Joy And The Absurd — A Meditation On Buridan’s Ass

Full disclosure:  as I have said elsewhere, I never got the “hang uv” being a Christian, and consider the multiple decades I spent beating my head against that particular brick wall as time merely pissed away. I still believe that. But that is only half the truth. The other half is that it is equally true that I could never get, have never gotten, the “hang uv” being an atheist. I am no more successful as a “creedal” atheist than I was as a “creedal” Christian. My admiration for, e.g., Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, and Daniel Dennett is undiminished. Nothing I say in what follows should be interpreted as disagreeing with their contention that religious statements should be subject to the same critique as other statements. Religious nonsense should be no more immune to skeptical examination than scientific or political nonsense. Nevertheless, I cannot go as far as Harris & Co. go. (I am assuming, of course, that I understand their arguments and positions accurately.) Why not?

The short answer is because of my experience of Joy.  I mean  “Joy” – with the capital “J” – in the rather technical and slightly idiosyncratic sense in which C. S. Lewis uses the term in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy (hereafter Surprised).  A couple of excerpts will convey the flavor of what Lewis means – and what I mean – with the strict understanding that, in both cases, Lewis’s and mine, we are both, Lewis and I, referring to pure experience prior to any subsequent conceptual or linguistic or lexical description.

C. S. Lewis

First Lewis:

Albert Camus

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 [Lewis's childhood home] when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or 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?...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 withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.

Every time I read this text in Surprised, I experience this piercing nostalgia for a lost country … that is gone almost as soon as it occurs, but that always leaves in its wake a kind of aching yearning.

Other writers speak of similar experience of what Lewis would call Joy.  For example, William Wordsworth in his great autobiographical poem The Prelude speaks of

           … spots of time,
          That with distinct pre-eminence retain
          A renovating virtue, whence--depressed                    
          By false opinion and contentious thought,
          Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
          In trivial occupations, and the round
          Of ordinary intercourse--our minds
          Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
          A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
          That penetrates, enables us to mount,
          When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

William Wordsworth, age 28

Arthur Machen, perhaps the greatest writer of “mystical fantasy” of the late 19th century and author of the universally admired and elegantly understated horror story The Great God Pan (which Steven King considers one of the greatest horror stories ever written, in fact, arguably the gold standard for subsequent generations of horror writers) evokes this experience in his novella The Great Return, the record of a holiday-maker’s mystical experience in a small Welsh village. Unlike The Great God Pan, the experience of Joy, like The Great Return, is anything but horrible. (Booksellers who mindlessly place Machen's works on the "Horror" shelf merely demonstrate an ignorance of horror literature and of Machen's works in particular. To Machen, the mystical could, yes, be horrible, but also and equally exalting.) Rather, it is unforgettably seductive:

For the sun went down as I climbed the long hill through the deep woods and the high meadows, and the scent of all the green things rose from the earth and from the heart of the wood, and at a turn of the lane far below was the misty glimmer of the still sea, and from far below its deep murmur sounded as it washed on the hidden, enclosed bay where Llantrisant [where the narrator is on holiday] stands. And I thought, if there be paradise in meat and in drink, so much the more is there paradise in the scent of the green leaves at evening and in the appearance of the sea and in the redness of the sky; and there came to me a certain vision of a real world about us all the while, of a language that was only secret because we would not take the trouble to listen to it and discern it.

Personally, I am fond of citing my experience at my late father-in-law’s memorial service in 2008. But I also remember the chill that ran up my spine in 1988 when I, a Council of Europe Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, heard the Rector, in preparation for dinner in the dining hall, chant an old, traditional Welsh grace before meals, an experience rendered all the more numinous because I had read the same invocation quoted verbatim in Machen’s story only an hour or two before when I was reading in my room in College before going down for dinner:

Arthur Machen

Agyos yr Tad, agyos yr Mab, agyos yr Yspryd Glan! Sant, sant, sant, Drindod sant vendigeid. Sanctus Arglwydd Dduw Sabaoth, Dominus Deus!

So what am I to make of all this?  I often feel like Buridan’s ass, caught between two equally compelling alternatives. (There is more than one person who would omit the "Buridan's" adjective in that statement.) Here is my dilemma. Make of it what you will. On the one hand, as I said above, Lewis's meditations on Joy have an almost irresistible allure. The sheerly visceral desire to believe is almost a physical sensation. I believe the experience to be almost universal, an instance of Lewis's insightful observation in Surprised by Joy that Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man's life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself. R. M. Bucke's classical Cosmic Consciousness is mostly a compilation of many such experiences of the numinous. And add one more: a bo-tree moment vouchsafed to Thomas Merton on a street corner in Lexington, KY, in 1958. It would be easy to concur with Lewis that such moments of piercing nostalgia are self-validating evidence that the Object of the longing does, in fact, exist.

But is it that easy? I do not think so. On the one hand, on a less-than-personal level, there is Hume's critique of Rev. Paley's Divine Watchmaker argument for the existence of God:  we have seen, or at least heard of, watches being made, whereas no one has ever seen a Universe being made.  (Granted, this is an oversimplification of Hume's argument.) As alluring as Lewis's argument is, no mere desire, however numinous, validates itself or points beyond itself to the existence of the Desired Object. There is even less justification for asserting the ontological reality of the Object when we cannot describe that Object. We cannot desire or need anything into existence!

