Sunday, August 06, 2006

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Continuing a theme of the year, of my first readings of famous writers' books, I finally have a C.S. Lewis book under my belt. Unlike Henry Miller, Ian McEwan, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee, and Tom Robbins, whose spines I broke for the first time this year (well, their books' spines) Lewis’s works are clearly among the types of books I was likely to have read. I’m a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's tales from Middle Earth, so I should have read Lewis as well; they were friends and colleagues and wrote of similar struggles between good and evil. As I did with Miller and Pynchon, however, I started by reading a book the writer is less well known for having written.

While Surprised by Joy is autobiographical, it’s not simply a story about Lewis’s life; rather’s it’s the tale of how he lost his faith, philosophically battled organized religion, and eventually reasoned his way to return to faith. That step was not his last. Once he’d acknowledged the reality of God, then he determined that the true faith was Christianity. Lewis takes pains to make sure his terms are understood. He distinguishes between “joy” and “pleasure”; joy has only one characteristic: that the person who has experienced it wants to experience it again. He also notes often that this has nothing to do with erotic joy.

Joy didn’t kill faith for him -- it took a sense of there being more to the universe than what he had already experienced to weaken his belief. “It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body, it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts,” he writes.

Lewis describes the various schools he attended during his life -- some the sites of harrowing experiences that, sadly, come across as pretty typical in the English public school system. While that’s important to allow the reader to get an understanding of who the author is, the book is really about the author’s conversation and search for an understanding of who is that is (if I’m allowed to conjugate that verb in this context.) In other words, God.

Ultimately, it was his time in Oxford, after fighting in World War I, when Lewis found his intellectual construct of his atheism start to crumble. Though the syntax with which Lewis writes can seem a bit stiff at times, he’s understandable; he takes pains to write with precision, but to a twenty-first century reader, he sometimes seems archaic and flawed. As he takes the reader along a winding path, however, he shares some of his way with phrases, and exhibits beautiful descriptions that perfectly describe moments and features. For example, I enjoyed his description of his family dog, Tim:

We met constantly, passed the time of day, and parted with much esteem to follow our own paths. I think he had one friend of his own species, a neighboring red setter; a very respectable, middle-aged dog. Perhaps a good influence; for poor Tim, though I loved him, was the most undisciplined, unaccomplished, and dissipated-looking creature that ever went on four legs. He never exactly obeyed you; he sometimes agreed with you.

Another passage: “Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”

And yet again: “In reading Chesterton … I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. … God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

Perhaps, what I enjoyed most about this book was that Lewis took an intellectual approach to discovering God, and in so doing he realizes that he had been struggling all his life to stay away from him. When he decided that, yes, God exists, Lewis's armor melted away -- to him, it seemed to literally happen, and it wasn’t comfortable. Later, as he tried to discern which path was the right one (i.e., which religious doctrine) he “was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.

And since he found God, he also discovered that he had little use of Joy. “It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”

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