01 February 2013

C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters

Back in grade ten, I tried to write a story about a demon who was working to poison a person's mind. It was inspired by the music video for Tool's "Sober". He had a machine that pumped filth into his subject's mind, and he spent the story polishing and cleaning, tweaking and calibrating, trying to make the machine run as efficiently as possible. The story failed. I enjoyed describing the demon's gnarled face and mishappen limbs, and creating his murky, sewer-like lair. But I stumbled when the story collided with reality. I couldn't answer questions like "Who is the demon's subject?" and "Who does the subject become, post-corruption?" I was unsatisfied and eventually gave up.

When I heard that C.S. Lewis had written The Screwtape Letters--a story about a senior demon instructing a junior demon on the art of tempting humans--I got excited. He surely must've succeeded where I failed. I expected something succulently dark and deliciously creepy: malice in every word, malevolence in every sentence. I wanted prose so dark, vivid, and evil that it would make me concerned for the twisted mind that had channeled it onto the page.

In retrospect, I should not have expected this. My prior exposure to Lewis' writing was "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment", an article of applied ethics that argues against 'prison as rehabilitation' and in favour of 'justice via punishment'. The article has a clear message and conveys it in a rational, concise, logical, and precise way. The words carry emotional heft when they need it, but for the most part they are calculated and efficient, rather than passionate, vivid, or histrionic. Lewis's writing is not dry, but it is not particularly moist, either.

The Screwtape Letters did not meet my expectations; I expected dark and terrible fiction, but it fell much more in line with my prior exposure to C.S. Lewis. It is a thoughtful critique of society and religion. Lewis is not concerned with ravenous lust or relentless greed, but rather snippets of gluttony and nascent buds of pride. He takes aim at the sins everyone struggles with every day. Or, if they do not struggle with these sins, they do not even notice them, which is why Lewis wrote the book. He wants to call attention to our minor failings. While he is not always right--there's a weird tirade against public schools--Lewis' critiques are always smart and thoughtful. I adored the book because it invited me to engage with his ideas, rather than trying to force me into agreeing with them. I considered each point carefully before accepting or rejecting it. Lewis made me think.

I am not a Christian (Screwtape got to me!), and this is primarily a theological work. However, with most theological texts, I mentally switch ideas like God and Heaven with "happiness" and ideas like sin and hell with "unhappiness" or "shame". This makes it easier to apply their teachings to my own life. A simple switch and the messages resonate with me. This paragraph in particular is a beauty:

"The Christians describe [God] as one 'without whom Nothing is strong'. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off."

The Screwtape Letters was not what I wanted it to be, but, once I got over that, I enjoyed it. It is a short monograph that gives solid advice on how to live. C.S. Lewis might not bring linguistic fireworks to the table, but his writing is always clear and never clunky; his paragraphs fall together like Tetris blocks. There is something beautiful about the way he writes one impeccably clear, perfectly punctuated sentence after another, for a whole book. His writing is transparent, letting us put the focus on his arguments.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4/10/2013

    Great review of this too Jeff. You should read Surprised by Joy or A Grief Observed for a deeper look into his own life and story. Those books moved me. Good writing, very insightful.
    Jason Poettcker