The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis

On a boiling day in the late summer of 2009, I tried to say awake as my grandmother sang along to religious hymns I didn't understand nor care about. I didn't believe a word I was hearing, and I wanted to get my ass off the pews and go home. 

   That was, and is, the only time I have ever set foot in a church.

   You can imagine the shock I was in for when this book started to sound like a sermon. 

   But, as I soon remembered, good books, even religious ones, often mean more than they were meant for. I don't intend to read Ayn Rand's novels because I believe in capitalism. (I actually intend to read them to look for flaws in every faucet of the free-market ideology that I'm not already aware of, but that's not the point.) 

   As I milled through the letters of our diabolical "protagonist," Screwtape, hell began to sound less like the Christian interpretation of hell and more like the creative slump I've been trudging through for months on end. 

   In this sense, The Screwtape letters might even unconsciously present the idea that the devil is not a tangible menace, but a figurative embodiment of the degradation of the human spirit. 

   Going on this idea, Screwtape could actually represent any antagonist the reader chooses. 

   The way C.S Lewis goes really deep into how exactly a symbolic devil would think is interesting and could probably make for quality character building if Letters followed the structure of a traditional narrative. 

   The fact that it doesn't is both a point in and against its favor. 

   Novels written with the format of diaries or letters have never managed to be page-turners, as far as I've read. 

   We never truly get to know any of the characters. We know their philosophy and their goals, but if you asked me who exactly Screwtape or Mr. Wormwood was, I'd really have no clue. There is a considerable lack in many details on the "patient," the person Screwtape is trying to "seduce" to the "dark side." I doubt, though, that this was accidental, as all the things Mr. Wormwood tries to pull throughout the course of his first assignment are all things we tend to pull on ourselves, and the more ambiguous the character in spiritual peril, the easier it is to imagine ourselves in an identical form of that peril.

   What I loved most about this book were the little snippets of ideas, particularly Screwtape's qualms about letting the Patient experience true sensations of pain and pleasure, to allowing the presence of non-dictated thought, and living with any sense of independent will. 

   One inquiry: if that doesn't sound like that little voice in your head that's constantly nagging you about what all the other people around you expect of you, what does? Perhaps the message Lewis is trying to send has something to do with the fact that in hearing social pressure and the call of nothingness (the remarks in this book about the power of nothing are extraordinary and serve about an excellent reminder of the metaphorical evil of boredom), you are hearing the voice of your personal demons, whatever they may be, and, in the case of the Patient, Mr. Wormwood and his "affectionate uncle Screwtape."

   In terms of readability, Letters can easily be placed in a time earlier than when it was written, with borderline archaic vocabulary and the experience and skill of an incumbent king of modern fantasy. It doesn't manage to hold attention well, however, and the reader should not adhere to the common misconception and delusion of, "it's only 200-something pages. I'll finish it quickly."

   In some parts, the prose drags on for practically eons, but the insight and ideas are just as endlessly worth it. 

   However, if you need to recover from a book slump and are searching for a quick, action-packed read, it goes without saying that anything by C.S Lewis will likely put you to sleep. 

   My prime group for recommendation: secondary school students with their personal bitchy inner voices and/or writers struggling with the tyranny of their monstrous inner editors. 

 

B+/ 7th March 2016/ Perregrinne Landry Hart