Wednesday 5 April 2023

Correcting CS Lewis's definition of Joy

From Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis, 1955. 

Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing....  

With that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country... the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. 

And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to "have it again" was the supreme and only important object of desire...

The imaginative longing for Joy, or rather the longing which was Joy

Yesterday on a train to the Northumberland town of Hexham, a clear and sunny day, travelling with my son, and for more than half-an-hour; I was filled with that 'romantic' feeling (which seems so much more than just a feeling) which CS Lewis called Joy, and which Novalis first described as Sehnsucht - specifically a 'longing' for the enchanted Blue Flower.   

Everything I saw, and the conversation, was layered with meanings. I felt that I was in exactly the right place for... For what was needed at that exact time. Gratitude was probably the main emotion.  

I know this feeling well, and am familiar too with the 'longing' aspect of it; yet I have never been contented by Lewis's (or Novalis's) definition of this feeling in terms of the attribute of longing. That seems superficial, and also incidental. 

The core of the experience of Joy is, surely?, in terms of its intended function; I seek an explanation of why this feeling may happen, and what it is implicitly pointing-at (which is not, I feel sure) merely 'more of the same', more than merely the feeling's own perpetuation. 

In brief; I have always felt that the reason for each instance of Joy was that I was supposed to learn something; but what I actually learned, or was supposed to learn, was something I found it impossible to be sure about. 

The content of the experience seemed to matter more than the feeling; yet it was not just the content that led to the feeling - it was not not just my perceptions, nor other stimuli... 

And that 'longing' was actually more like the awareness that - even while I was experiencing Joy - I simultaneously knew that these feelings would end, and that everything I saw - every circumstance that 'led-to' the feeling - would change. 

Hence (as always) the here-and-now Joy was permeated with simultaneous nostalgia - I yearned, as-if I had already lost it. I yearned for what I actually was now-experiencing... 

What is fundamentally happening in such moments is, I think, that we are bumping-against the evanescence of this mortal life and earth - we are up-against the fundamental nature of this life as intrinsically mortal; a life of entropic decay, inevitably terminated by death. 

This life is unrepeatable, and everything will be lost; including our capacity to have such experiences, our memories of such moments. 

It is exactly at such moments when the content - or more exactly the 'framework' - of Joy becomes crucial; at such moments we need to know what this life is for - given that it is always dissolving-away-from-us. 

Such moments are when we are brought to confront our fundamental convictions regarding the nature of reality. And what happens then, depends upon those fundamental convictions.  

If our conviction is that this mortal life is all-that-there-is; then Joy is utterly tragic. 

But if our conviction is that this mortal life is a prelude to a further and eternal life that takes-up and builds from exactly these moments - then Joy is the greatest of possible boons: a literal foretaste of Heaven. 


William Wright (WW) said...

I hadn't thought too much about this until your post, but my sense is you are right in separating joy itself from the longing for it (in that joy is not longing, if I understood you right).

When I look at my children, particularly the younger ones, and how they experience joy, there is no longing, loss, or lack involved. They experience joy when it comes as if it will never end and it seems almost a surprise to them when it inevitably does.

But we must learn our lessons too well, and at some point a balance is tipped and we don't allow ourselves to feel joy in that same unmarred way. In anticipation of losing it - yet again - we already miss it or brace ourselves for its loss before we ever even get to fully experience or feel it, and thus cheat ourselves out of the enchantment we were meant to experience.

I think this is how it might work for me at times, at least.

Francis Berger said...

This is good. I came to similar conclusions regarding joy -- with a little help from William Blake:

He who binds himself to joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - It is possible that CSL was describing his pre-Christian understanding of Joy; but I would have appreciated if he had gone on to describe his post-Christian thoughts - because, in his desire to dissociate Christianity from hedonism, Lewis is quite often untrue to his own actual experience of life - which continued to be joyful until his death.

@FB - Indeed. I always agreed with this epigram of Blake's and recognized that happiness could not successfully be taken-by-storm; but it was a pessimistic, indeed tragic, agreement before I became a Christian.