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.

Speak your piece