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The War is relevant, writes Screwtape, only in that it affects the Patient’s state of mind. The mere fact of air raids on the Patient’s town should be, for Wormwood, beside the point. Wormwood should be trying to keep the Patient alive. Young tempters are being swayed by Hell’s own propaganda, writes Screwtape. Hell has made humans think of death as evil, but, if their souls are prepared like the Patient’s is, death is a good thing. It brings them to the Enemy. Wormwood must remember that it is very difficult for humans to persevere. He should keep the Patient alive until middle age. Then, the Patient may become worldly and lower his guard. Even if the Patient is prosperous, Wormwood can use his good fortune to make him love the earth and not the Enemy. Young people even if they are not religious, are idealistic and detached from the world. It is easier to wean their souls off of eternal thoughts little by little over the course of many years.
Screwtape reopens the question of whether to make courageous, cowardly, or filled with hatred. Hell cannot make him brave, writes Screwtape. Its research department has not discovered how to produce virtues. Hatred Wormwood can manage. He should confuse the Patient and make him think he hates the Germans on behalf of women and children. And hatred is best mixed with fear. Cowardice, unfortunately, is the only vice of which Hell has failed to make men proud. So Wormwood must be careful. If he makes the Patient cowardly, it may make him pray to the Enemy for forgiveness and strength and, therefore, have the opposite of the desired effect. The best thing might be to make the Patient superstitious. His superstition will take away his presence of mind and cause him to act cowardly in a critical moment. Only cowardly action is sin. It is not sin to feel fear.
During the first air raid, the Patient feels very frightened. He thinks himself a coward. This is terrible news, writes Screwtape. It means the Patient feels no pride despite behaving according to his duty. If Wormwood is asking Screwtape for mercy based on his good intentions, Screwtape writes, he is committing heresy. Hell’s justice is simple: bring back food (a human soul) or be food. Wormwood should try to keep the Patient tired without letting him become exhausted. This moderate fatigue will make him irritable. Real exhaustion, however, might give him peace of mind or clear vision. Furthermore, Wormwood should give the Patient false hopes. That way, the Patient will be disappointed when relief doesn’t come. When the Patient sees gore and severed limbs, Wormwood should make him think Humans have a hard time distinguishing between emotional and physical reality. If Wormwood does well, the Patient will see blood and violence as “reality” and laughing children and good weather as “mere sentiment.”
Now, Screwtape addresses Wormwood affectionately as “my poppet” and “my pigsnie.” Screwtape loves Wormwood, he writes, just as much as Wormwood loves him. Now that Wormwood has failed, Screwtape cannot wait to eat him. He hopes he will be given a piece! Screwtape imagines what it was like the moment the Patient recognized Wormwood for the first time and realized Wormwood no longer had any power over him. The Patient got off easy. He had no doctor’s visits, no false hopes of recovery. He died quickly during an air raid. Screwtape is filled with rage when he imagines the Patient losing his doubts and entering eternal life. Hells two greatest weaknesses, writes Screwtape, are useless tempters like Wormwood and its Intelligence Department. He complains, again, that Hell’s forces cannot understand what the Enemy is really up to, but he has no doubt that Hell’s realism will win in the end. In the valediction of this final letter, Screwtape describes himself as Wormwood’s “increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle.”
The twenty-eighth letter foreshadows the Patient’s death. The Patient’s unspecified duties in his town place him in areas that are directly affected by German air raids. The fact that Wormwood is advised to keep the Patient alive is a fairly strong sign that the Patient will soon die. After all, Wormwood has consistently failed to follow Screwtape’s advice concerning the Patient. Readers then get confirmation that the Patient’s soul is well prepared for Heaven. This fact encourages readers to ask themselves this difficult question: Do they want the Patient to go to Heaven, or are they rooting for Wormwood and Screwtape to win him over? The binaries offered by The Screwtape Letters, and perhaps by organized Christianity in general, where good and evil, virtue and vice, Heaven and Hell, are clearly defined categories, are not necessarily fully born out by experience. What seems good from one perspective, at one moment in time, might have negative and unforeseen consequences later on. Literary works, whether religious or secular, are a means of sorting, making sense of, or unveiling chaos. Both Christianity and fiction, then, are ways to shape, and to find form within, a disordered world.
