Tears In A Bottle: C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed”

You record my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle.
Are not these things noted in your book?
—Psalm 56

In April of 1956, C.S. Lewis was married to Joy Davidman in a registry office. On Lewis’ part, it was largely meant as an act of charity, allowing Davidman and her two sons to escape deportation from England. But charity soon grew to encompass romantic love, and less than a year later they were married by an Anglican priest—by which time she was in a hospital bed suffering from bone cancer. Over the next several years, the cancer would go into remission and then come back. She died in July of 1960, and Lewis was plunged headfirst into what he had every reason to expect, but nevertheless found unbelievably shocking: the ice-cold water of grief. He had spent his life as a “man of letters” and so he turned instinctually to his pen and a notebook to grasp whatever security and comfort he could.

While an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1920s, Lewis had kept a diary for several years before giving it up as rather too much effort. He now poured out his emotions onto paper as they came to him, undated and unstructured. The famous first sentence testifies to his sense of shock: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Time and again in his musings, he returns to this theme, naming all that he’s afraid of: that God is not truly good, that human existence is some sort of experiment or game to Him, that nothing is worth starting because life one day just finishes. But the fear he ends up expressing the most is the fear of what is happening to him; that his memory of Joy is fading for one thing, but also that the turbulence of his emotions might end up consuming him.

In between he notices the shattering effect that grief has on everything he thinks or thought he believed. God, he believes, is the ultimate iconoclast, destroying our little houses of cards and thus showing them for what they really are. And this he comes to see as a blessing because it reminds him that reality is more than images:

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him…Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins…All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.

I journal and have for years; unlike Lewis, I find it worth the effort. Still, these many notebooks filled with my thoughts and experiences are also filled with rather maudlin griefs and tears, things it would have been better not to dwell on. I cringe when I read them now and would cringe even harder if they were ever to be published. What value did Lewis see in publishing his own lament, even under a pen name? I think perhaps something he records towards the end of his writing points towards an answer.

Grief, he comes to accept, is a process rather than a state. He also comes to accept—and perhaps this might rub some the wrong way—that emotions are possibly unnecessary things, inessential to our being. This comes after an experience (which he describes rather enigmatically) of Joy’s presence, of her “facing” him in some way and giving him attention even from the realm of the dead. He writes of its being surprisingly unemotional and recourses to the Greek philosophers, who believed the dead were pure intellect and will without emotion. Yet—and this is the nub of his reflection—he found his experience one of intimacy even without the feeling. “One didn’t need emotion. The intimacy was complete—sharply bracing and restorative too—without it. Can that intimacy be love itself—always in this life attended with emotion, not because it is in itself an emotion, or needs an attendant emotion, but because our animal souls, our nervous systems, our imaginations, have to respond to it in that way?”

I’ve never known a grief like his. No one has. This is partly the point. This book is not an argument or a lesson in grief; it isn’t trying to teach us how to grieve well or how we can get past it. It’s hardly a book at all. It is his own outpouring of his own immediate experience in the wake of his own beloved’s death. It is not meant to be my grief or yours, only his. Lewis is recording his lamentation, putting his tears into a bottle of ink, I suspect because in part he doesn’t know what else to do with them. The title speaks of a grief, not all grief, because everyone’s grief is unique to them.

But it is precisely this uniqueness which makes A Grief Observed powerful reading. I am not asked to recognize our common emotion of grief. I am asked to recognize him, to see Lewis. Lewis himself may not have intended this (he once argued that a poet is someone who doesn’t want you to look at him, but points to something else and says, “Look at that”), but it is still what ends up happening. In the end, it’s the great value of publishing some of his most private thoughts. Though he used a pen name, his closest friends and even those who read most of his work were able to recognize his writing instantly. Why read his wandering and turbulent emotions? Because we meet him somewhere beyond emotion. We observe a little part of him. Dispassionately, as it turns out, because we do not grieve like he does; we have intimacy without the feeling. And this, Lewis believes, is true intimacy indeed.

It is often thought that the dead see us. And we assume, whether reasonably or not, that if they see us at all they see us more clearly than before. Does H. [Joy] now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there was in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives—to both, but perhaps especially to the woman—a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.

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