Screwtape on flippancy

In addition to reading Letters to an American Lady for myself and Prince Caspian as a bedtime story for my daughter, last week I started listening to John Cleese’s great audiobook performance of The Screwtape Letters again. While a coincidence and not even remotely by design, I’m now getting a triple dose of CS Lewis—two of them in epistolary mode. This is not a bad thing.

Lewis’s cutting, brutally honest insights into human behavior and sinfulness make Screwtape a revelation and a joy and a disturbing challenge every time I read it. Uncle Screwtape is particularly good at creating taxonomies of human badness, sorting basic kinds of sin into more specific subcategories that still ring true. Consider this, from Letter 11, in which Screwtape explains that while human laughter qua laughter is not necessarily useful to the devils, certain kinds absolutely are. The “patient,” the young tempter Wormwood’s human victim, has recently made fashionable friends with a penchant for certain kind of knowing laughter. After parsing a number of ways humans can amuse themselves and laugh together, Screwtape concludes with a description of hell’s favorite kind of humor:

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But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

The key line here is, I think, Screwtape’s succinct explanation that “Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made.” This kind of flippancy is mostly a matter of tone: simply invoke a particular person or group or idea and wait for the laughter as if it’s inherently funny or worthy of mockery. We’ve all seen this.

But flippancy also relies on a certain in-group disdain for outsiders, and it’s this tendency, as the full letter in the broader context of Screwtape makes clear, that gives flippancy its real danger—the inherent danger of bad company, of cliques. Lewis called such cliques “the inner ring” and was particularly attuned to the temptation offered by inner rings. The bad influence of an exclusive set—especially one perceived as fashionable—appears repeatedly in his fiction and non-fiction work throughout the 1940s, probably most notably in That Hideous Strength, in which Mark Studdock strives for and is seduced into a prominent place in a diabolical circle of scientists.

Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made.
— Screwtape

In “The Inner Ring,” a 1944 lecture, Lewis gave a good description of such cliques and their dangers, but what concerns me here is his description of the kind of language and humor that marks membership in the group: “There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks.” The more unthinking disdain you can pour into your flippant references to opponents or enemies, the more you mark yourself as a member of the group and the more the group affirms you.

(Take away the jocular element and you get something even worse—pure virtue signaling. Virtue signalers are almost invariably humorless people, so even among the flippant there is still hope.)

I think we have a surfeit of this kind of laughter nowadays—exacerbated as always by our internet bubbles and media that are inimical to serious thought or discussion—and it’s exactly as destructive as Screwtape implies. Flippancy borders on mockery but without the potentially salutary moral effect that well-deserved mockery can supply, leaving only the self-satisfaction of the mocker and his audience. Flippancy is also lazy, relying on no more cleverness or wit than a child in a schoolyard pointing and laughing. At least the child gets the exercise of lifting his arm.

You can read the entire letter (Letter 11) here or listen to Cleese’s performance of it here.

Jack London predicts the internet

From his novel The Sea-Wolf, in which the narrator describes the crew of the Ghost in a heated argument:

Childish and immaterial as the topic was, the quality of their reasoning was still more childish and immaterial. In truth, there was very little reasoning or none at all. Their method was one of assertion, assumption, and denunciation. They proved [their point] by stating the proposition very bellicosely and then following it up with an attack on the opposing man’s judgment, common sense, nationality, or past history. Rebuttal was precisely similar. I have related this in order to show the mental caliber of the men with whom I was thrown in contact. Intellectually they were children, inhabiting the physical forms of men.

The topic of debate, by the way, is whether a seal pup can swim by instinct or has to be taught by its mother. Almost—but not quite—pointless enough for a comment section.

Chesterton on South Carolina

Historians will probably mark the present epoch by the problem of the Traffic. Unless, indeed, the historians, who are an absent-minded race of men, have all been killed by the traffic before they can write any histories of it.
— GK Chesterton, 1936

I consider myself warned. 

The opening lines of "About Traffic" from As I Was Saying, a collection of essays published the year of his death.

Dante's rejection letter

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I recently rediscovered this bit I wrote for a contest almost a decade ago. The contest's theme was "Reject a Hit," fictional editorial rejection letters for great literature. I remember thinking myself terribly clever to bury a few Dante-related jokes—some obvious, some not so obvious—inside this. I would tweak a few things if I rewrote this now, but I was amused enough while rereading it to want to share. Enjoy!

* * * * *

Dear Signor Alighieri,

We are delighted to have received your manuscript entitled The Divine Comedy. Though your manuscript possesses some literary merit, we regret we are unable accept it for publication at this time. However, I felt your work was strong enough, often enough, to warrant more than the standard form letter.

There is a thriving market for supernatural narrative, and though you fail to incorporate current trends in werewolves and vampires, a story about the afterlife could certainly sell well. However, we find your constant topical allusions trivialize the subject. How are our readers in Venice, Paris, or London to know the reputation of Florence’s local glutton? Furthermore, your constant political references as well as inexplicable asides about Siena—which represents a large readership—also risk offending readers. In short, such allusions weaken your work’s staying power, which is to say nothing of your gratuitous toilet humor.

There is also—and I broach this subject cautiously—the issue of libel. This is, in fact, the deciding issue in our rejection. We began counting midway through the first section—which you tastelessly call Hell—and soon lost count of actual figures you have derided in your work. Such persons may in fact be dead (though you included a living pope at one point, then explained away his presence in hell by claiming that his body is possessed by a devil—a solution which in no way improves your legal stance), but they have friends and relatives still living, and belonged to organizations which could—and almost certainly will—object to your work. Issues of good taste aside, we cannot leave ourselves open to potential lawsuits which number in the hundreds.

I hope you understand our reservations, and accept our wishes for the best of luck in your other projects. We understand you have authored a few sonnets and a political tract—perhaps it is in those fields that you should pursue fame.

Thank you again for considering us.


Giovanni Rusticucci, Editor

Teen Dantexting

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Friend of this blog Jay has posted a fun parody of those guides to teen texting abbreviations. Parents, use his guide to find out if your teen has been texting about Dante.

A few samples:

NSFW: Ninth sphere for win
SMH: Saw Malebolge, horrible
YMMV: You must meet Virgil

A few of my own suggestions of what to look out for as you monitor your kids' High Medieval literature texting habits:

TTFN: Take that, Farinata
BC: Berate Ciacco
OMFG: On my flying Geryon or Only Malacoda farts—gross!
BBL: Burning Brunetto Latini
SMFH: Simony makes feet hot
ROTFL: Remember only things following Lethe
ICYMI: In Cocytus you meet icicles