Those who have not had the opportunity to study literature at a college or university may be surprised to know that most English departments in our nation (secular and sacred) have thrown out the concept of beauty. If that statement does not shock you, then consider a doctor who cares nothing about health, or a philosopher who cares nothing about wisdom, or a scientist who cares nothing about the laws of nature. What would you think about such people? You would think they were frauds who had betrayed their profession and were running their race in vain. And you would be right!
For the last three millennia, beauty has been the end, the goal, and the criterion of great literature (not to mention music, dance, and the visual arts). Men wrote poetry as a way of approaching that divine Beauty which transcends the ceaseless change and decay of our world. They yearned for a kind of balance and harmony that was not subjected to death and corruption, that celebrated wholeness and clarity, that dwelled together with goodness and truth, and that carried in its wake understanding and illumination.
Lewis is best known as an apologist for the Christian faith, but he was also an apologist for beauty. With great courage, he resisted those who sought to deconstruct beauty and convert it from an essential element of the Creation inscribed by God in the heart of man and nature into a bourgeois construct, a tool of the status quo used to enforce conformity. Rather than give in to the modern Cult of the Ugly, which embraces ugliness as a form of freedom and self-expression, Lewis championed the pursuit of beauty as an affirmation that we were created in the image of a God who is himself the standard of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.
Lewis dramatizes this titanic struggle between essential Beauty and the Cult of the Ugly in part three of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength. In the novel, which fuses domestic drama with apocalyptic fantasy, Lewis introduces us to N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), an anti-Christian, anti-beauty, anti-humanistic society that worships the decapitated head of a criminal that they have managed to preserve through their occult science.
Near the end of the novel, Lewis’s male hero (Mark Studdock) prepares to be initiated into the inner circle of N.I.C.E. To induce him to reject Christ and accept the Head, Mark is thrown into a lop-sided room whose function is to disrupt all standards of beauty and thus pervert his natural human reactions. What Mark is confronted with in the room is an illusion of order that continually deconstructs itself. Every time he tries to rest his eyes or mind in one corner of the room, his attempts are frustrated. The point of the exercise—which disturbingly mimics what thousands of undergrads have faced in literature classes across America—is to get Mark to reject Beauty, Form, and Meaning, and embrace, in its stead, the void.
But the exercise backfires! By being confronted with ugliness in all its horror, Mark is pressed to embrace something deep within him, something he calls the Normal.
It is my prayer, as it was Lewis’s, that the nihilism of the modern university will push its charges, not toward the abandonment of standards but toward a realization that standards do exist and that their source lies outside our ever-shifting world.