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C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, & the Corruption of Language
by David Mills
Even well-educated people are often startlingly insensitive to language. One reads, even in the better magazines, prose that clanks and clangs, in which words have meanings only in the sense that “Bob lives in Manhattan” is an address, in which all sorts of assumptions the writers may not knowingly hold are conveyed in the words they use without thinking. The words plant themselves in our common vocabulary and grow there quietly till no one realizes what they actually mean, nor how they change minds and actions by making some thoughts more thinkable and others less.
Such a word is “values.” Cultural conservatives defend “traditional values” and “family values,” thinking they are speaking the language of the past, but in that word “values” lies a revolution in our understanding of goodness, for our ancestors would not have spoken of values but of virtues. The word “values,” the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb noted, includes
the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies. . . . One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues.1
A world concerned with values is a very different world from one concerned with virtues. It will be, at the least, a less virtuous world because it will think far less about virtue.
C. S. Lewis saw a similar effect in the change from “ruler” to “leader” as the popular name for those in authority or power. We ask of rulers “justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency,” but of leaders “dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality’.”2 We see this today in the change in the common vocabulary from “piety,” which requires submission to God, to “spirituality,” which does not, and from “a book” that has a meaning, to “a text” in which the reader may find almost anything he wants, and from “conversion,” which assumes the truth is known, to “conversation,” which assumes that it is yet to be found.
Our language directs how we understand the world around us and how we react to it and act upon it. Words have consequences, and this is why the corruption of language is such a danger to the common good. “When . . . you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for,” Lewis wrote in 1944. “Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”3
Orwell and Lewis
George Orwell (1903–1950) and C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) were masters of modern English prose, exquisitely sensitive to the misuse of language. Both wrote novels on this subject, Orwell Animal Farm (1945) and especially 1984 (1949) and Lewis That Hideous Strength (1945), and reflected on the subject repeatedly in their essays.
Though they do not seem to have met, and would probably not have liked each other if they had, they had read each other’s works. Writing in 1944, Orwell criticized Beyond Personality (the last of Lewis’s talks on the BBC, later incorporated into Mere Christianity) as an example of “the silly-clever religious book,” which he meant as a literary and moral insult.4 Writing in 1955, Lewis praised Orwell’s Animal Farm as a masterpiece while judiciously criticizing 1984.5 Lewis was the more generous critic, not just because he was a more generous and liberal man, but because he could accept Orwell’s observations on society, while Orwell could not accept Lewis’s faith, which deeply challenged his materialism and irreligion.6
Orwell and Lewis both fought the corruption of language, the use of words to confuse and blind others, to make some actions possible either by making the necessary thoughts thinkable or by making clear thought impossible. Yet Lewis also knew that the problem—the danger—was not only or even mainly one of corrupted language, but of corrupted souls.
Politics and the English Language
Orwell’s most famous short work on the corruption of language is his essay “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946 and now a standard in anthologies on writing. 7 “The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” he began, but each makes the other worse. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” This applies to the English language. Our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
In such English, the images are always stale and the language always imprecise. “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.” (He would have included, had he cared about the subject, religious writing as well.)
As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated henhouse.
The words you need are to hand, and these “ready-made phrases . . . will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” What he called “orthodoxy,” by which he meant unthinkingly following the party line, whatever party you belonged to, “demands a vague and inflated language and particularly the use of stale and unrevealing metaphors.” Orthodoxy requires such a style because it does not want people to see clearly, because if they saw clearly, they might dissent.
They might dissent because “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Orwell cited as examples the ways Western intellectuals excused the Soviet atrocities. “Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”
By ridding oneself of slovenly language, “one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration; so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” His answer to the temptations of “orthodoxy” was simply to write better, in particular, to free one’s language of the jargon and images and common phrases that carry the meaning the orthodox want you to believe. “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”
He offered several very good rules for simplifying your English: “1) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; 2) Never use a long word when a short one will do; 3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; 4) Never use a passive where you can use the active; 5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
“Politics and the English Language” is a great and, given the status of the people he was attacking, courageous essay. Orwell was right as far as he went, but he did not go far enough, because he was not a Christian. He recognized good and evil but could not relate them to any transcendent order, and so could offer only a set of techniques to oppose people who held other views of good and evil. He objected to their calling the murder of political opponents “the elimination of unreliable elements,” but had no reason to condemn those who were eliminating people they sincerely believed to be unreliable elements and thus could not condemn them for using those words to describe what they were doing.
