Lewis completes this part of his memoir. Note again the role of literature in this mystical experience–but also that its role is tangential, almost accidental. We can speculate that the piercing juxtaposition of “the beautiful” with “is dead” foreshadowed Lewis’s acceptance of Absolute Goodness himself dying on a cross—just as the snippet from Tegner’s Drapa represents all the pagan myths showing the longing for the death of someone so good to be meaningful, redemptive. Be that as it may, one reason Lewis belongs here at the beginning of this blog is that his ability to both describe the indescribable and reflect upon its nature may be unsurpassed. Note that this Joy was a beacon throughout his life: “in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.” (Same for me.)
The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly 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—-
I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted 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.
The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of 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 doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.
–-C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1955. @ C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.
For more on C. S. Lewis see Into the Wardrobe as well as “The official” website.
See also Fellowship of the Performing Arts for their wonderful dramatizations of Lewis’s life and works.