Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Surprised by Joy: Review

Finished C. S. Lewis's Suprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life yesterday.  The book gives us Lewis's life from his boyhood to his years at school and with a tutor in preparation for Oxford to (brief) vignettes about his World War I experiences to life as an undergraduate at Oxford.  It is also supposed to recount his journey from a fairly typical Christian childhood in Belfast to a period of atheism/agnosticism to his confident claiming of Christian joy for himself.  A BIG DEAL is made in the blurb on the back of the book about Lewis being the man who reasoned his way back to God.  I'd heard quite a bit about the book previously.  But quite honestly I am surprised at how Surprised by Joy isn't nearly as descriptive of Lewis's conversion as I expected.  Not that he doesn't mention it--repeatedly.  But, based on the evidence he supplies, I am unconvinced. And I'm a Christian myself.  Preaching to the choir here.

He casually mentions here that he was made to rethink his atheism because he read this or that book.  And then over there so-and-so came along, and, well, he wasn't a believer either...but what he said made Lewis think.  And then, hey, he read a few more books and was urged to think even more furiously about this whole Spirit/Joy/quite-possibly-God thing.  And, by golly, he was reminded of that JOY he felt once upon a time when his brother built a little play garden in a biscuit tin lid.   And he keeps on looking for that JOY.  And discovered it again when he came across the Norse mythologies.  He decides that the JOY is really desire and that desire is for what he calls Spirit.  He's not yet converted to Christianity, but he's on his way.  And then suddenly during his Oxford days he says he was on his way to Whipsnade and "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."  Poof!  He's a for the whole nine yards. A done deal.  But reasoning his way there?  Not according to his narrative.  I don't doubt Lewis's belief.  I've read enough of his other works that I know what he believes.  And he expounds it very well in those other works.  He can't help but exhibit it in his fiction.  But showing me how he got there in this spiritual autobiography? Not nearly so well--he doesn't lay out his reasoning in the same way that he discourses on the four loves (in the book of the same name), for instance.  For a reasoning man, he expects his reader to take a great deal on faith--to just believe that because he said he suddenly believed in God again, well, he did.

What I like most about this work is the intellectual autobiography. I enjoy his thoughts on books and reading and scholarship.  It was interesting to read about his schooling and his joy during the time he spent under Mr. Kirkpatrick's tutelage.  I would have liked to have learned more about his experiences in World War I.  And I just plain like the way Lewis writes.  He is straight forward and yet there is a rhythmic quality to the writing. There is subtle humor in the way he writes about the interactions between his father, brother, and himself--and I laughed out loud when he told the WWI story about the door coming off their railroad compartment.  I would have rated the book higher than the three stars I am giving it if it had been a straight autobiography and not pitched as such a blockbuster spiritual journey.

The Hamiltons were a cooler race. Their minds were critical and ironic and they had the talent for happiness in a high degree--went straight for it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in a train. (p. 3)

[about fears/phobias]
...I developed for a short time a genuinely scientific interest in insects. Other studies soon crowded it out but while my entomological period lasted my fear almost vanished, and I am inclined to think a real objective curiosity will usually have this cleansing effect. (p. 9)

The New House [had] endless books....There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloak room, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. Where all these books had been before we came to New House is a problem that never occurred to me until I began writing this paragraph. I have no idea of the answer. (p. 10)

I was driven to writing stories...little dreaming to what world of happiness I was being admitted. You can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table. (p. 12)

I set about writing a full history of Animal-Land. Though more than one version of this instructive work is extant, I never succeeded in bringing it down to modern times; centuries take a bit of filling when all the events have to come out of the historian's head. (p. 13)

[his father as a disciplinarian]
And my father's good qualities as well as his weaknesses incapacitated him for the task....He therefore relied wholly on his tongue as the instrument of domestic discipline. And here that fatal bent toward dramatization and rhetoric (I speak of it the more freely since I inherit it) produced a pathetic yet comic result. When he opened his mouth to reprove us he no doubt intended a short well-chosen appeal to our common sense and conscience. But alas, he had been a public speaker long before he became a father. He had for many years been a public prosecutor. Words came to him and intoxicated him as they came. (p. 38)

