Friday, May 3, 2013

E. M. Forster and C. S. Lewis (SCREWTAPE)

So, a few weeks back (W.4/10) I came across an interesting conjunction between two figures we usually think of as inhabiting different worlds: C. S. Lewis and E. M. Forster. Today Morgan Forster is remembered for his associations with the Bloomsbury Group (as a welcome visitor rather than a core member) and for his epic writer's block -- he wrote four novels between 1905 and 1910, then emerged from silence in 1924 with a fifth; his sixth appeared posthumously almost half a century later, in 1970. But despite his scanty output he was one of the great novelist of his time and cast a long shadow over the early twentieth century --for example, his influence is obvious on Barfield's ENGLISH PEOPLE [1930] and Tolkien's LOST ROAD [circa 1936].

Although Forster ceased writing fiction, he continued to write essays. And he made many radio broadcasts, some have now been transcribed, collected, and published, in THE BBC TALKS OF E. M. FORSTER 1929-1960: A Selected Edition, ed. Mary Lago, Linda K. Hughes, and Elizabeth Macleod Walls [2008]. And, in one particular talk ("Some Books": W. Feb. 3rd 1943; pp.222-226), he discussed C. S. Lewis's new book, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS:

"What's wrong with the world? Three out of four books I'm mentioning try to answer this question. Something is wrong with a war every twenty-five years, national and communal and racial hatred, frightened individuals, people starving in one place while food is being destroyed in another. If we listen to the past we can, as it were, hear that same ugly tune of human failure played quietly. Today it is being played fortissimo, and it is often difficult to listen to anything else. So it is natural that three out of these four books should deal with the question.

  You've probably noticed in books -- and in yourself -- two tendencies. Sometimes when you ask yourself what's wrong with the world, you answer 'It wants reorganising economically. When a basic standard of physical comfort has been achieved, the rest will follow'. And this is the attitude of Mr. Mulk Raj Anand in his "Letters on India", one of the books on my list. At other times you'll answer, 'No it wants a change of heart. When we become different -- and better -- as individuals, then the rest will follow'. That is the attitude of Mr. Gerald Heard, a practising mystic, and a pacifist, in his new book "Man the Master". And a change of heart is also demanded by an orthodox Christian writer, Mr. C. S. Lewis, in his "The Screwtape Letters". Mr. Heard and Mr. Lewis have very little in common. But they both take hold of the psychological end of the stick, as opposed to Mr. Anand who takes hold of the economic end. Which end do you take hold of yourself?

   I will take Mr. C. S. Lewis first. He is an Oxford don, and a layman of the Church of England, and he writes to justify the Christian point of view, and to give the Christian interpretation of what's wrong with the world. Sin is what's wrong, wars and starvation being only a consequence, and although the Creator of mankind is good and omnipotent, men sin because he chose to give them free will, and because they choose to make a wrong use of that will. Mr. Lewis attacks these mysteries in an interesting book called "The Problem of Pain" which I've also been reading, but I won't talk about it here. I will confine myself to a much livelier work, "The Screwtape Letters". But besides being a theologian, Mr. Lewis is as clever as they make 'em, if I may use the expression. He is witty and ingenious, and sometimes recalls the late G. K. Chesterton, though he hasn't Chesterton's robustness. Here is a book of his "The Screwtape Letters" which purport to be written by a devil called Screwtape who has rather a good position in an underground office, and writes weekly to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is on earth, in charge of a mortal, and being young and inexperienced is constantly making mistakes, and driving his patient toward righteousness instead of the reverse direction. Screwtape advises him on each occasion, for instance what to do when the patient quarrels with his mother or falls in love or is converted to a religion. Unfortunately the patient dies in an air raid, when he behaves heroically, and is saved. Wormwood loses his prey and returns to Hell where his affectionate uncle eats him up.

   A couple of sentences which will give you the taste of the book. Screwtape is writing about the Future, and says, it is of all things the least like eternity:

   "Hence the encouragements we have given to all those 
schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific 
Humanism, or Communism which fix men's affections 
on the Future. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future.
 Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present: 
fear, avarice, lust, and ambition to the Future".

   I should have thought that Hope looked to the Future too, and that it is a virtue. However I am not here to criticise either Mr. Lewis or Screwtape, but to indicate the provocative little book which they have collaborated to produce. Mr. Lewis does not believe in progress or that the world will be put right by humanism or by planning. It is wrong because men have sinned, and they have sinned because God has left them free to choose between good and evil, and, tempted by the devil, they have chosen evil. The world, indeed, is not a place to put right. It is a place to do right in.

   Compare with this view the view of Mr. Gerald Heard. Mr. Heard also begins with the unseen. Like Mr. Lewis he believes that the world has gone wrong for psychological reasons, but there the resemblance between them ends, for he believes that the miseries with which we are all surrounded -- the war, the starvation, the mutual hatred -- can be averted if we like, and that now is the moment . . . 

---at this point, Forster devotes two paragraphs to Heard's book and then one to Anand's, his most interesting comment in this part being

. . . I always feel when reading Mr. Heard's books --- and I think I've read them all -- that his analysis of our troubles is convincing, but that his remedies are not.

---Surprisingly enough, it turns out that Heard's ideas are very similar to Barfield's, as expressed in works like UNANCESTRAL VOICE (his masterpiece):  

. . . He [Heard] holds on the evidence of anthropology, that men were once in touch with each other instinctively like a herd of animals, that they have lost touch, thought the development of individuality, and that they must re-establish it or perish

---In the end, Forster sets out the differences between these three books thusly: 

re. Mulk Raj Anand's LETTERS ON INDIA: "his general attitude is "Make people comfortable and then they'll be good". Whereas Mr. Heard's attitude is "Make people good and then they'll be comfortable". And Mr. Lewis's is "Make people good and it doesn't much matter whether they're comfortable or not".

The final section of his review is quite interesting in itself but completely different from what came before: here his book is a collection of letters by Sir Henry Ponsonby, Private Secretary to the Queen (1870ff) -- the man responsible for managing Queen Victoria's schedule. These provide an odd glimpse into a vanished world where the Queen communicated by note: "the Queen . . . did not like seeing people unless she was sure they were going to agree with her", including her own family; thus a constant stream of message-bearers up and down the chilly halls of Balmoral ("Queen Victoria disapproved of fires") carrying messages back and forth between the queen, her children and the staff. Forster concludes

It was a strange job and a strange age -- though I suppose a philosophic observer, or an economic expert for that matter, can see latent in it the evils which have risen to the surface and occupy Mr. Heard and Mr. Lewis and Mr. Anand today. Even in these days the evil melody of war is already being played -- but softly, a sinister undertone.  We today are much more conscious than the rulers and the people of the Victorian era. We know much better what the human race is up against. And it may be that our successors, fifty years hence, will know much better than we do, and will consequently discover solutions. 

--E. M. Forster

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