Friday, June 20, 2014

The Screwtape Letters

Today, let's look at C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters

I finished reading this last week. I'd like to get in the habit of getting down some semi-coherent thoughts about the books I read.

I'd known about this book for a long time, usually in the context of it being an especially persuasive book on the "side" of Christianity... for awhile, I frequented places where people would do things like argue about religion, and this book usually popped up as a Christian counterpart to like, Dawkins or whatever. That seemed interesting, but not really what I'm into. I like reading about theology, but not really argumentative theology - like, I'm not interested in being convinced of the existence or nonexistence of God, but of the moral implications or questions raised by presupposing some certain existence of God.

At this point, I'm simply not interested in examining my own beliefs right now. It's not so much that I feel I'm certain I'm right, or that I see no benefit to this sort of introspection, it's just that I'm sort of sick of doing it by this point. Plus, my beliefs are sort of... confusing now, even to me. Like, I think I actually believe several conflicting things simultaneously. There's actually aspects of it that I find impossible to think about, let alone describe. Maybe that says something bad about my mental health or intelligence (Lewis, in this very book, says that mankind's ability to hold two conflicting views simultaneously is the work of devils), sure. At the same time, I'm pretty satisfied with my ontological understanding... to the extent that it influences my morals, I'm happy with my morality; to the extent that I worry about ontological things, I find it comforting; to the extent that it helps serve as a "foundation" to my aesthetics, it seems pretty fertile... why would I want to undermine these things? I dunno, probably lots of reasons. Anyways, all I'm saying is that I wasn't going into this book expecting to be convinced of anything major.

So what were you expecting?

I dunno, not this. When I found out about the premise, I was initially sorta disappointed... it just seemed so silly. The idea is that hell employs a devil for each human soul that works through their entire life to tempt the soul into hell. The book is made of a series of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, advising his nephew on how to tempt the soul of a young man. So there's an inherent level of satire, of comedy, etc, plus the casual, conversational tone of letters, plus purely fantastical references to this imagined bureaucracy of Hell... all stuff that feels like it ought to be distasteful given the often extremely serious and real subject matter discussed.

It really works, though. There's a lot of benefits to Lewis through this format. The focus of Screwtape's advice is always practicality, of specific and direct things his nephew should do (and thus, of course, practical advice on what the good Christian reader should not do). This, plus the conversational tone, makes this sort of moral advising way more easily digestible. The brief and focused letter format also makes it an easy read, and the idea of seeing only one side of correspondence - a personal favorite of mine, DFW does it all the time, I think he probably picked it up from this - is super compelling, even when the other set of letters is fairly easily imagined.

Most important is the devil's reversed perspective. Not only is the comedy that results from this, their satirical bureaucracy, their cheap shots at God, etc good for keeping the book a fun and light read, but it allows Lewis a way to talk about these, the deepest of metaphysical issues. Somewhat surprisingly, given how much fun the book is to read, Lewis suffered through the writing of it and vowed to never return to this style. It bothered him terribly to have to call everything by it's opposite, to write such blasphemy, even though he knew the depths of his satire better than anyone. Isn't that cute? Wow, what a guy. He mentioned longing to write another book, from the perspective of an archangel advising a lesser guardian angel on the protection of a soul, but found it too difficult. The words of an angel must be perfect, they must "smell of heaven", they must be definitive and encompassing... With the devils, any shortcomings or contradiction or whatever is not only forgivable, but almost "in-character" and interesting itself.

Okay so the format is great, but it was the content itself that really blew me away.

Things he writes about that I also had tried to write about

There were a few times in this book where I was stunned by how familiar his thinking was to mine... to the extent that I was able to predict what he would say next... to the extent that, had I read this earlier, I probably wouldn't have written some of the things I'd written, because I would have felt that they were too derivative. I have no idea what could explain this... did he write about these same ideas way back in Narnia, and I had forgotten them, and then vaguely recalled them as a new idea? Did his influence on DFW exert itself in such a way that I became obsessed with these same things that Lewis laid out so plainly? Or are these very universal ideas that everyone thinks about and tries to articulate, and finally I have seen someone do it in a way that satisfies me? Anyways:

