One night in high school, my father and I took a walk along the railroad tracks in moonlight and then lay down to look at the stars.
I have had most of my powerful experiences of nature in the presence of my father, and tonight was no exception.
I looked up at the sky, saw the moon, covered by a few clouds, and was transported by a particular chill feeling, sort of an intellectual smell.
“I want to capture this feeling in a novel,” I said.
“I don’t think you can,” he replied (or something like this). “I think these things you just have to live.”
C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite writers, for his brilliance, the clarity of his writing, his literary criticism, and the beauty of his imagination.
I half-wanted to call a blog after a concept of deep importance to his life and art: sweet desire, a longing for things unknown, inspired by art or nature, that is better than any fullness on this earth. He felt it about northernness and Norse mythology, about a little toy garden constructed from moss. He thought it was the longing for heaven. He made it one of the attributes of celestial Venus in his Out of Space trilogy; it was never far from reach in Narnia.
Odd that it fascinates me, as I don’t know that I’ve experienced it, quite—at least, nothing that moves me to tears. And yet I’ve felt shadows of it—the moon incident I just described, for instance. Or there’s a passionate hunger to live in moments out of books—but that is often a hunger only Harry Potter or a specific windy autumn day saturated with Diane Duane’s Young Wizards trilogy can fill; holiness entirely falls short. Or, perhaps, moments of wild ecstasy with the wind blowing in my face on hikes during my childhood, when my father and I stretched out our arms and pretended to fly—but there was no desire about that, only joy. Or the passionate romantic (in the modern sense) longing I love to read and to give my characters, though I’ve only experienced the barest shadows of it myself — but Lewis insists it isn’t sexual though it lives near sexuality in the mind, and he feels it in the first person rather than the third.
And, yet, even the shadows I’ve felt of it are extremely precious to me—so much so that I’ve never been able to take seriously C.S. Lewis’s advice to let it come and go freely—or William Blake’s, here:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise
Most people care about people, some about ideas or things; I tend, unfortunately, to care about feelings.
When I love a feeling, I do everything I can to re-experience it, though more than half the time I fail (I felt quite clever in sixth grade when I realized that expecting or trying to feel it made it harder to feel): I hike, I reread, and I write.
That night with my father, I, like the spoiled princess in the stories* who falls ill and wants nothing but the moon, took his response as a challenge. Such a feeling was little more than nothing if it could not be shaped in gold and worn around my neck. I longed to find what T.S. Eliot called objective correlatives–concrete events, objects, phrases that would embody that feeling so that others could access it just as I had.
I haven’t, though, and I don’t remember the feeling in its specificity now, though I suspect the correct stimulus could bring it back as if it had happened ten minutes ago.
My favorite authors, however, one way or another, do. And I hope that at least somewhere in my writing I’ve done something similar or, failing that, will do so eventually.
*In particular, James Thurber’s Many Moons and George MacDonald’s “The Wise Woman”—but both felt like they might be referencing something else