Friday, January 28, 2005

Out Into Acres of Blue Flowers: Jesus as the Object of C. S. Lewis's Sehnsucht

In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis says that before he was six years old, he was, “for good or ill … a votary of the Blue Flower.”[1] The reference is to a German expression, “Blaue Blume.” Novalis’ work of this title was popularized for English readership in a Henry Van Dyke short story, “The Blue Flower.” In this story, “the boy” was struck by a Stranger’s stories, but “it was not what he told me about the treasures, … that was not the thing which filled me with so strange a longing …But the Blue Flower is what I long for. I can think of nothing else. Never have I felt so before…But when the flower fades from me, when I cannot see it in my mind, then it is like being very thirsty and all alone.”[2] The blaue Blume became a symbol in German Romanticism which represented a longing for the unknown. For C. S. Lewis, the Blue Flower became a symbol of his own longing—his Sehnsucht.
Sehnsucht is a German word which seems to defy translation into English. In a letter to his brother Warnie, Lewis describes it as “a vague something.”[3] Some have offered “desire” and “longing” as attempts for translation. Realizing Sehnsucht as more than that, C. S. Lewis referred to the concept in his letters to Arthur Greeves simply as “It”. He even described Greeves to Owen Barfield as “the ‘friend’ of It.”[4] Lewis said, “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.”[5] In the preface to Dymer, Lewis says, “Such longing in itself is the very reverse of wishful thinking: it is more like thoughtful wishing.”[6]
Lewis seeks to define “It” more precisely in Surprised by Joy: “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 both from Happiness and from Pleasure.”[7] What Joy has in common with those things is that anyone who experiences it will want it again. Where Joy differs from Happiness and Pleasure is that it is almost a sort of “unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.”[8] In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis states that this “acute and even painful” attribute of Sehnsucht distinguishes it from other longings, “yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight.”[9] It is a hunger which “is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.”[10]
Lewis says, “It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”[11] The painful element of Sehnsucht is apparent in the essay “Transpositions,” as Lewis writes, “If I were to judge simply by sensations, I should come to the absurd conclusion that joy and anguish are the same thing, that what I most dread is the same with what I most desire.”[12]
An interesting characteristic of Sehnsucht is that, even though Lewis would argue it is a universal experience, one typically thinks he or she is the only one who is experiencing it. Lewis wrote, “I notice that a man seldom mentions what he had supposed to be his own most idiosyncratic sensations without receiving from at least one (often more) of those present, the reply, ‘What! Have you felt that too? I thought I was the only one.’”[13] Lewis finds it, among other places, in the writings of Keats (“He knows about the hunting for ‘it’”)[14] and Robert Louis Stevenson.[15]
Sehnsucht may be universally experienced, but it is not universally acknowledged. Lewis writes, “Almost our whole education had been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice.”[16] Therefore, Lewis describes his painstaking task of calling it to the attention of his audience: “I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; … the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.”[17]
The first glimpses of Sehnsucht struck C. S. Lewis early in his childhood. On at least two occasions (in the preface to Dymer and in Surprised by Joy), he mentions that he was already aware of the sensation by age six. His earliest recollections of Sehnsucht involve scenes in the nursery of the Lewis home. From their windows the Lewis brothers could look out to the “The Green Hills” of Castlereagh. Lewis writes, “They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable.”[18]
Three particular childhood instances of Sehnsucht are recounted by Lewis in Surprised by Joy. The first concerned his brother Warnie’s toy garden which he had made by covering the lid of a biscuit tin with moss and twigs and flowers. Lewis recalls that this was “the first beauty I ever knew.”[19] The significance of this toy garden, however, was not in the seeing of it, but in the memory of it years later. “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.”[20]
