On Joy, etcetera

Every once in a while I come across an article that feels as if it has been ripped out of my heart and mind, but written with more skill and care than I am ever capable of expressing. This is the feeling I had when reading the essay, ‘Joy’ by Zadie Smith today. Smith, like Jeanette Winterson, has an ability to express sentiments, ideas and feelings in a way that just makes me want to join in with my own stories. It’s like talking to a friend, but a friend you will never meet (and a friend you envy).

Her essay distinguishes between ‘pleasure’ and ‘joy’. Like her, I don’t view them as the same thing; joy is something more profound, perhaps Sublime in its temporary annihilation of your ego, while at the same time reminding you of your fragility and your self. It is a messy and contradictory feeling, often inexpressible, but compelling expression like few others. In Smith’s words, joy for me is not “the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road”, but some “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight”. I guess that is an apt definition of the Sublime, but I want to call it so much more, that doesn’t seem quite adequate.

Smith outlines six or so incidents in her life when she felt joy. I don’t think I’ve ever really counted mine, but I can tell you about three that stand out at the moment. Two are ‘firsts’ – the first times I did/felt such and such – but one is absolutely nothing, and belongs in no particular narrative.

The first time I interviewed a Holocaust survivor: I talk about this a lot, I know. But this seems natural for something that has been imprinted on my personality like a stamp. I remember this day because I remember feeling myself permanently changed. And it was a day of joy. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, or even insulting, to suggest that a day in which I talked to another human being about the worst things human beings can do to each other was ‘joyful’, but that’s what it was. It wasn’t pleasure; it was the exact opposite of pleasure. It was nausea and confusion, it was feeling my intact self being emotionally violated in some way I couldn’t name. It was sitting down and looking at a man’s trembling hands and thinking that I feel, see and recognise no difference between his hands and mine – that somehow, through the course of our interview, I had lost myself and become him, and vice versa. It was at once terrifying and delightful in some inexplicable way. Terrifying because in order to function in daily life, I have to separate my own ego from that of others. But delightful because in letting go of those boundaries, I felt an unbearable poignancy about the fragility of our humanity.

The first love: Most people go through this. The amount of metaphors you can string together to describe love are endless. But so many of them are metaphors of pleasure rather than metaphors of joy. Like many of my friends, I believed in the idea that being in love means discovering your other half – discovering something or someone who will finally complete you. With what intense confusion did I discover the exact opposite. This is another kind of delightful terror: the realisation that the person I love to a fever pitch cannot possibly complete me in any way, and that at any moment, he will be, say, or do something that conflicts with what I am; that experiencing real love is not to dissolve this conflict into metaphors of my ‘other half’, but to recognise it as yet another sign of our humanity.

On the bus: Boom, out of nowhere one day, while catching a bus to uni, I just felt like someone sucked the air out of me. It was early morning, I was sleepy. Other than that, there was no good reason to suddenly feel like that. It’s a feeling of almost complete alienation from myself; like looking in the mirror and not recognising my reflection for 5 minutes and then snapping back into logical reality. It was like being thrown a feeling to play around with and disrupt the flow of my day: catch the bus, go to the library, do some work, go home, eat dinner, go to sleep. My day was planned, and I even inserted moments of pleasure into it: what I was having for dinner, where I would buy my favourite cup of coffee before settling into work, finding my favourite seat in the library – this is all pleasure. But then I was given this feeling out of nowhere, and the day was heightened for no reason. This was joy that had nothing to do with my planned pleasure.

Then there is the joy of writing this, knowing that I send it off into the world in self-indulgent delightful terror that will probably either be met with eye-rolling or recognition. Anyway, Zadie Smith writes it better, so go read her essay instead.