Lewis on Language
Lewis had argued many of the same points before Orwell’s essay appeared, most famously in The Abolition of Man (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945).8 The crucial difference in their arguments is that Orwell was a materialist and Lewis a Christian. As a Christian, Lewis saw the universe in a greater and a clearer light, and therefore saw more clearly the use of language in a fallen world. (This is an offensive claim, perhaps, but as Lewis wrote, “Christianity claims to give an account of facts—to tell you what the real universe is like,” and if Christianity is true, “it is quite impossible that those who know this truth and those who don’t should be equally well equipped for leading a good life.”9)
It was against the degradation of language into an instrument of control that he fought. “Language is an instrument for communication,” he wrote in a later work, Studies in Words. “The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.”10 He fought against language in which proper distinctions were not made and false distinctions employed. He wished us to “become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are.” He meant by “well used,” skillfully used—because words are immensely potent instruments for evil as well as for good.
In The Abolition of Man, he argued that the danger to our language comes not first from political and economic causes but from a philosophical error, the rejection of the Tao, the fundamental and necessary, though unprovable, beliefs about right and wrong accepted by all cultures in all times. Among English artists, intellectuals, and political leaders as much as among as the Nazis they were fighting (Lewis was writing in 1943), “Traditional values are to be ‘de-bunked’ and mankind to be cut into some fresh shape. . . . The belief that we can invent ‘ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men; now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism.”11
The process of corruption is hidden “by the use of the abstraction ‘man’,” he continued. The Tao teaches us what it is to be human, but reject the Tao and individual men are reduced to examples of “a mere abstract universal” that can be given any meaning you like.12 One can do to Man what one cannot do to the individual man or woman or child. Human nature becomes whatever those in power say it is.
Three years later, Lewis noted that the act of rationalizing evil by describing it as doing good showed itself first in language. “When to ‘kill’ becomes to ‘liquidate’ the process has begun. The pseudo-scientific word disinfects the thing of blood and tears, or pity and shame, and mercy itself can be regarded as a sort of untidiness.”13
That Hideous Strength
It is in That Hideous Strength, the third novel in his space trilogy, that Lewis gave the matter his most thorough treatment.14 (He gives many examples in other books, of course, especially The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and The Narnia Chronicles.15) We find, first, the sort of corruption Orwell examined, where stealing people’s homes is hidden and defended by calling it the rectification of frontiers. The N.I.C.E. (a conspiracy to take over England disguised as a scientific, humanitarian institute, located in a place called Belbury) wants the legal authority to experiment on criminals but knows the public would oppose the plan if they knew. They must change the public’s mind by changing its vocabulary. One of their leaders, Feverstone, explains this to Mark Studdock, a young sociologist they want to hire.
[I]t does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you’d have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end. . . . You mustn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!16
Feverstone tells Mark that they want him to write such things. Mark’s response is only to worry, his professional vanity being touched, whether this would be his main job. Here, in Mark’s almost unconscious choices, driven by his desire to get on the inside, Lewis introduced one theme of the novel: that to lie is to reject God and choose the darkness, which leads, more quickly than we realize, to blindness and thus damnation.
In choosing to use words to mean what they do not mean, in order to trick people into approving what they would not approve if they understood rightly, Mark takes a step, a small but decisive step, toward hell. (Some readers have thought Mark a weakness in the novel because he is such a fool that it is hard to care enough about him to keep reading. We may think that—until we realize that most of us are like Mark. We make the same choice to lie or speak truly every day and usually for the same reasons. At that point our interest rises.)
In part, the Belburian method is to force people to think certain thoughts by giving them the words with which to think them or by destroying the words with which they might think other thoughts, as Orwell described in the appendix on “Newspeak” in 1984. But the Belburian method is subtler and Lewis’s insight deeper than Orwell’s. The method Feverstone describes finds within the people he wants to manipulate a prejudice or desire and makes acting upon it respectable by giving it a respectable name. It plays carefully upon the sins of the people, in ways they will not see, by articulating for them what they already believed, or half-believed, or wanted to believe. The good propagandist is a disciple of Screwtape’s.
