Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Out of the Silent Planet

C.S. Lewis is one of those writers whose talent I admire, while finding their ideas more or less repugnant.  (Other examples include Robert Heinlein and Joss Whedon.)  Lewis' writing style was so very original that I can't understand why he relied so much on Christianity for his themes and plots.  Did he not want to be original?

I up and read a biography of him, by A. N. Wilson, who makes the very interesting assertion that Lewis was completely lacking in "self-awareness" and "introspection."  I do not quite understand how Wilson deduces this, but if true it would explain why I dislike Lewis so much.  "Introspection" means a lot of things.  To lack introspection is not to lack imagination, which Lewis certainly had.  And one can be thoughtful without being introspective . . . although it's interesting to consider the things that Lewis was not very thoughtful about.

For example, although he wrote several books about Christianity, according to Wilson he was no Biblical scholar.  So, when he says in The Problem of Pain that Jesus "was either a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way.  If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, then you must submit to the second," he is referring to "records" that don't actually exist.  There is no proof either way - there cannot be - and the Bible is not a historical document.  (Not to mention that Jesus was often reluctant to proclaim himself the Son of God.)  But Lewis didn't care about any of that.  He constructed an argument and he stuck to it.  It's an odd combination of logic and pure irrationality; add in his hectoring insistence that he is right - "there is no middle way" - and you have something that I find completely distasteful.

And yet.  The novels.  I recently returned to the Silent Planet trilogy, not having read them since my teenage years.  The plots are as follows:
  1. Out of the Silent Planet:  our hero accidentally travels to the planet Mars and meets the various inhabitants.
  2. Perelandra:  our hero travels to the planet Venus and fights the (Christian) Devil. 
  3. That Hideous Strength:  our hero fights evil here on Earth.
You'll notice that the first book is very different from its successors.   It is still about good and evil, but the protagonist is a lot more passive . . . and as far as I can tell, there is nothing explicitly Christian in the first book.  We learn that each planet has its own ruling spirit, or incorporeal entity, and above them all is the great being called Maleldil.  Earth is called the "silent planet" because its ruler rebelled against Maleldil and it was put under a sort of blockade.  (The idea that Earth is under the control of an evil demigod actually reminds me of the Gnostic version of Genesis, which I'm willing to bet Lewis did not do on purpose.)

When I was younger, That Hideous Strength was my favorite of the three.  I still think that it has some great writing, although the plot and, again, some of the ideas are a bit dubious.  Now I appreciate Silent Planet more, for its imagination, lack of pretentiousness and anti-colonialist critique.  I mentioned that the protagonist arrives on Mars accidentally.  The two men who travel there first discover gold and intelligent life.  They plan to take the gold and kill the inhabitants so that "Man" will have a new planet to live on when he renders the Earth uninhabitable.  But they get the impression that the natives want a human sacrifice, so they go back to Earth and kidnap one Elwin Ransom, with the intention of trading him for gold-mining rights. 

On Mars, Ransom escapes and meets up with some of the inhabitants on his own.  He's a philologist, and when he discovers that they have language, his first thought is how exciting it would be to publish an English-Martian dictionary.  I am not making this up.  He also gets seasick when riding in one of their boats . . . none of this is very heroic.  In the later books he gets more and more . . . special.  He's not some bumbling fool anymore, which appeals to me a lot less.

Indeed, in the later books Ransom gets more and more saintly and the bad guys get more and more evil; also more powerful.  In Silent Planet, they have the technology to travel to another planet but they don't really understand anything about the world they've discovered.  They assume the natives are backwards and stupid, and they are easily defeated.  (Hope that's not a spoiler.)  In subsequent books Lewis raises the stakes; maybe it's just a fictional convention, to create antagonists who are pure evil and almost omnipotent, but I dislike it.  And from a theological point of view. . .  Lewis seems to me to spend more time dwelling on the power and malevolence of the Devil than on the power and benevolence of God. 

In fact, the whole point of the last two books is that the Devil makes people do bad things.  Or rather, they choose to work with him, but he has powers of his own and he's constantly tempting and manipulating people.  I don't believe in an external Devil; I think it's irresponsible to promote the idea that "the Devil made me do it;" and I believe that this actually gets back to Lewis' lack of introspection which I mentioned at the top of the page.  He didn't want to examine his own unconscious motives, or admit that he had unconscious motives, or an unconscious mind at all.  All of that stuff is not part of him - it has to be moved elsewhere, and the Devil makes a handy receptacle for those parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge.

