Contemplating My Enjoyment of Contemplation: in which C. S. Lewis blows my mind!

But there is one act, of which every man should be master, the art of reflection. If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all?

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Author’s Preface to Aids to Reflection

I’ve begun reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, and so far I love it. This book seeks to explain the seemingly confused amalgam of elements (both intra- and trans-book) in the “Narniad” (a term I learned from Ward) through the lens of medieval/Renaissance cosmology. The very premise makes sense to me, given C. S. Lewis’s area of expertise.

I don’t usually blog about everything I’m reading, but reading this book gave me an
epiphanic moment today. You see, my mind is like a flock of vultures (not a particularly pleasant simile . . . also, do vultures come in flocks? Onward!); it ravenously circles ideas for a long time, waiting for them to group together for safety—then it consumes them all together. If you are still reading, then I can only assume that that crude metaphor worked better than I thought it would, or else you have nothing better to read. If the former: YAY! Read on! If the latter: Have I told you about this book I’m reading called Planet Narnia?

[N.B. I know I planned to write about music in Bioshock Infinite, and I still expect that to happen. I submitted a paper proposal on this very subject to the North American Conference on Video Game Music, so we’ll see if it is accepted. The problem is not in finding something to say about it, but in how to narrow down what could be said. Still waiting for the vultures to strike on this one, but you can read my thoughts on the game’s use of theology and story and on the original Bioshock.]

Pressing forward. In Planet Narnia, Ward points out a Lewis’s affinity for what he called the “Kappa element.” The kappa comes from the character that begins the Greek word kruptos, meaning “hidden,” from which we get the word “cryptic.” It would not suffice to summarize Ward’s treatment of the idea as it pertains to the hidden unity underlying the Narniad. As interesting as it is, I was particularly captivated by a mere digression Ward makes—Lewis’s drawn dichotomy between Enjoyment and Contemplation. You can guess that capitalizing these terms, they are not merely used in the colloquial, humdrum meanings, but are rather nuanced.

The antithesis Lewis embraced was drawn from philosopher Samuel Alexander‘s Space, Time, and Deity. In his “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay CollectionLiterature, Philosophy and Short Stories, with which I am not familiar, Lewis describes the difference between Contemplation and Enjoyment, as with so many abstract ideas, with an analogy:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun 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 dust 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, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

— C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay Collection, p. 607

C. S. Lewis

Lewis experienced the beam two ways. The first was what Alexander would have called Contemplation—the more abstract, objective, external kind of experience. One might substitute “clinical” or “uninvested” or, perhaps, “meta.” Then Lewis experienced what Alexander termed Enjoyment by “looking along the beam.” This was a more participatory, subjective, internal experience. When he observed the beam from without, he could not perceive the experience from within and vice-versa.

As I often do, I’m applying this revelation to the experience of music. I have, on more than one occasion, encountered musicians (usually performers, some of whom were my doctoral-level colleagues in graduate school) who refuse to see the value of music theory because they perceived it to wipe away the magic of their experience of the music. I’ve never really understood this until today, perhaps. Could it be that they had only ever “looked along the beam”? It’s true that, as a student, I had to shift into an analytical mode to successfully navigate my theory classes. But my undergrad professors modeled an almost effortless shifting back and forth between an Enjoyable and a Contemplative perspective, as easily as Lewis stepped into the path of that beam of light, such I was utterly surprised that other musicians might not share that understanding. I take no credit for that understanding. Were it not for reachers who understood it and silently enacted that understanding before me, I expect my perspective would be quite different.

On the other hand, I’ve observed musicians (usually academics) who can only observe and dissect and postulate about the sunbeam. These musicians Contemplate the music, but do not enter into it in any personal way. There is no passion, no vibrancy, no first cause to justify the Contemplation. Or perhaps there is, but they do not Enjoy their teaching; they merely Contemplate it. Even though there are multiple reasons we could point out that contribute, it is no wonder so many performance-focused musicians have an aversion to music theory. They’ve not been shown that the best musicians can and must both Contemplate and Enjoy music. As Lewis’s anecdote implies, one cannot experience both perspectives simultaneously, but one can move back and forth between them. (This mutual exclusivity reminds me of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that one can know the location of an electron or it’s momentum, but not both at the same time.)

As a side note, Lewis’s description actually reminds me a lot of John Granger’s discussion of J. K. Rowling‘s numerous instances of objects that are “bigger on the inside.” Lewis himself runs this theme through the Narniad, such as the wardrobe’s “containing” Narnia and the ramshackle stable in The Last Battle “containing” Aslan’s Country. Enjoying the sunbeam revealed trees and ninety-odd million miles to the sun, all “contained” within that beam.

Enjoyment is a mysterious, mystical, and wonder-filled experience. And I was Enjoying my experience of (what I must now call) Contemplation. Just basking in my experience of is. But Lewis’s words force me to Contemplate Contemplation, to step outside my perspective and reflect upon the perspective itself. It’s really meta, I know.