some very awkward if unconscious admissions. For example, the sinless creatures on Mars had a theology but no religion. They believed in a creator and an after-life, like Benjamin Franklin and other great rationalists; but during a stay of several months among them Mr. Ransom reported no religious ceremonies, or even private prayers. Their conversations with passing angels, or "eldils," whom they occasionally saw and heard, were no more like religious acts than is turning on the radio to listen to Mr. Attlee. This is entirely what one would expect if Mr. Lewis's other premises were true. A person fully adapted to his environment would have no religion. As Marx put it (On Hegels's Philosophy of Law, 1844): "This state, this society, produce religion - an inverted consciousness of the world - because it is an inverted world ... it is the fantastic realisation of man, because man possesses no true realisation."
Again, it is striking that communism is only once mentioned in the books under review, and though in The Great Divorce the narrator finds one Communist in hell, he had left the party and become a conscientious objector in 1941; so perhaps the punishment was deserved, if unduly severe. I take it that Mr. Lewis, who is at least aware of the important difference between right and wrong, though he draws what seems to me to be an incorrect line between them, recognises that Communists also take right and wrong seriously, and is therefore loath to condemn them radically. In consequence the conflict described in That Hideous Strength, which is supposed to be important for the future of humanity, lacks reality. And in so far as Mr. Lewis persuades anyone that devil-worship is any more important than other rare perversions, he is merely pandering to moral escapism by diverting his readers from the great moral problems of our day.
I fear that Mr. Lewis is too "bent," to use his own word, to become a communist. Look at his taste in grammar. In the celestial language, of which he gives us some samples, the plurals of the word eldil, pfifltrigg, oyarsa, and hnakra, are eldila, pfifltriggi, oyéresu, and hnéraki. If that is his ideal of grammar, no wonder his ideals of society are peculiar. Parenthetically, I should have thought the most striking character of a language used by sinless beings who loved their neighbours as themselves would have been the absence of any equivalent of the word "my" and very probably of the word "I," and of other personal pronouns and inflexions.
Nevertheless, if Mr. Lewis investigates the facts honestly, he will probably discover two things. One is that if Christianity (in the sense of an attempt to follow the precepts attributed to Jesus) has a future, that future, as things are today, is far more likely to be realised within the Orthodox Church than the western Churches. In fact, Marxism may prove to have given Christianity a new lease of life. The second is that scientists are less likely than any other group to sell their souls to the devil. A few of us sell our souls to capitalists and politicians, and Mr. Lewis may have met some such vendors at Oxford. But on the whole we possess moral and intellectual standards, and live up to them as often as other people.
I think we even do so a little more often, because we possess objective standards which others do not. One can find out whether samarium is heavier than lead, whether dogs are more variable in weight than cats, or whether trilobites or dinosaurs lived earliest. There is no way of finding out whether Crashaw was a better poet than Vaughan, or whether Shakespeare wrote the parts for his heroines to suit the leading boy actors of the moment. We also have to risk our lives in the course of our profession rather more often than writers. "The real importance of scientific war," says Mr. Frost, "is that scientists have to be reserved." It is worth remembering that some of us were reserved to unscrew magnetic mines and to test a variety of rather unpleasant chemical substances on our own persons.
But my main quarrel with Mr. Lewis is not for his attack on my profession, but for his attack on my species. I believe that, without any supernatural promptings, men can be extremely good or extremely bad. He must explain human evil by the Devil, and human virtue by God. For him, human freedom is a mere choice between alternatives presented to our souls by supernatural beings. For me it is something creative, in the sense that each generation makes newer and greater possibilities of good and evil. I do not think that Shaw is a greater dramatist than Shakespeare; but some of his characters, for example, Saint Joan, Lavinia, or even Dudgeon, are morally better than any of Shakespeare's characters. Good has grown in three hundred years. So has evil. I do not think that any of the Popes whom Dante saw in hell had done an action as evil as that of Pius XI when he blessed fascism in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.
Mr. Lewis's characters are confronted with moral choices like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left. This is no doubt one step nearer to the truth than a completely mechanistic view, but only one step. Two thousand years ago some people had got further. I find Horace's "justum et tenacem propositi virum," who is not deflected by mobs, tyrants, or the great hand of thundering Jove, a vastly more admirable figure than Mr. Lewis's saints who are "Servile to all the skyey influences "; though of course Cato's idea of justice was as narrow as ours will, I hope, seem two thousand years hence. But it was men with this Horatian ideal of dignity who made Rome, and men with not very dissimilar ideals who made China, which did not fall as Rome fell. Both the Roman and Chinese ideals were aristocratic. They had to be so in societies where most men and women spent much of their time as mere sources of mechanical power. Today a society is technically possible where every man and woman can have the leisure and culture needed to take a part in managing it. Democracy is in fact a possibility, but so far it has only worked rather spasmodically. Some of us want to make it a reality. Mr Lewis regards it as impossible. "There must be rule," says an aged and learned Martian, "yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by men, men by angels, and angels by the creator" (I translate several celestial words). As angels do not give most of us very explicit orders, it would seem that we should entrust our destinies to someone like Dr. Frank Buchan or the Pope, who claims to be divinely guided. If Mr. Lewis does not mean us to draw such a conclusion, what does he mean by this passage?
In practice these self-styled mouthpieces of higher powers will presumably transmit orders very similar to Mr. Lewis's broadcast talks on Christian Behaviour. They will probably, for example, condemn sodomy absolutely, but they will hedge regarding usury if they even mention it. Mr. Lewis admits that Christian, Jewish, and pagan moralists condemned it, but points out that our society is based on it, and adds: "Now it may not follow that we are absolutely wrong." If it had followed that usury was absolutely wrong, Mr. Lewis's series of radio talks might have been brought to a sudden end like one of Mr. Priestly's. I mention sodomy and usury together because Dante, who expressed the ideals of medieval Christianity, exposed sodomites and usurers to the same rain of flames in hell, with the difference that the sodomites could dodge them, but the usurers (or, as we should say, financiers) could not. If sodomy were an important part of our social system, as it was of some past systems, Mr. Lewis would presumably wonder whether sodomy was absolutely wrong.
The men and women who believe most in human dignity are fighting usury and every other institution which makes man the slave of money. Those who share Mr. Lewis's view are compromising with these evils in one way or another, even if they do not always attack democracy as openly as does Mr. Lewis. Any Marxist can see why this must be so; and Christian readers of Mr. Lewis's books might well remember St. James's statement: "Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." His books certainly have very large sales, and may have a very large influence. It is only for this reason that they are worth attacking. They can of course be attacked on many other grounds than those which I have given. But I would state my case briefly as follows. I agree with Mr. Lewis that man is in a sense a fallen being. The Origin of the Family seems to me to provide better evidence for this belief than the Book of Genesis. But I disagree with him in that I also believe that man can rise again by his own efforts. Those who hold the contrary view inevitably regard the reform of society as a dangerous dream, and natural science as unworthy of serious study. And they consequently end up by making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. But this friendship, so far from qualifying them for an eternal habitation, may not even secure them a competence in this present world. For Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet's surface, and his realm is contracting in Europe today. It was men, not angels, who cast him out.