Joy (Part 2/2)

Recalling Lewis’s comments on how what you see when you look inside yourself is only the trace remains of what was really happening:

In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortuntely this does not mean that introspection finds noting. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or byproduct for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought or the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind – like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.219

So Lewis kept looking inside to figure out what was up with this “Joy” he would feel on occasion.

Now what, I asked myself were all my delectable mountains and western gardens but sheer Fantasies? Had they not revealed their true nature by luring me, time and again, into undisguisedly erotic reverie or the squalid nightmare of Magic? In reality, of course…my own experience had repeatedly shown that these romantic images had never been more than a sort of flash, or even slag, thrown off by the occurrence of Joy, that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure.

He began to see that his “Joy” was nothing in itself. It could not be grasped. It was only a signpost pointing to something else. The Joy was a desiring. But desiring what? A state of mind? The origin? The creator?

I perceived that just as I had been wrong in supposing that I really desired the Garden of the Hesperides, so also I had been equally wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all.

In a way, I had proved this by elimination. I had tried everything in my own mind and body; as it were, asking myself, “is it this you want? Is it this?” Last of all I had asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and, labeling it “aesthetic experience,” had pretended I could answer Yes. But that answer too had broken down.

Lewis’s carefully formulated philosophies began crumble. His teaching began to suffer. He felt like he had a choice, though God was chasing HIM at the same time:

if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing.

As he neared his conversion, the focus of his thoughts and troubles turned from Joy to the more usual eternal things. Chesterton’s apologetic The Everlasting Man was instrumental here. He first accepted a general theism, and then finally Christianity after realizing how strange (yet fitting) Jesus Christ was.

On the last page, he mentions joy again in this way:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts.

When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare, or not much…

I recall during my stint as a dancer (don’t ask) my teacher at the time was a cosmopolitan New York lady stuck in the middle of nowhere Idaho holding down a part-time position to pay a few bills. She was not religious, but thought about art and beauty a lot. She spoke often of “the sublime”. I think she could see the signposts clearly too. Unfortunately, they still loomed large in her mind and the enemy (through various means) had largely cut her off from looking for something “other and outer”.

Oddly enough (or maybe not so oddly in light of his closing paragraph), Lewis’s own Christian apologetic, makes virtually no mention of these signposts of Joy as a pathway to God. He sticks with basic foundational ethics. Only in the closest thing to Lewis’s successor (N.T. Wright) did I find an apologetic (Simply Christian) that took this “longing for beauty” into account early on.

I can recall seeing some of these signposts myself as a child. I guess I could just say they were “moments of beauty” or “aesthetic experience” that sent chills up my spine. And that would not be inaccurate.

  • At 13, sitting in the trumpet section of the orchestra, the choir directly behind me a few feet, as we rehearsed William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.
  • At the same age, hearing Eithne Bhraonáin sing of the Red Star (fans will recognize this, move along, move along).
  • And even shortly after, reading Lewis’s own Perelandra for the first time, when Ransom realizes he must kill his enemy with his bare hands.

But it’s only more recently that I’ve realized all these things were really pointing to God the creator. They are not the end all. My desire to participate in them was the desire to be a sub-creator. Seeking them as pleasure leads to disappointment 100% of the time.

It makes me want to enter the cleregy more than to work hard at being a musician, though I still love music. Do you deal in signposts or in the destination? Both I say.