Friday, October 2, 2009

Joy's Own Surprise

I've posted a bit from Joy Davidman's letters (her autobiographical stuff) in comments at a couple of other blogs.  Figure we might as well read it here.  She's known by many as a wife, and famously as the wife of C.S. Lewis (the wife played by the wonderful Deborah Winger in the movie Shadowlands, in which she goes by Joy Gresham, the name of her first husband.).  Lewis entitled one of his autobiographies after Davidman, punning on her first name with Surprised by Joy.  In his story, Joy is also the mystery of illusive Beauty that points him to God.

Knowing a bit more of her own story and journey helps us see just how much C.S. Lewis learned from Joy Davidman.  Here's the bit:
“For I was a well-brought-up, right-thinking-child of materialism. Beauty, I knew, existed; but God, of course, did not. By now there is a whole generation like me in the cities of America. I was an atheist and the daughter of an atheist; I had assumed that science had disproved God, just as I had assumed that science had proved that matter was indestructible….
As a Jew, I had been led to feel cold chills at the mention of his name. Is this strange? For a thousand years Jews have lived among people who interpreted Christ’s will to mean floggings and burnings, ‘gentleman’s agreements,’ and closed universities. If nominal Christians so confuse their Master’s teaching, surely a poor Jew may be pardoned a little confusion. Nevertheless I had read the Bible (for its literary beauty, of course!) and I quoted Jesus unconsciously in everything I did, from writing verse to fighting my parents. My first published poem was called ‘Resurrection’ — a sort of private argument with Jesus, attempting to convince him (and myself) that he had never risen. I wrote it at Easter, of all possible seasons, and never guessed why.”
--from Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman by Don W. King, pages 83… 86


Will Fitzgerald said...

Do you have evidence that "Surprised by Joy" was a pun on Joy Davidson's name? My understanding is that it was just a coincidence (Lewis having written the book well before he met Davidson).

And, of course, "Joy" was for Lewis a technical term; his translation of Sehnsucht.

J. K. Gayle said...

There is evidence Will. Lewis doesn't make it explicit or easy to see.

As much as Lewis refers to Joy, and as many attempts as he makes for his readers somehow objectively to clarify his meanings, there is an evolution to and are a few definitions of the phenomenon that mirror his own very subjective meanderings towards theism and eventually to mere Christian theism. There were joyS, for him. For example: "With my mother's death all settled happiness... disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy" (21) / "it was not the romantic spell... 'Joy' (in my technical sense)" (35) / "...nature ceased to be a mere reminder of the books, became herself the medium of the real joy" (77) / "the new region made all my erotic and magical perversions of Joy look like..." (181) / "As for Joy, I labeled it 'aesthetic experience' and talked much about it under that name and said it was very 'valuable.' But... " (205).

The references to Joy, in the book, start with allusions to "beauty," which Lewis sees as a young boy: "That was the first beauty I ever knew... It made me aware of nature.... They taught me longing--Sehnsucht .... The charm and tradition of the verbal beauty of Bible and Prayer Book (all of them for me late and acquired tastes) where his natural delight ... It is not settled happiness but momentary joy that glorifies the past" (7-8).

Lewis uses literary terms, because they're his own language or the languages of his vocation, but they also help him attempt to convey just how vague and subjective and reader-involved his own story was. His title, was almost certainly, a direct allusion to Wordsworth's "Surprised by joy--impatient as the Wind" (of Desideria. Lewis makes a couple of wonderful complaints about the poet in this autobiography of his. But, it seems, Lewis wants his readers to make the connections for themselves. His other autobiography, A Pilgrim's Regress, is clearly a play, an allegory on an allegory, an allusion to Bunyan's popular narrative, a guide of sorts. But when the sales of that one bomb, Lewis agrees with the publisher to try it again, with Lewis's heavy footnotes to explain everything. And still. Lewis, in the Third Edition, in the afterward, complains back: "The map on the end leaves has puzzled some readers because, as they say, 'it marks all sorts of places not mentioned in the text'. But so do all maps in travel books. John's route is marked with a dotted line: those who are not interested in the places off that route need not bother with them." Lewis doesn't want to (and simply cannot) give away everything. That's not what Literary is, nor is it what Joy is either.

So, yes, we speculate about the punning on Joy Davidman's name. And yet, literary critics and historians such as Frank Northen Magill offer that "The pun was not evident at first, but as his love for his wife grew it seemed that he had been 'surprised' by joy and experienced a happiness which he had never before encountered"; and inklings expert Michael D. C. Drout notes that "Till We Have Faces (1956) was dedicated to her; Surprised by Joy (1955) puns on her name; A Grief Observed (1961) remembers her."

I think we have little idea just how deep and enduring that influence on Lewis by Helen Joy Davidman.