Despite the title referring to wife beaters, the post is a response to all of his critics. This includes Facebook users who objected to his comments about submission being an “erotic necessity”:
In the other peanut gallery, a discussion broke out on Facebook over my statement that submission was an erotic necessity, running along the “shades of 50 shades!” line. Maybe I had come out in favor of corporal kinky punishment for wives. Who’s to say?
Wilson assures his readers that he had no such thing in mind. What he was thinking about was a pseudo-Christian (chivalric) pedestalization of women. The offending phrase, he points out, is a quote from the man he says is his mentor on the subject. It is from C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength. Wilson explains that the book demonstrates a sexual element to submission, and offers as the prime example a scene where Merlin kneels before another man (Ransom):
Life at Belbury is one extended orgy of biting and devouring. In contrast, life at St. Anne’s is a staggering hierarchy of masculinity and femininity running all the way up, and with a sexual element included where appropriate. There is one horrific scene between Wither and Frost which ends with them in a clinch driven by the lust of mutual animosity, each knowing that at some point a devouring must happen. The corresponding scene is between Ransom and Merlin, and ends with Merlin kneeling, rendering honor like a loyal king’s man. “Slowly, ponderously, yet not awkwardly, as though a mountain sank like a wave, he sank on one knee; and still his face was almost on a level with the Director’s.” No devouring at all.
I had to read this several times to make sure I hadn’t missed something, but the quote above, including the part I have bolded, is exactly what Wilson wrote. I have not read the book, but I’m fairly confident that Lewis wasn’t really pushing a homoerotic ethos with the scene. I also suspect that Wilson didn’t really have that in mind either, but that he so desperately wanted to invoke the idea of Lancelot submitting to his Lady as Christian chivalrous eroticism he overlooked whom Merlin was kneeling to.
However, I strongly suspect that Wilson is on firmer footing when he suggests that Lewis was selling a form of Christian pedestalization (can I touch you there?) Game:
…the reconciliation between Mark and Jane is profoundly Christian. She has learned the humility of true submission. Her entire life had been driven by the desire not to be taken in, not to be possessed.
But this is not treated by Lewis as Mark Studdock’s standing permission to continue on as an oaf and a coarse rube, barging into her sexually, but now with impunity because she had become “submissive.” No, his frame of mind has been explicitly transformed.
Once she submitted, Wilson explains that Mark learned to stop approaching his wife like a rutting buck, and instead learned to place her on a pedestal. Wilson quotes Lewis:
“This time at last he thought of his own clumsy importunity. And the thought would not go away. Inch by inch, all the lout and clown and clodhopper in him was revealed to his own reluctant inspection; the coarse, male boor with horny hands and hobnailed shoes and beefsteak jaw, not rushing in—for that can be carried off—but blundering, sauntering, stumping in where great lovers, knights and poets, would have feared to tread . . . How had he dared?”
Forget about that earlier stuff where Wilson describes one man erotically kneeling to another. This is what he was no doubt really getting at:
How had he dared? His wife, although a sinner, was a very great lady. He, though a very great sinner, was to return as her lord. But it is not the case that humility is required for a wife to assume her station, but pride will do for the husband. Mark now knew better than that.
Based on the specific quote he offers as well as what I can find on Lewis’ life story I think it is likely that Wilson has this part right. This doesn’t mean that pedestalization is Christian, only that Wilson is likely right when he relates how Lewis got it wrong. When Lewis wrote Hideous Strength he was a lifelong bachelor, and it would seem that his understanding of the relationship between husband and wife was gleaned from medieval poetry and popular culture (which was itself influenced by the same poetry).
Lewis, despite his genius, seems to have internalized the pedestalization in his otherwise insightful study of Courtly Love. Eleven years after publishing That Hideous Strength, Lewis married a divorced single mother of two named Joy Davidman, in a romance that can best be described as a men’s sphere cliché. Like Eat Pray Love and How Stella Got Her Grove back, it involves a marriage for the purpose of securing a visa. From Infogalactic:
In 1956, Davidman’s visitor’s visa was not renewed by the Home Office, requiring that Davidman and her sons return to America. Lewis agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her so that she could continue to live in the UK, telling a friend that “the marriage was a pure matter of friendship and expediency.” The civil marriage took place at the register office, 42 St Giles’, Oxford, on 23 April 1956.
The couple continued to live separately after the civil marriage.
Eventually Lewis discovered that he felt romantic love for her, and they decided to marry again (for real this time):
The relationship between Davidman and C. S. Lewis had developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage. This was not straightforward in the Church of England at the time because she was divorced, but a friend and Anglican priest, Reverend Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at Davidman’s hospital bed on 21 March 1957. The marriage did not win wide approval among Lewis’s social circle, and some of his friends and colleagues avoided the new couple.
As the New York Times explains, part of the reason Lewis’ friends did not approve was Davidman’s lack of a submissive spirit:
The homely American, disliked by Lewis’s friends for her Hebraism and her pushiness…
But no doubt at least some of his friends must also have been troubled by the impropriety of their relationship, which began with then married Davidman leaving her family in a bid to seduce Lewis*:
With their marriage in trouble, Davidman and Gresham together read Lewis’s Christian apologetics, and were converted. They joined a Presbyterian church, and she began corresponding with Lewis — even as, oddly, she and her husband dabbled in Scientology.
Through their letters, Davidman fell in love with Lewis, although at first he did not seem to reciprocate. Still, in 1952, she set sail for England, leaving behind her husband and sons, making no secret of her intentions.
As the Infogalactic article notes, Davidman was staying in Lewis’ home when her husband wrote her asking for a divorce:
After several lunch meetings and walks accompanying Davidman and his brother, Warren Lewis wrote in his diary that “a rapid friendship” had developed between his younger brother and Davidman, whom he described as “a Christian convert of Jewish race, medium height, good figure, horn rimmed specs, quite extraordinarily uninhibited.” She spent Christmas and a fortnight at The Kilns with the brothers and by this time was said to have fallen in love with C. S. Lewis, but he seemed to be oblivious to her feelings.
She returned home in January 1953, having received a letter from Gresham that he and her cousin were having an affair and he wanted a divorce.
Wilson claims that Lewis was anchored in a much older (Christian) tradition, one wiser than modern men can understand:
And so I get a big kick out of moderns—we who do not even know which bathroom to use—learnedly discussing how Lewis was limited by the perspective of his times. Look. Lewis was an old Western man, standing on the other side of a vast chasm that separated him from his times. His erstwhile critics, meantime, have only managed to get about 20 millimeters away from the spirit of their times.
But the reality is that Lewis was painfully modern in this regard. If anything Lewis was ahead of his time. The circumstances leading up to his marriage would have made for an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. The real chasm happened in the eleventh century, as Lewis himself explains in The Allegory of Love:
French poets, in the eleventh century, discovered or invented, or were the first to express, that romantic species of passion which English poets were still writing about in the nineteenth. They effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched, and they erected impassable barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature.
This chasm is so great that nearly everyone today believes as Wilson does, that the morally twisted chivalric tradition of Courtly Love represents Christian values and teaching on marriage and sexual morality. Even Milton made this same mistake.
*A Christianity Today post claims in her defense that when then married Davidman announced she was going to England to seduce Lewis, she was merely making a joke.