Politics & Policy

Screwtape Revisited

With gratitude (and apologies) to C. S. Lewis.

“Don’t slink along the walls, boy, come in!” The voice is richer than the nephew remembers, vinous and lordlier, but with a reassuring tinge of malice just beneath the surface.

”By his tail, Uncle, this is fine,” gasps Mildew, stepping cautiously into the center of the vast chamber that is his uncle’s new office. The walls are hung with scarlet velvet; the temperature an agreeable Fahrenheit 911.

Screwtape stands in one corner behind a magnificent expanse of polished wood. “These desks are only given to the highest ranks,” he says proudly. “Solid wormwood!” At the familiar name, the visitor flinches and slows his approach. Screwtape chuckles. “Shame about your brother, really,” he murmurs, and just the tip of a red tongue flickers from his lips. “But let us hope you are made of more ambitious stuff?”

Mildew exhales loudly, as one bursting some inner restraint, and smiles. “Oh, I think so, Uncle. It is why I have been so eager to see you. Why I am so honored to see you–here.”

“Wormwood,” Screwtape repeats, pouring out two glasses of old Pharisee and handing one to his nephew. “It came with the promotion. So did the chairs. Sit down. They’re Corinthian leather.”

Mildew laughs politely and raises his glass. “To the Father of Lies.”

“To the Father of Lies.”

They drink, and put down their glasses. Screwtape looks hard at his nephew, his fingers moving the stem of his glass back and forth along the polished surface of the desk.

“I wonder, young Mildew, if you understand why I have been promoted–one might say exalted, even–to such heights?”

“I have heard,” Mildew begins, and blushes. “The fact is, Uncle, I have heard things that seem impossible. Is it really true that you have found a way to get them to eat–”

“–their young?” Screwtape interrupts with a hungry smile.

“Yes. Yes! I have found the key, the key, my boy, to unlocking the worst in the human heart. Oh, massacres are entertaining enough, and reasonably productive. Rapine and thieving and savagery and the usual nonsense go a good distance to wrecking men’s souls, but not in sufficient numbers. Not for us to win for good–that is, ha-ha, for ill. We must forever be stoking grievances, feeding pride, and constantly thrusting and parrying with the Enemy and his agents. No, the beautifully corrupting key that I have found is vanity.”

“I’ve read about that,” Mildew says, remembering. “In first year college, Know Thine Enemy 101, I think it was. All is vanity, saith the preacher,” the nephew quotes, his mouth twisting as if he has bitten a bad snail.

Screwtape grimaces companionably. “Indeed. Fortunately most of them don’t bother with that any more.”

“But how do–”

Screwtape presses on. “What does Man want? He wants sex, he wants comfort, he wants to be young. He does not want to be told he can’t have what he wants, or to be inconvenienced, or, worse, to be told his desires are wrong. This is where the Enemy’s agents end up doing our work for us, Mildew, countless times!” Screwtape chortles. “Man is a creature of appetites, Mildew. Remember that.”

“Appetites, yes, but eating their young, Uncle? I feel sure that I read somewhere that humans are naturally revolted by cannibalism. The Enemy’s doing, no doubt, but still, there it is.”

Screwtape fixes his nephew with a shriveling glare. “We are not inducing them to broil the little tykes, dear boy, this is no fricassee of first-graders.” He sighs heavily, a sufferer of fools, but then brightens, clearly distracted by a pleasing thought. “That’s an idea, though. Must get Singer to write something up for me on that…excellent. Now, where–”

“Not broiling them.”

“Yes. My achievement, the reason for this–” Screwtape gestures largely about the handsome apartment–”is that I have managed, by appealing to man’s love of self, his vanity, to convince millions that it is not cannibalism, but progress, to turn tiny human infants into medicine. The strong picking the weak apart, cell by cell, to be consumed by the strong? Brilliant!”

The uncle pours another red gout of Pharisee into each glass, and leans forward. “There are some envious others–” he continues softly, glancing around as if to suggest malevolent eavesdroppers,”–who begrudge my rise. To them I say,” and here Screwtape raises his voice, “Vanity is a rusty key that was left lying about, and it was I alone who saw what it could unlock at this point in human history.”

