In the House of Wisdom

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Continuing with C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress. John has grown up and left to pursue the vision of his Island, which filled him with immense longing. The path westward toward the Island is interrupted by something like the Grand Canyon (most likely representing sin), which no one can cross. John and his companion, Vertue, travel north and south along the canyon seeking help from several people representing different world views and ways of life, but no one understands or believes his goal is real. (Mother Kirk is the exception, but they reject her offer of guidance.) Vertue has become very sick and weak from these interactions and needs healing. And then they arrive at the house of Mr. Wisdom. Here, in allegorical form, is a defense of Longing, the desire for something this world can never satisfy.

Old Mr. Wisdom sits them down on his porch, looking west, and begins to speak.

From The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book VII, chapter 9.

“The words between you and and Reason were true. What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring. If water will not set a man at ease, then be sure it not thirst, or not thirst only, that tormented him: he wanted drunkenness to cure his dullness, or talk to cure his solitude, or the like. How, indeed, do we know our desires save by their satisfaction? When do we know them until we say, “Ah, this was what I wanted”? And if there were any desire which it was natural for man to feel but impossible for man to satisfy, would not the nature of this desire remain to him always ambiguous?

“If old tales were true, if a man without putting off humanity could indeed pass the frontiers of our country, if he could be, and yet be a man, in that fabled East and fabled West, then indeed at the moment of fruition, the raising of the cup, the assumption of the crown, the kiss of the spouse–then first, to his backward glance, the long roads of desire that he had trodden would become plain in all their winding, and when he found, he would know what it was that he had sought.

A lady named Contemplation takes John by moonlight to see the island.
Illustration by Michael Hague (c) 1981

“I am old and full of tears, and I see that you also begin to feel the sorrow that is born with us. Abandon hope: do not abandon desire. Feel no wonder that these glimpses of your Island so easily confuse themselves with viler things, and are so easily blasphemed. Above all, never try to keep them, never try to revisit the same place or time wherein the vision was accorded to you. You will pay the penalty of all who could bind down to one place or time within our country that which our country cannot contain. Have you not heard from the Steward of the sin of idolatry, and how, in their old chronicles, the manna turned to worms if any tried to hoard it? Be not greedy, be not passionate; you will but crush dead on your own breast with hot, rough hands the thing loved. But if ever you incline to doubt that the thing you long for is something real, remember what your own experience has taught you.

“Think that it is a feeling, and at once the feeling has no value. Stand sentinel at your own mind, watching for that feeling, and you will find–what shall I say?–a flutter in the heart, an image in the head, a sob in the throat: and was that your desire? You know that it was not, and that not feeling whatever will appease you, that feeling, refine it a you will, is but one more spurious claimant–spurious as the gross lusts of which the giant* speaks.

“Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember “it is” you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it….”

***

*The Spirit of the Age, Freudianism, which says spiritual longing is merely disguised sexual desire.

Afterword

Wisdom is not the lady Wisdom of the Bible; he is philosophical idealism. In the next chapter John discovers that Wisdom’s children do not adhere to his strict diet. They enjoy rich foods from other world-views and their own views are all over the map: the children of philosophical idealism include Marx, Herbert Spencer, Spinoza, Rudolf Steiner, Kant, and Bernard Bosanquet (an obscure figure to me, he was a 19th century English philosophical idealist and neo-Hegelian).

In his next session with John, Wisdom explains philosophical idealism without, of course, calling it that. The explanation is allegorical, like the rest of the novel, and terse. But those qualities may make it easier to follow if you’re unacquainted with the topic. If you are familiar with Hindu philosophy, the similarities will leap out at you.

Following these talks, Vertue is completely healed. He says he must go onward, down into the canyon bottom and then up the other side. He and John argue, for has not Wisdom told them that the other side cannot be reached, except by contemplation? To Vertue it matters not; he must go on even if he dies. Vertue is willing to abandon every scrap of creature comfort, including friendship. John decides he must follow him.

And we will find out if Mr. Wisdom was right, that our longings are real and good and must be kept alive, but their attainment is hopeless.

Grand Canyon photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

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Unbounded Sweetness

Jack began this blog so it is only fitting that we return to him nearly one year later. This passage is from the first book C. S. Lewis wrote after his conversion, The Pilgrim’s Regress. It’s a straight-up allegory, a genre Lewis never used again. It allegorizes Lewis’s own search for truth and for the source of the childhood event that drew him forward all his life. The story starts from his childhood’s nominal Calvinism and follows him in and out of the blind alleys, false Joys, world views illogical and hopeless, the spirit of the age (Freudianism) and finally to Mother Kirk and her Son.

C. S. Lewis

But “John” is also an Everyman. In this passage he is very young and has learned about “the Landlord” who owns and rules the entire country and the Landlord’s hopelessly difficult list of rules that everyone must follow or be severely punished.

The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book One, Chapter II, “The Island”

And now I dreamed that John went out one morning and tried to play in the road and to forget his troubles; but the rules kept coming back into his head so that he did not make much of it. However, he went on always a few yards further till suddenly he looked up and saw that he was so far away from home that he was in a part of the road he had never seen before. Then came the sound of a musical instrument, from behind it seemed, very sweet and very short, as if it were one plucking at a string or note of a bell, and after it a full, clear voice — and it sounded so high and strange that he thought it was very far away, further than a star. The voice said, Come. Then John saw that there was a stone wall beside the road in that part: but it had (what he had never seen in a garden wall before) a window. There was no glass in the window and no bars; it was just a square hole in the wall. Through it he saw a green wood full of primroses: and he remembered suddenly how he had gone into another wood to pull primroses as a child, very long ago–so long that even in the moment of remembering the memory seemed still out of reach.

While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. A moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember, nor whether it had happened in this wood, or in the other wood when he was a child. It seemed a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island, where the smooth turf sloped down unbroken to the bays, and out of the thickets peeped the pale, small-breasted Oreads, wise like gods, unconscious of themselves like beasts, and tall enchanters, bearded to their feet, sat in green chairs among the forests. But even while he pictured these things he knew, with one part of his mind, that they were not like the things he had seen–nay, that what had befallen him was not seeing at all. But he was too young to heed the distinction: and too empty, now that the unbounded sweetness passed away, not to seize greedily whatever it had left behind. He had no inclination yet to go into the wood: and presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, “I know now what I want.” The first time that he said it he was aware that it was not entirely true: but before he went to bed he was believing it.

Afterword

What is described here allegorically is the same momentous event Lewis described in his 1951 memoir, Surprised by Joy. (Note the presence of primroses in both versions.) There he wrote of it “in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”

But could this account, written 18 years earlier, have captured the experience more freshly? At any rate it is a different, usually ignored window on that one event that led to millions of people all over the world being blessed by Lewis’s writings.

And it’s one close to my heart. When I first read this I was a new Christian at 24, and it was only the second “Christian book” I had ever opened. After I read this passage I did not move from my seat until I had finished the book, so astonished was I that another person had the same childhood experiences that I did.