Thursday, April 23, 2015
C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy: Dazzled by Brilliance
He was an English public school graduate, I the American equivalent, a preppie. Each of us was too smart for his own good, although Lewis’s smarts were to mine as diamond is to coal.
It doesn’t matter to me that he converted to “mere” Christianity and that I am a Catholic. I identify with many of his conversion experiences, including this one:
My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. . . . There are men, far better men than I, who have made immortality almost the central doctrine of their religion; but for my own part I have never seen how a preoccupation with that subject at the outset could fail to corrupt the whole thing. . . . God was to be obeyed because he was God.
I did not convert to make a bet like Pascal’s. I did not bargain on the afterlife. Catholic life was full enough just as it was and still is.
I identify too with the very moment Lewis crossed over, recalled in a famous passage:
I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I 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. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.
I went to Border’s Books & Music, not the zoo, but the effect was the same. I entered looking for a gift for an old friend. I came out with the key (for me) to the Catholic Church.
My conversion was different than Lewis’s in so many ways, however. Mine was a leap of the heart into the dark of morning mass; and not even three years of pondering my conversion, in the writing of a memoir, have clarified much about that leap to me. My memoir, like the sculpture my father used to fashion, is still a work in progress, a lump of clay that I poke at mentally from time to time, probing for its true shape.
Lewis's conversion memoir, Surprised by Joy, is poetic self-examination of the highest, most rigorous order. With crystalline clarity he lays out his conversion as a path of ten thousand stones on each of which his mind stepped in succession.
A few of these steps I can identify with, as when Lewis writes of reading Chesterton's The Everlasting Man and being enthralled by “the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” What my Church calls salvation history has become the great narrative of history to me.
But then only a few pages away from this passage you run into this: “I was suddenly impelled to reread (which was certainly no business of mine at the moment) the Hippolytus of Euripides. . . . ” I don't know about you, but the Hippolytus is no book I have read or intend to read. Nor can I imagine what it possibly has to do with conversion, mine or anyone else’s.
To be sure, Lewis explains this and 9,999 other stones, but at such high mental RPMs that I have trouble following. Indeed, the entire 240-page read, which I just finished this morning, has been a dizzying experience. It is like watching a movie projected at the wrong speed, so that I only pick out images, not continuous meaningful motion.
Here is one image. Lewis writes of losing his chronological snobbery, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” I know the feeling. When I think of olden times, I imagine they were in black-and-white, like old films, without any of the real color of life.
But Lewis adds: “Our age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
It struck me while reading this that Lewis himself would have been dizzied had he lived to our present time. The world has changed so radically since his death in 1963 that he would not recognize it.
What, for instance, would he make of our present preoccupation with gender? Not sex, I might point out, as a young person pointed out to me last summer, but gender. “Sex is what you’re born with,” this young person told me, correcting my non-correctness. “Gender is what you choose.”
Maybe we will find our way out of this chronological snobbery and realize that our age is also a period. A short one, God willing.