Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Longing and Literature and C.S. Lewis

A few weeks ago, my niece Kristi and I were talking about a strange feeling we get from certain powerful books and movies. You know that kind of experience, don’t you? It’s rare, but on occasion the story finishes, and you close the book or walk out of the theater and you’re bumbling around in a daze, still thinking about the story and the characters. The experience haunts you for days. We both described the feeling as a sort of longing—although we couldn’t say exactly what the longing is for. Wishing the story hadn’t ended? Wishing we could write something that powerful?

Maybe, but the feeling seems to mean more than that. Almost as though the story in question had created a world so real that you could almost step into it—almost but not quite. As though characters had become so vivid and alive that you could touch them and talk to them—but then you couldn’t.

Kristi then asked me if I had read the C.S. Lewis book, Surprised by Joy. A fair question, since she gave it to me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I had to reply that I had only read part of it, but when she told me that Lewis dealt with that same kind of longing that can come from experiencing literature or music, I had to go back and read it.

Lewis describes his first encounters with these emotions when he was a child, after reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. (I love it that Lewis’s examples range from the high and lofty to the simple and innocent.) Here is what he says: “…I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it [Squirrel Nutkin] administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn…as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire…but to reawake it…It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.’”

His next example moves to the high and lofty, in a translated poem called Tegner’s Drapa. Of the lines he read, Lewis says, “Instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.”

I’m fascinated by Lewis’s experiences for several reasons. First, because I know exactly what he’s talking about—but I never heard anyone else describe emotions quite like this. Second, because Lewis eventually connects this desire and longing for a world we can never quite possess here on Earth to our longing for God. And third, because I want to know what causes some works of art to have that effect on me—on us—and not others. Obviously, I want to be able to write novels that are that powerful.

I’m reading another book by Lewis now about writing and reading and stories, so I’ll return to this subject soon. In the meantime, have you experienced anything like the above? If so, what book or movie had that effect on you?