The Hydra

CJSH.name/hydra

A Surprise About “Joy”

Before beginning a critique that begins with C.S. Lewis, I should stop to pause and state that the choice of C.S. Lewis is deliberate and intended to be provocative. C.S. Lewis is considered by many Christians to be their chief spokesman in the modern age; though it would unfairly impute to him an unworthy calculating approach, he made deliberate choices to try to stay within what he called “mere Christianity,” meaning classic, little ‘o’ (o)rthodoxy, the Christianity of orthodox Christians, who might be described in Oden’s turn of phrase as “people who can say the Creed without crossing their fingers.” Most of people somewhere within the confines of Lewis’s mere Christianity, can look at most of what Lewis says and find that there are mostly things they can accept. Different groups of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants who remain in continuity with historic roots and recognizable Christianity may believe things Lewis doesn’t say, but a snatch of Lewis from almost anywhere attracts most real Christians. And needless to say, this is not the only thing Lewis had going for him. He was a brilliant author yet able to communicate clearly and simply; he was an able expositor; and he had a formation in much of what is best in Western literature, a formation that enriched first of all his fiction and fantasy but also affected his nonfiction. And he was, himself, a person who could say the Creed without crossing his fingers, and a good deal more than that. If one is going to look for an able spokesman for any spiritually alive form of 20th century Christianity, C.S. Lewis is at least one of the front runners, and depending on the circles you move in, it might be said that choosing anyone else is a choice that requires justification.

And that is why I would like to begin my investigations with him.

C.S. Lewis, in one pivotal passage in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, wrote:

…The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. ‘Ιουλιανποθω [Oh, I desire too much]—and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock; it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead—

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from both Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures of the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

I know that desire. I know it intimately, and it has been called one of the central defining characteristics. And, as is said in Ostrov, “I know [the demon] personally.” It is a form of covetousness, one that dwarfs the mere covetousness inspired by car ads, which portray luxury cars as mysterious, sensual, and intimate, and are in their own way “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief”, and which are in their own lesser way “a kind we want.” So far as I know, the Philokalia, which are (more than any other collection I’ve read, including the Bible) the science of interior struggle and spiritual warfare) says nothing of this secular enrapturement in its description of human beatitude. It does, perhaps, discuss something like this in the demon of noonday; today monks are perenially warned of the passion of escaping the here and now in which God has placed us, and the strict monastic is ordinarily to stay in one’s cell and fight the demon of noonday. One classic story tells of a monk who said he defeated the demon of noonday by visiting an elder, and another monk sharply corrected him: far from defeating the demon of noonday, his trip was giving in to the demon of noonday. This longing, called Sehnsucht by the Romantics (and remember that C.S. Lewis’s first work after returning to Christianity was The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Defense of Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism, is eloquently given voice in a work connecting conservative Christianity with Jungian psychology in Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, which was published in Mars Hill Review, republished along with First Things and other heavyweights in the conservative Christian Leadership University, and been gobbled up by complementarians (I am one) with works such as John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. But there is an issue, not with complementarianism as such (though complementarians may jump at a literate voice saying something out of [lock]step with feminism), but with what is not present in Less-Wild Lovers. And I would challenge the reader to look at the compelling, haunting picture inLess-Wild Lovers, and ask what is not there for something that complains to be Christian: where, in the entire piece, is the human plight described in terms of the sin and evils condemned by Christian tradition? For the moment let’s set aside the question of whether sin is understood, as in Pilgrim’s Progress, through the paradigm example of a judicial crime, or whether it is understood as in Orthodoxy through the paradigm example of a disease. John Bunyan and an Orthodox Christian can alike say that judged by the paradigm of the Ten Commandments, we don’t stack up, and the Ten Commandments provide a yardstick of something seriously important in human living. Where in the entire article is the yardstick of human failing associated with such things as are in the Ten Commandments? And once a problem is admitted, where does God stand with regard to the center of things? Admittedly one is invited to a larger spiritual world, but when does the advocated “way of the heart” revolve around Christ? Admittedly the differences here between Protestant and Orthodox are significant, but even with these differences where does the thesis that we are marred by sin and saved by Christ ever shape the outlook in the article? Less-Wild Lovers compellingly concentrates something that diluted C.S. Lewis’s Christianity, something that helps make the The Chronicles of Narnia compelling, and a clue to something that is rotten in the state of Denmark. The longing C.S. Lewis appeals to is a form of covetousness, one I am too familiar with, and seriously not-cool.

