The title of Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, has a double meaning. In the first instance, he was surprised by the joy that was inherent in his conversion and, in the second place, Joy Davidman had recently become his wife and brought him new, although belated, joy.
The initial joy Lewis experienced was the outcome of a life of romanticism, yearning, longing, and desire, or, as he often called it, Sehnsucht. In romantic poetry it might be “awakened by the past, the distant, and the imagined, but not believed, supernatural. In modern literature, the life of liberated instinct” (p. 16, “Christianity and Culture” in Christian Reflections. Eerdmans, 1967). Lewis noted that the dangers of romantic Sehnsucht were great, in that “eroticism and even occultism lie in wait for it” (22) and he repented of his early experiences of this type of Sehnsucht. In a footnote (23n) he says that Sehnsucht could be described as ‘spilled religion’ as long as we remember that “the spilled drops may be full of blessing”. According to Carnell (1974: 36), Lewis experienced such a feeling before he was six years old.
To find further ideas of the importance of “joy” in the life and its frequency in writings of Lewis, I consulted Janine Janine Goffar’s C.S. Lewis Index: A contemporary guide to Lewis’s writings and ideas (Crossway Books, 1995). I counted 134 instances where she had found significant references and quotations to “joy”. I have also have examined my own database of Lewis’s books and those written about him (over 280 books) for references that included the word “joy”, generally from book titles and chapter headings.
There can be no doubt that “joy” (and later Joy) featured a prominent role in Lewis’s works. What follows is my brief and halting attempt to ferret out joy from some of those examples, with the caveat that this is an obviously incomplete summary.
First of all, note some of the Goffar’s examples of what Lewis said about joy:
- It is a technical term to be distinguished from happiness and pleasure
- Images and sensations are reminders of it
- It is something we are born desiring
- It is an unsatisfied desire, more desirable than any other satisfaction
- It is distinct from pleasure and amusement
- It is obtained through the memory
- It can return when we remember our past experiences
- It can be obtained through reading books
- It is found in works of music, such as Wagner
- He experienced in Norse and Celtic mythology
- It can be met through “Nature”
- It is never a possession
- It may have the same physical sensation as anguish
- It owes its character to the form of the object desired
- It is a pointer to something other and outer
- It is he essence of “mere Christianity”
- It is a thousand miles away from flippancy
- Instead of a place, it is found in a Person
- It is infinite and offered to us like to an ignorant child
- Sexual pleasure cannot substitute for it
- It is ridiculed by Screwtape as “a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience”
- It has no meaning for devils
Peter Kreeft, (1994 ed., The shadowlands of C.S. Lewis: The man behind the movie) found that “No one since Augustine has written so movingly and memorable of this longing” and that this notion of joy is the underlying theme of his autobiography (45).
However, and as an aside (but perhaps a painful one), the movie, according to Kathryn Lindskoog, (1988, The C.S. Lewis hoax, Multnomah Press), has numerous distortions and misrepresentations about the life of Lewis. Lindskoog also published a follow-up book in2001 called Sleuthing C.S. Lewis: More light in the shadowlands (Macon, GA: Mercer Press), which is highly critical of Walter Hooper and his close relationship with the estate of Lewis. She portrays Hooper as a forger and fabricator. Her claims are largely ignored by Lewis devotees.
Brian Sibley (1985, Shadowlands: The story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, Hodder and Stoughton) reviews the BBC film production to show how vividly Lewis’s life of joy was linked to his marriage to Joy Davidman. This theme is repeated in a number of books about Lewis, for example, in Chad Walsh, 1998 (Chad Walsh reviews C.S. Lewis, The Mythopoetic Press) and Sam Wellman (1997, C.S. Lewis: Author of Mere Christianity, Barbour Publishing).
Terry Lindvall, (1996. Surprised by laughter. Thomas Nelson Publishers), likewise claims that “[Lewis] was a man of laughter and surprises, of jokes and joy. And he was ruddy-faced because he had a sunny heart, gladness foaming and ready to burgeon out at any moment, solemn or gay” (3). Lindvall also points out that an integral part of joy is its association with suffering and despair: “Darkness suffering, and longing are part of the very definition of joy” (65).
