A Blackout Poem from Screwtape Chapter 1

 Don’t waste time trying to think of the future.
The trouble is that the Enemy can argue too
once it is awake

oh, that abominable ordinary moment.
I was such a fool
at best

I brightened up considerably;
with a fresh mind
whatever odd ideas might come to head when shut up alone with books
just could be true.

a narrow escape

This is the first time I’ve ever tried blackout/erasure poetry. As I mentioned in my introduction post to this project, transformative works – usually fanfiction – have been very important to me since I was a preteen. Generating something from my readings here just felt right, but I knew fanfiction wasn’t the avenue I wanted to explore with this text. But blackout poetry felt correct, so I copied the bulk of Chapter 1 and sat down with it for a bit until I found a through line that spoke to me.

The hardest part of typing it up was where to put the line breaks. Depending on how you break it up, I think it could be either a hopeful or a cynical poem. As I have it written above, I see the escapism of reading, imagination, and introspection as a reprieve from the arguments of the Enemy. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, something to look forward to in our narrow escape. However, when grouped slightly differently:

Don’t waste time trying to think of the future.
The trouble is that the Enemy can argue too; once it is awake

oh, that abominable ordinary moment.
I was such a fool at best
I brightened up considerably, with a fresh mind
Whatever odd ideas might come to head when shut up
alone with books,
just could be true. a narrow escape

Suddenly the pursuit of an escape feels like the foolish moment, rather than the spark that can free us. Even looking just at the shape of the texts, when I condense the poem into two stanzas it looks more cramped, there’s more of an oppressive feeling of the words shoved together.

I used to love poetry when I was a teenager. I let that love lapse while I was in college, and I’m only now starting to come back to it. I feel like I’m relearning a language I used to speak. It’s just on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite find it. Not just the writing of it, but reading poetry feels alien as well. This is the first time in a while where writing a poem has felt like an exploration rather than a homework assignment I can’t figure out. It’s making me want to pick up more poetry. I recently grabbed Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook at Half Price Books and I think I’m going to start working my way through it. Please share your poetry recs! I’m eager to dive back in.

It’ll be interesting to see what other ways I find to connect with the text as we move into the next chapters.

Let me know how you would break up the lines from the blackout poem image. I think one of the interesting things about the form is that it invites several simultaneous valid readings based on where you put the emphasis. I prefer the hopeful reading, myself. And if you decide to do your own transformative work based on the same text, I would love to see it.

I wasn’t expecting this sacred reading experiment to connect with me so soon, but this has already become a very personal, vulnerable, and weird project. I’m into it, but it’s also intimidating. I’m excited to see where it leads.

Homework update and next step

I wrote up all my Christmas card responses as homework from my Lectio Divina reading. I have to send them out next time I run to the PO Box to check my mail, but the hard part is done. I probably wouldn’t have written any follow up cards if it hadn’t been for the reading, let alone to my realtor and my conservative relatives. I’m trying to take the calls to action from this experiment seriously, but it’s still hella uncomfortable.

Tomorrow or Saturday I’m going to move on to Chapter 2. I shuffled up my Sigil Deck and pulled Fear, so that’s the theme for this next chapter. I can’t wait to see how Fear manifests in this reading, and what I might take from it.

Thanks for following along. See you all soon. <3

Last thought

Do people generally name their blackout / erasure poems? Giving things titles has always been difficult for me. I wonder what I would call this one.

Lectio Divina for Screwtape Chapter 1

Quick Lectio Divina Primer

Lectio Divina is a spiritual reading practice rooted in Christianity. It comes from Guigo’s The Ladder of Monks, which I freely admit I have not read. I’m coming at this from the perspective of a spiritual n00b, and taking the way I’ll be practicing Lectio Divina on this blog from the steps that Casper ter Kuile lays out in his book The Power of Ritual.

First, I’ll randomly select a sentence from the chapter and read it out loud to myself four times, and then reflect on that sentence through the following four steps:

1. What is literally happening in the narrative? Where are we in the story?

2. What allegorical images, stories, songs, or metaphors show up for you?

3. What experiences have you had in your own life that come to mind?

4. What action are you being called to take?

Step 2 is particularly interesting to me because ter Kuile says in his book and in the HP Sacred Text podcast, you’re allowed to get kind of weird in step 2. It’s a free association game with the text. It’s okay if your mind makes leaps that aren’t logical, or don’t initially seem rooted in the text. This is the text working through you to create something new

I fully intend on reading The Ladder of Monks at some point, but for right now my goal is to get into the process and refine it as I go, not getting bogged down in too much research before actually beginning the practice. I have a bad habit of building up projects in my head too much, and not executing until I have it perfectly researched and planned out. This results in never getting anything done. Trying to embrace the good without getting bogged down by the perfect.

