Joy (Part 1/2)

Continuing on my Inklings kick, and this time prompted by my wife, I read C.S. Lewis’s selective autobiography this past week. Selective because he leaves out huge chunks about his life and work and focusses primarily on his education, and conversion to atheism and eventually Christianity.

To be honest, this is one of those books I had never picked up because of the title. “Surprised by Joy” sounded like something sappy from Max Lucado. I should have known better.

In it, Lewis turns his keen eye inside on the feelings of “Joy” that he felt first as a child reading Norse poetry – a poignant feeling he could occasionally find walking in the woods. It’s very much different than pleasure or happiness. In fact, the things that bought Lewis momentary glimpses of joy were often sad. And yet, they elicited a deep emotional (and not just emotional) response from somewhere deep inside. Even through his years as a steadfast atheist, these joys kept nagging at the back of his mind. They are what eventually drove him to faith in an outside creator and finally to Christianity.

He describes his earliest three memories of joy as such:

The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of earlier at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden [described earlier] into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; though it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire.

These are very deep things. Not just mere “aesthetic experience”. It’s no wonder they are difficult to describe. The third glimpse he mentions I was more familiar with, as it is discussed in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography:

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: found of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read:

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead.

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

He concludes this section:

The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.

I’ll add that the rest of this blog post will likely be of no interest to you either.

In trying to recapture the third experience, he became interested in Norse mythology and anything related, such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

First, you will misunderstand everything unless you realize that, at the time, Asgard and the Valkryies seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else i my experience – than [school, sex, career]. More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity…If the Northernness seemed then a bigger ting than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not.

Religion as it had been taught and communicated to him so far, had not contained anything so powerful. It was form, rules to follow and a distant god. As he grew older, he experienced the joy less frequently until one day it hit him smack in the face while reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. For in once sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spense, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense all was changed. I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. For the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse. Here were old wives’ tales; there was nothing to be proud of in enjoying them.

It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were not speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity – something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. It seemed to have been always with me; if I could ever have turned my head quick enough I should have seized it. Now for the first time I felt that it was out of reach not because of something I could not do but because of something I could not stop doing. If I could only leave off, let go, unmake myself, it would be there. Meanwhile, in this new region all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed.

I find I relate strongly to the passage highlighted above. In reading it, what immediately comes to mind are two memories of music where this exact same mystery is captured:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse,
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.

This from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. Yes I know it’s a song about drugs, but it’s about how the drugs took this very thing he is describing AWAY. Covered up the joy, and the pain with it.

And in a directly Christian rendering, with God on his mind as the object or (as we shall see later SOURCE, not object) of this feeling:

What can I do with my obsession?
With the things I cannot see
Is there madness in my being?
Is it wind that blows the trees?
Sometimes you’re further than the moon
Sometimes you’re closer than my skin
And you surround me like a winter fog
You’ve come and burned me with a kiss

That from an early Delerious? cut, Obsession.

Back to that highlighted section:

It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity – something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. It seemed to have been always with me; if I could ever have turned my head quick enough I should have seized it.

I’ve always felt that whatever he is recounting here describes my longing for God a lot more suitably than Pascal’s “God Shaped Hole”, though that is certainly a valuable idea when approaching this from another angle.

I’ve run out of time. I read and write these things while sitting at the coffee shop downtown before work, early in the morning. The office calls. I guess I’ll call this part 1 of 2 and finish it up later!

A blogging identity

This from a recent Times article that explored why people Twitter. I would include Facebook status updates and even a lot of blogging as being relevant to this passage:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognize you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”

Is this blog just me shouting at a wall that bounces my voice back to me? I mean, seriously, nobody reads it except my wife and a handful of friends on occasion. I tell myself it’s a scrapbook of ideas, a memory tool really. So much that I would like to remember, I forget entirely if I don’t write it down. I retain the blurry image that I can’t put my finger on. With this blog though, I CAN put my finger on it, at least part of the time.

I wonder, is it PART of my identity, or a compensation for my lack of identity? What about your blog?

Answer: Sometimes a little of both.

Good poetry -> “A felt change of consciousness”

This, from the introduction to the Owen Barfield reader:

Both as a writer and a thinker Barfield grounds his thought in language and literature. It is the subject of his earliest writing and remains throughout his career the seedbed from which his thinking grows. It was during his Oxford years that he realized that he had “very sharp” experiences in reading poetry and as a result began pondering intensely the nature of these experiences. He determined that they lay in “a felt change of consciousness” brought about by the way in which the language of poetry alters our awareness and ultimately our knowledge. This led to a concentrated study of the development of language and the nature of poetic diction. Such study led in turn to his interest in the nature of imagination,of meaning, of perception, and of the evolution of consciousness.

I find this very interesting. He read some poetry that he really liked one day and it stuck in his head. Now, most of us do this all the time. We hear some music we like, we read a story we love as a child, maybe we are accosted by something we see in a movie. And then we go on with life, maybe seeking out more things like it on occasion.

Barfield stopped and said, OK, there is something magical about this poetry. Why? Why the heck does it affect me in some strange way? He decided to dig deep into psychology and linguistics to come up with some kind of coherent answer.