Types of happiness - Joy, Fun, Jokes, and Flippancy - in chapter 11, Screwtape breaks down the types of human enjoyment and laughter into these four categories. I think this is when I got really hooked. So much of the demons that New Sincerity seeks to cast out is contained in his brief summary of the evils of flippancy, so much insight into the purpose and power of jokes, the spirit of fun... these are things that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, the degrees by which someone can enjoy themselves and the subtle, but extremely important, distinctions between them. Most of all, though, his description of joy really resonated with me. It's not elaborate, but I knew right away he was talking about the very thing that I've spent so much time and words trying to get down. I've approached it from the psychological-social to the biological-chemical (it certainly involves a massive dump of serotonin), but nothing sufficed. Given how wonderful and miraculous it is, I was more than ready to accept Lewis's suggestion that it originates from heaven itself.

The law of Undulation - in chapter 8, we get a very detached discussion on variance in interest, passion, motivation, etc... Another really great benefit of this format is that Screwtape can speak very directly and clinically about subjects such as this, where an actual human conversation would need to be wrapped in discretion to the extent of banality. Of course, Screwtape can also get very emotional and intense, like when he accidentally turns into a centipede. But yeah, this idea of varying levels of passion, of a natural waxing and waning of interests... this is something I've observed a lot, something I've really tried to "work out", largely to the same effect as described here. However, Lewis isn't focused on trying to "solve" this, nor is he interested in the root causes behind it. He's more interested - and this is a running theme of the book - in showing practical ways of dealing with it and not allowing it to take control of your life more than it should. Sometimes you'll feel unproductive and disinterested and that's okay, as long as you keep doing what you can and know that you'll emerge on the other side of it, whole of self again. Wow, what a beautiful message!

Humility - in chapter 14, we're treated to what I think is the best breakdown of humility I've ever read, and I've read a lot on the subject (and tried to write on it, too)... Basically, humility as an absence of self-bias instead of simply self-loathing. I remember realizing that self-loathing was actually another type of self-bias, that was a really profound realization. Here though check out this passage: "The Enemy [i.e. God, lol] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents - or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall." That is really good. That speaks not just to humility, but a sense of unity, to an ideal of "falling in love with the whole world".

Okay I think there's a lot more of these but even more interesting to me were:

Things he writes about that I had never really considered, and sort of hit me like a punch to the stomach

Novelty - in chapter 25, there's a discussion on the appeals of change and novelty that really made me rethink some things. Lewis works to set up a distinction between rhythmic and unrhythmic change, e.g., the difference between the change of the seasons and the change of years. See, I had always tried to think of things in terms of an overall, continuous change. Progress as unilateral, things only being new once... even routine things I enjoyed marking in terms of the number of their repetitions, so that they could still be unprecedented. At the same time, I often had real difficulty thinking about the longterm future in these terms, because I could only see the sheer repetition that was coming. Like, I have a recurring and horrifying vision of all the food I'll have to eat in the future... apparently this isn't an entirely unique fear, as Hal mentions it in Infinite Jest... just things like that. Every time I'll have to do some chore, or make some trip, or whatever, it all feels overwhelming and dreadful. What's weird is that this attitude really conflicts with another ideal I have, which is to really try to see the newness and joy of even mundane and repeated experiences. I was only really "getting away" with having both simultaneously in my head because my issue with repetition was so unexamined, I was almost completely unaware of what was really fueling my dread. Well, this chapter proved not only illuminating, but really inspiring and hopeful. I honestly hadn't really considered the joy of "each new spring", even though I certainly experienced it every spring. In the abstract, I could only think of it as "many springs". So I dunno. This one will stick with me for awhile.

Duality - okay this one was pretty rough. In chapter 11 he gets into this deep, I might as well just quote it: "He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a 'deeper', 'spiritual' world within hi that they cannot understand. You see the idea - the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction." OKAY please leave me alone Mr. Lewis. I don't really operate on these two categories specifically, but I realized that I really do this, with almost everyone I know, to some extent, for as long as I can remember. And it's terrible! And I think I knew it was terrible, this whole time, like, I had felt that my self-satisfaction was actually sort of rotted up and incomplete, but I failed to understand this major reason why. Ugh wow.

So what are you supposed to do with all this?

