Screwtape Wants You to Think Only Horror is Real, but Joy is Sentimental

“We have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real.’”
on Feb 28, 2019

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’s head demon shares a strategy to trick people into redefining reality.

I’ve found the satirical Screwtape’s advice a blast of cold water on my face. And maybe yours too. Especially if you, like me, feel tempted to insist that only gritty, darker stories reflect the real world. And to insist that lighter, “inspirational” stories—with their religious experiences and music in lighted rooms—are always unrealistic.

For those who would also redefine “realism” in fiction as only showing sin’s nasty effects, please take heed.1

Screwtape addressed his demonic nephew, Wormwood (“you”), and Wormwood’s human “patient” (“he”).2

Probably the scenes he is now witnessing will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith—your previous failures have put that out of your power.

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried.

It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy.

You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”.

They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had.

On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness.

Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us.

The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.

Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real”—in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments.

The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it.

Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment . . .

  1. Some of this story is adapted from my original 2013 article on SpecFaith, “Screwtape on Redefining ‘Realism’.”
  2. I’ve added a few extra paragraph breaks to simplify web reading. I also added some boldface for emphasis.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.

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