Saturday, August 01, 2020

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters


Opening Passage:

My dear Wormwood,
I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïf? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together in his head.... (pp. 7-8)

Summary: The Screwtape Letters is best known for its character satire, but as an epistolary novella it does have a plot that prevents it (unlike some of its imitators) from just being a series of wittily framed opinions. Since we are not these days very used to epistolary forms of writing, it's worthwhile to get an overview of how they all fit together, particularly since there is actually a lot of plot (epistolary forms are capable of building a lot of story in a relatively small space). Letter I opens the correspondence with Screwtape, an undersecretary in hell, writing to his nephew, Wormwood, a tempter, about his 'patient' (never mind, because devils don't care about our names; we are cattle to them), who is thinking about becoming a Christian. Screwtape recommends focusing on what his patient takes to be 'real', since humans are likely to treat the familiar as 'real life' and the unfamiliar as 'unreal'. Unfortunately for Wormwood, the patient becomes a Christian (Letter II); the devils focus on the irritations and frictions between him and his fellow Christians (II) and between him and his mother (III-IV). The latter requires some coordination with Glubose, her tempter. In the meantime, Wormwood is excited because the humans have begun won of their words -- the Second World War -- and Screwtape has to counsel him to keep sober about it (V), although it does provide some opportunities for temptation (VI-VII). The patient's conversion enthusiasms begin to fade, which is useful for the devils, but, as Screwtape notes, a matter to be handled very carefully (VIII-IX). The Letters to this point can be regarded as the Introduction, in which we learn about how this world works and we have set the two major recent life-changes for the patient, conversion to Christianity and the beginning of the War, that will set in motion a chain of events leading to the end.

With Letter X, the devils find an opportunity to unleash their first major campaign, the attempt to corrupt by way of the World. The patient meets "some very desirable new acquaintances" who are "rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world" (p. 45). This provides an opportunity for the devils to try to slowly slide the patient into betrayal of his newly found faith and, more generally, his moral principles, by playing on the human desire to belong to a special group, an inner ring, a circle of insiders. This works very well (XI-XII). However, Wormwood makes the mistake of allowing the patient time to experience both some real enjoyment and some real reflection, which leads to a major setback as the patient repents, and has a second conversion settling him into an even more firm attachment to his faith (XIII); even worse, he has become more humble, which makes him more resistant to temptation (XIV).

A lull in the War, however, gives the devils room to regroup by launching a new major campaign, the attempt to corrupt by way of the Flesh. They consider whether to encourage anxiety or fear (XV) and which church they should encourage him to go to so as to neutralize any danger from that quarter (XVI), and Screwtape scolds Wormwood for not appreciating the value of gluttony (XVII). The major offensive, however, will be by way of lust (XVIII-XIX). Wormwood's direct temptations are foiled, but the offensive continues as Screwtape notes that the patient can still be got at indirectly (XX) and the devils consider how best to use sexual temptation as a way to aggravate the patient's temperamental peevishness and irritability (XXI). Things go very badly (for them), however, when the patient falls in love with a girl, and exactly the wrong sort -- one who is Christian, who takes her moral responsibilities seriously, and, almost worse, is good-humored, pleasant, and also in love with the patient (XXII). She is, in short, perfect for him in the sense that she will almost certainly help him become a better person if they don't do anything about it. We also learn in passing that Wormwood has been reporting on Screwtape's letters to the Secret Police of hell; Screwtape manages to wriggle out of that trouble, but makes very clear to Wormwood his view on that matter by providing Wormwood with a pamphlet "on the new House of Correction for Incompetent Tempters" (pp. 100-101). Nonetheless, Screwtape is so enraged by Wormwood's incompetence (particularly exacerbated by the brush with the Secret Police) that he accidentally transforms into a large centipede and has to finish his letter by dictating to his secretary, Toadpipe.

The World and the Flesh have failed. But there is a third type of campaign, the more direct route of spiritual corruption, corruption by way of the Devil. The patient's Christianity must itself be twisted. The weak point, given the social and political consciousness of his new Christian friends, is the relation between Christian faith and politics (XXIII). In the meantime, consultation with Slumtrimpet, the tempter for the patient's new love, leads to the recognition that much of her Christianity, while sincere, involves a naive and innocent sense of superiority; and while that doesn't help much in dealing with her, it may perhaps be useful in corrupting the patient by encouraging in him a non-naive and non-innocent sense of superiority, one that will yield the sin of Spiritual Pride (XXIV-XXV). In the meantime, their courtship provides the opportunity for planting seeds that, apparently unproblematic now, will really fester until they become hatred years later (XXVI). The courtship turns out to be more of a problem than the devils could hope, since it leads the patient to pray more (XXVII).

