Dear Reader, you can read Chapter XI of The Screwtape Letters here.
My Dear Screwtape,
Your division of laughter into four causes - Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy - this, indeed, is excellent and merits Hell’s applause. How perceptive you are to understand that Joy is inexplicable to us, as you say, like Music and Heaven, “a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience.” I also commend your definition of Fun as “a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct” which “can sometimes be used to divert humans from something else which the Enemy would like them to be feeling or doing.” But I think you somewhat overstate the danger that Fun “has wholly undesirable tendencies,” such as charity, courage, and contentment. Relax, dear Uncle, Fun seldom leads to such evils, as humans now are obsessed with Fun and consider it their primary reason for existence. And as for the Joke Proper, you note that “it is especially promising among the modern generation who take their ‘sense of humour’” most seriously; you call it an “all-consoling and . . . all-exciting grace of life” that functions as an invaluable “means of destroying shame.” Witness to this our media’s bombardment of humans with vulgar jokes and jokesters through sitcoms and late-night hellevision in which scatological and sexual humour gradually liberate our victims from the natural restraints of conscience and produce in them a delightfully savage regression to the primitive. Finally, how subtle you are to recognize Flippancy as perhaps “the best of all,” a “very economical” form of emotional delusion in which “any of them can be trained.” But, dear Uncle, more than a half century has passed since our original correspondence about this matter of laughter, and we have gained even more ground since then in our battle for control of human emotion, especially humour. Therefore, to your list I add two more causes of laughter, Cynicism and Ridicule, causes that now parallel and perhaps even predominate among post-modern humans, especially the young.
No matter what the dictionary says, we know that Cynicism and Ridicule evolve from a common source, the Bitterness sprung from Cruelty. How efficient we have been in the last fifty years to hatch Bitterness from Cruelty. Our most effective strategy has been to assail young children, especially through their parents. Certainly the external, corporeal techniques of cruel striking, cursing, and neglect have been fiendishly effective, but even more productive has been the internal, emotional technique we call the “split-slit.” The Enemy knows that the “one flesh” refers not only to the father-mother union, but also to the child. As we split the parents we also slit the child. A child’s natural reaction to this split-slit is always bitterness. This bitterness produces a psychological wound no child can heal by himself, so he tries to cope with parental cruelty through psychological placebos. One such placebo is a cynical view of life characterized by a sweetly diabolical laughter at the world and everything in it.
Cynicism and Ridicule also operate in our favour with regard to Hedonism, the all-consuming desire to gratify lust. What strides we have made here! No longer do we have to hide our darkest secrets; they are now in such full view that the youngest members of contemporary society fathom the darkest depths of depravity. We have so desensitized most young people to the delicacies of Hell that they no longer blush and whisper at our most graphic displays. Frankly, humans have invented things not even Our Father Below has conceived and thus have accelerated their own destruction and made our task even easier. What a shrewd device we have concocted: over familiarity with Hell breeds boredom! As a result, how often upon the lips of young humans do we hear the phrase, “I’m bored,” which really means “I have seen everything, done everything, and been everywhere.” Hedonism accentuates Cynicism and Ridicule.
One caution before I close, though. You contrast real Joy with “the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.” But be admonished, Heaven too has its realism, dignity, and austerity, and I have heard a disturbing rumor that part of the Enemy’s future plan is to take a more laughless approach to the recovery of His church, so we must keep our patients laughing as much as possible through whatever means of entertainment we yet have at our disposal in the modern church, especially the witty preacher and the popular entertainer.
Your affectionate nephew,