In this sense joy can be a “riddle”, as pointed out in the book edited by Michael H. Macdonald and Andrew A. Tadie (eds. 1989. G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis: The riddle of joy. With a Foreword by Janet Blumberg Knedlik. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co). What draws the two men together “was not only their command of so many popular (and technical) idioms, or their arts of plain talk and curious story, or their gifts of laughter and surprise, or their immense and uncompromising intellects. No, what drew their audiences was the way they saluted something in the nature of things—the way they would not suppress their desire for that something” (xiii).
Also associated with joy is the notion of pleasure and Lewis said that he sometimes wondered whether pleasures are not substitutes for joy (Surprised by Joy, 170). It follows that earthly pleasures may only suggest what we are made for. Stewart Goetz, (2015. A philosophical walking tour with C.S. Lewis: Why it did not include Rome. NY: Bloomsbury Academic), sums up Lewis’s concept of joy in Surprised by Joy, many of which are found in Goffar, as follows:
- An unsatisfied desire
- Distinct from happiness and pleasure
- Pleasures may be substitutes for it
- Distinct from sexual desire
- Not a substitute for sex
- Never in our power
- Never a possession
However, and as Lewis notes, there are negative pleasures: the pleasure of evil, exclusive friendships, or hatred. These are not the kind of pleasures that can be examined without spoiling them. Furthermore, “It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, course or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful” (Surprised by Joy, 220).
Alister McGrath, in one of his books on Lewis (2013. The intellectual world of C.S. Lewis. Wiley-Blackwell. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.), has a chapter (5) called “Arrows of joy: Lewis’s argument from desire”. He maintains that Lewis initially thought that ‘joy’ was a place, not a person, so there is no initial connection with it and God. His conversion was not directly involved with ‘desire’, although in describing his life journey he mentions often a sense of inner desire and longing. McGrath concludes that Lewis’s approach “needs to be taken on its own terms, and not adapted or accommodated to other theistic arguments focusing on the theme of longing and desire” (122).
Book IV of Lewis’s Mere Christianity is called “Beyond Personality”, and in it Lewis cautions “If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into the thing that has them” (150). They are not prizes that God just hands out to any one but “are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality” (151).
Corbin Scott Carnell, in his book Bright shadow of reality: C.S. Lewis and the feeling intellect. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1974) reviews Lewis’s early search for joy and the location of joy. As Carnell says, “One cannot understand the importance he gives to this concept without knowing of the search upon which his mind and imagination were bent for many years” (30). His ‘fits of strange desire’ awakened in Lewis “an almost painfully happy nostalgia for something ‘other and outer’” (39).
Although we may be intended for joy “Lewis fully understood that we are created to love, worship and enjoy God, but until we reach heaven we will not be in an environment of unimpeded obedience” (Lyle W. Dorsett, Seeking the secret place: The spiritual formation of C.S. Lewis, BrazosPress, 2004:39).
It is the beginning of 2016 and I have read a lot of books about C.S. Lewis. However, in my opinion, none gives a more intimate and knowledgeable account of Lewis’s life and thoughts than Dorsett’s Seeking the secret place.
Bruce L Edwards, (2005. Further up & further in: Understanding C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers) explains the purpose of his book this way: “We have gone “further up and further in” during our exploration of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in order to experience the further joy of seeing not only the lines themselves but what is between them. We have wanted to look along, and not just look at, Narnia. We have wanted an indigenous journey, seeing through the eyes of those who live and move and have their being in Narnia, not as outsiders but as insiders” (88).
Edwards has taken us, from the viewpoint of Pike’s emics and etics, into an inside view of what Lewis thought it is like in Narnia and the joy that was there.
Terry W Glaspey, (1996. The spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis. Nashville TN: Cumberland House Publishing), devoted a chapter to “pleasure”, assuring us that Lewis “wholeheartedly championed life’s pleasures and the possibility of the Christian enjoying life to the fullest. He did not see all pleasures as the work of the devil, rather, he felt that God is the author of all true joy and pleasure” (143). Glaspey, quoting Lewis, says that “the small glimpses of an eternal joy that we experience can spurt us on to worship. ‘I have tried,’ wrote Lewis, ‘to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration’” (145, quoting Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, p. 89).
