Sunday Thought: Once and Done

Precious daughter number 2 got me a copy of Lewis's The Screwtape Letters for Christmas. I don't know what gave her the idea, but it's been well over twenty years since I read it and I can't find my old copy. I never said anything about it, since I wasn't looking for it anyway, so score another one for a woman's intuition . Some weeks after Christmas, with President Obie's assaults on individual and religious liberties alike a constant irritant to my peace of mind, I picked up the book and started thumbing through it. There's a horned creature on the front, one of Satan's facsimiles, I suppose, of the sort you see preparing to leap from the walls of castles and gothic cathedrals.

Skimming the pages, I wondered what old Satan thought of these current difficulties afflicting his Foe's Church in America. He was smiling, no doubt. Small potatoes, I concede, when we consider that being Christian in Iraq, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan and plenty of other places can get you killed. Still, this is my country, the place I have to live, and we must fight the faintest corruption even if the price of losing, or not fighting at all, seems inconsequential. I've taken the postion that we've gotten to this place - to this time when liberties once taken for granted have been rendered mortally vulnerable to Caesar's contempt for competing divinities - by our not so long ago embrace of the goodness, the actual moral rectitude, of engaging in intentionally sterile sex, that is, of having sex for fun; or, to be obnoxiously candid, of using another human being to satisfy lust. That this satisfaction is indulged by mutual consent in no way vitiates the use. To the best of my understanding and all that.

I've long suspected that if a man could read Satan's mind, discover his will for humankind, and which of our acts cause that old devil to writhe in his slime pit of eternally unfruitful, orgasmic ecstasy, that man could find the path to virtue by simply doing the opposite. This is somewhat the conceit of Lewis's book: find that virtuous path by eavesdropping on Satan's (via Screwtape's) advice to one of his apprentices in the vineyard. Considering that we now have one of his useful idiots running the country, I became even more curious as to what our forbears thought of this whole matter of contraceptive, sterile, recreational, mutually narcissistic, and therefore somewhat perverted, sex. With 'forbears' we tend to think of great-grandfathers, Founding Fathers, and Fathers of the Church. But I just wanted to know what Lewis thought. The book was written in 1942 but he was still alive when I was a young man. Surely he is among the moderns. What great gulf could exist twixt him and us? Skimming along, memory jarred by a fragment here or there, I got stopped by Chapter 18. He in no way, of course, deals explicitly with contraception, and yet implicit throughout is a sexual ethic we have thoroughly abandoned:

My dear Wormwood,

Even under Slubgob you must have learned at college the routine technique of sexual temptation, and since, for us spirits, this whole subject is one of considerable tedium (though necessary as part of our training) I will pass it over. But on the larger issues involved I think you have a good deal to learn.

The Enemy's demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Ever since our Father's first great victory, we have rendered the former very difficult to them. The latter, for the last few centuries, we have been closing up as a way of escape. We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually shortlived, experience which they call 'being in love' is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding. This idea is our parody of an idea that came from the Enemy.

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. 'To be means 'to be in competition'.

Now the Enemy's philosophy is nothing more nor less than one continued attempt to evade this very obvious truth. He aims at a contradiction. Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility he calls love, and this same monotonous panacea can be detected under all He does and even all He is - or claims to be. Thus He is not content, even Himself, to be a sheer arithmetical unity; He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature. At the other end of the scale, He introduces into matter that obscene invention the organism, in which the parts are perverted from their natural destiny of competition and made to cooperate.

His real motive for fixing on sex as the method of reproduction among humans is only too apparent from the use He has made of it. Sex might have been, from our point of view, quite innocent. It might have been merely one more mode in which a stronger self preyed upon a weaker - as it is, indeed among the spiders where the bride concludes her nuptials by eating the groom. But in the humans the Enemy has gratuitously associated affection between the parties with sexual desire. He has also made the offspring dependent on the parents and given the parents an impulse to support it - thus producing the family, which is like the organism, only worse; for the members are more distinct, yet also united in a more conscious and responsible way. The whole thing, in fact, turns out to be simply one more device for dragging in Love.

Now comes the joke. The Enemy described a married couple as 'one flesh'. He did not say 'a happily married couple' or 'a couple who married because they were in love'; but you can make the humans ignore that. You can also make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes 'one flesh'. You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of 'being in love' what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured. From the true statement that this transcendental relation was intended to produce, and, if obediently entered into, too often will produce, affection and the family, humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call 'being in love' is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy. The error is easy to produce because 'being in love' does very often, in Western Europe, precede marriages which are made in obedience to the Enemy's designs, that is, with the intention of fidelity, fertility, and good will; just as religious emotion very often, but not always, attends conversion. In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves 'in love', and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion. (Don't neglect to make your man think the marriage-service very offensive.) In the second place any sexual infatuation whatever, so long as it intends marriage, will be regarded as 'love', and 'love' will be held to excuse a man from all the guilt, and to protect him from all the consequences, of marrying a heathen, a fool, or a wanton. But more of this in my next,

Your affectionate uncle
Screwtape

William Luse