“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 somewhat near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?”
– C.S. Lewis Surprised by Joy
Lewis’s life had been a pendulum of sorts, with swings between cool-headed logic and rapturous adventures of delight through stories and the imagination. Lewis first describes his awakening in the opening chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Books read early on, such as Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel and Mark Twain’s Yankee at the Court of King Arthur wetted his appetite for the distant and romantic, though it was a trilogy by E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Wishing Carpet, and The Amulet that “first opened my eyes to antiquity, the ‘dark backward and abysm of time’ … then came Beatrix Potter books, and here at last beauty.”
But Lewis claims his imagination was most fully awakened by three particular moments or glimpses. The first was but “a memory of a memory” : a flowering red currant bush that reminded him of a play time from his youth and his brother’s trudging about with his toy garden, a biscuit tin filled with moss.
“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 somewhat near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not certainly for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even for my own past. Oh I desire too much – and before I knew what I desired, the desire was itself gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned common place again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”
The second glimpse came from Beatrix Potter books – Squirrel Nutkin in particular – giving a troubling sense from almost from another dimension: the Idea of Autumn. Autumn spoke to Lewis as something from beyond ordinary experience and pleasure, something wrapped in surprise and with a “sense of incalculable importance.” It evoked an intense desire, but not a desire for something which could be possessed, but for something that could only be re-awakened.
“The third glimpse came through poetry” Lewis continues: “I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf : fond of it in a casual and shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far distant regions, came a moment when I 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 ——-
Lewis continues “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplisted 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.”
These awakenings of the imagination would fuel Lewis’s love for stories and myths throughout his life, however coupled with an almost unforgiving sense of logical rigor, drilled into him by his tutors (“the Great Knock” Fitzpatrick in particular, a rigorous teacher who taught Lewis to question everything). And Lewis would find himself moving away from the cold, Norse sense of beauty and awe, as he describes of his reading of Euripides’ Bacchae:
I had always ‘liked’ my classical work, but … now I tasted the classics as poetry. Euripides picture of Dionysus was closely linked in my mind with the whole mood of Mr. Stephens’ Crock of Gold, which I had lately read with great excitement. Here was something different from Northernness, Pan and Dionysus lack the cold, piercing appeal of Odin and Frey. A new quality entered my imagination: something Mediterranean and volcanic, the orgiastic drum-beat. Orgiastic, but not, or not strongly, erotic. It was perhaps unconsciously connected with my growing hatred of the public school orthodoxies and conventions, my desire to break and tear it all.” – Lewis, SBJ, Ch. VII (1955)
While a student at Oxford, Lewis increasingly came to adopt a skepticism towards anything beyond the natural world, or his senses. He termed this posture his “New Look,” and relegated any glimpses of things beyond as merely exercises in aesthetics, what appears beautiful, but not pointing towards anything “beyond” the experience itself.
But Lewis found he could not sustain that stance. True, this “realism satisfied an emotional need. I wanted Nature to be … indifferent, self-existing.” (SBJ, Ch. 13 “The New Look”) Or as Lewis would later describe, “Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not to be interfered with. I had wanted (mad wish) ‘to call my soul my own.’ ” (SBJ, Ch. 14, “Checkmate”). Further, various friends of his began abandoning this naturalism, causing him to question his own position, and ultimately abandon his attitude of “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the latest intellectual fads.
Friends Owen Barfield and Nevill Coghill, the latter a fellow PRofessor of Literature at Oxford and a Christian, pushed him to reconsider his skeptical, naturalist position. And the writers he enjoyed the most – George MacDonald in particular – prompted him further towards not settling for such a simplistic view of the matter. MacDonald had “more to me than any writer; of course it was a pity he had a bee in his bonnet about Christianity, He good in spite of it.” And 19th century pundit G.K. Chesterton “had more sense than all the other moderns put together, bating, of course, his Christianity.” English writers Herbert Spenser and John Milton “by a strange coincidence had it too,” Lewis said of their predilection for the Christian faith. “Even among the ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed… those other writers who did not suffer from religion – Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire – all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called ‘tinny.’ ” (SBJ, Ch. 14)
Or, as Lewis put it “all the books were beginning to turn against me” or perhaps more famously – “really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait on every side.” (both quotes Ch. 14) Or, putting it all together, as he had stated earlier “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere – ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” (Ch. 12, “Guns and Good Company”).
As Lewis’s “New Look” broke down, reading took on even more importance. “I was deeply moved by Dream of the Rood … intoxicated by (John) Donne … most alarming of all was George Herbert who seemed to excel all the other authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we live it … but insisted on mediating it through what I still have to call “the Christian mythology.” (Ch. 14) “On the other hand, most of the other authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly.”
The only non-Christians who seemed to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity. The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the “Chanson” –
Christians are all wrong, but all the rest are bores.
Lewis’ friendship with Christians on the Oxford Literature Faculty (he was now teaching at Oxford himself) – Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien – began to push him to abandon his New Look and the naturalistic Realism it embraced. He continues:
My adversary began to make His final moves. The First move annihilated the last remains of the New Look. I was suddenly impelled to re-read the Hippolytus of Euripides. In one chorus, all that world’s end imagery which i had rejected when I assumed my New Look rose before me. I liked, but did not yield; I tried to patronize it. But the next day I was overwhelmed. There was a transitional uneasiness, and then – instantaneously – the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days.”
As Lewis would write in his critique of modern education, The Abolition of Man,
For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. – CS Lewis, Abolition of Man (1947, Ch. 1, “Men Without Chests”)
The tale of Lewis’s Joy, whose recovery we have thus chronicled, is more explicitly described in our Lewis 101 post. But Lewis does poetically elaborate in the concluding chapters of SBJ. While Lewis’s conversion took two stages – the first, simply to an undefined theism, for which he makes the renowned statement
In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England. – CS Lewis, SBJ (Ch. 14, “Checkmate!”)
Lewis was yet unsure exactly to Whom he was kneeling – someone entirely unreasonable perhaps? Religion certainly has a blood-stained name, as history of religion goes. But Lewis, once again, poetically, clarifies his later findings:
I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert on even such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?
The words ‘compelle intrare’, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of Divine mercy.
The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
– C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Ch. 14 finale
“But what then of Joy?” Lewis asks, after settling in on the Christian faith, given its universal ethics and verifiable historical credentials. He had refound the memory – the source even – of his brother’s toy garden, the biscuit tin filled with moss. His motorcycle ride to WHipsnade Zoo one sunny morning, is instructive:
“When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. At that maximum a man is what he does; there is nothing of him left over or outside the act. As for what we call Will, and what we commonly call Emotion, I fancy these usually talk too loud, protest too much, to be quite believed, and we have a secret suspicion that the great passion or the iron resolution is partly a put-up job.”
But … Whipsnade Zoo – evokes for Lewis what he is not not unique in history for finding, but for which his poetic finding is perhaps as moving as anyone’s tale:
“The have spoiled Whipsnade since then. Wallaby Wood, with the birds singing overhead and the bluebells underfoot and the Wallabies hopping all round one, was almost Eden come again…
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 complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe 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. (It) 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 sees it cries “Look!” The whole party gathers around and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare.
We shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering 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.” – C.S> Lewis, SBJ finale