The second glimpse of Sehnsucht Lewis records was in the reading of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. “It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. … [A]s before, the experience was one of intense desire.”[21] Autumn would become a special time of the year for Lewis, evidenced in an October, 1949 letter to Warfield Firor. Therein, Lewis describes the season as “paradisal, the sort of weather which for some reason excites me much more than spring: cool, cobwebby mornings developing into the mildest sunlight, and exquisite colours in the woods. It always gives me Wanderlust & ‘divine discontent’ and all that.”[22]
The third glimpse came through reading Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf. There, upon reading of the death of Balder (though Lewis confesses that he knew nothing about Balder), Sehnsucht happened. He wrote, “I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote).”[23] He would go on to give this sensation the name “Northernness”, and define it as, “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity.”[24] In a letter to Arthur Greeves he wrote, “This bent to ‘Northern’ things is quite real and one can’t get over it—not that I ever thought of trying.”[25] That Greeves understood “Northernness” is made plain in Lewis’s observation, “that both knew the stab of Joy and that, for both, the arrow was shot from the North.”[26]
With the death of his mother when he was just nine years old, Lewis confesses, “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security.”[27] During the “dark ages” of his boyhood, the stabs of Joy became fewer, vanishing almost entirely until the occurrence of that to which Lewis refers as “Renaissance”. In a schoolroom, his eyes fell upon a literary periodical featuring Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, and emblazoned with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations from that book. At that moment, Sehnsucht struck Lewis again in the form of “Pure Northernness.”[28]
In the wake of this singular event, C. S. Lewis’s awareness of Sehnsucht was reawakened. He began encountering “It”, among other places, in Norse mythology (an interest he would share with both Arthur Greeves and J. R. R. Tolkien) and in nature. In a 1929 letter to Greeves, Lewis writes, “I saw both a squirrel and a fat old rat in Addison’s walk, and had glimpses of ‘it.’”[29] Perhaps these creatures stirred in him a sense of nostalgia for Squirrel Nutkin and the “chivalrous mice” of his childhood Animal-Land stories (possibly a prototype of Reepicheep of Narnia).[30]
As Lewis began writing professionally, the “central story”[31] of his life flavored the pages. Sehnsucht can be found in the earliest works of C. S. Lewis. One detects it in his first published book, Spirits in Bondage (1919), as Lewis (under the penname “Clive Hamilton”) writes, “Seeking the last steep edges whence I may leap into that gulf of light.”[32] The essence of Sehnsucht is expressed in “Joy,” a poem written in 1924. Even earlier, in a short manuscript written in 1916 entitled “The Quest of Bleheris,” the hero finds himself growing more and more dissatisfied with the world in which he lives. “But even as thus he pondered, those dark moonlit hills with all their wonders were weaving a spell about him: so anon a new thought, as it had been a gust of sweet, cold morning-wind, smote upon the dungeon of his soul, and he almost laughed for joy.”[33]
In his 1945 essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis makes a distinction which is important to nearly all his writings. He notes the differences between “looking at” and “looking along.” Looking at something is to analyze it apart from the subjective experience of the thing. Looking along it is to experience it, or to take part in it. In this essay, Lewis argues that both perspectives are necessary. While Lewis’s major non-fiction works give a thorough look at Sehnsucht, his works of fiction provide the reader with a “look along”—the experience of Sehnsucht.
As Ransom rockets through space in Out of the Silent Planet, his fresh perspective on the universe (akin to the Medieval cosmology Lewis describes in The Discarded Image), causes him to feel “‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body … a severe delight.”[34] Ransom finds, upon learning from the hrossa, that there are two verbs which mean “longing” or “yearning,” and a sharper distinction was drawn between those words than in English.[35] The Malacandrian environment evokes images of the Northernness of which Lewis was so fond. Ransom’s recollections of two particular scenes in the postscript, the Malacandrian sky at morning and a nocturne scene, are “always before me when I close my eyes.”[36]
On Perelandra, Ransom’s Sehnsucht is livened by the multisensory experience that the planet provides. As he reached toward one type of fruit, “his head, face, and shoulders were drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’”[37] Another fruit “was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, … He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. ‘Not like that’ was all all he could ever say to such inquiries.”[38] Like the total satisfaction that Sehnsucht promises, Ransom noticed that after eating this fruit, “he was now neither hungry nor thirsty.”[39]
