Tony Hillerman, RIP
Sigur Rós - “Starálfur” (from Heima)

Sunday Night Journal — October 26, 2008

C.S. Lewis’s Idea of Joy

I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy, partly because I wanted to think again about the experience to which he gave the name Joy and defined as:

…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.

I never thought joy the right word at all, but have not been able to think of a better one. That first description is exactly right, I think. But since it’s an unsatisfied desire it feels to me more like “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief;” I could almost call it Loss rather than Joy. Most of all it’s a yearning that’s almost unbearably painful, but yet it is, as Lewis says, a kind of pain we want. I’m not a masochist. The reason the pain is desirable is that it implies that the thing I’m yearning for must exist, or at least might exist. It is an effect, and every effect must have a cause. At the moment when I feel it I would give everything to attain whatever it is that the yearning points to. 

It sometimes seems like something remembered, and sometimes like something never known. Certain memories give it to me, so it’s tempting to say that it’s just nostalgia. But when I’m nostalgic I remember the past perfectly well, and remember the way I felt, which was perhaps very happy, but was still ordinary, not the heavenly sweetness which the memories give. Also I find that the memories which produce the feeling are not just any pleasant memories but what Peter DeVries calls somewhere in one of his novels “the most poignant emotion: the memory of expectation.” (I don’t think I’ve quoted that exactly but it’s close.) It’s especially powerful when the memory is of some moment which seemed to hold a promise down a road from which I later turned aside.

In other words, it’s not so much nostalgia, a memory of something once possessed, as the memory of a moment when it felt—or feels now, when I look back at it—as if the yearning could have been fulfilled. Eliot might have been thinking of this when he wrote

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

(“Burn Norton”)

Lewis says, at the end of Surprised by Joy, that after becoming a Christian he did not much dwell on this experience, which was, after all, only a signpost pointing the way, and not the destination. I can’t say that’s true for me. Perhaps my faith is weaker and I need that infusion of yearning, and the sense that it is evidence of something, more often. At any rate it’s a good thing for me that the sensation cannot be produced by a drug.

I’ve often wondered whether it’s a universal experience. Some people seem so dull, so completely fixed on the next immediate physical comfort or pleasure, that I find it hard to imagine that they ever experience it. But that’s certainly a reflection of my own limits and prejudices; my experience in getting to know people is that there’s always much more to everyone than meets the eye.

If it is a universal or at least extremely widespread phenomenon, it’s one of those facts of human experience which is of very high importance and yet is beyond both the reach and the interest of science. And this in turn explains why the sort of atheism that attempts to extrapolate the physical sciences into a total philosophy of everything seems blind and deaf about the things that matter most.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)