Today’s post is by Terry Foraker. Welcome to Bookends, a new column where I give you a peek over my shoulder at what I am currently reading and hopefully toss out a quasi-thoughtful question or two.
The other night I finished listening to the audio version of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. (There are actually two or three audio versions floating around; I recommend the one read by John Cleese of Monty Python fame. He brilliantly brings out both the pomposity and the sinister humor in the work; this recording won the Grammy award for best spoken word recording of 1988.) For some reason I find myself drawn to Screwtape (either the audio or print edition) this time of year, perhaps because after a surfeit of Christmas cheer I am in generally in need of a healthy dose of comic cynicism. For those who have not yet read or listened to Screwtape, it consists of a series of letters written by Screwtape, a sort of middle manager in the realms of hell (referred to by Screwtape as the “lowerarchy”) to his nephew Wormwood, who is a brand-new tempter assigned to a young Englishman, referred to simply as “the Patient.” (Incidentally, proper names are seldom used in this book. God is referred to as “the Enemy” and Satan is “Our Father Below.” The only exceptions are the rather nasty-sounding names assigned to Screwtape’s colleagues: Slubgob, Triptweeze, Glubose, and so on.) While discussing the two malefactors’ attempts to undo the Patient spiritually, the letters also contain some keen psychological insights into human nature. The book’s setting during the Second World War made it particularly timely and topical, as it was written during that period.
Lewis begins his preface by expressing his opinions of the imagery employed throughout the years in depicting heavenly messengers. He then moves on to discuss some of the horrific images used in depicting devils-particulary, bats’ wings as an outward manifestation of inward corruption. In what is to my mind the most intriguing part of his preface, he states rather bluntly, “I like bats much better than bureaucrats.” He explains that, in keeping with the times, he has chosen to project his voice through a generally dignified, respectable, soft-spoken gentleman who nevertheless masks a deep hostility and rage which only occasionally seeps through (most notably when Screwtape learns that Wormwood’s patient is in love with a Christian girl). For the most part, Lewis observes,
The greatest evil is not now done . . . in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) 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. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. (The Screwtape Letters, p. x; all page references are from the 1982 Macmillan revised paperback edition.)
A related metaphor, which Lewis refers to more than once in the piece, is what he calls “spiritual cannibalism” wherein a stronger entity consumes a weaker one and absorbs its will into its own-sort of the spiritual equivalent of a hostile takeover. Lewis intends this to be a perversion of the Christian concept of submitting one’s will to that of God only to receive one’s own self back in a greatly improved version. Two primary differences between God’s way of absorption and that of the devils are noteworthy here: first, God wishes us to surrender our wills so that we can be purified and receive back far more than we sacrificed:
Remember, always, that [the Enemy] really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves, He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. Hence, while He is delighted to see them sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting away from their own nature for any other reason. (59)
In contrast, the devils are entirely self-serving in their motivations; their aim is simply to conquer:
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”. (81)
The second difference concerns the means by which these aims are achieved. While God desires, and even requires our wills, he will never forcefully take them from us–in Screwtape’s words, “He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” (38) The devils, on the other hand, are far more aggressive in their approach: “Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.” (99)
To return to the “voice” which Lewis employs in Screwtape: I see it mainly as a reflection of the dictatorial times in which Lewis lived, with its Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Stalins. On the other hand, there also seem to be traces of a big business bureaucracy such as we see in abundance today. If the book were to be written today, how do you think the voice might differ?