“Isn’t it a damned world—and we once thought we could be happy with books and music!”
If I had to guess who made the above statement, the last person I’d guess would be C.S. Lewis. I don’t know if most people would think about C.S. Lewis, that’s not exactly the kind of thing he’s known for saying. In all fairness to Lewis, he wrote it in his diary some years before his conversion, and what he was pre-conversion is not exactly what most of us read him for. Of course, there is a sense in which he is the same person, but if conversion doesn’t make some kind significant difference in the subsequent life of an individual, then let us no longer talk of ‘conversion’.
But there is a kind of inadvertent precision in the theology of what could otherwise be considered a profane statement. It is a damned world—the ground is cursed and we are fallen creatures, and a lot of the events of this world make no sense if we ignore that this is the case. Lewis’s exclamation is obviously about discovering that the world is not entirely the way he once thought it would be. The second part of his statement reveals the nature of the insight he has achieved. The world is such a place that simply books and music, great and interesting as they may be (portals of wonder, I think I may justly gloss) great and interesting as these two things are, they are not enough. We can’t be happy with books and music. We need more than the wonders of the imagination.
That sort of conclusion, in the life of a romantic, is nothing short of a crisis. It came on the heels of three weeks of dealing closely with a man who was stark, raving mad. Lewis who had loved wonder and the strange and bore multiple wounds from being stabbed through repeatedly and wantonly by joy came face to face with the madness of what he took to be the logical conclusion of the romantic tendency. It put him off all that stuff rather suddenly, but as most of us know and can be fervently grateful for, not permanently. He learned an orthodoxy of romanticism, an orthopathy if you will, a deeper and ordered romanticism than the unbridled heteropathy in which way he appeared to be headed.
And we are probably not wrong to think that this crisis had much to do with his conversion (I haven’t read Surprised by Joy in years, but I believe he makes the point there, just not employing the poignant quotation above), especially since his allegory of conversion is also an apology for a Christian romanticism: an allegorical apology, as it states in the subtitle, for Christian Reason and Romanticism. I think the tempering of romanticism by reason is really the reconciliation—in other words the integration in his thinking—of two tendencies which were perhaps pulling apart for Lewis and without God he could not reconcile. Religion provided a structure to his unbridled wonder, and a true mythology for his unharnessed reason. He had to take a deeper view, and I think from that flows a good measure of the profundity and the sensibleness we associate with the subsequent writings of C.S. Lewis.
All of which makes what he said rather interesting. Here is the second one, which he made five months after the first and which will no doubt amuse you: “Poor D. feels keenly (what is always on my mind) how the creative years are slipping past me without a chance to get to my real work.”