Today’s sentence

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

I picked this sentence by running my finger down the page until it felt right to stop.

Layer 1

What is the literal meaning of the text?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

Screwtape is chastising Wormwood for trying to sway his patient through logic and argument. Wormwood is trying to get his patient to focus on materialism, and Screwtape advises Wormwood not to frame the picture in terms of true or false but through an emotional context. Courageous or stark, for example. Opening up the topic to argument cedes ground to the Enemy (servants of God and righteousness), putting the fiends on a level playing field, or even at a disadvantage. The Enemy deals in truth. Wormwood’s objective should not be correctness but winning.

Layer 2

What images, metaphors, etc. come up for you?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

The thing that immediately springs to mind is Innuendo Studios’ excellent YouTube series on the Alt-Right Playbook. It’s an exploration of the rhetorical techniques that people on the fringe right will use to radicalize people, and to give the appearance of winning an argument and saving face in public debates. These tactics have been honed online through harassment campaigns and are frighteningly effective. It’s hard for me not to see a parallel between Lewis’s fiends distracting the patient and controlling the conversation and right wing troll accounts owning the libs who continually cede ground by being unprepared for these argumentative tactics

The next thing that jumps out at me is the pointed phrase “the Enemy.” Lewis means the heavenly host here, but something about that framing brings to mind faceless masses with vile intent. It’s depersonalizing. It’s oversimplified and reductive. It erases any goals, personality, or humanity that the other side of a struggle might have except for the belief that those goals oppose your own.

Struggle, and the idea of ceding ground also resonate with me here. It makes me think of strategic board games, especially Chess and Go. Both traditionally use black and white pieces. They focus on conquest, the capture of territory and the elimination of rival units abstracted into smooth game pieces. I think it’s interesting that Screwtape uses the word “struggle,” rather than the word “battle,” which I more traditionally associate with the Biblical fight between good and evil. It’s still about conflict, but it’s softer. The violence is washed away, made vague, just like with board games. I started reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet last week. It’s about a multi-species space crew, and one of the non-human characters remarks that all the traditional human board games focus on conquest and battle, in contrast to the Aandrisk (a reptilian species) games, which focus more on collaboration and puzzle solving. There are lots of ways to view the world and many ways to reach the same goal, but this character thinks it says something about humanity that we default to viewing things through the lens of conflict and bloodshed, even if it is abstracted away on a game board.

Layer 3

What experiences from your own life come to mind?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

It’s really easy to wash away the faces of those who disagree with you and turn them into “the Enemy.” I know I’ve been doing it recently in my own mind when thinking of anti-vaxxers, and I’ve struggled a lot with resentment toward members of my family who I know are Trump supporters. I’ve also done it in the past when dealing with abusive exes, or friendships that fell apart, or coworkers who seemed to live to be a pain in my ass. It’s easy to collapse all that context in my own mind and reduce it down to a struggle with the Enemy, and where I can or cannot afford to strategically lose ground. It’s easy to get caught up in that pointless back and forth, focusing on the idea of winning, rather than focusing on the idea of truth, or right, or compassion.

At a particularly stressful job a few years ago, two of the leaders on my team pulled me into a room and grilled me on why I felt the need to be so negative. I eventually burst out crying. My relationship with my team never quite recovered from that point. It was hard not to see enemies all around me, and anytime I opened my mouth I knew that I was being judged not for what I actually said, but for the way that the leaders interpreted my tone and presentation, which only functioned to make me more bitter and paranoid. It was true that I was giving a lot of feedback on things I thought that the team needed to improve on in that period, and I admit that I do not always have the most tact. I have trouble regulating the volume of my voice when I’m emphatic or enthusiastic about something, and my mom will heartily agree when I say that it’s hard for me to back down from an argument when I know I’m correct. But I was far from the most negative person on the team. But I had the gall not to be sweet while also not being a man, and I was socially punished for this.

