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Status, grievance and resentment: C.S. Lewis on the surprisingly modern business model of hell

60 years after its author’s death, The Screwtape Letters image of hell as an unscrupulous business is still relevant. Simon Horobin tells how C.S. Lewis came to author the influential bestseller.

Simon Horobin is Professor of English Language & Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford University.

A comic book style cartoon of a small squat devil looking quizzed in hell.
A scene from Marvel Comic's version of The Screwtape Letters.

November 22nd is the sixtieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, an event that was overshadowed by the assassination of JFK on the same day. Although he is best known today as the author of the Narnia stories, the obituary that appeared in The Times newspaper a few days later noted that it was in fact The Screwtape Letters which sparked his success as a writer. 

Initially published as a series of letters in the church newspaper The Guardian, The Screwtape Letters appeared in book form in 1942. The idea came to Lewis during an uninspiring sermon at Lewis’s local parish church in the Oxford suburb of Headington, in July 1940. Provisionally titled ‘As one Devil to Another’, the book would form a series of letters addressed to a novice devil, called Wormwood, beginning work on tempting his first patient, by an older, retired devil, called Screwtape. In finding Screwtape’s voice, Lewis was influenced by a speech given by Adolf Hitler at the Reichstag and broadcast by the BBC. What struck Lewis about the oration was how easy it was, while listening to the Führer speaking, to find oneself wavering just a little.  

Lewis dedicated the volume to his friend and fellow Oxford academic, J.R.R. Tolkien. After Lewis’s death, having read an obituary in the Daily Telegraph claiming that Lewis was never fond of the book, Tolkien noted drily:  

‘He dedicated it to me. I wondered why. Now I know.’  

Despite Tolkien’s misgivings, the public devoured the work and it quickly became a bestseller. Although, as Lewis pointed out, numbers of sales can be misleading. A probationer nurse who had read the book told Lewis that she had chosen it from a list of set texts of which she had been told to read one in order to mention it at an interview. ‘And you chose Screwtape?’, said Lewis with some pride. ‘Well, of course’, she replied, ‘it was the shortest’.  

Not all readers approved of its sentiments. A country clergyman wrote to the editor of The Guardian withdrawing his subscription on the grounds that much of the advice the letters offered seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical. The confusion no doubt arose from the lack of any explanation surrounding their circumstances; in a later preface Lewis gave more context, though refused to explain how this devilish correspondence had come into his hands.  

Its publication by Macmillan in 1943 brought Lewis to the attention of readers in the United States; when Time magazine featured an interview with him in September 1947, it carried the title ‘Don v. Devil’. A picture of Lewis featured on the magazine’s cover, with a comic image of Satan, complete with horns, elongated nose and chin, and clutching a pitchfork, standing on his shoulder. 

For Lewis, the war did not present a radically different situation, but rather aggravated and clarified the human condition so that it could no longer be ignored. 

The Screwtape Letters are the product of the war years, during which Lewis wrote many of his most popular works. It was in 1941 that he delivered the first of his broadcasts for the BBC Home Service, which launched his career as a public apologist for the Christian faith. In 1942 Lewis published Perelandra, the sequel to his first space travel novel Out of the Silent Planet (1938), in which his hero, Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist – another nod to Tolkien – is summoned to Venus to prevent a second fall. Although it was published in 1950, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with four children being evacuated to the countryside to escape the London blitz. In setting his stories in outer-space or the fantastical world of Narnia, Lewis could be accused of writing escapist fiction that avoided the realities of a world in conflict. Lewis, however, believed that the war had not created a new crisis, but rather brought into clearer focus an ever-present struggle between good and evil.  

For Lewis, the war did not present a radically different situation, but rather aggravated and clarified the human condition so that it could no longer be ignored. As he remarked in the second of his Broadcast Talks:  

‘Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage’.  

The key point, writes Screwtape, is to fix the patient’s attention on ‘real life’ – but don’t let him question what he means by ‘real’. 

Lewis’s message to a country living in fear of occupation by German troops was that the invasion had already happened. They had been summoned not to their country’s defence, but to its liberation. When the Pevensie children stumble into a snow-covered Narnia under the control of the tyrannical White Witch, they are told in hushed whispers of the rumours of Aslan’s return: ‘“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”’ It is a reminder that Aslan enters Narnia as a rebel, intent on overthrowing the Witch and installing the rightful kings and queens on the thrones of Cair Paravel.  

The Screwtape Letters do not ignore the war during which they were written; Wormwood’s patient is killed in the London bombing. But, for Screwtape, a war is of no value unless it results in winning souls for his Father Below. His advice to his nephew is concerned with diverting the patient from engaging with universal questions by distracting him with everyday preoccupations and sense experiences. While these might involve the immediate conflict, they could also be the excitement of a new romance, a falling out with a friend, the prospect of promotion, or an obsession with food. If the patient should begin to speculate about spiritual matters, Screwtape advises Wormwood to deflect him with academic theories and philosophies that avoid confronting the question of whether the Christian faith might actually be true. The key point, writes Screwtape, is to fix the patient’s attention on ‘real life’ – but don’t let him question what he means by ‘real’. It is ironic, Screwtape observes, that, while mortals typically picture devils putting ideas into their minds, their best work is done by keeping things out.  

Despite numerous requests for sequels, Lewis was reluctant to twist his mind back into the ‘diabolical attitude’ and revisit the spiritual cramp it produced. Numerous spin-offs have appeared to fill the void, with Screwtape emails, audio and stage performances and even a Marvel comic book adaptation. Despite this, readers continue to turn to the original work. After all, Lewis’s depiction of hell as an unscrupulous business concern, whose employees are perpetually concerned about their own status, nursing grievances and resentment, speaks to our modern age just as much as it did to Lewis’s own. 

Review
Culture
Film & TV
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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.