Sticking to the Main Road - excerpts from Pilgrim's Regress

Published: Jun 29, 2022
Updated: Jul 17, 2022

C.S. Lewis’s allegory Pilgrim’s Regress features among its characters, fictional occupants of “North” and “South” regions.

Although not intended as a commentary on politics, when I first read the book years ago, part of the descripton of these regions reminded me of the extremes that can manifest in groups. I found the comparison somewhat humorous and enlightening:

The Northerners are the men of rigid systems whether skeptical or dogmatic, Aristocrats, Stoics, Pharisees, Rigorists, signed and sealed members of highly organised "Parties".

The Southerners are by their very nature less definable; boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night to almost every visitant, but always with readiest welcome for those, whether Maenad or Mystagogue, who offer some sort of intoxication.

The delicious tang of the forbidden and the unknown draws them on with fatal attraction; the smudging of all frontiers, the relaxation of all resistances, dream, opium, darkness, death, and the return to the womb.

Every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt: for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect.

An arrogant and hasty selectiveness on some narrow a priori basis cuts him off from the sources of life.

Below is the larger context of that passage. I’ve broken up the long paragraphs and added a few sub-heads to make the text more ‘readable’ via the screen.

It’s worth noting the book was first published in 1933; I believe this editorial note was added to the third edition. It references Nazis and war on the Don so I’m thinking it was published in or around 1941.

What stands out to me the most in the passage below is the observation in the first paragraph and the notion that factions at the edges often combine elements from both extremes of the pendulum.

The symbols of North and South #

The things I have symbolized by North and South, which are to me equal and opposite evils, each continually strengthened and made plausible by its critique of the other, enter our experience on many different levels.

In agriculture we have to fear both the barren soil and the soil which is irresistibly fertile.

In the animal kingdom, the crustacean and the jellyfish represent two low solutions of the problem of existence.

In our eating, the palate revolts both from excessive bitter and excessive sweet.

In art, we find on the one hand, purists and doctrinaires, who would rather (like Scaliger) lose a hundred beauties than admit a single fault, and who cannot believe anything to be good if the unlearned spontaneously enjoy it: on the other hand, we find the uncritical and slovenly artists who will spoil the whole work rather than deny themselves any indulgence of sentiment or humour or sensationalism.

Everyone can pick out among his own acquaintance the complexions, dryness and taciturnity of the one, the open mouths, the facile laughter and tears, the garrulity and (so to speak) general greasiness of the others.

The Northerners are the men of rigid systems whether skeptical or dogmatic, Aristocrats, Stoics, Pharisees, Rigorists, signed and sealed members of highly organised "Parties".

The Southerners are by their very nature less definable; boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night to almost every visitant, but always with readiest welcome for those, whether Maenad or Mystagogue, who offer some sort of intoxication. The delicious tang of the forbidden and the unknown draws them on with fatal attraction; the smudging of all frontiers, the relaxation of all resistances, dream, opium, darkness, death, and the return to the womb.

Every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt: for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect. An arrogant and hasty selectiveness on some narrow a priori basis cuts him off from the sources of life.

In Theology also there is a North and a South. The one cries "Drive out the bondmaid's son," and the other "Quench not the smoking flax." The one exaggerates the distinctiveness between Grace and Nature into a sheer opposition and by vilifying the higher levels of Nature (the real praeparatio evangelica inherent in certain immediately sub-Christian experiences) makes the way hard for those who are at the point of coming in. The other blurs the distinction altogether, flatters mere kindliness into thinking it is charity and vague optimisms or pantheisms into thinking that they are Faith, and makes the way out fatally easy and imperceptible for the budding apostate. The two extremes do not coincide with Romanism (to the North) and Protestantism (to the South). Barth might well have been placed among my Pale Men, and Erasmus might have found himself at home with Mr. Broad. [These are references to Lewis's characters.]

Extremes aggravate each other #

I take our own age to be predominantly Northern - it is two great 'Northern' powers that are tearing each other to pieces on the Don while I write.

But the matter is complicated, for the rigid and ruthless system of the Nazis has 'Southern' and swamp-like elements at its centre; and when our age is 'Southern' at all, it is excessively so.

D.H. Lawrence and the Surrealists have perhaps reached a point further 'South' than humanity ever reached before. And this is what one would expect.

Opposite evils, far from balancing, aggravate each other.' The heresies that men leave are hated most'; widespread drunkenness is the father of Prohibition and Prohibition of widespread drunkenness.

Nature, outraged by one extreme, avenges herself by flying to the other. One can even meet adult males who are not ashamed to attribute their own philosophy to 'Reaction' and do not think the philosophy thereby discredited.

“hold the Main Road” #

With both the 'North' and the 'South' a man has, I take it, only one concern - to avoid them and hold the Main Road. We must not 'hearken to the over-wise or to the over-foolish giant'.

We were made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men. Not beasts nor angels but Men - things at once rational and animal.