Last week, I was on my way to Potluck/Book Club when Olive & I had our great fall. So my thoughts while I was sitting on the floor of the apartment building trying to catch my breath and not pass out were thus: “Is Olive okay? Dang, I am dizzy. Shoot, I guess I sped re-read The Screwtape Letters for nothing!” But, much later, I had the thought of writing my response to the book here, and having all of you weigh in on it, opening the “Book Club” to any who choose to read this blog. Of course, those of you that actually made it there that night can let me know if any salient points were made as well.
I assume many of you have read The Screwtape Letters long ago, as I did, since it is common reading for Confirmands and other young people interested in Christian Spirituality. So the invitation to re-read it was slightly disconcerting, as it is triggering for me to revisit the constricting version of spirituality I was espousing in my late teens. However, knowing that C.S. Lewis was actually an Anglican who the Evangelicals have adopted as their own has made me wonder if I could read it with a new lens now.
First off, I was struck by a quote in the preface that I found very pertinent to the Occupy Wall Street protests: “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern (p. x).” So, Lewis shapes his fictional account of a senior devil writing to his apprentice as if it were, basically, a bank or an advertising firm. We could sit here and talk about whether demons exist or not (Lewis does believe in them, I don’t), but I found it more useful to think of his demons as metaphors and see what I can glean from them about human nature.
What struck me most about this book this time around is what Lewis says about pleasure, perhaps because it coincides neatly with the premise of the other book I read last week, Eliane Sciolino’s La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life. Screwtape instructs his protege to try to influence his human “patient” to spend his days doing neither what he ought or he liked, but basically to exist in a Matrix-like hum of dreary gratification of needs.
The senior demon castigates his pupil for allowing his patient to “read a book he actually enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends (p. 58).” Of course I saw the irony, as I was reading this book as an assignment for a book club, but I do spend my fair amount of time reading books I enjoy that other people may consider ridiculous. Screwtape counsels, “You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books.” He finds it dangerous for the human to be experiencing real pleasure or real pain, as it is the intensity of reality that guides people to seek out God.
You may be wondering, how on earth does an explicitly Christian book like The Screwtape Letters coincide with the very worldly-titled La Seduction? The place that they connect is the search for true pleasure, and that it is not just “nice to have”, it is a way of living life to the fullest. Sciolino, an American journalist living in Paris, writes about how all of French culture is wrapped around the principle of seduction, which includes sex but is not synonymous with it, since it expands to include all kinds of pleasure, especially interpersonal relationships of all kinds.
I am finding in my own life that the people I continue to have issues with are folks who don’t seem to enjoy their life — they simply do what they think they should, and are therefore very angry with people like me who do not follow their prescribed rules, and, worse yet, seem to be having a good time doing it. These are people who cannot appreciate a colorful dress, a rich cupcake, or a gallows-humour type of joke. They think they know what is “best” for everyone, and that they need to “help” others by letting them know their concerns. In other words, controlling sons of bitches.
No one likes to be told what to do, but I am finding that it goes deeper than that for me. People who are not only controlling of others but also lead intensely controlled, rather drab lives themselves will never understand me. I will never win them over with, as Sciolino calls it “a charm offensive”. I am realizing that I need to seek out people who strive to enjoy life, in whatever package they come in. When I am looking for someone to be friends with, or collaborate on a project with, I should look less at their acheivements and stated interests and more on whether they would laugh at a particularly baudy joke or if I thought they were the kind of person I could invite over to watch the latest Twilight movie and eat a carton of salted caramel ice cream. If we went out to an outdoor restaurant, and a band started playing, would they get up and dance with me, even if they didn’t know the steps? And it’s not just about finding people are “more like me”. It’s about feeling alive in the presence of another, the true community of being with someone else who is living out loud, that brings me closer to the divine.
All in all, the book La Seduction was very interesting, because Sciolino brings a journalistic eye to French culture, not just an “ooh-la-la” Francophile perspective. She is critiquing the culture along with pointing out the divine elements of it. So, I present you with the steps I would need to take to be more like a French woman, based on Sciolino’s book.
