Wednesday, December 02, 2020


Many Hasidic stories follow the same form, of asking the follower why he went to a distant place to learn under a particular Rebbe, the implication being that it was a waste of time, only a banality. Yet there is always an answer in such stories, and it is the same answer.

"What did you learn in Vilna?

"I learned that God is sovereign."

"Pssh! Everyone knows that!"

"Everywhere men say it.  But in Vilna, they know it."

When I first taught a course on CS Lewis in the 1990's, I stressed that the most important thing to learn from him is that if a thing is true, we have to follow it, no matter the cost. It was much the same as Lewis himself said, right off in The Screwtape Letters. The thought animates much of his writing. Yet if I were teaching that course now, I would stress instead that Lewis wrote continually about self-deception.  Perhaps he felt he was particularly susceptible to that sin, or that his class, or his nation, or his era was.

"What did you learn from CS Lewis?"

"I learned that I deceive myself."

Pssh! Everyone who has known you for ten minutes knows that!"

"Yes, but now I know it too."

I came to Lewis via Tolkien, but at the time of my conversion in 1975 I don't think I had read anything but the seven Chronicles of Narnia.  I had not thought much about self-deception.  At any rate, nothing I wrote at the time nor any conversation I can recall mentions it. Yet the fantasy fiction of both was an enormous preparation for understanding self-deception, though I did not view it that way at the time. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is notable in that he is a straightforward creature who does not much deceive himself. The dwarves, especially Thorin Oakenshield, do deceive themselves, which very nearly leads to their ruin. The Lord of the Rings, however, enters almost immediately into the theme of self-deceit, and is one of the key themes of the book.  Self-deceit leads to ruin. It is nearly the ruin of Theoden, and is ultimately the complete ruin of Boromir and his father Denethor, of Saruman and Wormtongue, and ultimately of Sauron himself. 

In Narnia, self-deception is at the root of Edmund's treachery before the first story has even much gotten started. Character after character is dangerous almost in exact proportion to his self-deception: Uncle Andrew, Eustace, Rabadash, the dwarves in The Last Battle. Susan shows foreshadowings of her later estrangement from her siblings, and it is self-deception rather than being deceived by others that is at the heart of it.

So I was prepared unawares for the topic before I read The Screwtape Letters very early on in my Jesus people days. To read that there was in his day a witty, urbane society that would be dismissive of Christianity and virtue with only tones of voice, as if the joke had already been made I recognised immediately. I had, in fact been found out. Letter after letter to Wormwood touched on lies he might implant and truths he might keep out of his patient's mind, but mostly advice on how to enlist his patient's own desires in the service of his eventual damnation. In retrospect, much of what I read in Lewis at the time carried that same theme: We are...(gulp) I am deceived because I choose to be.

It recurs often enough that I will have to continue this.  We will see if tomorrow's walk brings any particularly good examples.


james said...

The Father of Lies lies to himself first?

james said...

Now that I think of it, Ginger doesn't engage in a lot of self-deception, and the ape becomes trapped when he starts to deceive himself into thinking he has allies--but most of his damage happens before that.

"Illusion, to the magician as to the saint, is a great danger. But the master in Goetia has always at the centre of his heart a single tiny everlasting illusion; it may be long before that point infects him wholly, but sooner or later it is bound to do so."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In one of his introductions to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis notes there is wishfully thinking in Hell as well as on earth.

PenGun said...

"In one of his introductions to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis notes there is wishfully thinking in Hell as well as on earth."

You do have a rich fantasy life. ;)

Grim said...

I suppose this is a good part of the value of Confession: to confess to your priest, you must first admit to yourself. And a trusted priest who knows you can help you see what you’re not yet admitting.

Though you can deceive yourself in the other way, too. Confession and obsession of your failures can blind you to the value you do provide to others. That way lies despair, even sometimes suicide, both great sins.

Texan99 said...

Unexpected self-knowledge is at the heart of all profoundly satisfying drama.

You might enjoy "The Booth at the End," available on Amazon Prime. It's a piece of Faustian supernatural speculative fiction with a strong Judeo-Christian backbone, though generalized, with an equally strong vein of secular psychotherapeutic emphasis on taking responsibility for both our wishes and our choices by opening our eyes to what we really want and do.

lelia said...

Texan99- All I can find of The Booth at the End is a podcast. If you are referring to a book, may I have a link and author?

Texan99 said...

It's a 2-season show, about 6 episodes per season, quite short, around 30 minutes each. It can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. I think it's about 5 years old.--Update, I just checked, and it looks like Prime is no longer carrying Season 1. It may be streaming somewhere else now, like Hulu. I'm glad I watched it last week! I had no idea it would go away so quickly.

Unknown said...

Texan, I assume this is it:

2seasons x 5 eps

Unknown said...

Note this, as well:

Apparently, it's a blu-ray version of the second series edited into a movie format.