His Abysmal Sublimity, Under Secretary Screwtape instructs his nephew Wormwood in the techniques for bringing a human soul to Hell. Wormtongue vexes his uncle, because he does not do this very well. In a series of 31 letters, Screwtape reveals from Hell’s point of view how human beings fool themselves into turning away from “the Enemy” and choosing “Our Father Below.”
The book began as a series for an Anglican newspaper. Just before his death in 1963, C. S. Lewis said that The Screwtape Letters was the only book he did not enjoy writing. “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude,” he said, “it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness and geniality had to be excluded.”
Man’s True Condition[In war] men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe he is going to live forever.
To Who Do We Belong in the End?
All the time the joke is that the word “Mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say “Mine” of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong — certainly not to them, whatever happens.
Death as the Prime Evil (Not)
They, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. . . . It is obvious that to Him [God] human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.
Wearing Out the Soul
The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it — all this provides admirable opportunity of wearing out a soul by attrition.
If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it,” while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth, which is just what we want.
You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.
What We See at Death
Wormwood’s patient has died, in a bombing, “snatched” from Our Father Below by the Enemy.
There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognized the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer. Just think (and let it be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter, as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment. . . .
Did you mark how naturally — as if he’d been born for it — the earth-born vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! “Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?”
The quotes can be found in Letters 5, 21, 28, 28, and 31. The picture is a detail from Charles-Antoine Coypel’s “La Destruction du palais d’Armide,” taken by Vassil and published under a Creative Commons license.