Thomas Howard (1987. C.S. Lewis: Man of Letters. A Reading of His Fiction. San Francisco: Ignatius Press) analyzes the beauty of nature in Perelandra as “not only to awaken desire and reward it with pleasure, but then to nudge one ever on—not clamoring for more and more of this…but rather requiring and inquiring what it all may mean” (p.121). In his landscape descriptions of Perelandra Lewis has a way of making nature new and refreshing, yet at the same time frightening anda bewildering—for as Howard says, this is the “paradox of joy”. Joy, in the words of Lewis “is the serious business of heaven”.
Lewis loved to take walks and he loved nature. Clyde S., Kilby, (1968. ed. A mind awake: An anthology of C.S. Lewis. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.), narrates some of Lewis’s preferences this way: “When he walked he refrained from smoking in order not to miss the full odor of nature. He described what he regarded as an ideal day….breakfast at eight, study and writing from nine until one with perhaps a cup of tea…a walk, preferably alone….” (23-24).
Not all reviews of Lewis’s works about joy are positive. David Jasper, in chapter 16 (“The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy”) in The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (2010, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press), cauterizes Lewis as a “cult figure” who was “massively learned, though extraordinarily resistant to shifts in twentieth-century culture” (228). He claims that “The preface to Surprised by Joy employs well-tried devices of rhetoric to disarm and situate the reader, and to establish an appropriate hermeneutical review” (230) and, at that time at lest, Lewis was one who “distracts, teases and flirts with his readers” (231).
Douglas T Hyatt concludes his “A critical appraisal of Lewis’s arguments from desire” (1997, in Angus J.L. Menuge, editor, C.S. Lewis Lightbearer in the Shadowlands: The evangelistic vision of C.S. Lewis, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books) feels that Lewis failed “to adequately portray the corruption of desire in fallen man [but) his overall contribution makes a salutary contribution to our understanding of God” (326).
BBC journalist Justin Phillips (2002, C.S. Lewis in time of war: The World War II broadcasts that riveted a nation and became the classic Mere Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco) provides us with stories of Lewis that lie behind the radio broadcasts. A chapter, “The joys of domesticity” do not show much joy. Lewis is the servant of Mrs. Moore, mother of a war time buddy he had promised to care for, in his own household. In addition, he has an alcoholic brother (Warnie) and a war time teenage resident, Jill Freud, to live with as well. Nevertheless, he continues his remarkable output of personal letters, his university lectures, and his academic writing.
An extensive study by Joe Puckett Jr. (2012, The apologetics of joy: A case for the existence of God from C.S. Lewis’s argument from desire, WIPF & Stock, Eugene, Oregon) examines Lewis’s argument from desire as well as Beversluis’s objections to the argument. John Beversluis had been very critical of Lewis in his book C.S. Lewis and the search for rational religion, (Eerdmans, 1985).
Puckett reminds us of Lewis’s use of the German word sehnsucht to describe joy, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…and must be sharply distinguished from Happiness and Pleasure” (22). Because this is not satisfied in our life on earth, it must point to something beyond it. In other words, there is a general imperfection or incompleteness in our life here on earth, but we have some imagination of what it might ideally comprise.
One of the men who knew Lewis best was George Sayer, first as an undergraduate student in 1934, but later as a close friend and walking companion. In his book Jack: A life of C.S. Lewis (Crossway books, 1988, 1994; also published by Harper & Row as Jack: C.S. Lewis and his times), we learn of the joy of companionship between the two men (and Sayer’s wife). In addition, Lewis often stayed with them and Sayer sometimes drove Lewis to destinations. Sayer writes how much Lewis delighted in the country scenery, slow train rides, visits to the pubs, reading books (sometimes aloud to each other), and how little he enjoyed the purely domestic side of life.
There is no doubt that “joy” and “Joy” (later in his life) were trademarks of Lewis’s writing, thinking and imagination.