The question of whether Lewis’s ardent longing is covetousness is not purely academic. If you ask, “If it is sin, and it makes his life happier, does it really matter?” then my answer will be, “It didn’t make Lewis’s life happy, or at least it didn’t make my life happy. The moment of haunting is sweet, whether or not one appreciates it at the time. But it darkens the overall picture. The times in my life when I have been most governed by ‘Joy,’ as Lewis calls it, have been the times when I was more unhappy, and times when I made others unhappy.” But I am getting ahead of myself. The question of whether something is sin is in fact closely related to whether it will make us more unhappy.

In A pet Owner’s rules, I said, God is like a pet owner who only has two rules:

  1. I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you.
  2. Don’t drink out of the toilet.

And, I argued, all sin is drinking out of the toilet. For example, getting drunk may feel enticingly nice the first time or two. But being drunk all the time, as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, is suffering you wouldn’t want on your worst enemy. And covetousness as a whole is drinking out of the toilet. Pornography, with its lustful shade of covetousness, begins by being very enticing, but lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first pornography disenchants everything that is not porn, and then it progressively disenchants itself. And it also fits to add that ordinary covetousness is pleasant at first. Watching a really enticing commercial may help you understand the words, “Having is not as pleasing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” But the cost of covetousness is a loss of contentment. One begins by not being satisfied by what one has, and ends by not being satisfied by what one can get. Buying things may get momentary satisfaction, but the ultimate delivery, if you can buy what you covet, is nicer things and with them less contentment than one had before. And in these lines, it matters a great deal whether the intense longing of “Joy” or Sehnsucht is in fact covetousness. If it makes the human person settled in happiness, this is news to the Orthodox spiritual person. Everything that is like it is deemed unhelpful in the ascetical literature; avarice is poison, and obeying the demon of noonday is poison. I don’t see that my own extensive experience with Joy has made me happy, and even its advocate in Lewis openly says that it can be seen as an intense joy or an intense wounded unhappiness. Admittedly we are to yearn for Christ God, perhaps in a sublimation of the impulse to yearn for created things, and some authors use ‘eros‘ or ‘yearning’ in relation to God: but neither Lewis nor Curtis finds this desire to be particularly a desire for God. The cost of yearning something that, unlike cars and chewing gum, I cannot have no matter how much money I have, is like the more vulgar yearning stimulated by commercials. It seems palatial from the inside, like a doorway to a larger space, and it costs me something, namely contentment with what God has given me now. Some times I have recognized that my actions when I have been in the service of such yearning have been toxic. I now remember not a single time in my life when I have been happy that such yearnings have been prominent. If, as Lewis says, these yearnings are such that in their service one would choose them over happiness, perhaps this is not a mark of how wonderfully good they are. Perhaps it is a mark of how foul they are.

The hydra, or one end of a fallen tree branch

I have written a fair amount of what is more or less nonmagical fantasy (short stories: The spectacles, Stephanos, Within the Steel Orb; novellas: Within the Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, The Sign of the Grail), enough so that one fellow author, in a conversation where someone said the first three books by an author establish his brand, suggested that my brand might itself be nonmagical fantasy. And it is something I would not like to be my brand now, but it is a clue to something significant.

