“Notes” From Hell

In the movie industry when an executive hates something and wants it changed they send “notes”. In hell, they send letters.

If you’re lucky enough to have one book that you love for its own sake, one that you go back to again and again, then you have an old friend you can visit any time you wish. When that old friend is C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters you have an odd friend indeed. But this devil’s notes on another devil’s performance in tempting humans to sin are a real eye opener.

Set around the second world war, The Screwtape Letters is literally that – a series of letters from a demon named Screwtape to his young Nephew, and tempter in training, Wormwood. C.S. Lewis, though Screwtape, talks backwardly about the human condition, the nature of sin and damnation, and what “The Enemy” (God) has in mind for all humanity.

What sets Lewis’ book apart from many others is its accessibility and usefulness to non-Christians. As an agnostic, people would expect this book to hold no charm for me, But the philosophy inside these deliciously wicked letters is surprisingly sharp. Screwtape holds that the real reason for sin is to separate mankind from truth, light, beauty and happiness. He makes clear that sin, though enjoyable for devils to create through temptation, is a means to an end… the end being the sweet supping on a human soul trapped forever in their demonic realm. In a way, Lewis is telling his audience that though human beings may focus primarily on the titillating details of “sin”, what is really destructive in the long run is the mindset they create. A man drinking to excess and sleeping with a woman who is not his wife may be good headlines (if he is well known), but it is the guilt and shame and deceit that usually follow that really drive a man to hell.

C.S. Lewis ignores simple definitions of sin, pointing out that superficial “evils” of our time are not the true evil. Instead we should look ultimately to deciet, falseness, vanity, pride, ego, worldliness… those are the real soul deadening things. They separate people from each other. They build up walls of callouness to human suffering, and separate people from everything good and worthwhile and fun in life. C.S. Lewis makes the point that it is not enough to get people to “sin”. Humanity must be removed from everything that makes it human and brings it life and energy. In one of my favorite passages, Screwtape makes the point that one of his “patients” (a human he is ordered to tempt) said upon reaching hell “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” C.S. Lewis’ demons don’t just want people to be bad. They want humans to be miserable and depressed as they are doing it.

Another thing that non-Christians might enjoy about the book is that it seems to be telling Christians that they are focusing on the wrong things. Rather than being primarily concerned about the obvious things in life, Lewis tells them to focus on the subtler deceptions that darken the world. He makes points about how woman are driven mad by what is considered “beautiful” in any age. One decade its voluptuousness, the next willowy skinniness. The more people can be driven away from their actual desires and made to hate themselves for not conforming to fashions the better.

Lewis also makes the point (a number of times) that going to one extreme or another in most behaviors or thinking is destructive. Holding onto any one idea too tightly, no matter how well intentioned, is a road to hell. Humanity, he seems to be saying, is about balance in all things. Extremism in any direction is a goal of hell. As Nietzche said “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”

But beyond all of the philosophy, it is just a fun book. Screwtape, as a character, is hilarious. He castigates his Nephew on his first job, referring to his letters with great disappointment in their tone. Wormwood is apparently falling in to many of the same mistakes in thinking that humans do (a charge he often levels as at his nephew) and suffering in his job because of it. What are they teaching young tempters these days?

In a sad note, one of the best ways to be exposed to this book in no longer readily available. Screwtapes own words are read for an audio edition by John Cleese of Monty Python’s flying circus. Perhaps “read” is the wrong word. I should say “performed”. Cleese speaks each letter as though he is living it, and puts so much character into each sentence that it sometimes spills over into comedy. When Screwtape grows angry at something Wormtounge has said or done, he bubble over with rage. He barely seems to be able to direct his anger into the microphone – almost as though you expect to hear his running from the studio and strangling some innocent passerby or sound engineer. The perfect performance for a devil. Sadly, this audio edition seems to be out of print.

There are other ways to find this audio edition than your local or online bookstore. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis himself (when referring to how he “came into possession” of the letters):  Such things are not difficult to find once you have the knack. But ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of these methods shall not learn them from me.

But however you come across this classic, do yourself a favor and read it. The letters are short – as is the book its self. The philosophy can run to the intellectual many times, but that is part of its charm. In talking about human philosophy in terms of demonic charcters trying to destroy humanity, Lewis created a fun fantasy book with serious overtones. He makes the reader feel as though he is part of some grand conspiricy and war where enemy communications have just been intercepted and we must decypher their intent right away.

In short: The book is a joy.

Returning to The Screwtape Letters is liking revisiting an old friend – an old friend full of ideas, good talk and many laughs.