How to be More French
Step 1: Pay more attention to process than result. As a person who was once evoquivically a no-nonsense New Englander and is now a West Coast Expressive Arts therapist, this sounds good to me. But it requires a certain amount of patience that I don’t always have. I am constantly having to tell myself to “slow down, enjoy the present moment, this is your life!” when I just want to run out the door to the next thing. The French, as well as C.S. Lewis, are all about the present. Screwtape calls it “the point at which time touches eternity (p.68).”
Step 2: Conceal to reveal. Arielle Dombasle tells Sciolino never to be nude in front of her husband. “You shouldn’t. Or he won’t buy you lunch.” The French value of seduction is never casual. You don’t lay it all out there like Snooki or even that overwhelmingly friendly person we all know. It is considered literally an act of violence to be indiscriminately overpowering, with your smile, your perfume, your decolletage. It must be skillful, in order to be fun.
Step 3: Seek beauty. In architecture (the Eiffel Tower is thought of as a beautiful woman), in humans, in daily life. Easy. I truly believe that in creating and admiring beauty we are fulfilling our roles as co-creators with God/Goddess.
Step 4: Engage in intellectual foreplay. This one is hard in the states — debates very easily turn into nasty struggles between right and wrong. In our current culture, few people are enjoying the clash of ideas, they are just shouting louder and louder to be heard, in the hopes of being affirmed. That’s why I find the Occupy Wall Street movement so interesting — it’s a lot of question raising rather than answer giving. The debates around it have often been “But what is the RESULT going to be?” We could learn something from the way the French can enjoy conflicting ideas and still leave the conversation with everyone’s dignity in tact. I confess I am not great at this one. I tend to bow out if I feel I’m not being listened to, rather than find a new way to convince the other to see another side.
Step 5: If you get catcalled in the street, let it make your day! It is a sign of approval and playfulness in France, but considered rude and sexist here. Another difficult one — I guess it all depends on context. There is a big difference between a person saying “You look lovely, you are ravishing”, and the guy who called me “Sexy Ass” yesterday. Perhaps the difference is in one, you keep your personhood, and an adjective is added to it, and in the other, you are being named as an object.
Step 6: Respect history. I get this one, and French culture has a legacy of creating fine things that is something to be admired. But as a true American I love progress and change, and I don’t like things that just harken back to “the good old days” because those days were actually quite bad for anyone non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual. Joel and I have a special song we sing for when things are “Old-timey”, as is a very fashionable trend in San Francisco right now. I don’t mind celebrating the past, but it needs to be in a context of justice. Sciolino is scathing in how she points out ways France needs to treat their citizens of color better, and I appreciate that very much.
Step 7: If your husband cheats on you, celebrate his virility! I don’t think I would ever find myself “lucky” to be with a “sexually potent” cheating man. I truly believe in fidelity. It is not a very popular view in this day and age, but it is not coming from a place of being a prude. I actually believe that commitment deepens one’s experience of life, that important lessons are learned over time in a committed sexual relationship with one partner that cannot be learned any other way. Not everyone will have such a relationship, and that doesn’t mean they will live a bad life. But I don’t believe men need a longer sexual leash, I think they need meaningful experiences of intimacy. Sciolino condemns pornography as “anti-seduction”, and it fits into Lewis’s value of pleasure AND reality. So, this is a complicated matter, but I don’t think I would enjoy all of the sexual mores of French life.
Step 8: Have a gastronomic orgasm. The French actually enjoy their food, and this is probably why they eat less of it. This one, I really do want to take on. Food is about nourishment, and I think there are ways you can feed yourself healthily and experience a certain amount of pleasure each time you eat. The body and the soul are not disconnected, and that is why so many people have food hang-ups. They try to either eat solely to fill their body’s needs, or their souls. The balance is really hard, but I am going to try it more consciously.
And that is my greatest take-away from both of these books. I am going to seek true pleasure, based in reality, and leave behind the things I think I “should” be doing. I think more life energy will flow from me this way, and I will actually be more effective in what I am trying to do. This may look odd to you — it will not mean gorging myself in any manner of hedonistic form, but it could mean staying in and reading all night, allowing myself to fully enjoy one glass of red wine and 6 macrons.
Please weigh in in the comments on your thoughts on The Screwtape Letters, and either La Seduction if you’ve read it or the outline I gave above, if you’ve not. What do you think about my premise of the importance of true pleasure? Virtual book club, commence!