My poor father, while he spoke, forgot not only the offense, but the capacities of his audience. All the resources of his immense vocabulary were poured forth. I can still remember such words as "abominable," "sophisticated," and "surreptitious." You will not get the full flavor unless you know an angry Irishman's energy in explosive consonants and the rich growl of his r's. (p. 39)

[about his aunt]
In her also I found what I liked best--an unfailing, kindly welcome without a hint of sentimentality, unruffled good sense, the unobtrusive talent for making all things at all times as cheerful and as comfortable as circumstances allowed. (p. 43)

[on pretension]
To certain adults it seems obvious that he who claims not to know the Low must be pretending to be High. (p. 49)

[being a boy at an adult social event]
...there were not lacking adults who would egg me on with feigned seriousness--on and on till the moment at which I suddenly knew I was being laughed at. Then, of course, my mortification was intense; and after one or two such experiences I made it a rigid rule that at "social functions" (as I secretly called them) I must never on any account speak of any subject in which I felt the slightest interest nor in any words that naturally occurred to me. (p. 48)

No one is a coward at all points. (p. 55)

[about reading on train journeys]
Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights. (It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be.)  (pp. 56-7)

In the course of life I could put up with any amount of monotony far more patiently than even the smallest disturbance, bustle, or what the Scotch call kurfuffle.  Never at any age did I clamor to be amused; always and at all ages (where I dared) I hotly demanded not to be interrupted. (p. 117)

My father--but these words, at the head of a paragraph will carry the reader's mind inevitably to Tristram Shandy. On second thoughts I am content that they should. It is only in a Shandean spirit that my matter can be approached. I have to describe something as odd and whimsical as ever entered the brain of Sterne; and if I could, I would gladly lead you to the same affection for my father as you have for Tristram's. (p. 120)
Many thousands of people have had the experience of finding the first friend, and it is none the less a wonder; as great a first love, or even a greater....Nothing I suspect is more astonishing in any man's life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself. (p. 131)
 When a very dignified neighbor, in the course of a Sunday call, observed with an air of finality, "Well, well, Mr. Kirkpatrick, it takes all sorts to make a world. You are a Liberal and I am a Conservative; we naturally look at the facts from different angles," Kirk replied, "What do you mean? Are you asking me to picture Liberals and Conservatives playing peep-bo at a rectangular Fact from opposite sides of a table?" (pp. 137-8)
[about his tutor, Mr. Kirkpatrick]
Sometimes, but rarely, he was driven to irony. On such occasions his voice became even weightier than usual and only the distention of his nostrils betrayed the secret to those who knew him. It was in such fashion that he produced his dictum, "The Master of Balliol is one of the most important beings in the universe." (p. 138)

Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them....The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. (p. 142)

...eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang's History of English Literature, Tristram Shandy, Elia and the Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose. (pp. 142-3)

On a Saturday afternoon in winter, when nose and fingers might be pinched enough to give an added relish to the anticipation of tea and fireside, and the whole weekend's reading lay ahead, I supposed I reached as much happiness as is ever to be reached on earth. And especially if there were some new, long-coveted book awaiting me. (p. 147)

...poor Tim [his dog], 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. (p. 163)

One other thing that Arthur taught me was to love the bodies of books. I had always respected them. My brother and I might cut up stepladders without scruple; to have thumb-marked or dog's-eared a book would have filled us with shame. (p. 164)

What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it. (p. 177)

Straight tribulation is easier to bear than tribulation which advertises itself as pleasure. (p. 188)

1 comment:

J.G. said...

Some things are hard to describe, and maybe an intellectual approach to spirituality is one of the hardest. But the quotes are great; Lewis sure rings true about books, travel, etc.!

Thanks for sharing this as part of the BYRC. You're the first finisher! Look for the prize list soon.