On this particular team we had a code word that people could use in certain meetings when they thought someone was going into too much detail and boring other people in the room. It was almost exclusively deployed at me and a woman on my team in the same job function as me. It was often shouted at us, and I developed a habit of shrinking back and slumping my shoulders slightly whenever certain men on the team spoke to me. I developed an unconscious protective gesture because I’d stopped seeing the people on my team as colleagues and collaborators, but as an occupying force in my life, looking for any slip up that could make me more vulnerable. Likewise, they’d stopped seeing me as a person, but as a dour nuisance. Undoubtedly, both sides could have handled the situation better. It was early in my professional career and I did not have the coping strategies I should have, and did not pick my battles as carefully as I should have. But the constant chessboard struggle, looking to gain higher ground in any conversation, rather than actually solving the problems in front of us, came back to me in today’s reading.

Layer 4

What is the text calling you to do?

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.

It feels pretty clear to me that the text is asking me to reject the black and white thinking that allows me to flatten other people into a faceless enemy. Possibly to reach out and wish well to those family members who have expressed an anti-vax opinion in the past. Or reach out to friends I’ve grown distant from, who it’s easy to stereotype in unfair ways in my mind.

I’m struggling with this because in some ways, the way that we flatten people out is a self-defense mechanism. We don’t always do that because we’re on the offensive, looking to gain ground, but because we’re afraid of attack, and it’s easier to lump together the people that we think might find a reason to harm us rather than spending the mental effort necessary to simulate their minds as complete, independent individuals with complex wants and needs. We’re pattern seeking creatures, and I wonder if it’s worth it to break those patterns to delve deeper into the lives and stories of people who don’t want the best for us.

Of course, I know intellectually that it’s important to maintain those bridges, keep connections open to people who disagree with us. It’s what civil society is based on, and we can’t change hearts and minds blah blah blah of people we don’t regard as full people in their own right. But the reality is that when you open yourself up to someone else, create space for them to be vulnerable with you and possibly change their minds, you’re doing the same. That same vulnerability and willingness to hear argument reflects back at you, and in an incredibly charged and polarized climate, is that a risk that feels worth taking?

My reading of the text through this Lectio Divina practice seems to indicate that the risk is worth it. This is maybe a bit of a cop out, but I think I’m going to start small. Based on my reading today I’m going to respond to all of the holiday cards I got in December. Even the ones that I was originally going to ignore. I’m also going to do a loving kindness meditation and try to project warmth and kindness toward someone I suspect does not have my best interests at heart.

Last Thought & Next Step

I’m chafing against this call to action from the text. But I guess if it were easy it wouldn’t be called a practice.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with a small transformative work created from the chapter 1 reading. Until next time <3

Connection: Screwtape Chapter 1

A sigil card for "Connection" containing an illustration of deconstructed letter forms of letters contained in the word "Connection"

After my initial post a friend of mine asked me what I think the difference is between sacred reading and just literary analysis. Neither of us have religious backgrounds, and I thought it was a good question, so I wanted to address it up top here. With literary analysis, I think you’re trying to get to the heart of a text through a number of different lenses, or view a text in conversation with another piece to find some sort of truth between them. The way I’m approaching sacred reading, I’m thinking of my life as a secondary or tertiary text in conversation with whatever I’m reading, and trying to genuinely believe that the text is capable of speaking directly to my life, both as metaphor and something that can call out to me to take actions or deliver moral instruction. It feels out of bounds for what you’d do in a traditional literary analysis. This is my first foray into sacred reading though, so I’m sure my definition of it and how it factors into my life will change as I develop a practice. For right now I’m pretty much aping the process from Harry Potter and the Sacred Text while I try to figure out what works for me.

With that out of the way, on to Chapter 1 through the lens of Connection!

Brief chapter summary

In chapter one we are introduced to the two principal characters, Wormwood and Screwtape. Wormwood is a lower level demon in charge of a “patient,” who writes to his Uncle Screwtape for guidance on corrupting the patient’s soul. We learn that Wormwood has been attempting to steer the patient into the company of his materialist friend, and while Screwtape thinks that’s not necessarily a bad idea, he is baffled that Wormwood thinks that logic and arguments are the way to corrupt a patient’s soul. Screwtape argues instead that a demon should take pains to avoid logic, reason, the fundamental sciences of the universe, or anything that might awaken critical thinking and contemplation. The pressure of ordinary life and minor distractions like hunger pangs or the hustle and bustle of “real life” are far more effective at derailing soulful contemplation than any argument for indulgence or sin could ever be. He concludes his letter “Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!”

Reading through the theme of connection

I’m not going to lie, when I drew the Connection card for reading through this chapter, I kind of dreaded it. First off, I’m giving myself a bit of a challenge by using a text that operates on examples of how not to live your life. Second, in my real life, connection is one of the things I struggle with the most right now. I barely leave my home, and I think social isolation has gotten to us all through the course of the pandemic. So what could I possibly have to say about connection? What could Lewis impart that’s relevant to these strange and unpleasant times?