“It is true,” Screwtape continues with a shrug, “that much of the groundwork was already laid. We had already convinced people of the rightness of destroying inconvenient life. Now they talk quite coolly of “blastocysts,” and “clumps of cells” and “surplus embryos.” My genius was to recognize that they needed just a little push to be convinced, with their mania for recycling, that by harvesting something that would otherwise be chucked out, they are doing a positive good! Think of it: They believe they occupy “the moral high ground.” Oh, the profits for us–”

“But Uncle,” Mildew interjects, very respectfully, “there is one point I do not understand. Humans have shown great resistance to the genetic modification of fruits and vegetables–”

Screwtape sees where this is going, and gives what might almost be called a tender smile, were not so many sharply-pointed teeth involved.

“All of Europe was up in arms over plans to make a more tender ear of corn, Uncle, do you remember? Frankenfood, they called it. Gigantic monster tomatoes were inflated and displayed for countryfolk. I do not mean to contradict you, Uncle, but if people fear an altered cob, surely they will not accept a genetically modified human being? After all, that’s what this cell-picking is about, isn’t it?”

“Do you think,” says the uncle witheringly, “that people who believe that life on earth is the only one they have, that once they die there is nothing, that there are no consequences to their choices–one of Our Father Below’s most successful slogans, by the way, choice–do you think, my boy, that they will hesitate if we give them the chance to cut and sew their medical destinies for the mere price of another’s life? As Our Father pointed out to the Enemy during that unfortunate incident involving the man Job, “A person will give up everything in order to stay alive.”

Mildew tries to hold his uncle’s eye, but cannot. He looks down and fiddles awkwardly with his tie.

“No, my boy,” Screwtape continues in kinder tones. “We are on the brink of wondrous things. This is better than the 18th century, when we convinced whole societies that black-skinned persons were things rather than people–”

“Bought and sold and damnation aplenty,” Mildew nods, impressed, “but it didn’t last.”

“No thanks to Him,” Screwtape snaps. “But we are winning now, I can feel it, Mildew. Think of this: In some rich societies, people are not just destroying blastocysts, not merely dismantling children in the womb, they are euthanizing newborn babies!” Screwtape pats the place where his heart would be, were he to have one. “That’s one of my father’s, you know. Euthanize. So clean, so modern-sounding. He got a bonus for that one. But not wormwood.”

“The one I love,” Mildew interjects enthusiastically, “is The Right to Die. It’s so devilishly clever.”

Screwtape looks thoughtfully into his empty glass. “It has potential, once we get the strong to use it regularly against the weak in the guise of being humane.” The uncle frowns. “Unfortunately we’re running into some difficulties with that slogan. This Florida case is not going as hoped. Right to Die tests well in some markets but the Enemy, blast Him, will keep enlisting these poisonous little brutes with their claptrap about the Culture of Life and whatnot. Things may improve when we are rid of that turbulent chief priest of His. It can’t be long now.”

Screwtape shakes his head as if to clear it.

“More wine? Let’s finish the bottle, with a toast to a glorious future. These are heady times, Mildew, and we can use the Enemy’s words against Him. He wants these creatures to believe that each one of them has value. The Enemy actually does value them, however tiny or aged, however mewling or puking or cleft of palate, if you can imagine it.

“The wonderful thing for us? It is increasingly easy to take that Enemy-given sense of intrinsic worth and twist it into cruel self-interest. With man’s vanity, and a little medical breakthrough here and there, we can tempt them the prospect of a life without illness, inconvenience, or parasitical relatives. It will, for humans, be heaven on earth.”

Screwtape chuckles darkly. “And afterwards? Why, we’ll get to meet them down here. In person. And the loveliest bit of all is that their good intentions will have brought them here.”

Uncle and nephew, grinning, raise their glasses once more.

“To the Father of Lies!”

Meghan Cox Gurdon writes regularly about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal.

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