Joy is the condition of life

Thoreau confides in his essay on The Natural History of Massachusetts that “Joy is the condition of life.”  This could be read in several ways, and needs to be aligned with Thoreau’s ‘dark side.’  Here’s one alignment.

In a recent New York Review of Books, the novelist, Zadie Smith writes that joy is a troubling mix of rapture, affliction, and terror — perhaps a kind of extraordinary Dionysian seizure, though it can be triggered by something as pedestrian as love of a child.  Joy is not just an intense happiness, for its opposite, she says, is not suffering or melancholy, and it is not just delight.  We ought to fear it as well as cherish its irruption into ordinary life. (What is it to have both delight and terror in the otherness of God or Nature?) The scariness in joy (an anxiety absent in pleasure) is that it overtakes us, takes over: it leaves us naked. It’s a gift, as wonderful and terrible as our humanity:

Occasionally the child . . . is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

Learning to live with this daily must be a task and gift of faith, perhaps Thoreauvian faith.  

Real love came much later. It lay at the end of a long and arduous road, and up to the very last moment I had been convinced it wouldn’t happen.  I was so surprised by its arrival, so unprepared, that on the day it arrived I had already arranged for us to visit the Holocaust museum at Auschwitz. 

Love’s joy arrives on the way to . . . Auschwitz?  (But then, Abraham’s faith arrives on the way to Moriah, and Thoreau’s, after the death of his brother and Waldo. Perhaps horror hollows us to make room for love.)  Then this summation of paradox: “We were heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile.”  Love among the ruins.  She adds:

[Joy] doesn’t fit with the everyday. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?  . . . Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you?  Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? . . .  Joy is such a human madness . . . .  Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do.

It seems that horrendous loss and wondrous gift can be inextricably wed. 



2 comments on “Joy is the condition of life

  1. dmfant says:

    I appreciated the Zadie’s article on it’s own and now again in the context that you give it but not so sure that Joy has such qualities for everyone who experiences it or that such matters are well served by a kind of taxonomy, one of the pleasures/values for me of such essaying is the differences/particularities that may bear familial resemblances or may surprise.

  2. efmooney says:

    Of course part of Smith’s charm is that she admits she had to learn what Joy was, and how it differed from pleasure, so she invites us to share a perspective she feels is as fresh as new bread — what will its taste do for us? She neither stipulates a taxonomy or notes family resemblances nor reports common usage or common experience. She takes the daring path of the artist — daring to venture the counter-intuitive (that joy has little pleasure, for instance). And perhaps in the process she’ll make this mere learner — or that one — startle in surprise at a possibility hitherto neglected or unseen. I wouldn’t say she becomes a poetic legislator for the race, but she’s doing the sort of thing good poets do — transform our perceptions of things, often, of a thing we always thought we knew, and now discover we didn’t.

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