I had stepped away from most fantasy with its portrayal of magic; in response to friends who said, “Why can’t we have fantasy with different physical laws?” I said (besides a bit about physics) that they were asking not for fantasy with different physical laws, but different moral laws, and I asked why they didn’t want fantasy in which other unlawful things besides magic were all kosher. The “different physical laws” seemed to always mean laws that would allow life as we know it (which is astronomically improbable: for physical constants alone, getting things right enough to allow us to live would require precision in excess of a marksman who could hit a proton from the opposite side of the universe), but in addition allow occult activity without what Christianity has regarded as occult sin. And why, I asked, if one could allow such things under the heading of different physical laws, why not envision universes in which sexual sins were innocent and harmless? And amidst all this, I sought to recreate fantasy, but without magic… which is to say that I sought to excise portrayal of magic from a fabric woven from the same root. I removed the picture but kept the frame on the wall. What fantasy offers is an alternative to the here and now, an alternative that crystallizes in the portrayal of magic. And I had removed magic from fantasy but retained the ambient orientation that powers magical fantasy.

What I am interested in here is a nexus that is something like a many-headed hydra: it appears in different places and different ways, but it is connected to the same reality (or, perhaps, unreality) underneath. People have said, “You pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other,” and while this nexus is perhaps more like a branch that keeps forking, with many places one can pick it up, it is still aspects of the same thing.

Magic as an unnatural vice

My most recent haunting of “Joy” came with a desire for spring greenery and nature, by assumption in a neo-Pagan light. There are a couple of issues here; for one issue, our worship of nature is a worship of an idealized nature that cuts away plants that grow naturally because they are “weeds” (the definition of a “weed” is a plant I don’t want, and the kinds of plants that intrude on our gardens as weeds tend to be those best suited to the local ecology), and puts plants that are ill-suited to grow in the area, perhaps needing extensive fresh water in an environment where fresh water is scarce. But the other, deeper issue has to be that when we reach for natural religion our eyes search for neo-paganism, perhaps Druidry. It was always with a faintly guilty conscience that in looking for wallpaper for my computer, I grasped for wallpapers of Stonehenge. Now I do not object to nature wallpaper as such; I have a waterfall wallpaper on my computer now and a clean conscience with it. But the Stonehenge wallpaper has to do with imagining nature in a pagan light. Perhaps this is a pagan light that neo-pagans and Druids would recognize; perhaps they would call it an outsider’s conception. But in either case, as with the recent haunting of Joy, my reaching for nature was a grasping that had Romantic, pagan, or occult resonance.

But the Fathers regard occult sin as an unnatural vice. (There are other unnatural vices besides queer sexuality.) Our more ordinary adoration of nature seems to express itself in wanting to make it something it is not, culling plants that grow naturally as weeds and then trying hard to make “better” plants grow outside of their normal operating range. My haunting mentioned before was for spring greenery; I didn’t respect that where I live, at this time of year, it is right and proper for everything green (besides evergreens) to be buried beneath a thick mantle of snow. (At least I didn’t go to shovel the yard to make it like my idealization.)

But there is a deeper sense in which nature-worship, or nature-magic, is unnatural. It is a bit like getting into a test-taking strategy where the only live question is how to best go about cheating on a test, and discussion of taking test is not about any legitimate method of test-taking, but only of how to cheat.

If there is anything that is natural for us to have, it is the here and now, and the plain sense of the here and now. This “here and now” may be out of doors, or it may be inside a house, or it may in an even more artificial environment like Antarctica or an airplane cockpit. But regardless of which of these possibilities we are actually in, “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know,” and escape from the here and now is unnatural cheating on a test. It’s not learning the main lesson brought by the here and now. And if nature is looked to as providing the substance of an escape, then nature is being looked to for something unnatural. Stepping out of a house into something green may momentarily provide escape; but the nature of “out of doors” is no more permanently exotic than “indoors.” If the out of doors appears to us to have a shimmer of something magical, a shimmer of exotic escape from the here and now, then we are using nature to dodge the chief lesson that nature is intended to teach us. We are being unnatural in our use of nature herself.

