The Dialectic of Desire

From C.S. Lewis' allegory "The Pilgrim's Regress" -"Reason" defeats the giant, the Spirit of the Age, after asking it 3 riddles, none of which it can answer:

"The giant muttered and mumbed and could not answer, and Reason set spurs in her stallion and it leaped up on to the giant's mossy knees and galloped up his foreleg, till she plunged her sword into his heart. Then there was a noise and a crumbling like a landslide and the huge carcass settled down: and the Spirit of the Age became what he had seemed to be at first, a sprawling hummock of rock."

This book is out of print I believe, but it's well worth finding a copy. Lewis uses allegory to trace his own spiritual journey, which saw him pass through many philosophies and experiences. Indeed, it seems Lewis tried everything out there that there was to try. Through it all, his vivid description of the "Sweet Desire" that drives us all on strikes a universal chord.

For example, consider the beginning of the book where John (representing Lewis) grows up in "Puritania" and learns "The Rules" when he ventures beyond the limits - into a deep wood, where he pulls up primroses.

"[H]e thought he had never seen anything so beautiful; and he ran across the road and into the wood, and was just about to go down on his hands and knees and to pull up the primroses by the handfuls, when his mother came running out of the garden gate, and she also ran across the road, and caught John up, and smacked him soundly and told him he must never go into the wood again. And John cried, but he asked no questions, for he was not yet at the age for asking questions. "

Soon he is introduced to the "Steward" who tells him about the "Landlord" -who, if John doesn't follow "The Rules" will "take you and shut you up forever and ever in a black hole full of snakes and scorpions as large as lobsters for ever and ever. And besides that, he is such a kind, good man, so very, very kind, that I am sure you would never want to displease him."..."the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext."

John however frightened he is of "The Rules" cannot forget the "Sweet Desire" he felt when he first ran off into the forbidden woods, so he sets out to follow his sweet desire for the rest of the book.

Lewis' notes at the end are very interesting as well. About Sweet Desire he writes, "The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to somehow be a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future....But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any fullness, this poverty better than all wealth." Studying your own memories he notes "will prove that by returning to the past you could not find, as a possession, that ecstasy which some sudden reminder of the past now moves you to desire. Those remembered moments were either quite commonplace at the time (and owe all their enchantment to memory) or else were themselves moments of desiring. The same is true if the things described in the poets and marvellous romancers...."

He then mentions all the things people seek to fulfill this ephemeral and always changing sweet desire -magic, philosophy, metaphysics, sex, falling in love.

"Lust can be gratified. Another personality can become to us 'our America, our Newfoundland'. A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of the three, or any mixture of the three, to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of the Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?"

The seeker, Lewis concluded, "comes out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given -nay, cannot even be imagined as given -in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience. The desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur's castle -the chair in which only One could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. "

..."The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some other desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you of from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the merely argued dialectic of my philosphical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defence of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity."

Also interesting is his address of philosphical movements of the time -which shared a "common enmity to 'immortal longings.' " Says Lewis, "These people seemed to be condemning what they did not understand. When they called Romanticism 'nostalgia' I, who had rejected long ago the illusion that the desired object was in the past, felt that they had not even crossed the Pons Asinorum. In the end I lost my temper...One of them described Romanticism as a 'spilled religion'. I accept the description. And I agree that he who has religion ought not to spill it. But does it follow that he who finds it spilled should avert his eyes? How if there is a man to whom those bright drops on the floor are the beginnings of a trail which, duly followed, will lead him in the end to taste the cup itself?"