Hello again Dear Readers!
Some time ago, before the current financial crisis, I was in conversation with Louis Kinsey and we were discussing our mutual fondness for the author C.S. Lewis. I mentioned that my favourite, of all Lewis’s creations, was the devil Screwtape. (It ought to come as no surprise, on the basis of this, that I consider Yes Minister to be among the very finest comedies ever written for television.) I particularly liked the perfect coupling of style to content: that louche, devastating manner once known as ‘Mandarin’ that seems almost to have died out, tied inextricably to a senior bureaucrat in Hell’s internal ‘Lowerarchy’.
“Yes,” said Louis, “they were awfully well written, weren’t they?” He paused for a couple of seconds, then added “Why don’t you have a go at one yourself?”
I prevaricated, and then asked a fatal question. “What should it be about?”
“Envy,” he said. “Write about envy in the 21st Century.”
So I have. Here it is.
Screwtape and the Green Green GrassSome time ago the well-known author C.S. Lewis came into possession of a series of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to a junior tempter (coincidentally his nephew) called Wormwood. The letters chronicled Wormwood’s attempts to destroy his “patient’s” Christian faith—his patient of course being the human to which he was assigned. Lewis never divulged the source of his diabolical epistles, and I have no intention of doing so either. They fall, from time to time, into my hands: internal infernal memoranda from Screwtape, now apparently promoted to ‘Wholly Dishonourable Under-Secretary for Inhuman Resources’, to an old school-friend of Wormwood’s, a junior tempter called Ragwort. Wormwood, of course, was consumed at the end of the events recounted in Lewis’s chronicle. Ragwort seems to have been more fortunate; he is, I think (and extrapolating this is hellish difficult work) on a sabbatical – possibly a sabbat – with Hell’s equivalent of an ‘Internal Ministries’ department, ‘Infernal Miseries’. He seems to be preparing some kind of general internal memorandum on the situation in Scotland, but as yet no complete form of the document has come into my possession. The below letter seems to have been a response to a request for help from Screwtape: let us hope that Ragwort has remembered to eat with a long spoon when invited to sup with the senior demon – perhaps inevitably, Screwtape’s goals remain as irredeemably self-centred as ever. -G.
My dear Ragwort:
You write to me, as usual, with the most sycophantic blandishments I have ever been presented. Your smarming pen flaunts and flirts with flatteries with a skill part natural, part instilled, and wholly responsible for your swift referral out of the field – where, I note with satisfaction, your chosen demographic, impressionable young women, has responded to your charms with alacrity. You seem to have stoked all the right fires, and I see from your Personnel folder that you are considered ‘an offense and a gentledevil’. Well done.
Rumours of your current task had of course reached me. Remember, and beware, the responsibility with which you have been entrusted. The document you are in the process of preparing will haunt your career for quite some time to come, and should it fail in some way, should it fall short of the lowest diabolical standards, you will have some time to reflect on the magnitude of the resulting fiasco as you are tipped into the oven. But you will only be able to contemplate this very briefly. Thus, I applaud your good sense in coming to me. I have been following your career in Scotland with interest, and as a passing academic informed me recently, “contextualisation is everything” (he was somewhat taken aback to discover that, down here at least, where absolutes have a tangible solidity, he was wrong).
You write of ‘envy’ as though the sin had not changed since mediaeval times. And in a sense, of course, you are correct – the sin remains the same, the lusting after something possessed by someone else to the detriment of relationships and happiness. I have described before how that sin has been modified via the perverted use of the word ‘democratic’[*] to mean that anything someone else has ought automatically to be attainable by anyone, otherwise that ownership is ‘elitist’ and therefore ‘undemocratic’. But there is no need to repeat myself; you were at the banquet. No doubt your recollection is as perfect as mine. Instead, I should like to explain to you the great strides we have made with the development of the instant-gratification culture and the materialist properties encapsulated within it. Because these have altered the social acceptability of envy.
Of course five or six hundred years ago everyone had a fairly clear conception of what envy actually was, just as they knew what the Ten Commandments were and what the function was of a conscience: one of Hell’s great triumphs has been the acceptance in the postmodern era of ignorance provided it masquerades as sophistication. The mantra “That was intended ironically” will excuse almost any offense, disguise any bigotry, and pardon any opinion. People would welcome the return of Fascism if the Fascists winked as they entered parliament. That, I grant you, is an idea to conjure with, but for the moment Our Father Below has adopted a more subtle stratagem, one that even I am only dimly aware of, and am not allowed to repeat.
And so to envy now. For the greater part of the Twentieth Century (as they count it) we centred our enviable attitudes on materialism: it was not difficult, in the years of austerity during and following their second ‘great’ war, to concentrate the mind of the average man on the things he wanted but could not obtain. The return to the classical conceit of envy was welcome – like finding a really good vintage in a hitherto forgotten bottle in an overlooked corner of the wine cellar – but that happy state of affairs could not last, and in the 1980s the situation began to change. The nascent mind-set of ‘instant-gratification’ began to realise itself, and we acted.