Then there is the corrupting language of jargon, which is not heard much at Belbury, but is heard in people like Mark who are, without knowing it, training for Belbury. As a sociologist, Mark is supposed to be concerned with the realities of human life, but he avoided “such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ He preferred to write about ‘vocational groups,’ ‘elements,’ ‘classes’ and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.” It is this mental habit of abstraction, I suspect, that made him so easily adopt the language of Belbury.17
Jargon is often a technical necessity (“classes” is a useful term for understanding how people act in groups), but one can move very easily from using jargon as a sort of shorthand to using it to avoid those realities. “Compare ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ with ‘The supreme being transcends space and time’,” Lewis wrote his brother just after his conversion.
The first goes to pieces if you begin to apply the literal meaning to it. . . . The second falls into no such traps. On the other hand the first really means something, really represents a concrete experience in the minds of those who use it; the second is mere dexterous playing with the counters, and once a man has learnt the rule he can go on that way for two volumes without really using the words to refer to any concrete fact at all.18
And then there is the corrupting language of metaphor, of rejecting realities you dislike by treating them as metaphors for ideas of which you approve. The Anglican priest Straik, an atheist and self-proclaimed prophet (not, apparently, defrocked), insists on telling Mark that the kingdom of God is to be achieved on this earth, given not by God but by science, that they, the Belburians, are the saints who will inherit the earth, that Belbury and its programs are the Resurrection.19 In making realities metaphorical, one steals the attachment and authority of the realities for one’s own ends.
An example is the attempt to modernize the biblical language in a way that erases the content, either because the modernizer is insensitive to the way images convey truths that cannot be conveyed in propositions, or because he does not like the meaning and wishes to replace it while claiming its authority, or because he simply does not know the realities and thinks his propositions just as good. In Letters from Malcolm Lewis noted that the revision of biblical language called de-mythologizing “can easily be ‘re-mythologizing’ it—and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.” When propositions are substituted for biblical images, the new meanings are “more subtly hidden and of a far more disastrous type.”20
Making Things Unclear
Then there is the corrupting language of obscurity. It is not quite accurate to say, as some readers have said, that the speech of John Wither, deputy director of the N.I.C.E., makes no sense. When he first meets Mark, he conveys information, but he does not convey the information Mark needs to have—he tells Mark that he may live anywhere, but not whether he has a job.21 Wither does not speak nonsense but refuses to speak the truth needed.
He intends to manipulate, but his method is different from the one Feverstone explained to Mark. He does not try to adjust the people’s vocabulary and therefore their understanding, but tries to cloud their vision and therefore eliminate understanding, leaving his victims to act blindly on instinct and appetite, as Mark does (and Wither knows he will), obeying his almost overwhelming desire to be in the inner ring. The director of the N.I.C.E.’s police explains this to Mark: “Making things clear is the one thing the D.D. can’t stand. . . . That’s not how he runs the place. And mind you, he knows what he’s about. It works, Sonny. You’ve no idea yet how well it works.” Wither, after all, can speak plainly to his—not colleagues, for no one at Belbury is a colleague or a comrade—co-conspirators.22
At the end of the story, we find that Wither has actually chosen meaninglessness. Belbury has fallen into chaos and death (though to say one is to say the other), but he does not care, because “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.”23 He did not want meaning, but he had wanted power; denied power, he had nothing and was satisfied.
A Vision of God
Thus Lewis as much as Orwell exposed the corruption of language, but he saw something more. He knew that to write well we must see rightly, and that to see rightly we must be holy. As St. John says, “Now we are the sons of God, and . . . when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), and on the other hand, the sinner “is in darkness, and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11).24
Orwell saw something of this. “The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all,” he wrote four years after writing “Politics and the English Language.” “Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise.”25 But for him the causes of corrupted language were economic and political, and the solution was to simplify one’s English. He was a modern man, and thus he could only answer a moral and spiritual problem with a technique.26 Lewis saw that the real cause was the corruption of the human soul and therefore that the only lasting answer was redemption and sanctification.
