Saturday, July 02, 2005


I have just finished re-reading C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy. I was struck in our last book discussion by a certain similarity between The Spiral Staircase and Lewis's book, on the surface anyway. They are both autobiographical journals of the authors' maturing spiritual paths. Both authors are scholars and writers, who started out with a traditional child-like view of Christianity (as most of us do), both "came to atheism" through rationalism but then found it unsatisfactory, although C.S Lewis came to theism and then to Christianity, wheras as yet Armstrong claims only a kind of monotheism. Armstrong's strict and painful time in the convent compares somewhat with Lewis' very painful schooldays. Both found a kind of bliss in literature and study. They both critiqued a materialistic and spritually barren culture they often met in the World.

But oh the differences. I was prepared to really like and get a lot out of Armstrong's book. I dared hardly say I was disappointed. How can one be disappointed in a memoir when the author has honestly told her story. My expectations were too high I told myself. I expected more than a memoir. I wanted more than she was willing to give. I wanted what I got in Surprised by Joy, which was not just the story, how things happened, what instances and people in the life changed thinking but also great insight into the nature of God as the author saw God, as the writer came to know God. There are wonderful comments in Surprised ... on practically every page. The difference I think is in the degree of introspection and contemplation that is articulated in Lewis' book. Armstrong may have those insights but she did not fully share them with the reader or at least was unable to communicate them to me.

I think that is what I meant when I said that Armstrong did not reveal her intellect in Staircase. Lewis's intellect shines through constantly in his clear, elegant critiques and explanations. His comment on the society of his "Coll" was like a mini sociological treatise. His comments in the chapter "Light and Shade" on the evils of the World ( ambition) compared to the evils of the flesh (homosexual affairs) are compassionately brilliant. I also get a very clear idea of Lewis' personality and weaknesses- some of them self confessed, some perhaps unconscious like his belief in the intellectual inferiority of women. I think if I met him I would not be surprised by him. I found it hard to get a feel for what Armstrong would be like if I met her. I get the feeling Lewis would come off the more humble for less reason.

Surprised by Joy is a keeper I will re-read again and again and still come away with something new. I wonder if I could get anything more from Armstrong if I read Staircase again?

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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)