Well, the general idea is that you go on and become a good Christian. Often how to do this is said specifically, like, Screwtape will explicitly say something like "A good Christian will do this (so avoid it)". More often, you're only given the opposite and left to work out what you ought to do. Sometimes this is actually sort of difficult, and sometimes it feels like the book is somewhat lacking because of this. Of course, this absence, if it motivates you to read other theological books and deeply consider these ideas, would probably please Lewis more than anything he could have written, so maybe that's the idea.

Really, I think it's this "proper morality is left as an exercise to the reader" that is one of the major "convincing" factors of the book that I mentioned at the start. When readers are able to come to the conclusion of what they ought to do themselves, they're obviously much more inclined to believe in it, even if they reject the premises that they're supposedly working towards. Also helpful is the fact that, beyond eternal damnation, Screwtape usually also mentions how his advice will increase suffering in the mortal world. Thus, even if your reader doesn't believe in eternal salvation, they will probably see some possible benefits in the mortal world. I think the only major exception to this is the section where he talks about how Wormwood ought to try to keep his subject alive, that those who die young are more likely to be saved and thus are blessed in a way... I think you'd have a hard time convincing someone who doesn't believe in the afterlife of that.

Another factor that I think makes this book so powerful for conversion is the way it presupposes the existence of God, etc. Obviously a devil has no need to prove to his nephew that God exists, or that heaven and hell exist, or that this complicated relationship between heaven, earth, hell and souls exist... you get all of that "for free", right from the premise. And when there's that many "axioms" of reality that you're working with, the whole time, you have to start internalizing all of them to some extent. Because the book is so casual in tone and fun to read, this process is smooth and easy - you want to keep the ideas in your head naturally because it helps make the book a natural read. But soon you find yourself so immersed that you're pretty removed from your "actual" beliefs, whatever those are, and when you start thinking about the morality and guidance of the book, you're likely to think in terms of the book's system of reality, rather than your own understanding. At least, that was my experience. And it was a wonderful experience, too... Although my own beliefs are a confusing mess of Christianity and physical determinism, I found that I had a sort of oblique confidence in them that was stronger and more faithful than anything since I was a kid. It can feel very dreamy and nice, to immerse yourself like that. I can imagine even hardcore atheists being swayed, at least for a bit.

Basic theological questions expertly dissected

The most powerful element of conversion, though, is Lewis's absolutely wonderful and satisfying discussions of "frequently asked questions" about Christianity by skeptics... like, what is the role of suffering, what is the purpose of doing good or bad, what is the use of prayer, etc, etc... Lewis gives such great answers to all of these that I won't even attempt to summarize them. Beyond that, the way he answers them is extremely satisfying too. Screwtape's position is such that he scorns what he feels is the unfortunate reality of these situations, making it seem more believable - something about reluctance is more satisfying and believable than eagerness. Plus, when his ability to answer fails him - like when he cannot deduce the purpose of God's love for humanity, and says there must be some hidden, ulterior motive - the reader's desire to close the gap of understanding themselves has that same power of self-conviction that made the moral quandaries of the book so persuasive. In another example, where Screwtape tries and fails to understand how God's actions and free will can transcend time and deterministic causality through seeing all of time eternally in heaven, I cannot explain either, and I doubt Lewis or anyone else could either. But these mysteries remain compelling and, in my considering them, I found myself simply assuming that it was the case that God could and did do this. It almost sounds like an argumentative trick, a fallacy, but Lewis simply isn't interested in proving that God exists. He's interested in showing you all the miraculous and beautiful things that result from a reality where God exists, and it's only natural that, to understand them, you have to suppose that God exists too.

Beyond being persuasive and satisfying, these ontological and theological discussions I found very vivid and stirring. His description of the individual and yet unified heaven where time is eternal and yet rhythmic... what a powerful image! It ranks up there in my mind with Dante or Blake. Likewise with his description of God, or the way the subject, when he dies, views the heavenly influences in his life - "but when he saw them he realized he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played in his life"... what a beautiful idea!

Okay I think that's all I wanted to say for now. There's sooo many subjects he covers that I found myself agreeing with... probably not worth covering. And I don't think there was much I disagreed with, honestly... maybe a few things, but they're pretty small and pedantic. Great book, lots of fun, very interesting.

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