The Fatal Bent
I was discussing C.S. Lewis's Perelandra the other day with someone who considers it the weakest of Lewis's science fiction trilogy, in fact pretty much forgettable. I disagree, and find it eminently memorable. And one thing I always recall vividly is the opening, in which the narrator takes a twilight walk from a railway station to Ransom's cottage three miles away. I've always thought that scene, and the narrator's steadily increasing sense of dread, one of the most effective openings of a novel I've ever read.
Thinking of it, I picked up the book and read that opening scene again. It really is quite good, as good as I remembered. But one thing jumped out at me, not necessarily part of that incident proper but a bit of explication by the narrator as he thinks about Ransom's revelation that our world is ruled by evil angels who
...are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history.
That does seem to be the general drift of history, and I'm afraid we're seeing that fatal bent in operation again. Those who've been reading this blog for a while know that I've been concerned for many years about whether the United States can survive the cold civil war that's been in progress since the '60s, if not longer. We call it "cold" in the sense that the Cold War was cold--that it did not involve physical violence. But the emotions involved are very hot and getting hotter. I hope I'm wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine our ever being truly one nation again. Each side of the culture war now believes that compromise is a lost cause, and that its survival or at least its well-being can only be achieved by the decisive defeat of the other.
Few nations can match the combination of material prosperity, personal freedom, and stable, reasonably democratic government that we have achieved. Setting aside all the valid criticisms of the thinking and practices that brought about these things, and of the injustices and other defects that were and are part of it, the achievement remains astonishing in the broad context of human history. And few serious people seriously want to give up all its benefits.
Yet here we are: rich, angry, ungrateful, stupid, ignorant, as impassioned as we are irrational, indifferent if not hostile to the foundations on which the achievement rests. The most egregious and fundamental of these is the attack on the constitution, which amounts to a rejection of the rule of law, of the whole concept of a government of laws and not of men, upon which rests the structure of representative government.
Most often the attack is implicit, but sometimes it's explicit. I'd be willing to bet that no more than one out of ten of the people currently protesting the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade understand the constitutional question, or even in general the way the whole system works, with its complex balancing of power. And, worse, I'd bet that zero out of ten care. And, to be fair, there's a similar indifference in some quarters of the right.
What went wrong? Well, I could go on at length about that, and have done. And I certainly have strong ideas about which side is more at fault. But beneath those details I see the fatal bent in action, the universal tendency which is independent of places and times. There's still room for hope that it won't accomplish the ruin toward which it tends, but that probably requires a level of awareness of what's happening that doesn't seem to be very widespread at all.
Ironically, the rejection of the idea of the "fatal bent" and its modern replacement by "Progress" is one of key elements in the former's current operation -- the devil convincing people he does not exist and all that. If you have an ideological belief in Progress, yet you continue to see poverty, conflict, oppression, etc., your response to any sort of appeal to a "fatal bent" or a "tragic sense" is necessarily going to be, "No, it can't be that!" Upon which conclusion the scramble to locate the origin of the hindrance begins.
Posted by: Rob G | 05/12/2022 at 05:47 AM
Yep, and they end up locating it in some group of people that they already dislike. Now, in addition to whatever qualities they already disliked in that group, they can blame it for pretty much anything that's wrong with the world.
Posted by: Mac | 05/12/2022 at 08:57 AM
"Yep, and they end up locating it in some group of people that they already dislike. Now, in addition to whatever qualities they already disliked in that group, they can blame it for pretty much anything that's wrong with the world."
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 05/12/2022 at 11:26 AM
? Not sure what you're getting at.
Posted by: Mac | 05/12/2022 at 12:33 PM
More like "we".
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 05/12/2022 at 06:15 PM
In the broader context, yes, definitely. But the reference here is to those who "have an ideological belief in Progress." As Brian Wilson said, that's not me. Nor you either, probably.
Posted by: Mac | 05/12/2022 at 06:30 PM
Exactly. We all scapegoat to one degree or another, but it's not ideologically-based in all of us, or at least not in equal measure.
Posted by: Rob G | 05/13/2022 at 06:19 AM
Or at any rate not the same one. Not the ideology of progress. Personally I'm inclined to blame progressives for destroying existing things, not for standing athwart new ones.
Posted by: Mac | 05/13/2022 at 07:18 AM
Right. And the sort of conservatism that stands athwart anything new can be ideological as well. The Burke/Kirk conservatism to which I gravitate is attractive to me precisely because it tries to steer a course between those two extremes. And as Kirk stated, that course has more to do with prudence than with theory.
Posted by: Rob G | 05/14/2022 at 08:02 AM
I think Kirk is at his best in his anti-ideology comments. I guess that's almost his whole philosophy in essence.
Posted by: Mac | 05/14/2022 at 10:58 AM