On Joy, etcetera

Thursday, 21 February 2013

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.


Rambling Tart said...

"delightful terror" - how that makes me grin. :-) A while ago I wouldn't have understood what you meant, but now I do. I have experienced my deepest joy in my deepest agony, in those moments of soul-release and soul-recognition that are only illumined through pain. Exquisitely painful joy. Thank you for making me smile today.

Miranda said...

I was a moment away from clicking goodbye after reading your post - delightfully satisfied with your words, experiencing total recognition - but then you mentioned briefly that there was a possibility that this post would be met with eye-rolling. Let me tell you - you have one of the most effortless, beautiful writing voices I have come across on this blogosphere world. It's wonderful. Everything you write is like a bottled up exhale, where I can breathe and say, someone can relate to me.

You writing will never be met with eye-rolling. It is impossible.


Nina A said...

Smiths Barnes quote "It hurts just as much as it is worth" made me cry. I've lost both my parents and probably one of my moments of joy was when my mother died while I was holding her hand. I was infinitly sad that she had go but the feeling of joy that she no longer had to be in pain and suffer was greater.

I guess that is what I read through those lines - that joy is only possible because we feel pain and maybe the ultimate pain is losing someone, or the possibility of losing someone, we love.

Miss Bibliophile said...

Thanks for sharing this essay. I especially love the final three paragraphs. This reminds me of all the reasons why I love Zadie Smith's writing and was perfectly timed coming on the heels of my mediocre experience reading NW.

Michal said...

I have always considered joy and pleasure to be separate feelings, and your words explain that so wonderfully. I loved reading about your moments of joy and I now I am thinking of what mine may be...

I am also interested in hearing more about your interview with the Holocaust survivor. You said you talk about it a lot, but I don't think I remember reading anything about it before?

Danielle P. said...

I'd never even thought about the difference between joy and pleasure, so this post gave me a little shock of realisation: "Oh, of course!" Thank you for that.

I can't imagine anyone worthy of your attention rolling their eyes at reading any of your posts, especially such an insightful and sensitively expressed one as this.

Gabi said...

Thank you for the article. Smith writes so beautifully. There's a lovely poem "Vacillation" by Yeats, on these sudden unexpected moments of joy. It's what your last example made me think of.

"While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless."

Jane Flanagan said...

This is such a beautifully expressed post!

Tássia said...


I've been reading your blog for about one year or so, and I must agree with the comments that no one in complete sanity of mind would roll eyes to any of your posts. Your writing is a pleasure to my reading.

And yes, I can recognize that kind of joy that it is in the vulnerability to expose something to the world, anything, even the small bits. Exhilarating, yet full of relief.

Also, Zadie's article is wonderful.

Thank you!

Sally said...

It would probably be difficult to catalog my own list of joyous moments, but I do know I have had experiences that sound like yours on the bus, a sudden euphoria and completeness I couldn't explain, that changed me, that I knew instinctively was so rare that I must hold it close.

Such great comments, too - the Yeats poem Gabi quoted seems to describe that experience just so, and Nina's beautiful post above strikes a chord too. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” —A.A. Milne

Thanks for another great post & article recommendation Hila!

Odessa said...

I never thought of joy and pleasure this way, I guess because I tend to "quantify" my joys, if they are big or little joys. But I know what you mean though about those few moments that are messy and contradictory. And sometimes, too intense that even remembering them brings a mix of happiness and pain.

The moment you describe on the bus made me smile. I recently had a very similar experience. :)

Mariella said...


Hila said...

Krista: Thank you for understanding :)

Miranda: Oh, I suspect it is met with eye-rolling sometimes! But thank you so much for this comment it's encouraging. I really appreciate it.

Nina: Yes, that line hit home: "It hurts just as much as it is worth". It's so true. I am so sorry about your mother's death.

Miss Biliophile: yes, this essay was a gem - I wish there were more articles like it.

Michal: I've mentioned these interviews a few times on this blog - probably too many times for some. I've written a bit about this on my new portfolio website too, if you'd like to learn more.

Danielle: Oh Danielle! You give me way too much credit, and think too highly of me. I really value your friendship and support, but I wish I were half as good as you think I am! Thank you though :)

Gabi: That poem is perfect for the feeling I was describing on the bus, thank you.

Jane: Thank you!

Tassia: Thank you for saying this. I'll make sure to read the comments on this post on days when I think I completely suck ;)

Sally: That's a beautiful quote too. Yes, one of the things I love about this post are the comments it elicited. Thank you to everyone, including you.

Odessa: Glad you know what I mean - it's such a strange feeling that comes out of nowhere.

Mariella: My pleasure, I hope you enjoy reading it.