Doug Bruns

Joy at The New York Review of Books

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on January 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Sorry to intrude on your afternoon, but I just read an essay by Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books and am compelled to share. Zadie Smith is one of the best writers working currently–you know this, I know–and this essay is masterful. This is the art of non-fiction, folks, as practiced by a master. I’ve copied and pasted the first few of paragraphs then linked to the full essay where you can finish if inclined.

(Notice the journey she takes as she explores the concept of Joy, the by-ways she travels, the secrets she shares with us. You begin to notice, indeed, feel, as the narrative picks up, that she is displaying as well as describing Joy–telling and showing. So dexterous!)

Okay, here you go.

Joy, by Zadie Smith

It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.


Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
George Bellows: Geraldine Lee, No. 2, 1914; on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘George Bellows’ exhibition until February 18, 2013

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It wasthe same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way. I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food, for example—any old food. An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.
You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.” “But it was delicious.” It drives him crazy. All day long I can look forward to a popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavor is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.


As you were…

  1. Zadie Smith tells of another joy…the music of Joni Mitchell in the 12/17/12 New Yorker. She explains:

    “This is the effect that listening to Joni Mitchell has on me these days: uncontrollable tears. An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy – if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty.”

    My current life schedule is unlikely to provide opportunities for ecstacy raves nor wild romantic crushes, fraught with danger. However, I do have a CD of “Blue.” Think I’ll be listening to it tonight. Thanks for the article.

    • Indeed. Smith’s joy in the music of Mitchell is safe and a thing less courageous that rave dancing in clubs while tripping. At some point in life courage loses its appeal and good music by the fire takes over. Enjoy and glad you liked the piece.

      Speaking of good things, did you read Timothy Egan in the Opinionator today?

      • Just did. Thanks. A good reminder of why I moved to Maine from the unrelenting sunshine of southern Florida, not that I needed much reminding. Annie Dillard expressed a similar dark-joy when winter arrived…speaking of joy.

      • What life we enjoy!

    • I’ve been remiss in not acknowledging the cleverness of your mini-post here. I too read the piece about Joni Mitchell and when you put up the quote it rang true. I remembered it at some level. But I never made the leep of connecting the two–and never would have made the great stretch to the album. Well done.

      • Before we leave the topic of joy, in a recent discussion with fellow ..the house..reader, I confessed, “the times when I experience great joy (as opposed to pleasure), I simultaneously feel like, ‘I could die now and be just fine with that.'” She exclaimed she experienced the same combination of feelings. What’s that about?

        Did you see the shout-out to “Stoner” on page 45 of NYT Magazine today? ” The unnamed narrator of William’s novel ‘Stoner’ is so restrained that his emotional observations land like an anvil on the heart.”

      • Am pulling the magazine out of the recycling pile now…missed stuff–this happens when football and the Sunday paper collide.

        Interesting that joy and death are so entwined…”People living deeply have no fear of death,” said Anais Nin. Might Nin’s thought have some bearing on the subject? Perhaps to live deeply is to understand joy and to have joy to this degree is to assuage the fear that accompanies our demise. Perhaps that is the work we are at: attempting a way to manage that which we fear most. Once realized, we put down the effort, peace ensues.

      • Ahh, yes! It always comes back to the Buddha, doesn’t it? Thanks for the reminder.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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