Saturday, June 13, 2009

Perelandra, Nature, and Joy

The smell of rain on pavement after a dry spell. The feel of crisp air on a sunny Autumn afternoon. The sound of a brook as it tumbles over rocks on its downward path through the mountains. The taste of a freshly picked, warm, ripe strawberry. These are a few of my favorite sensory memories, each accompanied by an experience in my past that brings a smile to my face when I think about it or when I experience it again.

I loved reading C.S. Lewis’ second book in his space trilogy, Perelandra, for a couple of reasons, one being the word pictures he painted of the planet Perelandra (Venus). Throughout the book, he goes into great detail to describe the geography, the sky, the flora and fauna—in other words, the nature of the planet, which is still in its Garden of Eden state with only one woman (the green Lady) and one man (the King). His descriptions fascinated me, and there were times that I almost felt like I was experiencing what the main character was experiencing.

The protagonist, Ransom, after his return from Mars, was summoned to Venus by the guardian angel of the planet for some unknown reason. Upon his arrival, he finds himself alone in strange surroundings. The first thing he notices is that he is having trouble walking. The land, which is spongy rather than hard, is not anchored in one place, like on earth, but floats up and down on giant ocean waves. Of this experience Lewis wrote: “[Ransom] rolled to and fro on the soft fragrant surface in a real schoolboy fit of giggles.” I can imagine how strange such an experience would be, and what a delight it must have been for Ransom, a middle-aged man, to feel like a child again. What joy!

The next challenge Ransom encountered was finding something to eat and drink so he could gain energy after the long voyage. The plant life on Venus fulfilled his needs: “Great globes (gourds) of yellow fruit hung from the trees—clustered as toy-balloons … He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger… But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed more pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men… For one draught of this on earth wars would have been fought and nations betrayed.”

“He found a rich crop of oval green berries, about three times the size of almonds. He picked one and broke it in two. The flesh was dryish and bread-like, something of the same kind as a banana. It turned out to be good to eat. It did not give the orgiastic and almost alarming pleasure of the gourds, but rather the specific pleasure of plain food—the delight of munching and being nourished…He felt he ought to say grace over it; and so he presently did. The gourds [on the other hand] would have required rather an oratorio or a mystical meditation.”

“Over his head there hung from a hairy tube-like branch a great spherical object, almost transparent, and shining. It held an area of reflected light in it and at one place a suggestion of rainbow coloring. …And looking round he perceived innumerable shimmering globes of the same kind in every direction. He began to examine the nearest one attentively. At first he thought it was moving, then he thought it was not. Moved by a natural impulse he put out his hand to touch it. Immediately 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 rose in aromatic pain.’ Such was the refreshment that he seemed to himself to have been, till now, but half awake.”

Whether it was in the description of the delicious food, the refreshing nature of the bursting globes, the movement of the waves and islands, dolphin-like fish or friendly flying dragons, there was a total joy in Lewis’ writing. He created a majestic, unspoiled landscape, with vibrant colors and poignant smells to excite the reader’s senses, and create a desire or longing to experience it firsthand.

A Different Kind of Joy

This longing to experience joy brought to mind what Lewis said of it in his book Surprised by Joy:

“[The feeling] 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. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”

Lewis went on to explain that the Joy (with a capital "J") to which he was referring could not be sought because the very act of seeking diminished the thing being sought. Joy must sneak up on a person. Lewis gave examples of three times he had felt such Joy: (1) when he recognized the bliss of Eden at first seeing his brother’s toy garden planted in a biscuit tin, (2) when he felt the “Idea of Autumn” while reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, and (3) when he felt lifted up into northern skies after reading Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.

It took me quite a while to wrap my mind around Lewis’ definition of Joy. I knew what happiness was because I had experienced it. The same with pleasure. But had I experienced the capital "J" kind of Joy?

The examples Lewis gave in describing Joy involved nature as either the “cause” or “effect.” Perhaps that was the key to understanding. I thought about the things I opened this post with, but as much as I love these experiences, none of them create an “unsatisfied desire” to experience them again. After much thought, I was finally able to identify two instances in which I believe I felt Joy (with Lewis’ capital "J").

The first was when I was a toddler, and my dad would toss me high in the air and catch me. I’m sure I shrieked with joy (small "J") as I encouraged him to do it over and over again. What I most recall is the incredible feeling I had just before falling back down, that moment of weightlessness and freedom. Throughout my childhood, I tried to recreate the feeling by jumping as high as I could with arms outstretched and spinning around. I could never recapture the feeling, but even now as I write of it, I long to relive the experience—feel that split second of weightlessness or Joy.

The other experience occurred the evening of November 7, 2004. The sun had been undergoing dramatic solar flare activity, which created a geomagnetic condition on earth that, along with the cold weather in Seattle, caused the aurora borealis to appear. My husband and I had gone to bed for the night, when we were awakened by a phone call from a neighbor telling us that we had to come out in the backyard and see what was happening. We were directly underneath the Northern Lights. It was a clear, cold night with stars shining brightly over the tops of the tall evergreen trees. At fairly regular intervals, ribbons of white floated across the sky, blocking out the stars as the ribbons passed overhead. It was during the first wave that I felt absolute awe and the majestic power of God as if He personally was moving across the heavens. It was like time stood still. I felt warm although it was freezing cold. There was a profound feeling of “oneness” and “inclusion” with God and nature. I had never felt this before, nor have I since. It is another moment of Joy I would love to experience again.

Since then, I have thought of other instances when I experienced moments of Joy. It’s like Lewis said: “But soon…nature ceased to be a mere reminder of the books, became herself the medium of the real joy. I do not say she ceased to be a reminder. All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’ But Nature and the books now become equal reminders—joint reminders, of—well, of whatever [Joy] is.”

I imagine these brief encounters we have now with Joy are to prepare us for the hereafter when it will be possible for us to experience an abundance of joy. If we long for joy now, we will live lives worthy of eternal joy. After all, as the LDS prophet Joseph Smith taught: “Man is that he might have joy.”

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