C.S. Lewis on Salvador Dali

Or something like that. Nearer to the end of That Hideous Strength, the final instalment in his space trilogy, Lewis describes a process designed by the villains to destroy any sense of objective value in the world. At the first stage of re-education, Lewis has the antagonists using architecture, interior design, and visual arts to begin the psychological corruption. I don’t recall off-hand if Lewis has commented elsewhere on modern art, but this passage certainly must be indirectly relaying his views on artists like Dali. And I think it probably lets us know what he would think of much contemporary “high art” and pop culture.

The room, at first, was an anti-climax. It appeared to be an empty committee room with a long table, eight or nine chairs, some pictures, and (oddly enough) a large step-ladder in one corner. There were no windows; it was lit by an electric light which produced, better than Mark had ever seen it produced before, the illusion of a cold, grey place out of doors. A man of trained sensibility would have seen at once that the room was ill proportioned, not grotesquely but sufficiently to produce dislike. Mark felt the effect without analysing the cause, and the effect grew as time passed. Sitting staring about him, he next noticed the door. The point of the arch was not in the centre; the thing was lopsided. Once again, the error was not gross. The thing was near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment and to go on teasing the mind after the deception had been unmasked. He turned and sat with his back to it … one mustn’t let it become an obsession. Then he noticed the spots on the ceiling; little round black spots at irregular intervals on the pale mustard-coloured surface. He determined that he would not fall into the trap of trying to count them. They would be hard to count, they were so irregularly placed. Or weren’t they? They suggested some kind of pattern. Their peculiar ugliness consisted in the fact that they kept on suggesting it and then frustrating expectation. He realised that this was another trap. He fixed his eyes on the table. He got up and began to walk about. He had a look at the pictures.

Some belonged to a school with which he was familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only at the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details. Who was the person standing between the Christ and the Lazarus? And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind.

He understood the whole business now. Frost was not trying to make him insane; at least not in the sense Mark had hitherto given to the word “insanity”. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity-the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes [the fictional equivalent of demons]. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow: the eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities. They were playing quite fair with him-offering him the same initiation through which they themselves had passed.

After an hour, this long high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated. As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else-something he vaguely called the “Normal”- apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was-solid, massive, like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with. It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy. He was not thinking in moral terms at all; or else (what is much the same thing) he was having his first deeply moral experience.

On the themes of the book as a whole, there are some noteworthy comments from Steven Wedgeworth, Phillip Johnson, and George Orwell.