Tuesday, November 23, 2004

“Joy equals us – Toys ‘R’ Us”…

As a boy, C. S. Lewis encountered a fleeting feeling he eventually defined as Joy. From the PBS series, The Question of God:
Lewis: Once in those very early days my brother Warren brought into the nursery a box, which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers. That was the first beauty I ever knew. It made me aware of nature — as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. Everything seems like a dream, anything seems possible, and all sorts of ideas float through your mind. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure, something, as they would now say, in another dimension. It was a sensation of desire. But before I knew what I desired, the desire was gone ... the world turned commonplace again. Narrator: Throughout his life, Lewis would often remember the feeling aroused in him by the toy garden. He named that feeling Joy.
From his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life,
...The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought of the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind — like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped. Not, of course, that these activities, before we stopped them by introspection, were unconscious. We do not love, fear, or think without knowing it. Instead of the twofold division into Conscious and Unconscious, the Enjoyed, and the Contemplated. This discovery flashed a new light back on my whole life. I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say "This is it," had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed. All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be either an image (Asgard, the Western Garden, or what not) or a quiver in the diaphragm. I should never have to bother again about these images or sensations. I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy — not the wave but the wave's imprint on the sand. The inherent dialectic of desire itself had in a way already shown me this; for all images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, "It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?" So far, so good. But it is at the next step that awe overtakes me. There was no doubt that Joy was a desire (and, in so far as it was also simultaneously a good, it was also a kind of love). But a desire is turned not to itself but to its object. Not only that, but it owes all its character to its object. Erotic love is not like desire for food, nay, a love for one woman differs from a love for another woman in the very same way and the very same degree as the two women differ from one another. Even our desire for one wine differs in tone from our desire for another. Our intellectual desire (curiosity) to know the true answer to a question is quite different from our desire to find that one answer, rather than another, is true. The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, "high" or "low." It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful. I perceived (and this was a wonder of wonders) that just as I had been wrong in supposing that I really desired the Garden of the Hesperides, so also I had been equally wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all. In a way, I had proved this by elimination. I had tried everything in my own mind and body; as it were, asking myself, "Is it this you want? Is it this?" Last of all I had asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and labeling it "aesthetic experience," had pretended I could answer Yes. But that answer too had broken down. Inexorably Joy proclaimed, "You want — I myself am your want of — something other, outside, not you nor any state of you." I did not yet ask, Who is the desired? Only What is it? But this brought me already into the region of awe, for I thus understood that in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective. Far more objective than bodies, for it is not, like them, clothed in our senses; the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired.
Enter the Christmas 2004 season and the materialistic onslaught of... Toys 'R' Us. I saw their most recent commercial on TV last night. A description, from Brandweek:
As sentimental music swells to a crescendo, we get closeup shots of small fry enjoying trains, planes, dolls, drums, cars, Woody from Toy Story and other goodies. A voiceover relates: "What is joy? Joy is an uncontrollable expression that forms in an instant and lasts a lifetime. Toys bring joy." More music. More shots of kids. More voiceover: "Just as we hold toys, toys hold us. There's a perfect toy for every kid and a perfect kid for every toy. Every wonderful, glorious toy. Because toys equal joy and joy equals us—Toys 'R' Us." (emphasis added)
The rumbling you hear in Oxfordshire, England, at The Kilns, is the sound of Lewis turning over in his grave. Note: This topic is also covered at Beck.


Bonnie said...

Yeah, like joy is something that can be bought. How American!

When my daughter reached the age where she could identify and appreciate characters in books, I felt funny when she would peal, with innocent wonder and enthusiasm, "Mickey! That's Mickey!" (for example). She was just discovering things and it was precious to see, but I realized that to her, a picture of Jesus in a book was just about the same as a picture of Mickey Mouse, and vice-versa. I know she will grow up and learn to distinguish, as indeed she already has, but still can't help feeling as though somehow those character images will betray her.

Or maybe I'm just making too much of it :-)

Thanks so much for posting those passages of Lewis'. What masterful illumination of where idolatry comes from, and why, and how.

How difficult it is to live idolatry-free...

beck said...

I wouldn't say I "covered" the topic... you (and Lewis) certainly took care of that! Thanks for the mention.