The first, most obvious place I see connection in the chapter is through the fact that Wormwood is reaching out to Screwtape for advice. We’ll see later in the text that this may not be the most prudent choice in the long run – fiends don’t have anyone’s best interests at heart, especially not that of other fiends. But even demons, when they struggle, seek out advice and approval from their peers and mentors. Surely they must know that the bureaucracy of Hell is a cutthroat world where you should be suspicious of any connection. But even in Hell they can’t help themselves from reaching out to one another.

The second place I see connection is in the first paragraph. We learn that Wormwood has been trying to influence his patient to forge a stronger connection with a “materialist friend.” We don’t learn much more than this before Screwtape launches into his philosophy of obscuring the truth and distracting the patient from deeper thought. But it implies that connection is not necessarily a universal good for us. The people we surround ourselves with have a profound impact on our psyches and souls, and while Screwtape dismisses the idea in favor of other distractions in this chapter, he doesn’t completely shut down the idea. It’s been a long time since I read Screwtape, so I don’t remember exactly how the patient’s relationships with other people play out. But it’s clear that connections are something that can be leveraged both for our growth and our destruction. This seems obvious enough when you write it out, but during this period of extreme isolation it’s easy to romanticize all human connection as good, and to fantasize about relationships that did me a lot of harm in the past. Throughout the course of the pandemic, I really pruned a lot of the people I talked to on a regular basis, and there’s a real grief that comes with losing connections, but the ones I was able to devote more time and attention to are deeper and more rewarding as a result.

Lastly, I was surprised to see connection in a different light throughout the chapter as well. When I first drew the card, I only thought about Connection through the lens of social ties and interaction, but this chapter really seemed to speak to the joy and fulfillment of deep introspection and drawing connections across disciplines and concepts. Building connection, whether it be social or forging neural pathways, requires intention, attention, time, and repetition. What Screwtape says about distracting his patient by insisting that real work and thought should wait until after lunch, or knocking his patient off course by befuddling him with meaningless stimulus really hits home. In my intro post for this series I talked about how I feel like I’m constantly distracting myself, pumping as much information as I can into my brain without really giving myself time to process and integrate what I take in. I’ve been listening to the Screwtape on my shoulder who says that real work is “too important to tackle at the end of a morning…Much better to come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind.” Of course, there is always such an excuse. It’s easy to never come back to that real work of reflection, self-discovery, and meaningful connection between minds, ideas, and souls.

This last manifestation of connection (or hindrances to creating meaningful connection) is surprising to me. I wasn’t expecting to find something in the text that speaks so directly to how I’m feeling, especially not so soon. If I were reading this text as I normally do, reading through the chapters but not spending time dwelling on them through a randomly determined theme, I’m not sure I’d be viewing my own life through the lens of the text quite so carefully. It’s nice to be surprised. It’s nice to feel like I’m seeing and thinking something new after so many months shut up in the same place. I have to seek out novelty and meaning where serendipity used to throw things at me on the train or walking down the street. Now the only places I go are the gym and occasionally to the store, always masked, with limited connection to both the strangers around me and to the people I used to see regularly and take for granted. The pandemic has fundamentally altered the ways in which I interact with the world around me. But waiting for “real life” to return and putting my connection with both the world and with a deeper part of my self is giving in to impulses that do not serve me. We are living our real lives right now, whether we like it or not, and who we become at the end of this pandemic will be forged by our day to day lives until then.

Next steps

That’s what I’ve got for chapter 1 and the theme of connection. I’m coming back tomorrow with a Lectio Divina reading from the chapter. I’m going through the text very slowly, trying out a few different spiritual reading practices as discussed on the HP Sacred Text podcast. I’m still getting my sea legs with this sacred reading thing. It feels weird to mull over chapters so long like this, but I’m trying to embrace the discomfort. Anyhow, if you’re reading Screwtape along with me I’d love to hear your thoughts. Right now this project feels awkward and self indulgent, but I’m trying to remind myself that all new things feel weird and dumb when you first start them. Reading Chapter 1 hasn’t brought me any closer to understanding the fundamental meaning of life, but it has reaffirmed some of the things I’ve been thinking about. I need to take some time to slow down and try to process the world outside of a production/profit lens and find what other meaning there could be. I think we could all benefit from that right now and I hope some of you will join me.