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 Replies

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

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