Dag Hammarskjold, in his personal diary, wrote:
Respect for the word – to employ it with scrupulous care and an incorruptible heartfelt love of truth – is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race.To misuse the word is to show contempt for man. It undermines the bridges and poisons the wells.
It’s been a favorite of mine for 20 years, and I’ve studied the topic for much of my life. In this post, I’ll share some quotes from two fictional portrayals of well-poisoning; one by C.S. Lewis, and the other by Charles Williams.
That Hideous Strength
The C.S. Lewis novel, “That Hideous Strength“, paints a picture of what happens when people disrespect the language and twist words to their own ends. The title is taken from a David Lyndsay poem, and refers to the tower of Babel.
In the story, young university professor Mark Studdock is invited into a secretive inner circle known as “the progressive element”, who help him advance his career. Eventually they draft him to write propaganda pieces in the newspaper for a powerful but evil foundation bent on taking control of society. His talent for twisting words serves him well at first, and the conspiracy seems unstoppable, but it all starts to unravel at the end:
It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed, in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.
The turning point for Mark Studdock is at a dinner for the foundation, when the director, Jules, gets up to give a speech, and the curse of Babel is placed on everyone in the room. Tell me this doesn’t sound like an emergent conversation, complete with the people rebutting nonsense with more nonsense:
“The madrigore of verjuice must be talthibianised.”
He thought, indeed, that Jules was sailing very near the wind, that a very small false step would deprive both the speaker and the audience of the power even to pretend that he was saying anything in particular.
“Come! That’s going too far. Even they must see that you can’t talk about accepting the challenge of the past by throwing down the gauntlet of the future.”
He noticed that everyone except himself had begun to attend.
“Tidies and fugleman—I sheel foor that we all—er—most steeply rebut the defensible, though, I trust, lavatory. Aspasia which gleams to have selected our redeemed inspector this deceiving. It would—ah—be shark, very shark, from anyone’s debenture …”
Then all hell breaks loose. Someone murders the director, and someone lets the foundation’s wild animals go free to slaughter guests:
the smell of the shooting mixed with the sticky compound smell of blood and port and Madeira.
He had only caught a gleam of black and tawny. Those who had seen it clearly could not tell the others: they could only point and scream meaningless syllables. But Mark had recognized it. It was a tiger.
Then, a voice proclaims judgment:
“Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, ei, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis.”
They that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away.
He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain.
The novel is tremendous, and a few quotes can’t do it justice. If you want a literary illustration of the dangers of twisting words, this is one of the best.
Descent Into Hell
Remonstrans once asked, “The children of postmodernism could not be respected citizens in either Jerusalem or Athens. What would their culture look like if they had their own city?”
Charles Williams symbolized this descent into meaninglessness as the city Gomorrah in his novel “Descent Into Hell“.
In this novel, Lawrence Wentworth is a frustrated old historian, someone who should know a thing or two about being honest with words. Wentworth is infatuated with a young lady named Adela, who is not interested in him. He finds reality increasingly unsatisfying, and much as the Emergents do with Christ, Wentworth decides to create an imaginary Adela who will do what he wants. His delight in tyrannizing over this fantasy is described thus:
“Image without incarnation, it was the delight of his incarnation, for it was without any of the things that troubled him about the incarnation of the beloved. He could exercise upon it all arts but one; he could not ever discover by it or practice towards it the freedom of love. A man cannot love himself, he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfuly tyrannize — without purpose. The great gift which this simple idolatry of self gives is lack of further purpose; it is, the saints tell us, a somewhat similar thing that exists in those wholly possesed by their End; it is, human experience shows, the most exquisite delight in the interchanges of romantic love. But in all loves but one there are counterpointing times of purposes; in this only there are none.”
Better yet is this description of the Postmodern mind:
“He was approached, appeased, flattered, entreated. There flowed into him from the creature by his side the sensation of his absolute power to satisfy her. It was what he had vehemently and in secret desired — to have his own way under the pretext of giving her hers.”
“It had been an ape of love’s vitality, and a parody also of its mortality. It posessed a semblance of initiative, and had appeased, as all lovers’ duty, the fantasies of his heart; it had fawned on him and provoked him.”
As his relationship with his fantasy Adela blossoms, he increasingly loses touch with reality. Wentworth becomes terrified of the real Adela, because she would smash his illusion.
Likewise, Adela begins her own lonely journey to Gommorah:
“She would neither revolt nor obey nor compromise. She would deceive. Her admission to the citizenship of Gommorah depended on that moment at which, of those four only possible alternatives for the human soul, she refused to know which she had chosen. ‘Tell me it’s for yourself, only yourself…’ No, no, it’s not for myself. It’s for the good of others, her good, his good, everybody’s good. Is it my fault if they don’t see it? Manage them, manage them, manage her, manage him, manage them.”
In a final scene, we see Wentworth confusedly wandering around a train station, having lost all capacity for language. Unable to hear or speak, only muttering incoherently.
Again, I’ve pulled only one theme from the book, to make a singular point. The book is one of the best I’ve ever read, and well worth your time. If you want a vivid literary portrayal of the postmodern mind, give “Descent” a try.