Hopeless, Sick and Appalling Fear, or, The Meaning of ‘Hideous Strength’

“Its claws were imbedded in every country.”

“The Hideous Strength holds all this earth in its fist to squeeze as it wishes”

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)

The word hideous has been drained of meaning by generations of women who have used it as a pejorative epithet in their frivolous chatter about dresses and hair.  Chattering women did the same thing to the word ghastly, but that is another story.  Hideous is not, properly, a synonym for ugly.   Its root meaning and exact synonym is horrible.  And, once again, horrible does not properly mean superlatively bad.  Horrible means generative of a hopeless, sick, and appalling fear.

It was the pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer who taught me to understand horror as a hopeless, sick, and appalling fear.  Horror is, in fact, the exact opposite of Christian joy.  Christian joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and is really a sudden delight in the hope, life and faith that the Holy Spirit brings.  Horror is the gift of the Diabolic Spirit, and is really a sudden despair.  Hope is lost, life sickens, and faith is replaced by appalling fear.  As Schopenhauer puts it,

“If . . . we should bring clearly to a man’s sight the terrible sufferings and miseries to which his life is constantly exposed, he would be seized with horror.”*

He would be seized, in other words, with a conviction that the cosmos hates him, and will one day tear him limb from limb.  Christian joy is the thrill that comes with believing that the evils of this world are in some sense illusions, and that a wise and loving God sits at the back of all things.  Horror is the nausea that comes with believing that the goods of this world are unreal, and that behind all appearances is the ravenous monster that Irish myth calls the Black Pig.

“The Black Pig, a type of cold and of winter that awakes in November . . . to do battle with the summer, and . . . of the darkness that will at last destroy the gods and the world.”

“The battle of the Black Pig is the battle between the manifest world and the ancestral darkness at the end of all things.”**

A thing is, therefore, truly hideous, insofar as it makes you sick with fear that everything you love must one day go screaming into the dark, where it will be gulped, guzzled and gobbled by the cruel and insatiable maw of this obscene Black Pig.

* * * * *

A hideous strength is, therefore, a power that engenders hopelessness and despair in those who hate it.  This is why the vast and seemingly irresistible army of Sauron was hideous to those who beheld it from the ramparts of Minas Tirith. But it was not simply the awful power of Sauron’s army that made it a hideous strength.  It was the fact that this awful and irresistible power was evil, and that its all-but-certain defeat of Minas Tirith would establish the dominion of evil for all time.

To behold a truly hideous strength is, therefore, to sicken with the thought that evil must triumph, and that when it does, the lights will go out forever.

* * * * *

In a curious book on spiritual warfare written in the seventeenth century, the Puritan theologian John Downame describes the hideous army of Satan in a way that exactly matches what I yesterday wrote about soft and hard totalitarianism.  When this Leviathan gathers on the field of battle, its front ranks appear to be nice.

“In the front and main battle were marshalled the world’s glorious and glittering troops of prosperity, armed with those often-approved weapons of honors, pleasures and riches, wherewith few are encountered who are not also overcome.”

Leviathan makes its first assault with gifts.  It gives men honors, pleasures and riches, and then enslaves those men with the fear that these gifts will be taken away.  This was, of course, the way that NICE very nearly enslaved Mark Studdock.  NICE very nicely offered Studdock what looked like power, and thereby very nearly succeeded in bringing him under the terrible power of NICE.

Thus Downame explains, Leviathan swallows men by spoon-feeding them.

“And observing the manner of their fight, I found it to be no less admirable then dangerous, for they overcame by yielding, wounded by persuading, killed by embracing, and whilst casting away their arms and all signs of hostility . . . they became conquerors of those who took them, jailors of those that kept them, and commanders of those who seemed to hold them in captivity.”

A man thinks he is on top of the world when he commands honors, pleasures and riches.  But we see upon closer examination that he is commanded by those honors, pleasures and riches, and that the world is, in fact, on top of him.

And as I said yesterday, NICE will turn very nasty with the remnant that refuses to be bought in this way.  Leviathan holds its instruments of hard totalitarianism in reserve, but it is in this “stern and grim visage” that we clearly see the unmasked face of its “hideous strength.”

In the flank and rereward were ranged those terrible troops . . . placed by the Devil . . . to vanquish those by force, violence, and furious encounter, who could not be overcome by the persuading allurements of deceitful prosperity, and these enemies seemed to be of hideous strength, and in respect of their stern and grim visage, proud threats, and dangerous weapons, fearful to look upon.

*) World as Will and Idea (1819)
**) W. B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)

15 thoughts on “Hopeless, Sick and Appalling Fear, or, The Meaning of ‘Hideous Strength’

  1. I feel like a huge mask is poised to swallow me whole for my brazenness in thinking I could oppose wearing one of its little spawn. And it seems I’m alone even among the chosen and tailored company one may keep on the internet.