Hell’s powers, Screwtape ultimately admits, are very limited. Though Hell is depicted as a vast corporate machine in The Screwtape Letters, the cogs within this system often spin purposelessly. Hell, it turns out, is incapable of creating or producing anything positive or material on its own. Despite Screwtape’s statements to the contrary, it remains questionable whether Hell is capable of creating even negative feelings. It seems, instead, that the most Hell’s agents can do is misdirect human energy away from positive activities and positive outlets. Devils cannot create hatred inside people, they can only tempt people into feeling and fueling hatred within themselves. Hell might encourage feelings like hatred or cowardice or fear, but feeling is not sin. Feeling, as Screwtape reminds , is different from action. Only a negative response to these feelings in the form of harmful thoughts or actions can really be considered sin. What’s more, when devils manage to lead humans into these bitter feelings, people still have the opportunity to respond to them in a positive, faith-affirming way. These negative emotions, contrary to Hell’s intentions, may prompt people back toward prayer and God. No matter what Wormwood does, the Patient has the final say over the way he chooses to live his own life. In light of the Patient’s autonomyWormwood’s powers seem very limited indeed.
Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood continues to challenge conventional expectations and beliefs. The conventional belief might be that feeling cowardly in response to danger is a negative thingsomething that would make Hell’s forces happy. Not so. Once again, it is what a person does with their feelings that is significant, not the feelings themselves. According to Screwtape, the Patient’s feelings are not to be trusted. In fact, the Patient believes himself to be cowardly because he felt fear, but his behavior was virtuous. This suggests that it is a good thing for people to be self-deceived so long as it keeps them from falling into sin and pride. Then, Screwtape turns the tables on Wormwood. Wormwood has already reported Screwtape for heresy—or Hell’s version of it—because Screwtape has said that God really loves human beings. Now, Screwtape threatens to report Wormwood for Hell’s version of heresy because Wormwood is asking for mercy. Mercy is a virtue shown by the powerful, but there are no virtues in Hell. God gives mercy, and Satan tortures souls.
Next, Screwtape compares physical and emotional reality. It is easy, Screwtape argues, for humans to believe the ugly and the hideous are somehow more real than the beautiful or joyful. But all of these elements, he reminds Wormwood, are equally a part of physical reality. Human attraction to ugliness may help explain why The Screwtape Letters are so effective as spiritual advice. The dark intentions and evil workings of devils are, arguably, more compelling than the teachings of virtuous people or angels. In any case, the contradiction in receiving spiritual advice from a giant centipede or a violent demon is compelling. Screwtape’s increased affection toward Wormwood in the final letter is a sign of his growing excitement about feasting on him. Wormwood, apparently, is so incompetent that he shall be sacrificed for his failure to capture the Patient’s soul.
There are many contradictions within the world of, and the philosophy advanced within, The Screwtape Letters. For instance, if devils are eternal, why is there a training college for seemingly younger tempters? How could devils have familial relations like nephew and uncle? How could an eternal being like Wormwood be eaten? Ultimately, these inconsistencies make the alien and invisible realm of Hell more concrete and visible. Screwtape and Wormwood’s relationship, for example, seems more definite as a result of its being expressed in the familiar terms of uncle and nephew. It is easier to picture Hell as a large corporation than as an invisible location experienced only by spirits and the dead. The generous reader can see the contradictions in The Screwtape Letters as the result of necessary analogies that attempt to express the true, but ultimately inexpressible, conditions of Heaven and Hell. A more skeptical reader may see these inconsistencies as the natural byproduct of the fact that Heaven and Hell, morality and immorality, sin and virtue, are, themselves, human fictions—stories people tell themselves in the course of the ongoing, impossible human project to make sense out of life.