I have mentioned Lewis’s “Joy” and my “nonmagical fantasy” as heads of this many-headed hydra. It is also the poison that animates unnatural occult use of nature; for other heads, look at “metaphysics” in the occult sense, which is not (like the “metaphysics” of philosophy proper) a discipline of delving into the roots of existence as we know it, but using mental gymnastics, acrobatics, contortions to dodge the plain sense of existence as we know it. Gnosticism is seductively appealing, but there is a catch. The Gnostic appeal hinges on a spiritual climate of despair in the here and now; its good news is a salvation from the here and now. To someone who is genuinely happy, who appreciates the here and now, gnosticism will fall on deaf ears; it is like offering completely free chemotherapy to someone who has no trace of cancer. Video games, iPhones, special effects in movies, and an almost limitless array of technical options obviate the need to pursue the spiritual discipline of Gnosticism or occult practice to escape the hear and now, also provide a way out of the dull here and now—and make the here and now duller in the process! The list is open-ended and seemingly limitless; one of the characteristics of pride to the degree of prelest (which has been called “spiritual illusion” and “spiritual lust”) is a progressive disengagement from the here and now, absorbed in funhouse mirrors.

Awakening

There were many years when I read The Chronicles of Narnia, and wished to be in another world, wished to be in Narnia and contradictorily wished to have in this world something from another world. The desire is a self-defeating: in my case, not coveting something like a watch or a car that I could perhaps buy if I could spare the money, nor for something like the Mona Lisa that physically exists even if it’s not for sale, but a desire for something that, almost by definition, “If I can have it, by that very fact it is not what I want.” It’s a bit like wanting to drink wine from an unopened bottle: as soon as the bottle is open and the wine available to drink, it ceases to be what I want.

More recently, after years of struggling against this kind of coveting, which was in turn after decades of struggling to satisfy this kind of coveting, I remember thinking of Narnia as something I didn’t want—I wanted things that were real. And I started to less want things I don’t have, and more want things I do have. One saint said that we should desire whatever conditions we have, instead of desiring other conditions.

And it may turn out in the end that happiness was, like a pair of glasses, on our nose the whole time. If we let go of paganism as a way to connect with nature, we may find that Orthodoxy has held this connection with nature all the time, in details like the flowers adorning icon stands and the saying that if you have two small coins you should use one to buy prosphora and the other to buy flowers for the icons, to the status of the Orthodox Church as the vanguard of the whole visible Creation returning to her Lord, to monastics who cultivate a connection with God and end up having a connection to the natural world as well, to everything discussed in Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth. It turns out that the idea of paganism and Romanticism as the way to connect with nature was a decoy, but the good news is that the decoy is not needed. We have better.

Creation is both angle worm and angel host. It is not just rocks and trees, or even rocks, trees, and men, for the race of mankind has always been part of nature, but spiritual and visible: ministering spirits sent to serve the elect, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangel, and angel. And in all of this man is microcosm and mediator, the recapitulation and ornament of spiritual and visible creation alike. “In Christ there is no… male nor female,” sounds today like a drop of feminism woven into the Bible today and correcting its fabric, but the ancients knew something greater. Deification leads to the transcendence of the difference between male and female, between paradise and the inhabited world, between Heaven and earth, between the spiritual and visible creation, and finally between uncreated and created nature. All these differences are transcended in the Dance. And we dance the Great Dance with Nature, not when we submit to her lead, but when we properly lead her.

An ancient hymn says, “Adam, trying to be god, failed to be god; Christ became man, that he might make Adam god.” C.S. Lewis well enough said that though the journey to Heaven may cost us our right hand and our right eye, if we persevere through Heaven, we may find that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. If we let behind Romanticism and its by-definition-impossible quest for its harmony with nature, and all the occult hydra’s heads offering escape from the here and now, we may find that when we have really and truly repented, repentance being the most terrifying moment in Christian experience, once we have opened our hands and let all their necessary-seeming contents fall away as far as God wants, what we have left in our hands is all the good we did not choose, together with all the good we did choose. Letting go of that perennially seductive wish for a moment of deep harmony with nature, deepens our harmony with nature: for indeed, in terms of true harmony with nature that is continuous with virtue, being at peace with one’s surroundings, even in a skyscraper or even a space station, is more than a vacation where one is overwhelmed by hills and trees. And when we have repented of the escape that seems like our only real salvation given our circumstances, we are given real salvation in our circumstances: not wine from an unopened bottle, but appreciated wine from a bottle opened the usual way.

We have nothing to lose but our bondage to sin.