Tolkien and Lewis were delighted to find they had the same peciliar feeling, when, as young men, they read the Matthew Arnold poem on the death of the norse god Balder. Later, when they read Barfield, they both declared, “Yes! That’s it. This explains what was going on.” His work and theories helped steer their own writing the rest of their lives.

Merton on listening to our subconscious (or not)

I do not say that we should try, without training or experience, to explore our own subconscious depths. But we ought to at least to admit that they exist, and that they are important, and we ought to have the humility to admit we do not know all about ourselves, that we are not experts at running our own lives. We ought to stop taking our conscious plans and decision with such infinite seriousness. It may well be that we are not the martyrs or the mystics or the apostles or the leaders or the lovers of God that we imagine ourselves to be.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.3 Sec. 8

The power to be happy

Sometimes Merton can digress, but at other times he is brilliant. I’m reading his work No Man is an Island and have had to bookmark virtually every page in the chapter Conscience, Freedom, and Prayer. In regards to our means of pursuing happiness (which is what we’re all doing), the nail is hit on the head. This passage is rich:

It is true, the freedom of my will is a great thing. But this freedom is not absolute self-sufficiency. If the essence of freedom were merely the act of choice, then the mere fact of making choices would perfect our freedom. But there are two difficulties here. First of all, our choices must really be free – that is to say they must perfect us in our own being. They must perfect us in our relation to other free beings. We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves. From this flows the second difficulty: we too easily assume that we ARE our real selves, and that our choices are really the ones we WANT to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are (though morally imputable, no doubt) largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.

Hence I do not find in myself the power to be happy merely by doing what I like. On the contrary, if I do nothing except what pleases my own fancy I will be miserable almost all the time.[!] This would never be so if my will had not been created to use its own freedom in the love of others.

Photo credit (Good luck and happiness)

Merton on Gossip

The function of gossip is, among other things, to permit people to enjoy danger vicariously, at no greater risk than that of being misled.

-Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, p.258

Photo credit

Seth Godin on short attention spans

Attention spans are getting shorter, thanks to clutter.

In 1960, the typical stay for a book on the New York Times bestseller list was 22 weeks. In 2006, it was two. Forty years ago, it was typical for three novels a year to reach #1. Last year, it was 23.

Advise and Consent won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. It’s 640 pages long. On Bullshit was a bestseller in 2005; it’s 68 pages long.

Today is last weekday before the univeristy goes back in session. The sidewalks are packed with wandering freshman. They may seem to have short attention spans, but how many of them are going to stay up ’till 4:00 AM playing World of Warcraft? I can think of more than a few. We can stay engaged with anything if we cultivate the skill.

Projecting our own problems onto others

Anyone who has spent much time in introspection has probably realized that we are most critical of other people that are the most like us. We see something in ourselves that we hate – something we put a lot of effort into to overcome, and when we see this same thing in another person, we are quick to jump on it. It’s the thing about them that bothers us the most. We may be able to easily brush off other annoying or offensive things that person does, but if it’s one of our own issues too, rather than feel sympathetic, we are more likely to find fault.

In his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright brings this up at points out how it can pollute our charity and good intentions:

I remember the shock when I saw an old “cowboys and Indians” movie and realized that when I was young, I – like most of my contemporaries – would have gone along unquestioningly with the assumption that cowboys where basically good and Indians basically bad. The world has woken up to the reality of racial prejudice since then; but getting rid of it is like squashing the air out of a balloon. You deal with one corner only to find it popping up somewhere else. The world got together over apartheid and said, “This won’t do”; but at least some of the moral energy came from what the psychologists call projection – that is, condemning someone else for something we are doing ourselves. Rebuking someone on the other side of the world (while ignoring the same problems back home) is very convenient, and it provides a deep but spurious sense of moral satisfaction. (p.7)

Merton on our tainted thinking

I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility. The desires of the flesh-and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgment, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.

And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions. There are ways that seem to men to be good, the end whereof is in the depths of hell.

The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, P. 205

Excellent, excellent observation. I think it would be silly for me to try and add much else at this point.

On receiving praise

How can he be puffed up with vain words, whose heart is truly subject to God? Not all the world can lift him up, whom the truth hath subjected unto itself; neither shall he, who hath firmly settled his whole hope in God, be moved with the tongues of any who praise him.

– Tomas A’ Kemis, The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapter 14

Can you think of a celebrity who isn’t puffed up (at least to some degree) by the attention they receive? There are some I imagine. If what man wants is money, sex and power (and he does), then receiving praise falls under the fame category, which is a subset of power. Once again, the meek inherit the earth and the praise of God while the man who desires it the much is the most easily deceived by it. He can be more easily moved by the words of others. He has subjected himself to other men.

I think you can take this the wrong way though. Some of us have trouble receiving praise. We write off any compliment we receive. I think this is often a symptom of the dreaded “nice-guy syndrome”. Unfortunately, this is NOT the same as the man who is subject to God. We may not be so subject to the words of other men, but we have replaced it with being subject to our own selves. This can harden us against correction and (more commonly I think) rob us of the joy of encouragement.

Realizing this condition exists doesn’t seem to make it feel any easier!