Perfect Emotion

A concept in one of the works of C. S. Lewis popped into my head the other day while I was running around Tremont. It boils down to the idea that there are no bad emotions, just poor applications. I’ll reproduce it for you past the jump.

Then he remembers—as one remembers an island of consciousness preceded and followed by long anæsthesia—going forward to meet the Un-man for what seemed the thousandth time and knowing clearly that he could not fight much more. He remembers seeing the Enemy for a moment looking not like Weston but like a mandrill, and realising almost at once that this was delirium. He wavered. Then an experience that perhaps no good man can ever have in our world came over him—a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred. The energy of hating, never before felt without some guilt, without some dim knowledge that he was failing fully to distinguish the sinner from the sin, rose into his arms and legs till he felt that they were pillars of burning blood. What was before him appeared no longer a creature of corrupted will. It was corruption itself to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person: but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation. It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for. As a boy with an axe rejoices at finding a tree, or a boy with a box of coloured chalks rejoices on finding a pile of perfectly white paper, so he rejoiced in the perfect congruity between his emotion and its object. Bleeding and trembling with weariness as he was, he felt that nothing was beyond his power, and when he flung himself upon the living Death, the eternal Surd in the universal mathematic, he was astonished, and yet (on a deeper level) not astonished at all, at his own strength. His arms seemed to move quicker than his thought. His hands taught him terrible things. He felt its ribs break, he heard its jaw-bone crack. The whole creature seemed to be crackling and splitting under his blows. His own pains, where it tore him, somehow failed to matter. He felt he could so fight, so hate with a perfect hatred, for a whole year.

Perelandra, C. S. Lewis, pp. 155-156.

So this “perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred” which Ransom feels is the pinnacle of that particular emotion because it is impersonal and completely natural. Hatred exists to hate this thing. I was wondering if I had ever had any experiences in which I had felt, however briefly, “perfectly unmixed and lawful” emotion.

Stubbornness was my first reaction. All too often I am stubborn out of pride or for reasons of self-interest, but sometimes, when I am faced with something that I really want to do but know I should not, my stubbornness beats down my voluble self [another interesting tidbit from Perelandra] and it is at those times that I know that I am using that emotion for the right reason.

But other than that I couldn’t really think of any other emotion that isn’t somehow colored by my own rationalizations. So how can I distinguish between how a perfect emotion and a normal one arise? I think perfect emotion is there when you need it, before you realize you need it, whereas normal emotions are all too often wielded like tools or weapons. [This an example of humanity’s greatest asset and also a cause of most of our trouble: our ability to use things for other than their natural purpose] A perfect emotion would be like seeing a beautiful flower and bringing others to see it, a normal emotion would be plucking the flower and taking it for others to see. Neither are necessarily wrong, but one feels a bit more right than the other.

“I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The light was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dusts floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.”Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly, the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

“But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious that all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, “in love.” Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognized biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.

“When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematicians head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there—only tiny movements of grey matter. The savage dances in ecstasy at midnight before Nyonga and feels with every muscle that his dance is helping to bring the new green crops and the spring rain and the babies. The anthropologist, observing that savage, records that he is performing a fertility ritual of the type so-and-so. The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

“As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the ‘true’ or ‘valid’ experience? Which tells you most about the thing?

“The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or ‘debunks’ the account given from inside. ‘All these moral ideals which look so transcendental and beautiful from inside,’ says the wiseacre, ‘are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.’ And no one plays the game the other way round by replying, ‘If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature.’

“That, in fact, is the whole basis of the specifically ‘modern’ type of thought. And is it not, you will ask, a very sensible basis? For, after all, we are often deceived by things from the inside. For example, the girl who looks so wonderful while we’re in love, may really be a very plain, stupid, and disagreeable person. The savage’s dance to Nyonga does not really cause the crops to grow. Having been so often deceived by looking along, are we not well advised to trust only to looking at?—in fact to discount all these inside experiences?

“Well, no. There are two fatal objections to discounting them all. And the first is this. You discount them in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all—if you have nothing to think about. A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it ‘is’ (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had ‘been inside’ by actually suffering. If he never looked along pain he simply wouldn’t know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside.

“This case is not likely to occur, because every man has felt pain. But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go explaining what a thing is without knowing what it is…

“We must…deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better that looking along. One must look both along and at everything.”

-from “Meditation in a Tool Shed” by C. S. Lewis

Do you have any instances of feeling perfect emotion, uncolored by your own desires? Instances of seeing along things instead of at them?

3 thoughts on “Perfect Emotion

  1. oy, long post. i persevered today. very interesting concepts.
    i agree that emotions, even the ugliest, can be valid. but it is difficult to divorce them sometimes from outside forces.

    I’m a strong believer in intuition, which would probably involve “perfect emotions”. Often we cannot get at our intuition–or our perfect emotions–as other factors cloud it. But sometimes it comes to us–as that gut feeling–that we know is truest, despite rationalizations of emotion or thought to the contrary.

  2. I think you just learn different things, different types of thing depending on which you’re doing.

    Oh, I agree, but all too often folks only do one or the other. I think Lewis’s point is that we should do both. Or as G. K. Chesterton said in The Man Who Was Thursday:

    “just at present [people] only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when [they] would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

  3. Well…your question about looking along v. at is sort of an elusive creature isn’t it? It requires us to be the one looking at the looking along, no? Unless, that is, you suppose that we can conjure the moment of looking along without putting it under the microscope of looking at.

    I’ve looked along – anytime you experience something without throwing it through the lens of cognitive perception, you look along…it necessitates a rawness of emotion – anger, joy, fear, etc. And we’ve all looked at…

    I think you just learn different things, different types of thing depending on which you’re doing.

Comments are closed.