In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis states that “there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire.”[40] The object of Sehnsucht is as elusive as the White Stag of Narnia. One may not be able to define the object, but experience will teach the seeker what it is not. If ever one attains what is perceived to be the object of Desire, it will only be a short time before realizing that the real object is still beyond reach—still somewhere beyond. “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’”[41]
Many things in this world appear to be the object of Sehnsucht. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund is convinced that Turkish Delight will satisfy his longing. “He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight—and there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.”[42] Soon enough, Edmund would discover that his craving for Turkish Delight would be his downfall. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it is a pool of water which turns objects into gold which portends false satisfaction for the characters.
C. S. Lewis had come to discover that Sehnsucht defied satisfaction in a host of earthly objects. In Perelandra this phenomenon is referred to as “the sweet poison of the false infinite.”[43] He learned that he could not find the genuine object of Sehnsucht in the occult. “It is not at Black Mass or séance that the Blue Flower grows.”[44] Neither could sex satisfy the longing. “I learned this mistake to be a mistake by the simple, if discreditable, process of repeatedly making it.”[45]
Lewis was aware that he was not the only one who had sought for the object of Sehnsucht in all the wrong places. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[46] He says in Mere Christianity, “Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”[47] If earthly things are mistaken for the object of Sehnsucht, Lewis warns, “they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”[48] And so, the stabbing, painful longing continues—“the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: an air that kills from yon far country blows.”[49]
If the Blue Flower is not to be found in any garden on earth, that is, if earthly pleasures are not the object of Sehnsucht, then what is? C. S. Lewis came to find out the object of Sehnsucht is in another world. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[50] It is not in Perelandra or in Malacandra, though venturing there in literature may awaken one’s sense of it by causing the reader to look along it.[51] Beyond those places, the only real object of Sehnsucht is in heaven.
Lewis recognizes that the suggestion of such would strike the average person as absurd. “Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all.”[52] Perhaps the case is more accurately stated in The Problem of Pain, where Lewis writes, “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.”[53] Sehnsucht, “Joy” in Lewis’s vernacular, is “the serious business of Heaven.”[54]
Heaven itself is not the object, but the location where the object will be found. Sehnsucht is “as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle—the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist.”[55] The rightful occupant of the chair, the true object of Sehnsucht is “one Particular Man, with a date, so tall, weighing so much, talking Aramaic, having learned a trade.”[56]
In another world this One is called Aslan, but Lucy is told that He has a different name in this world. In a letter to a young girl named Hila in 1953, C. S. Lewis tried to help her recognize this One: “I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don’t you really know His name in this world[?].”[57]
For C. S. Lewis, Sehnsucht had driven him to the One True Object. The Green Hills, the Idea of Autumn, Northernness, and all the other occasions of Joy in Lewis’s life had been “shafts of glory”, “patches of Godlight,”[58] a “signpost” to one “lost in the woods”, and “a pointer to something other and outer.”[59] On the other end of Sehnsucht was “God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord,”[60] pulling Lewis to the place where he could recognize, “my only real treasure is Christ.”[61] It is only in Jesus that one can both “look at” and “look along” Sehnsucht. It is only in Him that myth becomes fact. He is, in the words of Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Joy of Man’s Desiring.” He is the Sehnsucht of Sehnsuchts. Only the risen Aslan, the resurrected Jesus as He is known in this world, could take C. S. Lewis “out into acres of blue flowers.”[62]