Instant gratification is not necessarily a tool that favours us. Instant gratification is what makes the infant squall, and in so doing it provokes the mother to action, allowing her to demonstrate her love for the child and allowing the child to understand that it is loved and that it is an important part of the family. It is when these attitudes persist into adulthood (duly fostered and cultivated by our field agents) that we begin to reap the dividends. Because instant gratification is what leads a man to leap impetuously into bed with a woman not his wife; it is what permits a ‘convenient’ divorce; it is what motivates many illegal (as well as immoral) acts. “I need it and I need it now” – music to our ears, carolled on all the pealing bells of hell! The culture of instant gratification is ours to play with, much as we might dislike the gratification itself (as you know, our principle pleasure with, say, adultery, is the damage and guilt suffered by these creatures afterwards, not the happy, mindless, thrashing tedium of the act itself – because they enjoy that, and any pleasure experienced by them is, frankly, offensive.) The old lie that ‘there is no time like the present’ has driven so many bad decisions you could spend an eternity writing them down.
Although, again, we find ourselves wielding a double-edged sword. How many missionaries have gone out because there was no time like the present? How many evangelical conversations have occurred in chance meetings because there was no other time? How many spur-of-the-moment invitations to worship have been accepted? But I do not think we need be too worried. The general timidity of Christians in Scotland is, as ever, a great comfort.
The current situation with instant gratification is that it has reached its foreseeable zenith. The ease of availability of credit cards means that what was once envied is now attainable: the pointlessly fast car, the implausibly wide television, the unnecessarily powerful computer – all these and more are within reach to those who cannot possibly afford them, leaving them hopelessly indebted.
Indebtedness, as you are no doubt aware, has been one of the conceptual battlefields on which our forces have long struggled. Permit me the digression of narrating the story to you now, because it is an interesting one, and one that sheds light on the wiles of the Enemy.
As you know, and as your own experiences and triumphs testify, we make great strides when we capitalise on the crippling nature of guilt. Guilty souls, suitably maintained, atrophy; guilty consciences, tended and shielded from investigation, wither away entirely. Indebtedness, suitably twisted, becomes guilt; guilt, properly cultivated, becomes resentment. You know the sort of thing I mean. “Thank goodness the bank lent me x thousand pounds” becomes “I can’t believe I owe the bank so much money!” which will eventually, if suitable steps are taken (and here it is impossible to overstate the importance of not drawing the patient’s attention to the transformation), become “How dare the bank ask me for this money back? They gave it to me. I deserve it. Of course it would be different if the money was a friend’s, but they’re a faceless institution. They can deal with it. After all, I deserve it.” ‘I deserve it’ is the battle cry of the selfish heart, the heart grown fat and glutted upon its own desires. To place a heart in such a position is, naturally, one of the primary roles of our tempters: sometimes they remind me of nothing so much as gardeners, patiently and tenderly raising the thorns that would choke the Enemy’s message where it falls. So from our perspective indebtedness can be a very good thing. It fosters selfishness and can lead to ruin. Christians are by this stage aware of the phenomenon and prudently warn against it (with typical Protestant restraint they sit primly in judgement on us, Ragwort, on me! Hell’s teeth, even to think it…!), encouraging charity, good faith in financial transactions, and modesty. But there is here an opportunity for us as well. It really is not so much of a leap for these creatures, provided they are gently led, to get from acts of financial misconduct and fiscal incontinence to the idea that ‘all debt is bad’. This holds, for us, two advantages.
Firstly, it enables us to make unwitting hypocrites out of saints. Very few of these prudent, cautious, financially-responsible creatures actually own their house or their car outright. Mortgages and monthly repayments are debts every bit as real as those more intemperately garnered, but they are not considered in the same way, and therein lies our opportunity. It is easy to muddy the issue and to lead souls away from a mighty warrior of the Enemy who has said something he does not entirely mean. ‘All debt is wrong, but I have a mortgage’ is a trifling matter that can easily and effectively be blown out of all proportion.
