What is Real? (6): “If I Find in Myself a Desire Which Nothing in This World Can Satisfy…”

“This is what I have been looking for all my life.” Lewis puts these words into the lips of several of his characters: John in The Pilgrim’s Regress, Psyche in Till we Have Faces, Jewel in the Last Battle.  The words represent a lifelong search for what Lewis would describe as Joy, Sehnsucht.

Heroes in myths always seem to be on some sort of quest, and it is because we resonate with those quests that we love myths.  Lewis would follow Tolkein in arguing that our desire for transcendence points to a real object that can satisfy that desire.

Again, having desires does not imply that those desires will be realized – that we will find what we have been searching for all our lives – but the fact of desire does imply that there is a real object out there to satisfy the desire:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread…. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.  In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it is a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.”

When we are confronted with the haunting, almost painful desire that is awakened through myths or mythic experiences, Lewis says that we have three choices.

1. Try to fulfill mythic longings through physical means

First, we can live as fools and look to physical objects to fulfill our desires.  This is to mistake the vessel through which the longing comes for the longing itself, to believe that Joy is located in them instead of realizing that it merely comes through them.

Lewis depicts this in The Pilgrim’s Regress when John is deluded into thinking that his longing for the island is merely a longing for aesthetic experiences, first in the form of the “brown girls”, then, in the form of the woman Media.  Upon kissing Media, he decides romantic love is what he has ultimately been looking for: “the brown girls [sex] were too gross and the Island [the longing itself] was too fine.  This is the real thing.”

Those who live this way will go from one aesthetic experience to the other, continually in search of the “Real Thing.”  But they will never find it: Joy is not found in them, it only reveals itself through them.

 2. Deny or rationalize mythic longings

Our second choice is to deny the desire, to write it off as “Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence” to lower our expectations and to stop wanting so much.  While Lewis admits that this way of living is better than the first way, as it keeps a person from being a nuisance to society, he asks: “But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us?  Supposing one really can reach the rainbow’s end?”  It would be a great tragedy to learn that Joy was waiting for us if we had only searched for it.

 3. Hope that mythic longings can be fulfilled

This points us to the third option, the Christian virtue of hope. To believe that we will find what we are looking for – that what we desire is actually attainable – is the theological virtue of hope.  Lewis points to this hope when he writes:

“creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists…. 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.”

The words, “This is what I have been looking for all my life” in Lewis’s writings signify not merely the search, but the end of the search, desire realized and satisfied.

Christians believe that a day is coming when we will speak words like these truly, because we will have found what we have been seeking.

“This is what I have been looking for all my life.”

Next: Myth Becomes Fact

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What is Real? (1): Why am I Crying?

We are in the midst of Snowpocalypse 2012, and so I used the extra time to do some blogging.  I am starting a new series that is adapted from something I wrote several years ago.  It is literature and philosophy-oriented, so if you’re not interested, by all means, pass on by…

I fell in love with the Chronicles of Narnia at an early age.  As I grow older and make regular rounds through the books, the stories continue to compel me.  They do so, however, in new ways: a word or a phrase will jump out at me and I will be surprised that I did not see it before.

[yes, that is a unicorn, but notice also the blood dripping from its horn]

The surprise in this case was punctuated by the fact that it came while I was listening to the book that I have probably read the most times: The Last Battle.  Like many readers, my favorite parts of the Narnia series have always been those parts in which Aslan shows up, and near the end of this book, King Tirian, the hero of the story, sees Aslan for the first time.  And Lewis writes:

The sweet air grew suddenly sweeter.  A brightness flashed behind them.  All turned.  Tirian turned last because he was afraid.  There stood his heart’s desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself…

I am sure that I had read that passage at least thirty times before that moment of hearing it spoken, but as soon as the narrator pronounced the word “real”, unlooked-for tears came to my eyes.  I thought, why are my eyes watering?

Frederick Buechner has said that when we encounter unexpected tears, at those moments we should pay particular attention to what’s going on in our soul.

So I decided to go back through the Chronicles to see if I could find this word, “real” in other descriptions of Aslan. Finding at least two other places immediately led me to wonder why Lewis consistently chose this word, and what it was about it that resonated with me so deeply.

I think what I was experiencing was a taste of the Christian hope, specifically of the moment when hope is realized, when faith becomes sight, and longing is satisfied with reality.

Indeed, in order for hope to be more than wishful thinking, a real object must exist that can satisfy the hope.

But that is the question: what do we mean when we say that something is real?  What did Lewis mean by “real”, and why was it so important for him to describe Aslan in this way?

In this series of blog posts, which will lean heavily on Lewis and Tolkien, that’s what I want to explore.  I hope you enjoy!