Wednesday, August 7, 2013

C.S. Lewis on Wordsworthian joy and Christian joy

     The History of Joy, since it came riding back to me on huge waves of Wagnerian music and Norse and Celtic mythology several chapters ago, must now be brought up to date.
     I have already hinted how my first delight in Valhalla and Valkyries began to turn itself imperceptibly into a scholar's interest in them... And only very gradually did I realize that all this was something quite different from the original Joy.  And I went on adding detail to detail, progressing toward the moment when "I should know most and should least enjoy." Finally I woke from building the temple to find that the God had flown.  Of course I did not put it that way.  I would have said simply that I didn't get the old thrill.  I was in the Wordsworthian predicament, lamenting that "a glory" had passed away.
     Thence arose the fatal determination to recover the old thrill, and at last the moment when I was compelled to realize that all such efforts were failures.
... But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth;  or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting.  There, to have is to want and to want is to have.  Thus, the very moment when I longed to be so stabbed again, was itself again such a stabbing.  The Desirable which had once alighted on Valhalla was now alighting on a particular moment of my own past;  and I would not recognize him there because, being an idolater and a formalist, I insisted that he ought to appear in the temple I had built him;  not knowing that he cares only for temples building and not at all for temples built.  Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life.  I am sure that all that sense of the loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believe it.   (pp 165-167.  Surprised by Joy.)

Let us note several things.

1.  This obsession with Wagnerian music, Norse mythology, the Siegfried legend and all such Germanic stuff that fed the Nazi new religion of superior Germanic being that could trample on everyone else, is something popular and also available to the young C.S. Lewis.  It is somewhat surprising to me, that this propagation and obsession went beyond German borders and dovetails with some things we have recently looked at.

2.  Wordsworthian predicaments and longing I don't know anything about, and something tells me I can be glad for that.  Males intensely longing for things isn't something I really need to know about very badly, as long as my husband comes home for dinner. Sorry, that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it suffices me at the moment.  BUT this thinking lies very close to the heart of the theme of the book, so we can't shove it aside.

3.  Temple building by man or by God.  God cares nothing for temples built.  That would be like the tower of Babel, a Ziggurat, a climbing up a ladder to God, to Joy.  This seeking for the "glory", for the "stab"--it seems all a bit overwrought and unnatural to me.  And yet there is the "stab" of longing for the "stab" which is also already a Joy.  Well, does it not seem a bit obsessive?  On my part I will play and sing some favorite music of mine that has made its way into the pleasure center of the brain, but music and singing in themselves are enjoyable.  I am not sure that a great "desire" is associated with it.

I don't know. -- I think of it in terms of neurotransmitters, maybe.  But there is desire.  No doubt there is desire, longing, or as some like to say "Sehnsucht."  But really I can do without it.  Yes?  No?

Buddhism tries to extinguish it and the self.  And then there are these poets who need to flan it into flame and are constantly looking for it.  And then there is God who makes a person a temple of the Holy Spirit, and such are we.  The emphasis is perhaps on the just "are", no trying, no extinguishing, no fanning into flames.  It just is. --  How nice.-- I like it. -- I think this is where Lewis was going with all that.

Yes, in fact, this is how C.S.Lewis concludes the book:

...But what, in conclusion, of Joy?  for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about.  To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian.  I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away.  I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, 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.  They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up.  But we shall not stop and stare, or not much;  not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.  "We would be at Jerusalem."
     Not, of course, that I don't often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.

So here we have it all tied up.   There is a kind of Buddhist-like detachment from whether or not the experience of joy happens or not but not because the self is extinguished but because the other, outer is there to contemplate in relation--a Christian known by God and knowing himself known.  But the poet is still the poet, he still stops and stares, though he does not search for the road-sign but for Jerusalem.



Anonymous said...

Wordsworth wrote a poem called "Surprised by Joy" that I assume Lewis titled this book after. Lewis obviously makes a great distinction between the kind of longing that Wordsworth wrote about in his poems and essays (the Prelude to Lyrical Ballads). He showed that Wordsworth in many ways idolized nature and sometimes nostalgia.

But in this post, you seem to completely dismiss Wordsworth. No need to box in him as a random male longing for things. Isn't that the best part of CS Lewis? He describes desires so accurately? Wordsworth is one of the most accessible British poets from over 200 years ago. But he's not better than Lewis.

Nate B

Brigitte said...

Thank you, Nate. I am woefully ignorant of Wordsworth, as I mention. I am, however, very close to the German Romantics, as I like to sing the art songs. Similar? Different?