Wednesday 8 December 2010

C.S. Lewis - A Grief Observed

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. This is the book that most moved me this year - C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed.


"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing."
I don't think I've ever felt the prickle of tears over the first paragraph of a book.

'A Grief Observed' is barely a book - 70 small pages of short paragraphs - lancing, glancing thoughts. Lewis wrote as a way of coping after the death of his wife from bone cancer; he had no original intention to publish the contents of the four little notebooks, and when they were first published, they were released under a pseudonym. Although writing was how Lewis got through the period ('reading is not enough of a drug') he struggled with the connotations of the act:

"What would H. herself think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence 'I lay awake all night with toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.' That's true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: that fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

Later: "This is the fourth - and the last - empty MS. book I can find in the house, at least nearly empty, for there are some pages of very ancient arithmetic at the end by J. I resolve to let this limit my jottings. I will not start buying books for the purpose."

This slim volume is, I guess, about two things: Lewis's observation of his grief over the death of his wife, and the questions he had to ask of and about god as a result.

Lewis grapples with what Leibniz named as theodicy: the question of whether evil and pain in our world does not conflict with the essential goodness of god. His writing and thinking here is searingly honest. But his writing about his wife ... you realise that something late and precious and extraordinary happened between these two people. It is some of the most sweetly, sadly, realistically erotic writing I've ever read:
"Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. ... How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure - and there's another red-hot jab - of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H.'s love."
"I see I've described H. as being like a sword. That's true as far as it goes. But utterly inadequate by itself, and misleading. I ought to have balanced it. I ought to have said, 'But also like a garden. Like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge within hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.'"
I will buy a copy of this book today. But before I put it on the shelf, or begin pressing it upon friends, I shall tear out every page of Lewis's step-son's introduction. I cannot and I will not conscience statements like this:
"[Lewis] had written also about the great poets and songs of love, but somehow neither his learning nor his experiences had ever prepared him for the combination of both the great love, and the great loss which is its counterpoint; the soaring joy which is the finding and winning of the mate whom God has prepared for us and the crushing blow, the loss, which is Satan's corruption of that great gift of loving and being loved."
"I had yet to learn that all human relationships end in pain - it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love."
And instead, I will give the last word to Lewis

"If, as I can't help but suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of suffering (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings) then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. ...

I wrote the other night that bereavement is not the truncation of married life but one of its regular phases - like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage faithfully and well through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we will accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase. we don't want to escape them at the price of desertion of divorce. Killing the dead a second time. We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don't want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will still be married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache. But we are not at all - if we understand ourselves - seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better, so long as the marriage is preserved. And the more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better."

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