The question is how the vision of the good and of God is gained or lost. Almost everything Lewis wrote addresses this question in some way, but we will look at examples only from The Narnia Chronicles and That Hideous Strength. In his books, Lewis showed people making choices, but he never explained why they made the choices they did. In The Narnia Chronicles, we see people choosing to see or not to see Aslan by choosing to do good or evil. In That Hideous Strength, we see Mark choosing to lie.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we see that the state of the heart determines whether we see God and accept him when we do. Peter, Susan, and Lucy respond to the name of Aslan, before they have any idea who Aslan is, with hope. Edmund, who nurtures anger and plots treason, responds with revulsion and fear. Like Mark Studdock, he is brought to see the good only when his plans fail and he comes close to losing his life. Yet he chooses for Aslan, as Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy, given the same choice, refuses him.
Lewis also gave a hint in this story about the nature of images and archetypes. To be saved, the children have to choose to follow a robin, whom they follow because robins are always good in the stories they know. Only Edmund suspects the robin, having through his treachery and greed lost both his discernment and his ability to trust another, because he begins to believe that everyone is as treacherous as he is. His world is turning in upon itself, and he is becoming the only canon or criterion he knows.
In Prince Caspian, Lewis showed that we come to see God by accepting the reports of those we know are good and have seen him already. Peter, Susan, and Edmund come to see Aslan only by following Lucy, who sees him when (because they refused her testimony before) they do not. Susan resists most strongly, appealing to her age and the majority against Lucy, and then when the others agree to follow her, threatens to stay behind. She follows, at last, only because she has to or be left by herself in a strange forest. Because she has rejected Lucy’s witness but still followed her, if only because she is afraid not to, she sees Aslan but sees him last of all the children. As George Macdonald tells Lewis in The Great Divorce, “If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear.”27
In Caspian himself we see that the vision comes to those who hope for it, who recognize that this world is not all there is, even if they do not know what else there is. And we also see that the vision grows as we grow in the vision. “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger,” Aslan tells Lucy.
The other five Chronicles give other insights into the vision of God. In each of them, men and women choose to see or not to see Aslan, as they choose good or evil. Everything one does blinds or enlightens.
A Study of the Corruptible
The Last Battle may also be read as a study of those who would let their language be corrupted.28 Most of the animals who accept the new Aslan, and then Tashlan, are ignorant and frightened. They know of Aslan only from stories. The false Aslan is shown to them in the dark, with such pomp as the ape Shift can manage, accompanied by Calormene soldiers. A few animals protest, but most accept him. He is doing evil—killing the Wood Nymphs and selling them into slavery to Calormen—but convinced that he is Aslan, they assume that he is angry with them and that their suffering is their own fault. For most, their understanding has been corrupted but not their hearts, but that is enough to set them to serve the ape and the Calormenes and to blaspheme against Aslan.
Others are cowardly or do not love the good enough to resist evil. Puzzle acts out Shift’s lies (itself a form of lying) because he is a coward. He later pleads that he is “not clever” and that he was only following orders, but he acted as he did because he did not have the courage to resist Shift’s urging to do what he knew was wrong. Only when he sees the Calormene god Tash flying by—actually sees evil—does he truly repent. (We sometimes forget that evil may be done passively, as it was done by Puzzle, by not choosing the good when the good must be chosen, or by not resisting evil when evil must be resisted.29)
And some do not see because they have sinned. Even the two heroes, King Tirian and Jewel the unicorn, do not recognize the fake Aslan because they have sinned: first by acting in anger and then by murdering two unarmed Calormene soldiers. They had been given enough information to know better: they should have known from the Centaur’s report of the stars and the news brought by the Dryad, who dies in front of them because someone had cut down her tree, that Aslan has not returned to Narnia.
The sins affect their vision according to their gravity. When acting in anger, Tirian and Jewel forget the evidence they have and cannot decide if the Aslan they hear about is the true Aslan. The mystery that Aslan is not a tame lion, a mystery in the sense of a truth too deep to be grasped, becomes a mystery in the sense of something unknown. It confuses them, seeming to mean that they can know nothing about him, even if he is doing what they know is wrong. (Significantly, perhaps, no one remembers the words which in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe followed “He’s not a tame lion”: “But he’s good.”) Then they fall into deeper sin—murder—and suddenly they are no longer in doubt: they believe the rumored Aslan to be the real Aslan and give themselves up to his justice. Anger dimmed their sight, but murder blinded them.
