Surprised by Failure: C.S. Lewis on Art and Desire

A Vague Longing            

Of all my boyhood memories, one particular kind of youthful sensation remains especially vivid in my mind. As a child I frequently experienced moments of intense longing that I can best describe as artistic desire. I would respond to this nebulous urgency by gathering together an assortment of art supplies – crayons, colored pencils, pastels, markers, paints, various kinds of papers, etc. – only to sit idly at my blank canvas to await further instruction. I expected this to come not from supervising adults but from the same anonymous source that had compelled me to create in the first place. The instruction never came, and my childish attempts at art always failed to rival the alluring beauty of the original inspiration. I had yielded to the Muses only to be abandoned at the crucial moment of consummation. It left me feeling cheated.

Later in life similar artistic disappointments followed, only these failures took on a weightier significance. I spent the latter half of my twenties touring this country and the United Kingdom in what can only be referred to as a “rock band,” and it was then that I began to think of artistic longing as a sort of unrequited love. Despite some real successes my musical career eventually came to a quiet end, leaving me not so much bitter as lovesick. Saddled with an unrelenting compulsion to create, I lacked the necessary talent to realize my ambition and I felt the object of my artistic desire slip away. My eagerness to make art was incommensurate with my technical abilities and I was destined, I feared, to remain unhappy in my aesthetic life. What troubled me most was my suspicion that something more was at stake in my relation to beauty and artistic desire than my adolescent dream of attaining rock stardom. My longing, I worried, was fundamental to my nature, not a passing diversion that I could easily cast off as a youthful obsession. 
As an adult I tried with limited success to suppress feelings of intermittent artistic desire and to attend to more practical concerns. Though still a source of frustration, I came to treasure the intrusion of desire into my routine life because it seemed somehow important compared to the rest of the world; it spoke to the most primitive aspect of my being and awoke in me a longing that verged on the mystical. What it was precisely I couldn’t say, but as a maturing Christian I suspected that desire of this sort was the product of our co-participation in God’s creative nature, a vestige of His image.

Lewis and Joy

Only when I read C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy did I discover that I wasn’t alone in my experience. Lewis too had encountered the bitter-sweetness of this desire, a sensation he called Joy and that ultimately lead him as an adult back to the Christian faith of his childhood. I poured over his descriptions with excitement, taking comfort in the prospect that perhaps my experience was shared by all of humankind and that my desire might in fact indicate something significant about our condition as created beings.

Of his first encounter with Joy (on the occasion of recalling to memory a fond experience from his childhood) Lewis writes, “It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden […] comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?” Lewis’ experience of desire, though not a longing to create art so much as a longing in the presence of art, especially literature, was exactly my experience and I now had a name for it – Joy. I have known his frustrated delight and can relate well to Lewis when he writes, “before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.” I was especially pleased to learn that for Lewis too these glimpses took on a transcendent and otherworldly quality. “It was something quite different from ordinary life,” he writes, “and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.’” 

From Lewis I gained assurance that Joy isn’t bound up in the particular things around me, not even the objects that seem closely correlated to Joy or that draw my attention most. Emanating from beyond this world, Joy is evasive, ever withdrawing. “All Joy reminds,” Lewis writes, “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 became equal reminders, joint reminders, of – well, of whatever it is.” However closely connected to things it may appear, Joy does not reside in them but rather pulses through them like a thunderclap through a canyon. Permeating our whole experience of nature and art, Joy invites us to look beyond. But to what?

After his conversion to theism and later to Christianity Lewis came to interpret Joy as “a pointer to something other and outer,” a gesture implicating an Absolute that for Lewis led inexorably beyond his empty Hegelianism to God Himself. Once the real prize was in sight Joy became a shadowy substitute “of no value at all.” Having pursued the sensation his whole life Lewis finally relinquished it, shifting his focus instead to the true object of his desire – God.

Recognizing our Spiritual Limitations
Given the evanescence of Joy it’s no wonder that my artistic efforts failed to satisfy my longing; it isn’t merely that my limited abilities couldn’t capture the essence of Joy, but rather that Joy, in Lewis’ specialized sense, cannot be captured. My sadness at having failed to equal in artistic ability the intensity of my desire was the result of a confused response to Joy, not of my own technical inadequacy (though I am inadequate). Artists of every kind would do well to discern the difference. As Christians we can never hope to “pin down” Joy in this life, to instantiate it as something localized or present. Our hope instead rests in Christ, and so long as we remain bound to this fallen world our longing for satisfaction – artistic or otherwise – will remain unrequited.

I think Lewis would have empathized with my artistic disappointments, however obliquely. Having been born with a mild deformity of his thumbs, he lacked the dexterity needed to excel at the plastic arts and he admits to developing misgivings about his handicap. “What they [his physical disabilities] really bred in me,” he writes in Surprised by Joy, “was a deep (and, of course, inarticulate) sense of resistance or opposition on the part of inanimate things.” His anxieties echo my frustration over being incapable of giving Joy definite, concrete form through art. I too am handicapped in my artistic efforts, though not by a physical deformity. My failure stems from an ontological deficiency, itself the consequence of sin. As finite beings we are all deformed at birth and must await God’s restoration before He unites us with the object of our longing.

That’s not to say that art cannot delight or even arouse our sensitivity to God. Art points beyond the art object and I am grateful for those glimpses whenever they appear. But like Lewis I have come to interpret Joy less as an invitation to respond aesthetically than as a summons to contemplate Him. Moments of Joy are blessings to be savored not as means to achieving something more concrete but as reminders of things still promised, of a hope yet to come. 

(More articles at
  1. Avatar
  2. Avatar
  3. Avatar
  4. Avatar