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!