EDITOR’S NOTE: This review ran in the January 28, 1961, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
Suprised by Joy, by C. S. Lewis
P rofessor Lewis, who has done almost as much to restore attachment to religious principle in our time as Chateaubriand did a century and a half ago through his Genius of Christianity, gives us now a little autobiographical volume that would make scarcely more than a chapter in Chateaubriand’s Memoirs. But its explicit description of the process by which Lewis returned to Christianity excels anything of the kind in Chateaubriand’s long shelf of exceedingly personal works.
#ad#Joy, as described by Mr. Lewis, is a sudden stab of intense consciousness, very different from mere pleasure. And there is something better than joy–as much better than joy as joy is better than pleasure: Christian faith. Joy comes to Lewis as often and as sharply since his conversion as before. “But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”
Much of Lewis’s early life was anything but joyous–certainly the greater part of his school days, for he gives a description of boarding schools as forbidding and dismaying as Sir Osbert Sitwell’s account of his schools. (Mr. Lewis’s father, incidentally, was nearly as much of a character as Sir George Sitwell.) And he found no joy in the meaningless pursuit of sex. The smug and sterile “rationalistic” climate of opinion which prevailed among his early associates was least joyous of all. An understanding of Joy–though, for a time, with his fellows, he called it “aesthetic experience”–seems to have been what saved him from becoming as one with them. “Looking back on my life now, I am astonished that I did not progress into the opposite orthodoxy–did not become a Leftist, Atheist, satiric Intellectual of the type we all know so well.”
But he was won, very early in life, to “the Northernness”–the wonder of Norse mythology; and then, by an illative process, to Christianity. George Macdonald and G. K. Chesterton had much to do with his progress. “In reading Chesterton, as in reading Macdonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist can not be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere–’Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
As the preceding passage will suggest, Surprised by Joy abounds in those witty and most perceptive commentaries upon personality and society with which Mr. Lewis has been bombarding Screwtape, Screwtape’s uncle, and the rationalists, leftists, and positivists for some decades. Take this, on the “Bloods” who dominated his school:
According to some theorists, therefore, it ought to have been entirely free from bourgeois vulgarities and iniquities. Yet I have never seen a community so competitive, so full of snobbery and flunkeyism, a ruling class so selfish and so class-conscious, or a proletariat so fawning, so lacking in all solidarity and sense of corporate honor. But perhaps one hardly needs to cite experience for a truth so obvious a priori. As Aristotle remarked, men do not become dictators in order to keep warm. If a ruling class has some other source of strength, why need it bother about money? Most of what it wants will be pressed upon it by emulous flatterers, the rest can be taken by force.
Real Joy, which is apprehended by the higher imagination, “must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” Again and again, Mr. Lewis communicates to us, in this little book, that stab, that pang, that longing. Words, as J. F. Stephen says, are tools that break in the hand; but Mr. Lewis uses those fragile tools as well as anyone in our generation.