Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Fourteen

In Chapter Nineteen, Lewis leaves aside the philosophy and theology for some world building. Screwtape has accidentally contradicted himself. He has claimed, on multiple occasions, that love is not real, and also that the Enemy (God) truly loves humans. Wormwood has pointed it out, and Screwtape backpedals, claiming that of course all that stuff about the Enemy loving humans is propaganda and he didn’t mean they should actually believe it, he was only quoting because A. they don’t understand what the Enemy is really about and B. in the meantime they might as well quote his filthy lies, because that’s the closest they can come to understanding, and thus predicting, his aims. It’s up to interpretation how much Screwtape believes this. He also seems to be afraid that Wormwood might have shared some of these communications with the Gestapo of Hell, in the most literal sense. I don’t have much to say about it, which is good, because I have quite a lot to say about Chapter Twenty.

You may notice that in the last chapter I quoted Screwtape naming one advantage of the human belief that love is the best reason to get married. There was a second, which was that demons can use love, or sexual arousal mistaken for love, to convince a human to get married to someone they really shouldn’t. Or as he puts it, “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 protect a man from all the consequences, of marrying a heathen, a fool or a wanton.” I suppose I might as well say now that Lewis’ idea of a good pairing and mine don’t entirely line up.

Here’s my acknowledgement of the good grain of a thought for the day. Simply being in love is not a sufficiently good reason to get married. The world is full of couples who are in love, but who would probably murder each other if they tried living together, much sharing finances and/or raising children as a team. Our lewd secular culture is not so blind to that fact as Lewis would paint us. TV, books and movies are full of break-ups and divorces between people who really loved each other but were not a good long term match. Magazines, online or in print, print quizzes to help you decide whether you’re with a keeper or not; these quizzes are of fairly, erm, varied quality, but they stand as testament to our general understanding that while love should really go with marriage, but we don’t think love and attraction alone make a good marriage.

I think having a good marriage is a mixture of having personalities that are either similar or complimentary, multiple shared interests and values, and the basic maturity to resolve inevitable conflicts fairly and compassionately. Lewis seems to think that a marriage can be bad simply because the woman involved is the wrong kind of hot. I wish I were making this up. To begin with, there’s the following; “in a rough and ready way, of course, this question [of which sort of men they should trick The Patient into marrying] is decided for us by spirits far deeper down the Lowerarchy than you and I. It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste.’ This they do by working with the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely… At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium. At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. ”

The slim silver lining here (that Lewis is criticizing the unrealistic beauty standards that women are pressured to conform to) is not only undermined but utterly obliterated by his blithe assumption that every woman who conforms to these fashions has a personality to match their outfits. A person’s taste in fashion might give clues about their background, their culture, their hobbies, the sort of work they do or that they aspire to and their favorite color, but their outfits are utterly useless for telling whether they are kind or clever or fair-minded or anything that really matters about who they are as people. The only clues clothes give prospective partners are individual, rather than general; they can help two people realize they like the same TV shows but can’t identify a person as being generally the sort you want to be in a relationship with or not.

There is also an assumption above that female value in relationships is largely defined by  their willingness to produce children. He specifically lists “won’t want to have babies” as a disadvantage of modern fashion, and also talks about using these women to breed a worse set of human being. So we’ve got a woman’s right to choose dismissed without a first, much less second thought, and a nice big side of eugenics. Fashionable women are all horrible people, and they are also terrible mothers, and if you aren’t getting married to have babies you are doing marriage wrong. Now, I realize that he isn’t writing for a modern audience, but nor is he writing in medieval times. Feminism was a thing when he was around, so while his position might have been less controversial back then, it isn’t as though this is a stance I am artificially pushing him into with the lenses of modern values. There were controversies back then about women in jobs and their role in the family, and he is consciously taking a traditional, stay in the kitchen stance.

And somehow, it gets even worse.

“You will find, if you look carefully into any human’s heart, that he is haunted by at least two imaginary women-a terrestrial and an infernal Venus, and that his desire differs qualitatively according to its object. There is one type for which is desire is such as to be naturally amenable to the Enemy-readily mixed with charity, readily obedient to marriage, coloured all through with that golden light of reverence and naturalness which we detest; there is another type which he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally, a type best used to draw him away from marriage altogether but which, even within marriage, he would tend to treat as a slave, an idol, or an accomplice. His love for the first might involve what the Enemy calls evil, but only accidentally; the man would wish that she was not someone else’s wife and be sorry that he could not love her lawfully. But in the second type, the felt evil is what he wants; it is that ‘tang’ in the flavour which he is after. In the face, it is the visible animality, or sulkiness, or craft, or cruelty which he likes, and in the body, something quite different from what he ordinarily calls Beauty, something he may even, in a sane hour, describe as ugliness, but which, by our art, can be made to play on the raw nerve of his private obsession.”