Secondly, every human of the Enemy’s camp is hopelessly, totally, utterly and irretrievably indebted to the Enemy himself. ‘All debt is wrong’ makes a mockery of the Enemy’s self-sacrifice by insisting that He was somehow wrong to do what He could to save these miserable wretches. This indebtedness to the Enemy’s apparently boundless love (ugh!) seems to be real, insofar as it is what the humans believe. As for what He’s really up to…well, we still don’t know. We know this talk of forgiveness and love must be a sham, a facade, but as yet we have been unable to penetrate to the deeper meaning, to the truth, hidden below. He’s up to something, Ragwort, He’s up to the same old thing He’s been up to for millennia, and as yet our intelligence department has been unable to determine the extent of the plan. Both it, and He, are monstrous subtle. Our failure to understand counts as one of our great failures – but one of our great successes recently has been to blind the vast majority of the Christians to the sheer extent of the sacrifice made for them. All of time and space, brought to a point, serving as witness to the death of the creator of everything that is, was and could ever be – all this for them, them as individuals. They know nothing, nothing of the magnitude of the act. Creatures of time, they have not the faculties to see the cross counterbalancing eternities, tying all of Creation together in a single everlasting moment whose effects ripple back and forth throughout time and across the Earth, Heaven and Hell. Instead, we coax them, slowly but surely, into the great blasphemy: I deserve this. It baffles me that we can do it at all. Don’t these creatures know just how meaningless they are? They only hold interest for us insofar as the Enemy, unaccountably (but with His usual surpassing bad taste), considers them worthy of His interest. Without Him they are nothing at all, mere fodder for our banquet-halls. And yet…I deserve this.
All of which leads us back to envy. In a materialist culture where the materials are readily attainable, where you might as well say ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ as ‘American Express’ or ‘Mastercard’ as plastic transmutes into gold, envy has become the sin that focuses on the unattainable intangibles. People are mimics, Ragwort; if we do our jobs properly they are dull witless things that follow one another because there is usually only one thought to share between them. Of course that’s not how their Creator intended them to be; but then again, He no doubt intended them to be a good deal more courageous than they actually are. Surely He wanted them to have the courage of their convictions: our job has been first to subvert those convictions and then to challenge the very idea of a ‘conviction’ in the first place – hence postmodernism. Our job, if people are to be convinced of anything, is to ensure that they are convinced of the wrong things. Such as, for example, celebrity.
Celebrity is a fascinating concept, one that really has no analogy down here in the Desert of the Real. Where all artifice is stripped away nothing false can stand, whether it is a belief or a delusion or an ineffectual hope. You have enjoyed for yourself the pleasure of shearing a human of his woolly agnosticism; of stripping a liberal ‘spiritual’ (they never are particularly spiritual as you or I define the term) of his piddling affectations and slipshod mediocrities and devouring them, and him, whole. (I understand humans themselves have a food called ‘candy-floss’, which puts me in mind of the flavour and texture of the meal: saccharine, ephemeral, and ultimately without much nutritional value.) Celebrity is much the same: a false notoriety conferred unthinkingly on someone who has done little if anything to deserve it. And therein lies the opportunity.
Precisely because it is so transitory and valueless, precisely because it hinges upon conferred identity and not merit, it is easy to make the claim that it is easily accessible. “If she can be on the cover of a magazine, why can’t I?” The answer is, of course, that the observer is not as attractive or as rich or as influential or as successful as the person photographed. That, for many years, served as the definition of fame; but it no longer works, because of the media triumph of the non-entity. To put someone talentless on the cover of a magazine, to raise up a nobody and yet keep them a nobody – well, I need not explain overmuch just how useful this has been for us. To keep humans lusting after things has been one of our oldest tasks, but one always fraught with the risk of the humans actually achieving whatever it is they long for. Now they lust after something that isn’t actually there at all. Furthermore, they will accept what are to us intolerable levels of humiliation, derision and scorn just to attempt to become a ‘celebrity’. You have seen, I’m sure, the various television programmes that offer ‘fame’ for members of the general public. Some of them are observed 24 hours a day – a state of affairs that, you remember, even the operators of concentration camps baulked at; whereas others, spectacularly talentless by any rational definition, parade their inability in front of the nation in failed auditions for talent shows. And the nation, smugly, voyeuristically, and spitefully, watches for its own amusement. What the humans refer to as ‘Saturday tea-time’ has become simultaneously a time of great work for our tempters and a time of great relaxation. It seldom occurs that the situations into which we place our patients are actually pleasurable for us; to have it occur on a weekly basis is a cause for celebration. No doubt Our Father Below helped to organise it – what amazing disgrace!
Envy used to be regarded as comical. Now it is acceptable, and all the more poisonous for it. We tell our patients that ambition to better themselves is good, as indeed so does the Enemy; the difference lies in what we mean when we say ‘ambition’ – or, for that matter, ‘better’. Conformity to the norm is our business, Ragwort, but never more so than when the norm is resolutely constructed in our image. Envy will lead us, eventually, to a state of affairs where the humans rely on us to do their thinking for them. We teach them that the grass is always greener: by the time they realise that what we offer is poison ivy, it will be too late. Many of them are there already. The remainder of the sheep are sure to follow.
I remain, as ever,
Your fiend and mentor,
Wholly Dishonourable Under-Secretary for Inhuman Resources
[*] See ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’