Ironically, That Hideous Strength depicts two characters going through tremendous amounts of self-examination.  It's as if Lewis was willing to dip his toe in the wading pool, but not to go any deeper.  And his conclusions are, for the most part, so perfectly conventional.  At one point, one of the characters says, "Anything might be true.  Heaven, Hell, the afterlife . . ."  It's odd that even though anything might be true, the only possible truths these people can think of are the Christian ones.

In both That Hideous Strength and in the biography, it says that Lewis was very fond of the Normal, the plain, ordinary, boring comforts of an uneventful life.  (One might speculate as to the ways in which he had been deprived of the Normal, leading him to appreciate it so much.)  As the novel puts it, the Normal is a man's cosy memories of his wife, "fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing . . . he was having his first deeply moral experience.  He was choosing a side:  the Normal."  And it just so happens that the Normal is synonymous with the moral, the good, the Will of God.  According to Lewis, science, psychology, Progress and progressive ideas of any sort are not Normal.  He was deliberately and anachronistically old-fashioned.  (And yet he wrote three science-fiction novels.) 

Science and technology do have their drawbacks; in that much I can agree with him.  Although I suspect that for him, for example, destroying the environment is bad simply because the environment is something that already existed, and we're not supposed to change stuff.  I'm not sure if he was aware of the extent to which damage to the environment damages humans too. He criticizes science for its hubris . . . but he also almost seems to take science at its word, to believe that it has all the know-how it claimed to have.

C.S. Lewis seems to be one of those people who never really grew up and never wanted to. Again, that's not me.  There is something charming about the simplicity of childhood . . . of safe and happy childhoods, anyway . . . but there comes a time to put away childish things.  Especially if you're going to go around claiming to Know the Truth.  You can be simple-minded, or you can be smarter than everyone else.  Can't be both.


  1. Hi there. I'm here from TNC's blog.

    First off, when I read the bit about Ransom wanting to publish a dictonary, I got a double thrill of recognition:
    a.) "Yes, that's totally what a philologist would be excited about, just like I'd be most interested to read their equivalent of Shakespare!"
    b.) "All these martians, and he's thinking about them in terms of his own human interests. How very, incredibly, human; and how much more telling against that martian background."

    I also secretly wonder if he asked Tolkien, "hey, James; you're a philologist--if you met martians, what about them would interest you the most?"

    When you say, "the Bible is not a historical document," do you mean "the bible is not literally true," or do you mean something else? I would argue *for* the bible as a historical document, in the sense that I would argue for the magna carta or the declaration of independence or this blog comment as a historical document--that it is a document [or, more accurately, a set of documents] written and revised and re-written and banned and translated and updated and un-banned and censored in various ways by humans over time--I'd rather treat it as a historical document than as a moral guide or explanation of natural history, for instance.

    I wonder if Lewis confused Christianity for introspection, sometimes.

  2. Hello! Thanks for dropping by!

    Another nice thing about the Ransom bit is that, for once in his life, Lewis isn't trying to make a point. He's just letting his character groove on one of his favorite things. Which is what good writers do.

    What do I mean by "the Bible is not a historical document?" That's a good question. I don't believe that it's literally true. But what I meant, more specifically, when I wrote that is that the people who wrote and edited the Bible were not historians. I don't believe they were trying to record history. They were recording their religion.

    The Bible is a collaborative document, and tons of discussion went into putting it together, deciding what to include, what to leave out, and then going back and revising the whole thing later on.

    For example: there are four gospels in the New Testament. That doesn't mean there were only four gospels ever. I read somewhere that each early Christian community may have had its own version of the gospel, and in many cases they were passed down orally for decades (or centuries?) before being written down.

    The men who assembled the Christian Bible picked those four gospels. Reading them now, we notice discrepancies between them, but apparently that didn't bother the committee. That's why I believe that they weren't putting historical accuracy first.

    The Bible is a historical document, in that it records what certain people believed about their religion. It's not a historical document in the sense of recording events. I could be wrong, but I don't think there is any independent corroboration of the existence of Jesus, or his crucifixion.

    Lewis, as I said on TNC's blog, was a strange guy. He went back and forth between Christianity and atheism . . . but did he ever really think about religion, or belief, or nonbelief? It almost seems like he didn't. There's this superficial, college-debating-society veneer on his writing which kind of makes me wonder about the value of an Oxbridge education.