Posts Tagged ‘The Screwtape Letters’

Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.

Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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Front cover of How to Read Contemporary Art by Michael WilsonHow to Read Contemporary Art, Michael Wilson (Thames & Hudson 2013)

The title of this book isn’t the one I wanted. I don’t want to know how to read contemporary art: I want to know how to destroy it. Or most of it, anyway. Alas, its worst forms continue to flourish all around the world. How to Read Contemporary Art devotes double-pages of text-and-photos to dozens of contemporary artists. So it’s full of pretension and fatuity, from Thomas Demand’s Landing (2006), which consists of a smashed vase on a landing (pg. 217), through Gabriel Kuri’s The Recurrence of the Sublime (2003), which consists of a bowl and some avocados wrapped in newspaper (pg. 223), to Rivane Neuenschwander’s Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts) (2002), which consists of a light green napkin folded and abandoned by an “anonymous patron” in a “restaurant or bar” (pg. 279). Michael Wilson’s text is fully worthy of art like that. I didn’t have to look long to confirm that he’s a fluent speaker of International Art English:

Marshalling considerable human and material resources, Pierre Huyghe stages elaborate performances that repeatedly cross and re-cross the boundary separating fact from fiction. In terms of both production values and duration, the videos that document these events have come to resemble full-length, big-budget movies. (“Pierre Huyghe”, pg. 200)

Central to Andrea Bowers’s practice is the connection of art to politics. In videos, installations and drawings she conducts an inquiry into issues of control and empowerment that has shifted from a broad-based exploration of performance and participation into a thoroughgoing focus on the history and aesthetics of injustice and activism. In her multipart project “The Weight of Relevance”, Bowers focuses on those responsible for maintaining and displaying the AIDS Memorial Quilt. (“Andrea Bowers”, pg. 70)

The establishment of loci for intellectual debate is a key part of Hirschhorn’s practice, as is the use of commonplace materials. “I am against work of quality,” he states. “Energy, yes! Quality, no!” In sculptures that frequently take the form of temporary kiosks or pavilions, he takes a “more is more” approach that eschews specialist techniques and privileges ready accessibility over potentially intimidating displays of craft or value. (“Thomas Hirschhorn”, pg. 188)

And so he goes on, waffling and wittering and packing in the polysyllables and pretentious jargon for nearly four hundred pages. There are some small mercies, though: he covers relatively few feminist artists and artists of color, for example. So there’s not much autoproctoscopy from them. But it’s depressing that Chinese artists have been hegemonized by the cultural imperialism of conceptual art too. Ai Weiwei is a big name and a big bullshitter: “Sunflower Seeds consists of 100 million seeds modelled in porcelain and hand-painted to resemble the real thing” (pg. 22). This “uniquely flexible” sculpture has earnt the big bullshitter some big bucks:

Ai Weiwei and some Sunflower Seeds

Ai Weiwei and some Sunflower Seeds

In 2011, a 100 kg pile of the seeds sold at Sotheby’s in London for more than half a million dollars, and in 2012, after a version was displayed at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Tate purchased ten tonnes (about eight million seeds) for its permanent collection. (Ibid.)

Ai Weiwei has definitely learnt from Damien Hirst, an even bigger charlatan who has made even more money from bad art. But I have to admit that Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) is strange and beautiful rather than banal and boring. It’s a platinum skull covered with diamonds and equipped with real teeth. The idea of doing that isn’t special, but the result is: skulls and gems both have powerful effects on our psychology and something interesting happens when they’re combined. The skull cost £15m to make, which has power too. But none of that makes Hirst an artist, rather than a charlatan-entrepreneur. The photos of his shark-in-formaldehyde, deckchair-with-butterflies and spot-painting confirm this. Unlike the skull, they aren’t powerful or strange or beautiful.

For the Love of God by Damien Hirst (2007)

For the Love of God (2007)

He’s a conceptual artist, after all, and the point of conceptual art is to take power away from artists and hand it over to art-critics and art-dealers. Why should talent and skill play any role in success, after all? They certainly don’t explain the fame of Hirst or other “Young British Artists” like Tracy Emin and Rachel Whiteread. It’s another small mercy that Emin doesn’t get a double-page here, but Whiteread does. Her banal-and-boring concept is to take casts of large objects like buildings. Interrogating issues around her work, Wilson witters and waffles like this:

Responding to negative and vacated space via the use of casting techniques and industrial materials … hauntingly infused with memory and loss … consistent with both her own methodologies and the location’s specificities … Reportedly the largest object ever made in resin, Monument is also a technical milestone. … a locus of popular protest and celebration. Embodying both presence and absence … As an artist for whom the interaction of positive and negative space is so significant, it seems apt that Whiteread also stands revealed as equally sensitive to other kinds of opposition and coexistences. (“Rachel Whiteread”, pg. 374)

Smoke Knows by Pae White (2009)

Pae White, Smoke Knows (2009)

Yes. But the artist on the previous page, Pae White, takes something banal and makes it beautiful. Her Smoke Knows (2009) is a “wall-filling tapestry depicting a swirl of white smoke in front of an inky black background”. It sounds simple but it looks gorgeous. I’d like to stand in front of it and admire the way it captures the mathematical concept of chaos – smoke, like water and sand, is a very volatile and sensitive medium, never repeating or keeping the same shape. As for the other art in this book: I would like to drive a steam-roller over most of it.

But if I did do that, Cornelia Parker would have got there before me. Her Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989) consists of silver “dishes, candelabras, trombones” “flattened by a steamroller” and hung from the ceiling of a gallery (pg. 294). All the same, I wouldn’t want to destroy that or some of her other art: it’s conceptual but, like Hirst’s skull, it’s strange and powerful. Another of her pieces, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), has a pretentious title but fails to live up to it. It consists of fragments of a shed Parker “had blown up by the British army” and then hung from the ceiling of a gallery. The photo here shows the fragments dramatically lit and casting eerie shadows. I can’t see great skill or talent there, but it’s a powerful work nonetheless.

Cold Dark Matter by Cordelia Parker (1991)

Cold Dark Matter (1991)

Which makes it unusual in this book. Most of the art and all of the writing remind me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942). Lewis is describing how the Devil works to make prayer unpleasant to a Christian:

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. (Letter XII)

Most of the art here is like “staring at a dead fire in a cold room”: no interest, no excitement, no life. The Devil’s purpose in The Screwtape Letters is to draw a soul towards damnation, so I suppose you could sum How to Read Contemporary Art up as a guide to aesthetic perdition.

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