The Hat Tip

hat tipI have read C. S. Lewis’ book Screwtape several times over these past years. I marvel at his ability to imagine himself to be a demon (he once admitted that it was a difficult and draining experience), but I am more impressed with his ability to see the truth about himself in the man being tempted by Screwtape and Wormwood. He was fallible. He was weak. He was flawed. Often our faults are invisible to us. We can only see them when they are pointed out by another. But when our sins are noted by a friend or loved one, our first reaction is usually hostile. Writers can approach our deficiencies “from a slant” and cause us to see these proverbial blind spots.

In Lewis’ Screwtape, two great scenes spring to mind which consistently remind me of certain sins: when the new Christian is becoming humble, Screwtape advises Wormwood to cultivate pride in his humility. (You almost certainly know someone who is proud of being humble—someone who reminds you of his or her own humility in every conversation, “Oh, it was nothing”). Lewis also reminds us that there is more than one form of gluttony: gluttony of excess and gluttony of delicacy. We may not struggle with over-eating, but instead we insist upon “only the best”: gluten free-products when we don’t have celiac disease, difficult–to-find craft beers, cheddar from the village of Cheddar, artisanal breads made with stone ground wheat, and Kopi Luwak (civet coffee, aka “cat-poop-coffee,” where the coffee bean has been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet, thus “enhancing” the flavor. I am not kidding). You know the type.

But for an honest assessment, or should I say a brutally honest assessment, I don’t think anyone can surpass Albert Camus tragic protagonist in the curious novel “The Fall.” In this book there is a single speaker who relates a portion of his life story to another who simply listens. The character’s (and Camus’) insight into himself, his thinking, his behavior, and his ethics is shockingly—and uncomfortably—honest.

He understands himself to be the sort of person who has an unimpeachable external code of ethics but inside is a monster approaching the maw of hell. He reminds us that “style, like sheer silk, too often hides eczema.” And then he proceeds to show how he is attempting to hide his eczema with a covering of good deeds. He is courteous to all. By trade, he is an attorney, who takes on pro bono cases, and who rejoices “in the feeling of the law, in being right, in the joy of self-esteem.” He takes “pleasure in his own excellence.” And having been recognized by others as a kind, caring, unselfish soul (which he only appears to be), he realizes “as a result of being showered with blessings, I felt marked out for long and uninterrupted success.” (Facebook, anyone?) He reflects that his “popularity is so necessary to my contentment.” And he finally admits that “I never remember anything but myself,” and “In short, I want to dominate in all things.”

His true nature is revealed in his encounter with a blind man whom he assisted in crossing the street, and his later reflection on the fact that all of us will one day display our true profession and identity [our “sign”]:

“You, for instance, mon cher compatriote, stop and think of what your sign would be. You are silent? Well, you’ll tell me later on. I know mine in any case: a double face, a charming Janus, and above it the motto of the house: ‘Don’t rely on it.’ On my cards: ‘Jean-Baptiste Clamence, play actor.’ Why, shortly after the evening I told you about, I discovered something. When I would leave a blind man on the sidewalk to which I had conveyed him, I used to tip my hat to him. Obviously the hat tipping wasn’t intended for him, since he couldn’t see it. To whom was it addressed? To the public. After playing my part, I would take the bow. Not bad, eh?'”

So, the obvious question, what part are you playing? What is my sign? Such superb writing can convict us of our duplicity—even when we are otherwise blind to it.