Primary Sources:

Dorsett, Lyle W. and Marjorie Lamp Mead. C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (New York: Touchstone, 1995).

Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II, Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931—1949 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004).

---. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. I, Family Letters 1905-1931 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004).

---. Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).

Lewis, C. S. The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis [The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock] (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996).

---. The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis [Surprised by Joy, Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, The Business of Heaven] (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994).

---. Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992).

---. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Trophy, 1994).

---. Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

---. Miracles (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

---. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength [in one volume] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997).

---. The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958).

---. The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

---. The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2001).

Secondary Sources:

Carnell, Corbin Scott. Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

Cording, Ruth James. C. S. Lewis: A Celebration of His Early Life (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000).

Downing, David C. The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’ Journey to Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

---. Planets in Peril (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992).

Duncan, John Ryan. The Magic Never Ends (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001).

Duriez, Colin. The C. S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Edison, NJ: Inspirational Press, 2003).

---. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2003).

Goffar, Janine. The C. S. Lewis Index (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1995).

Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis Companion & Guide (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1996).

Martindale, Wayne and Jerry Root, eds. The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1989).

Meilaender, Gilbert. A Taste for the Other (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Schultz, Jeffrey D. and John G. West Jr., eds. The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

[1] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), 6.
[2] Henry Van Dyke, “The Blue Flower”. (Accessed January 27, 2005).
[3] Letter to Warren Lewis, October 24, 1931. Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II, Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931—1949 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004), 7.
[4] Letter to Owen Barfield, September 9, 1929. Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. I, Family Letters 1905-1931 (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2004), 821. See also Lewis’ letters to Greeves dated October 3, 1929 [page 832]; January 30, 1930 [page 877]; et al.
[5] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 10.
[6] Preface to Dymer. Quoted in John Ryan Duncan, The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Work of C. S. Lewis (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001), 61.
[7] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 11.
[8] Ibid.
[9] C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 7
[10] Ibid.
[11] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 40.
[12] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2000), 97.
[13] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 3.
[14] Letter to Arthur Greeves, November 8, 1931. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. II, 12.
[15] See Letter to Greeves, August 28, 1930. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. I, 931.
[16] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 31.
[17] Ibid., 29-30.
[18] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 6.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 10.
[21] Ibid., 11.
[22] Letter to Warfield M. Firor, October 15, 1949. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. II, 985.
[23] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 11.
[24] Ibid., 41.
[25] Letter to Arthur Greeves, December 7, 1935. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. II, 169.
[26] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 72.
[27]Ibid., 13.
[28] Ibid., 41.
[29] Letter to Greeves, October 3, 1929. Hooper, Collected Letters, vol. I, 832.
[30] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 9.
[31] Ibid., 11.
[32] Quoted in Ruth James Cording, C. S. Lewis: A Celebration of His Early Life (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 133.
[33] Quoted in David Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 67-68.
[34] C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet in Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength [in one volume] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), 33.
[35] Ibid., 74.
[36] Ibid., 156-157.
[37] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra in Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength [in one volume] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), 198.
[38] Ibid., 193.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 8.
[41] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 43.
[42] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Trophy, 1994), 88.
[43] Lewis, Perelandra, 226.
[44] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 9. See also Surprised by Joy, Chapter 11.
[45] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 94.
[46] Lewis, Weight of Glory, 26.
[47] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 121.
[48] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 31.
[49] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press), 436. Italicized is reference to A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, stanza 40.
[50] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.
[51] See C. S. Lewis, “An Expostulation” in Walter Hooper, ed., Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 58.
[52] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 120.
[53] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 130.
[54] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992), 93.
[55] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10.
[56] C. S. Lewis, “No Beauty We Could Desire” in Hooper, ed., Poems, 124.
[57] Letter to Hila, June 3, 1953. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds., C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 31.
[58] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 89, 91.
[59] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 130.
[60] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 125.
[61] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 95.
[62] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 165.

1 comment:

Thomas Fowler said...

What a lovely analysis of more than Lewis's musings, but of the human heart's longings.

Well done, and thank you.

Thos. B. Fowler