In his autobiographical allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a young boy named John who lives in a town full of rules. His parents tell him that if he doesn’t follow the rules, the Landlord who owns the town will throw him into a black hole full of snakes. This naturally upsets John, who strives as hard as he can to keep the rules. He strives so hard that the rules are almost the only thing that John can think about.
Now the days and the weeks went on again, and I dreamed that John had little peace either by day or night for thinking of the rules and the black hole full of snakes. At first he tried very hard to keep them all, but when it came to bed-time he always found that he had broken far more than he had kept: and the thought of the horrible tortures to which the good, kind Landlord would put him became such a burden that next day he would become quite reckless and break as many as he possible could; for oddly enough this eased his mind for the moment. But then after a few days the fear would return and this time it would be worse than before because of the dreadful number of rules that he had broken during the interval…
John went out one morning and tried to play in the road and to forget his troubles; but the rules kept coming back into his head so that he did not make much of it. However, he went on always a few yards further till suddenly he looked up and saw that he was so far away from home that he was in a part of the road he had never seen before. Then came the sound of a musical instrument, from behind it seemed, very sweet and very short, as if it were one plucking of a string or one note of a bell, and after it a full, clear voice–and it sounded so high and strange that he thought it was very far away, further than a star. The voice said, Come.
Then John saw that there was a stone wall beside the road in that part: but it had (what he had never seen in a garden wall before) a window. There was no glass in the window and no bars; it was just a square hole in the wall. Through it he saw a green wood full of primroses: and he remembered suddenly how he had gone into another wood to pull primroses, as a child, very long ago–so long that even the moment of remembering the memory seemed still out of reach. While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. A moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember, nor whether it had happened in this wood, or in the other wood when he was a child. It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island.
What John experiences out on the road is the awakening of a nameless desire, a desire that is simultaneously sweet and painful. This is what C.S. Lewis calls Joy, with a capital “J”. Joy is an extremely important concept to Lewis: experiences of Joy and the search to find what caused it eventually led Lewis to become a Christian.
Lewis scholar Louis Markos explains what Lewis means by Joy this way:
Joy signified an intense, overwhelming desire for an indefinable, numinous “something” that was just beyond his grasp. Joy, that is, was a feeling, but a feeling that pointed beyond itself. If one tried to hold on to the feeling and enjoy it as an end in itself, it would quickly vanish…Likewise, if one tried (greedily) to reproduce the feeling, it would never come; joy comes only when the mind forgets itself and seeks something else.
As the story goes on, John leaves his family and sets out from his hometown in search of the object of his nameless desire. His search is made more difficult by two things. First, he finds many things that pretend to be the object of his desire–art, music, girls, ideas, fame, etc. These do indeed give him pleasure for a while, but not for very long. Second, John’s search grows desperate when he realizes that the more counterfeits he finds, the harder it is to remember what Joy really feels like.
What does all this have to do with humanities, Mr. Koenen? Well, everything, which I will explain in my third and final post.