On a more personal level, concurring with Lewis's argument in Surprised would require a degree of trust -- note that I do not even say "trust in God" -- that I simply do not have. When I did believe in God as an observant Christian, I "stepped out on faith" -- I talked that way back then -- and uprooted myself, my wife, and my entire life to travel halfway across the country to go to graduate school and get an advanced degree in English lit (with a specialization in deconstructionist interpretation theory ... please don't ask ... ) and after moving back across the country to Seattle, again "stepped out on faith" to get an MDiv from Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry with a view to answering a "vocational call," no less intense than Mother Teresa's, to teach in Catholic parishes. I heard the Voice of Lewis's Joy echoing in all the classical -- and even some modern -- Christian texts, and wanted -- part of me still wants -- to share that Voice with others. But shortly after finishing my MDiv, I was told that because I was not ordained and because of a severe rightward shift in the ideology of the Seattle Archdiocese, teaching opportunities for lay people would be few and far between. So I said "T'Hell with it," gave up, and went to work for Boeing as a web-software developer. My nostalgia for an Unknown Country, though intense, was most deceptive:  I had pissed away several years of my life following Lewis's ineffable Object of Longing. Today I cannot listen to Fleetwood Mac's "Never Goin' Back Again" without resonating to the lyrics on a very deep level:  "Been down one time, been down two times, never goin' back agaiu."

Soren Kierkegaard

On this interpretation, and within the context of that new-found "post-vocational" lucidity, I realized that that piercing longing I felt, and that so many people also feel, may well be, in reality, only a manifestation of Camus' Absurd, i.e., the perennial desire for the Universe to give us that which is perpetually unavailable apart from our own efforts:  meaning and value.  On this side of the ledger, I find Camus' statement in The Myth of Sisyphus as evocative and incisive as anything Lewis says about Joy:  This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. We are searching for the Eternally Un-Find-Able ... which, notwithstanding, does not keep us from desiring it. As Camus says in Sisyphus, “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” We are indeed, as Camus says, Sisyphus eternally rolling his rock uphill. Over and over again. But we are slaves to the nostalgia for Joy and we cannot stop. People who accept Camus' interpretation are like the Virtuous Pagans in the first Circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno, people who, like Socrates, the Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna, et al., are possessed of exemplary moral character, but who never encountered Dante's Jesus, who tell Dante "Without hope we live in desire." Indeed! We are in the position Camus' apartment-building manager in Sisyphus would be in if the manager persisted in searching for his dead daughter. This is Camus' Absurd.

So I am stuck between the two visions, and, like Buridan's hapless ass, have no reason to choose one over the other. And please do not tell me about Kierkegaard and his Leap of Faith:  Kierkegaard is a ne plus ultra Super-Protestant, and his ueber-radical individualism scares the living hell out of me because it leaves no room for community -- "The crowd is untruth" -- of which I have had too little too often in my life.

So here I am:  Buridan's ass. And I have no idea how to get my ass out of this predicament. Merry (post-)Christmas, all!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

C. S. Lewis ... Levan Ramishvili ... Public domain
Joy ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Albert Camus ... Photographer unknown ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Man alone on beach ... Eexistentialcrisiss ... CC by SA 4.0
Soren Kierkegaard ... Neils Christian Kierkegaard ... Copyright expired as artist died more than 70 years ago
Wordsworth ... William Shuter ... Public domain
Arthur Machen ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain

One Comment

  • I really enjoyed this one, James. As a English literature major myself, and one who took a deep dive Into Karl Barth, I have long sensed the spark of joy in your Wordsworth quote In what my favorite authors were able to access. James Joyce’ Ulysses Is a fabulously joyful book, “a circus on every page” was how my UW professor described it. KMRIA ! Marcel Proust’s six volume novel, of which I’ve read three, also incredibly joyful, and very funny in places. Even WB Yeats, whose core is always that the essence of life is tragedy, finds somewhere as the launchpad of every poem “a lonely impulse of delight, drove to this tumult in the clouds.” Have not read, but I’ve heard that Friedrich Nietzsche outlined this very thing In his “Gay (meaning joyful) Science”. Richard Wagner believed art could save the world. The Ring ends with joy and beauty. With Sam Harris (who has never gone out of his way to self identify with the word “atheist”), I think he would say, joy is simply there, perhaps even embedded in the fabric of the universe. A person who is “mindful” (i.e., not riding the zip line of their thought-life for a brief moment) will now and then have the strange experience of a smile simply coming across their face in meditation practice. I myself have had this experience. I have come to the conclusion that the problem with joy being experienced by a Christian, or any adherent of a faith tradition which needs lots of words or texts to frame their practice, is that no one is able to teach them very well how to get out of their thought-life. With so many words to process, or read, or scriptures to meditate on, they think correct thoughts are the whole point. And usually these traditions have lots of dualisms, which also just get in the way. Thanks for the topic!

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