Sunday, 3 August 2014

CS Lewis's The Abolition of Man - true prophecy always happens with a twist


The Abolition of Man was a series of lectures given by CS Lewis in 1943 about half a mile from where I am sitting as I write this; Walter Hooper, Lewis's greatest editor, regards them as Lewis's best and most important non-fiction writing (and a companion to the novel That Hideous Strength).

If you have not read it, you should - here it is:


The three linked essays are studded with extraordinary insights and predictions.

Lewis really was an inspired prophet at times; but - as always - genuine prophecies come true in unanticipated ways.

According to Lewis, the 'abolition' of man comes when an elite of 'conditioners' use scientific methods to shape human psychology as they think fit. Initially they may do this for some goal such as efficiency, or in line with scientific ideals - but very quickly their own effectiveness will undermine all strategic principles (including all morality) until they are guided merely by the whim of the moment - there being nothing that is regarded as more fundamental than whatever happens to be their currently dominating emotion.


This is - of course - precisely what has happened in our world dominated by an ever-more pervasive and ever-more addictive mass media - but with the twist that the conditioning is working at an indescribably more trivial level than could be imagined 70 years ago.

The masses are conditioned into a frenzied-zombie state of transient stimulations, momentary distractions, cynicism alternating with grandstanding moral poses.

A world of liars lying about their own lies; then lying to cover their tracks.


We don't feel oppressed because modernity is invisible to us.

I don't think an accurate and exciting and thought-provoking 'warning' novel could be written about the modern condition, in the way of That Hideous Strength. 

Indeed, modern life cannot be depicted realistically on truthfully in a movie, TV series, comic, or as an opera; it cannot be depicted at all! - because any depiction of the way things have actually turned-out would be unbelievable, too dull and pointless and incoherent to sustain audience interest or attention - let alone to persuade them of its validity.



Anonymous said...

From the Sancrucensis weblog comes the following quote from Wallace Benjamin Kunkel:

"Back in 2002 I had a running debate with a friend of mine on the subject of “dignity.” She claimed that this was something I was excessively concerned about. She didn’t think it was possible for people like us to be really dignified in the old (and possibly imaginary) way of prior generations and characters in classic novels. We were endlessly self-reflexive individuals who had been marked by dabbling in drugs and semiotics; the media world we inhabited made life feel squalid, disposable, and fearful; we could hear, when we opened our mouths, the culture industry’s language and not always our own. We were trapped inside ourselves—and in there wasn’t even a 'self.' More like an empty lot crisscrossed by gusts of addictive compulsion, and littered with cultural debris. The situation made you feel ashamed. It bankrupted concepts like 'dignity.'"

Certain post-modern novels, as suggested by that blog post, give hints at the modern self. What do you think?


Nicholas Fulford said...

When I read posts that have this flavour - Bruce writes a few of them - I am reminded of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation

(See for an introduction )

Quoting from the link:

ACCORDING TO BAUDRILLARD, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory" ("The Precession of Simulacra" 1). According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” ("The Precession of Simulacra" 2). Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. To clarify his point, he argues that there are three "orders of simulacra": 1) in the first order of simulacra, which he associates with the pre-modern period, the image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real; 2) in the second order of simulacra, which Baudrillard associates with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Such production misrepresents and masks an underlying reality by imitating it so well, thus threatening to replace it (e.g. in photography or ideology); however, there is still a belief that, through critique or effective political action, one can still access the hidden fact of the real; 3) in the third order of simulacra, which is associated with the postmodern age, we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation precedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.

In the last few years I have taken to spending a week in the backcountry - hiking and seeing nature without the distractions and noise of man's constructed world. Aside from the aesthetic of nature, there is withdrawal - in the beginning - much less talking, and much more of experiencing things without the maps of reality that we take as real in our day to day lives. This is intensely restorative, until some few weeks later, when the noise once again overwhelms the signal, and the map reimposes itself over the real.

Heaviside said...

But why do we need all this distraction? To cover up the boredom that always exists in the background of a world without gods. Voegelin said that this boredom is what lead to the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, so the current media-centric cosmopolitan order prides itself on not being like those regimes.