on 17 November 2014
'The Screwtape Letters' by C.S Lewis
David Foster Wallace, a very fashionable US author who had stories printed in The New Yorker, Playboy and The Paris Review put 'The Screwtape Letters' number one on his list of top ten books.
I didn't know that when I read Screwtape. I got to Screwtape as the result of it being read out, edited, as a book of the week on BBC Radio Four. It was funny.
Straightaway when I read the first page I got a laugh from something not on the radio.
If I explain the book's logistics: Screwtape - a senior devil, is advising his nephew, Wormwood, an apprentice demon - on how to convert a human - to 'Our Father Below'. Screwtape tells Wormwood he should not suppose mere argument will work. *Uncle Screwtape* informs Wormwood of the target's feeble (what you could call post-modern) mind-set:
'He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false', but as 'academic' or 'practical' 'outworn' or 'contemporary', 'conventional' or 'ruthless'. Jargon, not argument is your best ally in keeping him away from *charity*.
If that paragraph amuses you - and if you have read middle-brow arts criticism, I hope you at least recognise what it says, I advise you to make the small investment required, and read this book.
Because along with such sharp viewing of things modern, this book has shown me, better than any other thing I have encountered - how my own mind works. It has shown me to me, warts and all - my pendulum nature, my evasiveness. My self-examination - and to what silly extremes that can go.
But - I am aware - there is a hurdle that will prejudice many from this book. The book was written as a Christian document.
To an open mind (whatever that means), for instance, an agnostic like myself, that is okay. I admit spiritual thought, I shrug my shoulders at atheists, term-lovers, who will talk about other dimensions but dismiss the spiritual because it is old and mentions the 'G' word.
__Do three things to enjoy this book__
If the important, but tired, corporations of religion have put you off reading anything of a religious frame, there are three things you should do when reading this book.
One - substitute the word *Charity* whenever reference is made to 'Him' or, 'The Enemy' or the Church or Christianity.
Two - and I don't believe Mr Lewis would like this at all - I feel I have a Slubgob or Triptweeze (see book) on my shoulder making me write this: think of the book as a Pixar type thing. This should not be hard. The book is very entertaining. Uncle Screwtape is an articulate learned character. His wonderfully dry patronising of feeble humans and things modern, is funny.
Three - accept Chapter Two as hard (er) work. There is a narrative being established. The human target is a convert to Christianity. Screwtape talks about the vacillation in this faith. The reader can draw lessons regarding relationships with their own enthusiasms.
Another thought - you could think of Screwtape and Wormwood, as being the negativity, bad thoughts, that we all suffer, that we let in, so easily.
__The Contents __
Screwtape, the uncle is a senior devil. Wormwood is an apprentice *working* on a human. We read Screwtape's letters, his advice on what Wormwood should make the human think, in order to get him to 'Our Father Below'. Screwtape references Wormwood's letters. It is worth noting here the book was written in 1940 (Plus ca change)
'You say you are delirious with joy because the European humans have started another of their wars ... I must warn you not to hope too much from a war. Of course a war is entertaining ...
Via Wormwood's letters we follow Wormwood's patient as he makes new friends. They bring a different point-of-view to the patient. Screwtape is pleased. They are rich, smart, superficially intellectual - brightly sceptical about everything.
Screwtape tells Wormwood to encourage the relationship. He tells Wormwood that eventually the patient may realise his new friends are not so good for him but Screwtape gives Wormwood a tactic
'You can persuade him ...to continue the new acquaintance on the ground he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people 'good' by seeing them ...'
The relationship continues but Screwtape is not so pleased to hear that the new friends are great laughers.
'I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy'.
Screwtape doesn't trust Joy. During Joy humans do things Screwtape doesn't understand. He fears loss of control. Screwtape complains to Wormwood
'The facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter (at a time of Joy) show the witticism cannot be the real cause of the laughter ... (and) Fun is closely related to Joy - a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct'
Screwtape only really trusts Flippancy
'Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No-one
actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies
that they have already found a ridiculous side to it ... It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it'.
__ Fear Avarice Lust __
What I particularly enjoyed was the book's willingness to take on very basic things. We are told by twenty-first philosophers, as much as we are told by Zen masters, that the finite moment contains the infinite, we should live in the moment. But how should we do this?
Screwtape tells Wormwood living in the present is also what The Enemy wants. Screwtape warns Wormwood not to let the Target dwell on a particular method to achieve a mental in the present. Contrarily, Screwtape tells Wormwood they should try to make their patient live in the future.
'Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the future inflames hope and fear ... nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead'.
__ Humility and Pride and Self-Awareness ___
Screwtape becomes upset when the patient stops making large claims about himself.
Screwtape is concerned their target has discarded his conceits regarding the future and has only hope for the daily and hourly necessary strength to meet the day's rigours. Screwtape is concerned the patient has become humble.
'Have you drawn his attention to the fact? Almost certainly pride at his own humility will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud at his attempt - and so on through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion in which case he will merely laugh at his circular thought and go to bed'.
Screwtape talks more about humility.
'You must conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as
self-forgetfulness, but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, low) of his own character ... thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may in some cases be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed ... we have the chance of keeping their minds revolving on themselves'.
___'Know Thyself' said the ancient Greeks ___
'Be Yourself' you are implored by songs, well-wishers and the general culture. 'The Screwtape Letters' I believe, is a window to catch the ever-learning self.
Its writer C.S (Clive Staples) Lewis was awarded a medal for bravery in the first world war. He returned to studies after the war and became an Oxford academic who knew his intricate way around Sophistry and Rhetoric. He was a late convert to Christianity and you can bet he used every ounce, every twist, every nuance of the Sophistry and Rhetoric he knew, to challenge - in his own mind - his own conversion.
I believe Screwtape is a diary, of types. How Lewis found himself considering his mind as his belief fluctuated. How he worked it out - how he jousted pleasure, (try to make the target abandon what he really likes in favour of the 'best' people, the right food, the 'important' books) with the God he was tying his flag to.
Screwtape was popular from the beginning. Grudgingly he wrote a follow up. He said it was 'not fun' (Wikipedia) to write and that his Screwtape writing days were done.
__ Intellectual Fashion__
In the style of the paragraph I first quoted, where Screwtape advises Wormwood to concentrate on jargon not argument, 'The Screwtape Letters' would be dismissed - Xtian - no more.
Pity the loss to those who would be affected, interpret the comment as condemnation, and accept it.
Western culture has been around for a long time, an awful lot of its best thinkers, were religious believers. Just like the blues in music, they are often the source of ideas, that have been copied - but not bettered, just diluted and corrupted by insincere repetition.
David Foster Wallace, like other originals, did not achieve work with ideas he was happy with, by following the fashion mob. He looked for the source.