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Desire and Simplicity: Talking Beasts, Van Gogh, Reliable Landmarks, and Walking Long Distances Alon

This is a two-part post taken from a session co-presented by Dave Bruno and Russ Ramsey at Hutchmoot 2015. The two posts come from Dave’s portion of the talk.

Some of you will be aware that C. S. Lewis wove into his writings a particular understanding of joy. Lewis sometimes used the German word sehnsucht, which roughly translated means “longing” or “yearning” or “desire,” to identify this sense of joy. But of course he knew that no one word, whether the English “joy” or the German “sehnsucht,” could adequately convey this concept. So in essays and stories he described it.

The feeling of joy that Lewis talks about is not primarily an experience in the moment, like the joy of winning a game or the joy of a flattering compliment. A victory or a kind word bring us joy in the moment. What Lewis describes is something that happens in the moment but brings us joy at another time. In his book Surprised by Joy Lewis describes it this way.

All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be.”

This is why we chose the word “desire” for the title of our session. What we are talking about is a wonderful feeling that creates in us a desire for something even more wonderful.

In his Chronicles of Narnia Lewis describes this feeling. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe he tells us the way the Pevensie children, new to the world of Naria, felt the first time they heard the name Aslan.

Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning–-–either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

The catalyst for this desire happens in the moment (the children hear Aslan’s name) but the fulfillment of the desire occurs at some other place and time.

I think some of us can best relate to this feeling of desire when we experience the natural world. In every way measurable except for one, I am unlike an elf from Middle-earth. I lack the physical dexterity, the linguistic subtlety, the metallurgical acumen of an elf. But in this way I can relate, standing at the shore of an ocean stirs in me a desire for what’s beyond the Gray Havens. I live in San Diego and spend time at the beach not as a surfer but as a daydreamer. Early on some Saturday mornings I drive quiet streets to the coastal town of Cardiff by the Sea so I can buy an old-fashioned glazed donut from VG’s Donuts. Then I drive a little further south and pull off the road near Rob Machado’s house, get out of my car, and stand on a cliff looking out over the Pacific Ocean. In the mornings the water is glassy and the horizon stretches beyond my peripheral vision and the donut is still warm. It makes me feel just like Legolas.

At times like this the desire I feel is not for the ocean. To borrow more words from Lewis, experiences like these create in me an “inconsolable longing for we know not what.”

Interestingly, this desire can be stirred up by different things in different people. In fact, even the same person might be affected in remarkably different ways. I went to school at Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago and penned a poem at the time. The first bit of it goes like this.

Standing alone in the city Letting my eyes run up and down All the buildings all around Watching the cars drive by And airline jets fly across the sky I do not know It somehow touches my soul

For me, ocean horizons and cityscapes create the same feeling of desire and longing.

Interestingly, I have found that the effect is stronger if the horizon is empty of ships or if I am by myself on a city street. There is something about this desire that does not play well with clutter. Each of the Pevensie children reacted to hearing Aslan’s name in the loneliness of their own heart.

What I would like to do now is take just a few minutes to begin to explore this desire as it bumps up against simplicity. In doing so, I want to introduce you to Louis the Swan.

Talking Beasts and Simplicity

One of the great authors whose characters include talking beasts is E. B. White. I suspect all of us are familiar with his classic Charlotte’s Web and I hope all of us also have enjoyed his book The Trumpet of the Swan. It is the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan who is born mute. Louis’s father is concerned that his voiceless son will be unable to woo a young bride. So his father flies to Billings, Montana, where he steals a trumpet from a music store. He gives the trumpet to Louis, whose adventures begin.

As the story unfolds, Louis masters the trumpet, learns to communicate with humans by writing on a small slate, receives a medal for saving a boy’s life at Camp Kookooskoos, earns thousands of dollars he carries in a money bag, and falls in love with a beautiful young swan named Serena. All he really desires is to win Serena’s affection. But he comes to realize he has more to deal with.

“I’m beginning to get overloaded with stuff around my neck. I’ve got a trumpet, I’ve got a slate, I’ve got a chalk pencil; now I’ve got a medal. I’m beginning to look like a hippie. I hope I’ll still be able to fly when my flight feathers grow in again.”

Louis pondered this and took it easy at Camp Kookooskoos while his flight feathers regrew. And he thought about his heart’s desire, Serena.

One day, he composed a love song for Serena and wrote the words and music on his slate: Oh, ever in the greening spring, By bank and bough retiring, For love shall I be sorrowing And swans of my desiring

Eventually the day comes when Louis’s feathers can get him airborne again. He takes to the skies, flying to his next musical gig. And here are his thoughts.

“Flying is a lot harder than it was before I acquired all these possessions,” thought Louis. “The best way to travel, really, is to travel light. On the other, I have to have these things. I’ve got to have the trumpet if I am to win Serena for my wife; I’ve got to carry this moneybag to hold the money to pay my father’s debts; I’ve got to have the slate and pencil so I can communicate with people; and I ought to wear the medal because I really did save a life, and if I didn’t wear it, people might think I was ungrateful.”

Louis flew square against the dilemma of his desiring and his stuff. What he desires is not the things he possesses. Yet, can he have what he desires without having his possessions?

I will conclude this part of the talk with a question. Like Louis, do we have to have possessions in order to get what we desire?

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