Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Screwtape Letters

Now that all the spare corners of Owl’s mind are no longer filled with vague worries about homework assignments and final exams, she worries about other questions, in particular, the tricky business of how one should live life. Owl stutters and stammers through the minutiae of daily life. Does one help the old lady walk across the street? Yes, of course. But what if Owl is late to work and she is supposed to take meeting notes? Leave the old lady or miss the first part of the meeting and turn in incomplete notes? What if Owl is cranky and does not feel like helping old ladies across the street and will do it with a hint of impatience? Is it better to help an old lady across the street a little impatiently, or to keep out of it all together?
Moral dilemmas

Owl’s expensive college textbooks contain no helpful guidance. Owl is alarmed. She has spent a decade and a half in school, could probably take the derivative of x with regard to y, yet she is ill-equipped to answer such questions. She has no fundamental code of behavior to consult.

Most days Owl suspects that these questions are the important ones, answering them is akin to discovering the secret to living a happy life. However, Owl lives in a city full of up and coming young professionals who talk about how large their salaries are, how much overtime they put in and how very rich and famous they will be one day. When Owl asks them about minutiae they cough politely and offer to buy her a mocha latte to shut her up.

After one or two mochas and a few hours in such company, Owl tends to believe that the real questions of life may have to do more with climbing ladders that lead nowhere instead of asking questions on how to live.

Enter C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a series of letters from Uncle Screwtape, a high ranking official, advising his young nephew Wormwood, a junior officer, on the finer points of corrupting an average human soul. That’s right. Hell is a bureaucracy, Uncle Screwtape is a devil who works for Satan, and Uncle Screwtape wants to eat your soul.
Owl has her doubts about Lewis. His Narnia books made her feel rather uncomfortable about lions, but the Screwtape Letters is a diabolically clever examination of the foibles of human nature. By writing a how-to manual on corruption Lewis produces a photographic negative of true spirituality that is more powerful than any amount of preaching. It is highly irritating to be told you should aspire to certain ideals. But when someone describes certain human foibles in ridiculous and satirical detail and they sound awfully close to your regular old self…ay yi yi.

For example, Uncle Screwtape on false humility:

You must therefore 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, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth.…And since what [he is] trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, [he] cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping [his] mind endlessly revolving on [himself] in an effort to achieve the impossible.

And the photographic negative, (i.e. true humility):

The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.

While Lewis wrote as a practicing Christian, Screwtape goes beyond the scope of Christianity and addresses psychological truths, spirituality, call it what you will. Owl does not have a tidy phrase to explain the manifold social pretensions and affectations that obfuscate ones relationships with the world, with other people, and above all, with oneself. 

She can only say that she struggles with these issues all the time, false humility, pretension, complacence—all issues left out of the college classroom, but issues that religion and philosophy have been trying to address since humans acquired synapses. 

Replace God or Christianity with any other belief—Art, Science, Buddhism, Compassion—and The Screwtape Letters still ring true. Owl personally translated Lewis’s references to God and Christianity to writing. (She's a tad obsessed.)

There are a dozen demons out and about, small demons, tiny little creatures who roost on shoulders and whisper:

Do this. Everyone else does, so it’s alright.

Or, conversely:

Don’t do this. No one else does, so it can’t be right.

They do this every moment of every single day. They are there when you decide whether you really ought to go for the third mocha, if you should dine with people you don’t much like, if you should maybe pretend not to like Harry Potter because you’re forty three and dignified.. Each time you listen, they nibble a piece of your soul. A small piece, not much of a piece, but if you listen often enough, you let enough of them nibble, you wake up one day and there is nothing left.  

Never fear. Uncle Screwtape will tell you how these demons work, and although he purports to be a soul eater working in the bowels of Hell, Uncle Screwtape will save you from sinking into the morasses of petty sins that plague daily life. 


  1. p.s. i love that picture. so affectionate and good-humored.

  2. I find him endlessly engaging, Mr. Lewis--and I laughed with delight at the notion of substituting "writing" for "God" and "Christianity"

    Enjoyed this very much<3

  3. I have to admit- I attempted to read this book in high school and was so freaked out by the first few chapters and how uncomfortably familiar it sounded (like you mentioned) that I couldn't finish it. Now you have inspired me to try again!
    BTW- this is Valerie. I really have got to get a blog on here just so I can comment, because it will not let me put my name :(

  4. @V
    Do try it again! The familiarity is terrifying, but all the more valuable because it is terrifying.

    Also yeah...blogger has very strange rules for commenting. It's like they want to discourage comments.