Of all the books that Lewis wrote, the most difficult and obscure must surely be The Pilgrim’s Regress. In this strange, esoteric allegory of his journey to faith, Lewis introduces us to an everyman character named John who grows up in the legalistic, pharisaical land of Puritania, where everyone wears masks and the people are burdened by laws they cannot follow.
One day, however, John catches a glimpse of a distant island populated by bearded enchanters in a deep state of meditation. The vision provokes in John a sweet desire for goodness, truth, and beauty, and he sets off on a pilgrimage to find the source of that desire. Sadly, in seeking out the source of his joy, John continually takes wrong turns and falls off the true path.
As in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, each of the temptations that John faces along the way is allegorized as a person or place. The difference between Bunyan and Lewis’s versions of the road to faith—and the thing that makes the former infinitely easier to comprehend than the latter—is that whereas Bunyan’s pilgrim faces such spiritual traps as sloth, despair, and vanity, Lewis’s pilgrim faces a score of intellectual dead ends (stoicism, idealism, materialism, aestheticism, scientism, and so forth) that lie outside the experience of the average reader. Indeed, what makes Lewis’s work particularly challenging is that many of the “isms” he critiques have been abandoned, even by the secular humanists who once championed them.
Generally speaking, John faces two types of dangers—a cold rationalism (identified with the north) that kills joy and desire, and a hot hedonism (identified with the south) that causes joy to sicken and desire to grow perverse. In his journeys through the north, John is taken into custody by Sigismund Enlightenment, who, in the manner of Sigmund Freud, tries to convince him that his desire for the island is an illusion, an adolescent form of wish fulfillment.
John is then thrown into a dungeon where he must face a giant whose eyes pierce through him like a merciless x-ray machine. The giant’s eyes, writes Lewis, “had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent. Consequently, when John looked round in to the dungeon, he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror, for the place seemed to be thronged with demons. A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull, and through that the brains and the passage of the nose.”
Lewis shows great insight in comparing the giant to an x-ray, for the enlightenment theories of Freud, Marx, and Darwin have had just that effect on modern man. Though the writings of these founding fathers of modernism vary widely, they are alike in being, at their core, reductive. By reducing human love, joy, religion, and art to a product of unconscious urges, or economic forces, or the struggle for survival and reproduction, the theories of Freud, Marx, and Darwin have emptied humanity of its freedom, its dignity, and its purpose.
Meditating on the destructive force of the Enlightenment X-ray, Lewis closes his book, The Abolition of Man, with these prophetic words: “You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. . . . If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see.”