The third campaign, however, runs into complications and gets derailed due to the War, which brings us to the Conclusion of the Letters. Wormwood keeps getting distracted by the excitement of so much human suffering and anxiety, and there is real danger of the patient getting killed before the tempters have succeeded in corrupting him, particularly now that it is likely that there will be air raids on the town where the patient lives (XXVIII). They consider how they are going to handle the fear for optimal temptation (XXIX), but when it actually happens, the patient responds in the worst possible way for the tempters: he was terrified, so he thinks of himself as a coward, and yet he did his duty and more, which means he was actually courageous (XXX). Screwtape again has to recommend that they focus on what the patient thinks of as 'real', thus bringing their temptations in a sense in a full circle, although one in which they are now worse off than when they began. However, it all comes crashing down when the bombs hit again and the patient dies, eluding their grasp forever (XXXI). Screwtape looks forward to the opportunity to devour Wormwood for his failure.

One of the things that struck me on this reading was the importance of words. One of the most important parts of the devilish bureaucracy (the 'Lowerarchy') is its Philological Arm. Screwtape's fallback temptation is to maneuver with what the patient calls "real life" or "the real world"; misapplication of words is a way the tempters encourage dishonesty without making it clear that they do so; a major play is confusion over the possessive pronoun 'my', which has many different senses that can be conflated in temptation; Screwtape suggests that one of the Philological Arm's successes is getting humans to say 'Unselfishness', a negative term, rather than 'Charity', a positive one. The same arises in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", in which Screwtape in a dinner speech sets out how to fulfill the directives of Lower Command in the area of education; a major element of his proposal is that the tempters should confuse humans with the word 'democracy', muddling whether 'democratic behaviour' is "the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy" (p. 161). Much of temptation, as it is described by Screwtape, consists in misclassification.

After I began reading, I remembered that there was a dramatic presentation of The Screwtape Letters put out a few years ago by Focus on the Family, so I grabbed a copy and listened to that. I enjoyed it, although there were a few decisions I thought questionable. The most obvious was naming the humans, which I think was a narrative and structural mistake. A much more subtle one, which I thought both serious and wholly gratuitous, was the dropping of Boethius's name in Letter XXVII, substituting the more generic 'writers in ancient times', or something like that. What makes that such a problem is that in context the whole point is that the devils have arranged such a thing so that people take the 'Historical Point of View' rather than reading old books as a part of the conversation of ages. Dropping the name of the author who is in fact in view in the immediate context is bad enough, since part of the point was to give a recommendation to Boethius, but taking out any actual names arguably plays into the 'Historical Point of View' that is being praised by Screwtape (and thus condemned by his praise). Being able to clump ancient writers as a group under the label 'ancient', and treating that as more important than whether any of them has said anything true, is precisely one of the things Screwtape praises, since that is how you dismiss them all as a group.

A dramatic presentation can't be done entirely in epistolary style (although they do try to keep a few); thus most of Screwtape's letters become conversations between Screwtape and Wormwhood. This was, I think, quite well done; they manage to stick fairly closely to the content of the letters while adding the sort of variety that a dramatic presentation needs. One potential worry is adding new material (which you'd have to do); I was very pleasantly surprised. This was done very sparingly, and most of the instances in which it is done are either purely illustrative of the point at hand or are an occasional extra joke as part of restructuring the Letters dramatically, like when Wormwood receives a package from Screwtape through the infernal postal service and to receive it has to sign for it in twelve different places for no reason at all.

Dramatic presentations tend also to be, well, dramatic. And it's interesting in this light to contrast Andy Serkis's Screwtape in the dramatic presentation with John Cleese's famous Screwtape. Cleese was doing an audiobook, not a dramatic presentation; thus his Screwtape comes across as world-weary and dry, very business-like, occasionally biting but only becoming really emotional in direct anger at Wormwood (e.g., when he transforms) or when he becomes gloating and greedy at the thought of devouring Wormwood. Serkis's Screwtape is always suavely malicious, has a quick temper, and tends quite easily to gloating. Of these, I think Cleese is much closer to what Lewis himself intended. It is a point explicitly made by Lewis that Screwtape is a very practical devil, and it is essential to the world-building that when we look around us these days, truly great evil doesn't enter with melodramatic flair but "in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice" (p. x), as Lewis puts it. Not that Serkis's Screwtape is not as enjoyable as you would expect a Screwtape played by Andy Serkis to be! Some of the insults of Wormwood that his Screwtape causally drops into the conversation are quite hilarious. It works well in other cases, too, perhaps not better than Cleese's but sometimes at least as well in its own way. One very noticeable difference is with Letter XXXI. Cleese's Screwtape remains poisonously smiling to the end, only more so; whereas Serkis's Screwtape ramps up the gloating to the point that you are reminded, at the last, that devils are very, very dangerous creatures. Both work in their own way, the quietly biting and the wrath blending with glee; which you'd like most would, I think, depend on your mood.

Favorite Passage: From Letter XXV:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding." Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey. (pp. 117-118)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Collier (New York: 1982).