Surprised by Joy
© 1955 C.S. Lewis
“When I first read Chesterton, I did not know what I was in for. God is, if I may say it, quite unscrupulous.”
Mention the name C.S. Lewis and the image of a prolific author comes to mind, secure in reputation as a scholar of medieval literature and author of Christian apologetics. Surprised by Joy reveals a Lewis far removed from the pedestal of memory. A brief autobiography, it tells the story of how he came of age, losing and refinding faith as the world destroyed itself around him. Here is a Lewis outside the university, unguarded by coats of tweed; he is a man, struggling with fear and doubts, spurred on by hope and far more entertaining than I would have ever expected.
The Lewis of expectations is here; an introverted, bookish, and supremely thoughtful boy with a rich imagination fed by a love for classic and mythic literature. Lewis’ gift for storytelling is not limited to fiction, evidenced by the side-splitting account in which he recounts his father — an orator who could be intoxicated by verbosity once he’d gotten started — subjecting five year old boys to momentous speeches full of pomp and storied prose, all for ordinary errors like getting one’s shoes wet in the grass. Beyond the story of an early-20th century English childhood, however, this is the coming of age of a profound man, who sees his life as driven on by a search for “Joy”, which he experienced in brief stabs of ecstasy at various points in his young life. Such joy was not to be found in his childhood religion, which as as badly taught as everything else. He experienced shades of ecstasy when stumbling upon the Nordic myths, and despite his later materialism had a strong interest in the occult. Later, he would come to see these experiences as momentary glimpses of something greater, and the book ends with his return to theism. He doesn’t make arguments to the reader, only outlines of the philosophical questions and themes he grappled with in his youth. This can tend toward the heady, as Lewis’ tipping point is the moment when he begins to understand the universe as some sort of cosmic mind, an Absolute, and another author (Chesterton) forces him to call a spade a spade. When Lewis is being philosophical about the writing can get heady — ‘thinking about thinking’ always does, and Lewis’ attempt to understand consciousness appears to have been a major factor in his rejection of a purely material universe. Here the difficulty is further complicated by frequent mentions of intellectual movements that Lewis was arguing with and flirting with that have since faded not only from the intellectual scene, but from memory altogether.
I’ve read this book several times in the last two years, partially out of affection for the author and partially to understand his experience. The latter still eludes me in part, but epiphanies aren’t a mental commodity that can be packaged up and transferred from brain to brain. However much some of his experience may elude me, there’s still so much about him to appreciate: his contempt for authority, his imaginative passion and curiosity, his dogged efforts to wrest understanding from old books and new friend, and his utter delight in simple things like country walks and stolen mornings spent with a pipe in the library. He’s one of those authors who I spot on a bookstore display and have a sudden burst of affection for, as though I’d spotted a friend out of the window. (Wendell Berry has a similar effect, but Lewis has that old-fashioned Oxford don aura about him.)