Elsewhere in this book, he regularly uses male pronouns, as writers of his time tended to do, when talking about humans in general, but in this passage something very strange happens. He follows “every human’s heart,” with a description that is unmistakeably only about heterosexual males, while he talks about women as being the subject of temptation, with no mention of how they feel about the whole thing or whether they are tempted by men in an equivalent fashion. Women, in this passage, are not only objects of affection, they are good or bad objects of affection based solely on how they physically present and what sorts of emotions they raise in the men observing them. Their feelings and choices have no part in whether they would make good partners or not, and the only acknowledgement that they even has personality comes with the assumption that the type of beautiful they happen to be can tell a professional tempter everything they need to know about the woman’s character.

I want to note that this is actually very uncharacteristic of Screwtape’s tone. He is very aware of how humans work, as people. His whole business is taking advantage of how people, as people, make mistakes, so while he might belittle, scorn or abuse them, he never dehumanizes them, based on gender or anything else. He explains to Wormwood how they tick, and when he thinks men and women tick differently, he will take a moment to explain how women work, presumably because he hopes that Wormwood will go on to tempt a multitude of humans, some of whom may be female. That is why, in the majority of this post, I speak of the dehumanization of women as Lewis’s problem, not a problem of Screwtape’s that we are supposed to criticize him for. Believe me, if I thought there was reasonable doubt that the misogyny was something we were supposed to criticize, rather than adapt, I would have given Lewis the benefit of the doubt, but the text does not support that conclusion.

At the same time that Lewis warns us all of this infernal Venus, his description of her is so vague as to be completely unhelpful. I’m not even sure whether he means that all women who arouse that sort of feeling are horrible women who will drag them down the road to hell by their actions, or whether they are bad because they are attractive to men in the wrong sort of way and will encourage the wrong sorts of thoughts in their heads, no matter what those women as individuals choose to do. Assuming, as he is, that all of us (meaning all men, because women apparently don’t actually exist except as philosophical zombies) are aware of this phenomenon based on it residing in our hearts. I suppose that means I can assume that the first thing that sprang to my mind, based on his crude description, was correct. I think he means Betty good, Veronica bad. If a girl is sweet and conservative in her sexuality, she’s good material, but if she is assertive and exotic and owns her sexuality, she’s bad. Apparently we also think that type is ugly deep down, and if we think that’s bunk we just haven’t explored the depths of our souls enough, sort of like how I’m not really a man and my boyfriend isn’t really not attracted to women, we are both just deceived by Satan.

Now, I don’t want to defend either Bettys or Veronicas, because number one I think that’s a very simplistic way to divide real people up, and number two… no, there is no number two. Number one covers it. In fact, most of the most strongly Veronica-ish people I can think of are actually happily married and have been for years. I can think of a number of people who are much more Betty-ish, but would probably be disastrous to marry, simply because they aren’t at that stage in their life yet. There is some maturing that needs to happen first. The majority of people I know aren’t either one; they are comfy down to earth sluts, or brash independent individuals who are looking forward to having kids, or they wear sweaters one day and stripper heels the next because real people have multiple modes they switch in and out of day to day, hour to hour. You can’t take half the population, sort them into two categories, and then say, “pick a wife from box A. and stay away from everyone in box B.” Those boxes are incorrect.

For a chapter about chastity, this is actually very sexually objectifying. People often think the “sexually” part of that phrase is the important one. It’s not. Being attractive to someone else is not a problem, and most people want to be attractive on some level. It’s the “objectifying” part that is an issue. Being aroused by someone is not a problem, but treating them as if their humanity and dignity ceases to matter in the face of your own arousal is a huge problem. Noticing that someone walking down the street has a fine ass is not necessarily sexually objectifying, but whistling at them generally is, because it ignores the fact that the ass is attached to a person who might not feel comfortable with that. Lewis is favoring women with toned down sexualities, but he is still valuing them entirely by how they sexually interest men, ignoring the fact that they have thoughts and feelings and histories and character beyond whether they wear short skirts and halter tops vs. smell like homemade cookies. Women, in this chapter, are objects.

He closes out by saying that getting a man to marry Veronica is as effective in capturing his soul as merely sleeping with her is. Again, whether this is because of the interaction between the two of them or just because the demons get to say, “ha-ha, we made you marry wrong girl” and then something mystical happens to everybody’s souls, that is not explained at all. Certain types of women are just bad, and we are supposed to all intuitively understand that he is correct about that. In this series of reviews, I have always tried to be fair, and I’ve tried to be aware of my current political and religious biases. I have erred on the side of caution, looking for the good in each chapter, as well as the bad. This is the one chapter so far that has completely failed to turn up anything redeemable. This is pure sexist sludge, with no universal moral lessons to be gleaned among the morass of misogyny.

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