Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let A Demon Show You the Light

C.S. Lewis image from
I've just read C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters. Twice. He's a British Christian scholar from the WWII era who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia and is probably sexist, homophobic, racist, etc.-- but maybe not; at least none of that is obvious in this book, and there is much that is speaking to me.

I was led here by my imaginary dead lover David Foster Wallace, my current favorite writer because he wrote one of the most amazing books I've ever read: Infinite Jest. I fell a little in love with him while reading that volume, and a little more while watching a humble and charming DFW being interviewed by a German woman whose accented voice sounds so lovely and alluring in this video. (Beware: it's part one of nine, and addicting.)

In another interview somewhere else, my imaginary dead lover said Screwtape was his favorite book, so I determined to read it.

Lewis writes of a world I heard about in my youth, in which Heaven and Hell exist, and God and Satan battle over each human's soul. The twist is Lewis writes the book from Satan's point of view, or rather Screwtape's, who is a high-level bureaucrat in the "Lowerarchy" and is instructing his nephew, Wormwood, a novice "tempter," on how to subtly and surreptitiously corrupt the soul of an innocent man.
Wormwood being instructed by Screwtape
in a theatrical production; image from

No extravagant evil is required for Hell to gain possession. Peevishness is just as good as murder for the job. In fact, Screwtape advises Wormwood to focus on encouraging the smaller sins--selfishness, dishonesty, pride--in his "patient," since they are so much easier to achieve.

Reading this book, I realize how confusing our modern world is, and how complicated to make personal decisions without these larger-than-life archetypes to light the way.

I like to see myself as sophisticated, able to discern the difference between gradations of gray, unlikely to be fooled by simplistic black-and-white representations of the world.

But Lewis, a very intelligent and accomplished man--Oxford and Cambridge scholar, author of more than 30 books--proposes we do just that: separate all things into one camp or the other. Every step you take is either a step towards God or away from Her. (And by "God" I have no idea what I mean, except perhaps the whole point of everything.) (And the gender change is mine, of course.)

Lewis goes on to posit that God created all the pleasures, which She sincerely wants us to enjoy. Smoking and drinking, as I read it, are not "sins" if undertaken with a joyful attitude. But Screwtape and his league of tempters work to pervert all God's pleasures by twisting them inside out, or turning them into habits, which Lewis describes as things that are harder and harder to forego even as they provide less and less real pleasure.
Screwtape composes a letter;
image from

The lesson is simple: Habits are bad; Pleasure is good. Pleasure is so good, in fact, that any real pleasure we are able to create for ourselves leads us farther from Hell and closer to Heaven.

Mid-book, when the human's soul seems to be slipping through Wormwood's fingers, Screwtape admonishes his nephew: "you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there--a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words, you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this?"

This viewpoint is a revelation to me--the opposite of my early Catholic inculcation that God wants us to suffer, that suffering brings us closer to Heaven. Not so, this book suggests. Or at least, not only that. It's also bliss. It's exaltation.

Sitting in the sun while waiting for my son to finish a phone call the other day, I got a vision of myself standing by a broad river. Then I saw my body levitating slightly, maybe three feet, off the ground. It seemed the simple pleasure of enjoying the sun on my face was bringing me closer to God.

In my horoscope for 2013, Rob Brezsny advises me to "ramp up [my] capacity for pure enjoyment" in the coming year. That sounds like it fits the plan. The trick will be discerning "pure enjoyment" from the sexy come-ons of disease-addled facsimiles, all dressed up in their finest and disguised as fun.

I am an old woman, but there is still so much that I want to do, so much I want to understand.

I have stale habits of thought and body that I want to shed in the coming year (and the new Mayan era), but not via "the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy [by which Screwtape means God] calls the Heart."

I am praying that I will be able to hear my own Heart above the cacophony of Screwtape's clever confusions this year.

Come, pray with me.

Come, listen for your Heart.

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