But they are also repentant and do penance, and so their blindness lasts only a little while. When the ape declares that Aslan is the same as Tash, Tirian rejects the lie because he knows—he remembers—that Aslan is good and Tash evil. Even so, later that night, when Puzzle/Aslan is exhibited to the animals, Tirian, tied to a tree some ways away, still wonders if he might really be Aslan. After all, “He had never seen the Great Lion. . . . He had not expected Aslan to look like that stiff thing which stood and said nothing. How could one be sure? For a moment horrible thoughts went through his mind: then he remembered the nonsense about Tash and Aslan being the same and knew that the whole thing must be a cheat.”
The loss of vision in That Hideous Strength is shown in Mark Studdock’s steady movement to damnation through his choosing to lie: by fantasies of what he will do or would have done (which is a form of lying, though we tend to forget this), by pretending to like people he did not like, by saying what he thinks he’s expected to say and not saying what he thinks will offend, and (in some ways most corrupting) by lying or deciding to lie to his wife.30 All small acts, taken one by one, but building to an act whose significance he had made himself unable to see.
At last he is invited in: to write newspaper stories about a riot that N.I.C.E. will start the next day, to convince the government to grant them emergency powers.
This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner . . . it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.31
Having lost his vision of the good, he is now helping others lose theirs.
The Furnace of Essential Speech
Of language used rightly I will say little here. The best introduction to the language of heaven, as far as we can speak it on earth, is the stories themselves, because one best learns a language not by reading textbooks and grammars but from the company of those who speak it as natives.
At St. Anne’s, the small community opposed to Belbury, language is used to clarify and thereby to heal.32 There the right word is the word that heals by bringing truth; at Belbury, the right word is the word that tricks (“re-education” for “experiment”). The healing word may be a hard word (which breaks the bone to set it again) but a hard word only because the truth is hard to bear. We rarely hear such hard words at Belbury, where conversation is either insider talk or abuse, and usually the sort of insider talk that brings the listeners in by defaming those without.
The end and goal is something very hard to describe, and Lewis does so in mystical terms when Mercury descends upon St. Anne’s. The lesser mortals become witty, eloquent, play deeply with metaphor and analogy. Upstairs, Ransom and Merlin, wiser and greater than the others, were living, though even they only for a short time, “in the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning.”33
Less mystically, the people who see truly find their language being deepened. I will give just two examples. First, in the justly famous description of Aslan: he is not safe or tame, but he is good. “Wild” and “good” have much deeper meanings than we thought. In explaining this to the children, the Beavers, no intellectuals, articulate a paradoxical truth and mystery that theologians have trouble grasping. Second, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy wants him to come back soon, and Aslan simply tells her that he “calls all times soon.” Time, in other words, is not just the movement through history of minute after minute, but part of eternity, encompassed within God.
Lewis gives another example in the elaborate and archaic language the Pevensie children adopt while in Narnia. (This is clearest in the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also in Peter’s composing his letter to Miraz in Prince Caspian.) They speak so, I assume, not just because they have in Narnia grown to love beautiful language but because it is the language of courtesy—because, in other words, their respect for each other has grown. How else would one speak to “possible gods and goddesses” and “everlasting splendours,” as Lewis described man at the end of his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”?
Training Our Vision
These are all examples of the language of heaven. Here let me note only that the ability to speak such language is a gift, but it is a gift to be found—or better yet, received—after and through the cleansing of your language from corruption. From Lewis’s writing we may discern ways to train our vision, to learn to choose to see, so that our speech may grow purer. This process of purification is an act for the establishment of man, against his abolition.
The first step in training our vision is obedience: obedience not only to the Christian revelation but also to the Tao. Lewis explained to his friend Malcolm that one could not explain the mystery of Communion, but that we were commanded to “Take, eat: not Take, understand,”34 and this principle is a central one to the Christian life.
Moreover, we must have an objective standard—the Tao and the revelation—to have grounds for objecting to propaganda. If there is no right and wrong, those who want to use words as weapons to gain power over others may do so as they please. To see, we must believe there is something there to see.
Second, we must accept the revelation and the terms in which that revelation has been given to us, particularly those images we tend to try to put into propositions.35 The being who is as strong or as fierce as a lion is not so interesting or glorious—or strong or fierce—as the real lion Aslan, nor as close to us.
Third, we ought to spend as much time as we can in the company of those who see. Not only holy people, but holy books, or rather books in which holiness is conveyed.
Fourth, we ought to enjoy such pleasures as God gives us. Mark is saved at the end of That Hideous Strength by the memory of Jane, and not least, of Jane’s body. And, less erotically, certainly, by taking enjoyment in a children’s book he had enjoyed as a child but stopped reading because he thought it was childish.36
All of these together nurture in us “just sentiments,” feelings and instincts and responses and emotions all reflecting reality. Until quite recently, Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”37 What an object merited was generally established in the Tao and recognized by all. Belbury, not surprisingly, calls these just sentiments “obscurantism” as opposed to the unsentimental “order” and “objectivity” it offers.38
We must have just sentiments to see and therefore to speak truly. In losing belief in the Tao we have laid ourselves open to accepting without demur any set of reactions, any sentiments, no matter how incongruous with reality. “The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments . . . a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”39 As G. K. Chesterton said, when a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything.
The Call to Holiness
By seeing more clearly, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards regeneration of any kind. And thus the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. But the writer’s struggle begins in the human heart, Lewis knew, in the choice for or against God. “[W]ith all your innumerable choices,” Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,
all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.40
Language is best purified not by the writing techniques Orwell offered, as useful as they are, but by holiness. The Eastern Orthodox say that a theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. It may be said that the writer is one who says his prayers, and one who says his prayers is (within the limits of his gifts and training) a writer, for poor grammar and clumsy rhythm may yet convey the truth more precisely and deeply than grace and style and wit. “The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that,” Lewis wrote.41 The holy man speaks the truth, because he knows exactly what he wants to say, because he sees it in front of him.
1. The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf, 1995) pp. 11–12.
2. “De Descriptione Temporum,” They Asked for a Paper (Bles, 1962) p. 18. He traced a similar change from believing love the chief virtue to believing that unselfishness is. “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory (Eerdmans, 1965) p. 1. He also saw that a rejection of objective truth led people to demand of their rulers qualities that could not be defined or measured but were promoted in exciting and compelling words. “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1967) p. 81.
3. “The Death of Words,” On Stories, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1982), p. 107.
4. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968) vol. 3, p. 263. The passage Orwell ridicules is the third paragraph of chapter 7 of Book IV of Mere Christianity. He left out the first two sentences, which put it in context.
5. “George Orwell,” On Stories, pp. 101–104.
6. Writing during the last year of his life, Orwell called a seventeenth-century Italian crucifix with a stiletto inside “a perfect symbol of the Christian religion” and wrote that Christianity is “untenable” and “indefensible.” The Collected Essays, etc., vol. 4, pp. 511, 512.
7. Ibid., pp. 127–140.
8. Lewis’s remarks on the craft of writing can be found in Letters of C. S. Lewis, edited by W. H. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1975) pp. 270–271, 291–292; “Christian Apologetics,” “Before We Can Communicate,” and “Cross-Examination,” God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970) pp. 96–99, 254–257, 263. See also his friend Nevill Coghill’s remarks on his style in “The Approach to English,” Light on C. S. Lewis, edited by Jocelyn Gibb (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1976) p. 59ff.
9. “Man or Rabbit?” God in the Dock, pp. 108–109.
10. Studies in Words (Cambridge University Press/Canto Books, 1990) p. 6. Lewis was also careful to explain what words could not do (pp. 313–326).
11. The Abolition of Man (Macmillan, 1955) p. 85. See also Lewis’s discussion of the misuse of the word “community,” p. 42.
12. Ibid., p. 86. In That Hideous Strength, the good scientist William Hingest explains why this inevitably happens when man is made an object of scientific investigation. (Macmillan/Collier Books, 1965) p. 71.
13. “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” Of Other Worlds, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1966) p. 84.
14. For illuminating treatments of this book and its understanding of language, see Thomas Howard’s C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters (Ignatius, 1987) pp. 159–206 and Doris Myers’s C. S. Lewis in Context (Kent State, 1994) pp. 72–111. Michael Aeschliman’s The Restitution of Man (Eerdmans, 1998), Gilbert Meilaender’s The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis (Eerdmans, 1978), and Peter Kreeft’s C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 1994) are excellent expositions of Lewis’s intellectual assault on scientism, relativism, and the like.
15. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the subject appears in the sufficiency of the Lone Island’s defense of the slave trade (using corrupting metaphor) and in the Dufflepuds’ sudden clarity when they want something from Lucy; in The Horse and His Boy, in the Calormenes’ elaborate but deceitful language; and in The Magician’s Nephew, in Uncle Andrew’s rationalization of his sending a little girl to another world.
16. That Hideous Strength, p. 43. In a meeting of the insiders at Belbury, Wither asks the others to call torture “scientific examination” (p. 240), and Frost calls the loss of morals and affections “objectivity” (p. 299).
17. Ibid., p. 87. Mark has become a propagandist, and Lewis also shrewdly analyzed their techniques. See pp. 98, 99, 128–130.
18. Letters of C. S. Lewis, p. 147.
19. That Hideous Strength, pp. 78–80.
20. Letters to Malcolm (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1964) p. 52. For other examples, see pp. 51–55, 74, 92–93, 96–97.
21. That Hideous Strength, pp. 52–53. See also pp. 95 and 119–120.
22. Ibid., p. 97. For Wither’s clarity, see p. 240. He is discussing the problems with torture as a way to extract information and the best way to get Mark to tell them where his wife is.
23. Ibid., p. 353. The passage is a frightening description of damnation.
24. See also John 9:35–41; Rom. 11:7–10; 2 Cor. 4:3,4; Mt. 15:14; Rev. 3:17.
25. The Collected Essays, etc., vol. 4, p. 504.
26. The Abolition of Man, p. 88. As one who would not conform his soul to reality, Orwell was left trying to force reality to fit his wishes, which can only be attempted through technique. Lewis would have seen economic and political forces to be temptations, not causes, and Orwell’s treatment itself part of the problem. See “‘Bulverism’,” God in the Dock, pp. 271–277.
27. The Great Divorce (Macmillan, 1946) p. 74.
28. The Last Battle (Macmillan/Collier Books, 1970). It is also a study in effective lying and propaganda. See pp. 77–78 and 101–102.
29. Another way of understanding Puzzle is to see him as suffering from the Deadly Sin of sloth or acedia.
30. The steps can be found on pp. 17ff, 35f, 49, 54–55, 69, 88–89, 94, 102–103, 119–121, 124, and 127–135. From that point the story describes Mark’s rescue from the damnation he has chosen.
31. That Hideous Strength, p. 130.
32. A simple example: Mark’s wife Jane has been having horrifying dreams. The people at St. Anne’s recognize them as visions, but she is still frightened. One character tells her to think of them as news, and given only that one small but accurate word, Jane is able to accept them. Ibid., p. 188.
33. Ibid., pp. 321–322.
34. Letters to Malcolm, p. 104.
35. For an explanation of the necessity of accepting the biblical images, see Mr. Caldecott and Mr. Duriez’s essays and the references therein in The Pilgrim’s Guide, edited by David Mills (Eerdmans, 1998), and also Lewis’s “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” pp. 164–166, and Letters to Malcolm, pp. 51–56, 92–93, 96–99.
36. That Hideous Strength, pp. 359–360.
37. The Abolition of Man, p. 25.
38. That Hideous Strength, pp. 41, 299. Hingest, the only one who rejects Belbury, does so because it is not to his taste, but his remarks show that his taste has been formed by the Tao (pp. 71–72).
39. The Abolition of Man, p. 24.
40. Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1960) pp. 86–87.
41. “Cross-Examination,” God in the Dock, p. 263. Lying, Lewis wrote a friend, is saying “what you know to be untrue. But to know this, and to have the very ideas of truth and falsehood in your head, presupposes a clarity of mind.” Letters to an American Lady (Eerdmans, 1971) p. 51. He would have agreed, I think, that a man can lie so much that he loses that clarity of mind, at which point he becomes a liar, even though he cannot recognize a lie.
“To See Truly Through a Glass Darkly: C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, and the Corruption of Language” is a slightly abridged version of an essay appearing in The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, a collection of essays that the author edited.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.