  2. Pingback: Hopeless, Sick and Appalling Fear, or, The Meaning of ‘Hideous Strength’ | Reaction Times

  3. I can testify that the progressive way of sucking in members of the underclass is to propose to make you a “leader.” Then a year or two in you realize, if you are bright, I guess, that they weren’t recognizing your unrealized brilliance but subtly manipulating your every move in regard to the movement. Beware when a politician invites you to become a leader beside her!

    I love That Hideous Strength to the point that I despair of doing my thoughts and prayers about it justice in a mere comment, but I see in Mark and Jane different aspects of my own life from childhood.

    Let’s put it this way — I grew up a daughter of an old Appalachian family almost next door to the TVA and the DOE’s nuke bomb factories at Oak Ridge. Both agencies are very nice indeed to the people of East Tennessee. What’s a little poisoned well water among friends? We’re only seizing your farm for your own good. Now the bears are coming out of the woods in unprecedented numbers and bizarre ways. I pray a lot about that.

    • Young people are easily flattered because they are insecure. But decent adults often overpraise young people to help them overcome their insecurity. So it’s hard to separate the flatterers from the encouragers until it is too late. I suppose this is similar to the difficulty of separating those older people who are nice from those who are nice because they want to bugger you. I know because both types were nice to me. Young people should be taught to beware of being paid more than they deserve (whether in cash, compliments, or deference). It generally means that you are performing, or are expected to perform, some service that you haven’t been told about. I think this was how many of the “me too” cases worked. A young woman was over-promoted. She half knew it, but explained it as “amazing luck.” Then the man who over-promoted her demanded that she give him what he’d paid for, or sink back to her natural level. She might have refused if he had offered her a desirable job in exchange for sex, but refusal is much harder when she is already in that job, but he can still take it away.

  4. Perhaps you will have more to say about Downame’s book — The Christian Warfare, I suppose. I have found Richard Baxter and Isaac Ambrose, from the same century though later than Downame, good to read.

    • Yes, the quotes are from Christian Warfare. I neglected to insert a footnote. I very much like the vigorous, slashing style of many seventeenth-century writers. I also like the stately prose of the eighteenth-century, but can understand why a writer like Carlyle wanted to return to something a little more vigorous. I’ve read some Baxter, but no Ambrose.

  5. The Ambrose I have in mind is War with Devils [and] Ministration of, and Communion with, Angels, as a facsimile reprint from an outfit in India. It took a while for the book to arrive and it’s the old handset typeface with the “long S” that looks like an f — but it’s a solid read.

  6. A hideous strength is, therefore, a power that engenders hopelessness and despair in those who hate it.

    Funny – I was recently trying to characterize exactly this aspect of Trump and the political tendencies he represents. There’s something uncanny about him; his grossness and vacuity is so comprehensive it suggests the bleak inhuman void of a Lovecraftian universe; the subsumption of all values into a death cult. Whatever power he represents engenders despair in me.
    But Trump somehow drives everybody mad, both his supporters and his detractors.

    • I understand that Trump engenders outrage in those who hate him, but would have though Progressives are incapable of horror in the strong sense I give it here. Progressives believe in Progress, so they suffer setbacks but cannot suffer a final defeat. They have left us in no doubt that they are appalled and sickened by Trump, but they are not, so far as I can tell, despairing that Progress will be annihilated.

      I personally find all politicians more or less depressing.

      • First, not everyone on the left side of the political spectrum believes exactly the same things. Hardcore Marxists might believe that their vision of the future is inevitable, but the median progressive believes only that progress is possible and should be pursued, not that it is guaranteed by the cosmos.

        Second, even those with faith in progress might have that faith shaken on occasion.

        Trump is such an occasion. Liberal progress depends crucially on the power of reason and empathy, and his rise indicates that there is a huge chunk of the population for which those qualities mean less than nothing.

      • I’ve yet to meet the man who thinks progress is impossible or should not be pursued. Progress is by definition that which should be pursued. Our disagreements are over what constitutes progress and how far it is likely to go. The Left is not uniquely gifted with reason or empathy, as a very long list of Leftist fiascos and atrocities shows. These fiascos and atrocities were undertaken to achieve equality, which is the defining feature of the Left.

      • Conservatives and reactionaries are definitionally against progress, at least in comparison with those on the left. Standing athwart history and saying “stop”. etc. They are historically also against reason, at least in its ideological form. I thought you guys were proud of being against modernity, isn’t that the whole point of this site?
        Anyway I have no wish to quibble about definitions. Just thought it was interesting that we each have our looming figures of hideous strength, although not the same ones.

  7. Pingback: Eschew Calumny and Chauvinism – The Orthosphere


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