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

The Third Glimpse

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.)

Balder
Baldur the beautiful is dead

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.

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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.

The Second Glimpse

Continuing with Lewis’s memoir. Note how this excerpt (and the next) show literature, books, as the vehicle for the mystical experience. These experiences had this one effect among others: They contributed to Lewis’s tremendous love of and life-long dedication to poetry and stories. 

Somewhat the same thing happened to me as a child. Books such as A Wrinkle in TimeThe Outsiders (S . E. Hinton), The Lord of the Rings, and Lewis’s own Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Last Battle provided this kind of unspeakable joy and longing and a glimpse of something quite beyond the story and the walls of the world around me. Has it happened to you?

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible–how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”  –C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1955. @ C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.

Autumn Sandis-helvigs-158774-unsplash
Photo by Sandis Helvigs on Unsplash

Joy

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We begin with C. S. Lewis for several reasons. His influence as a writer has been as great as anyone who wrote of a mystical experience in recent times. He bridges the ancient and modern worlds, and he bridges the wildest Romanticism with the most prosaic Church of England. Today he is still considered one of the greatest experts in medieval and Renaissance literature.  He could be a rigid logician and he always bested his opponents (with perhaps one exception) during public debates at Oxford, but his life’s course was set by a childhood experience beyond all reason.

This example of a mystical experience is not unique in its occurrence during childhood, but it is nearly unique in how articulate the author is able to describe it some 45 years after the fact.  But then, as he says later, “in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.” 

…..The thing has been much better done by Traherne and Wordsworth, but every man must tell his own tale.

The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not fo years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought me his toy garden into the nursery. 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 somewhere 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 (though that came into it) for my own past. [“Oh, I desire too much.”] –and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

–C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & C0., 1955. @ C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.

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