“Surprised by Joy” by C. S. Lewis
Collins, 2012 , 277 pp.
British C. S. Lewis is probably best known for his Chronicles of Narnia. A few years ago I found a cheap boxed set with seven of Lewis’ non-fictional works (Amazon). Since I quite enjoyed his Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, I decided to have a go at Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy.
Though it isn’t exactly a long book, Surprised by Joy took me quite a while to finish. Part of the reason was that it is far less captivating and reader-friendly than most of Lewis’ other works. Lewis was himself a literary critic and Joy is packed with literary references beyond what can be considered common knowledge. Lewis constantly reflects his own life and person in the mirror of his (many) favorite authors and this makes Joy a rather difficult read, as the author rarely takes the time to present the works he makes reference to. It is simply assumed that the reader holds a degree in literature.
There and back again
The central theme of Joy is the story of how Lewis left the religion of his family as a young boy and only many years later returned to Christianity. The journey is rather interesting because it was traveled on a road paved with rational considerations. As a young man, Lewis is frustrated by a number of components of the faith of his surroundings, such as the apparently “accepted position [among Christians that] religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true … But one what grounds could I believe in this exception?” (p. 70-71).
Following Lewis as a shadow on his journey is his adamant devotion to his own freedom. One of his greatest frustrations with Christianity is its claim that there is a higher entity that could rightfully make demands of him. That somehow he was not be the sole owner of his life. As Lewis humorously notes, at times he even felt it “something of an outrage that I had been created without my own permission” (p. 198).
The journey back to Christianity is long and Lewis’ logic is at times quite difficult to follow. In brief, it begins with his increasing attraction to mysticism, which draws lines all the way back to his childhood interest in Norse and Celtic mythology. This interest breaks Lewis’ materialist/realist atheist stance. Mysticism then morphs into a belief in a higher intelligence or logos which forms the grounds for theism, leading Lewis back to Christianity. The perhaps most interesting element in this process is its complete lack of any ‘relief in finding God’ and the author describes himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (p. 266).
Joy – don’t go looking for it
Another central theme is the concept of joy. A number of interesting points are made, such as the distinction between joy and pleasure, and how joy blurs the line between wanting and having. Lewis echoes Aristotle’s ideas of human happiness by claiming that joy is never achieved when sought for in itself, but is always a bi-product of some other endeavor. Much of Lewis’ early adult years were spent recreating the feeling he had as a child when he was writing stories of magic worlds, however these efforts tended to fail because, as an adult, Lewis was trying to attain joy for its own sake rather than simply commit himself to the stories as he did when he was a child.
Lewis argues that we tend to engage in introspection in our attempts to discover joy. However, true joy can only successfully be achieved through extroversion, that is, by engaging in something beyond ourselves. This point takes quite an interesting angle when Lewis, on his return to Christianity, starts praying and finds joy in that activity, since prayer directs his thoughts away from himself to God or the subject of his prayers.
A note on proportionality
One of my biggest issues with this book is its odd proportions. Lewis devotes most of the book to his childhood and his experiences in school and writes very little about his adult life or his time spent in the trenches of World War One. To me, the latter would probably have been more interesting and it is hard to imagine that such an experience was not important to his personal and religious development.
Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen