On Zadie Smith, C.S. Lewis, and Joy

A few weeks ago I read Zadie Smith’s essay, “Joy,” in the New York Review of Books. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend doing so. It’s a beautifully written, decidedly contemporary reflection on joy with a tone I suspect Millennial and Gen-X readers will particularly resonate with. I also recommend Gary Gutting’s follow-up piece in the Times, helpfully bringing Thomas Aquinas into conversation with Smith’s portrait of joy.

As I’ve reflected on Smith’s essay the last few weeks, I’ve thought about a few things. The first is that I believe Smith’s ultimate conclusions about joy as opposed to pleasure are somewhat reminiscent of those of C.S. Lewis, whose reflections on joy ring the truest of all those I’ve come across.

Smith’s essay begins with an assumption that is self-evident to anyone who exists in this world: pleasures are rather easy to come by but joy is a bit more elusive. She then describes a handful of moments in her life when she felt that she touched joy, in particular a London nightclub experience in the 90s at the beginning of the ecstasy craze. But was that really joy? The morning-after letdown makes Smith wonder. Maybe joy exists mostly in the tease, the replication, the mimesis of something far rarer or altogether out of reach?

Reflecting on her drug experience that felt awfully close to joy, Smith writes:

At the neural level, such experiences gave you a clue about what joy not-under-the-influence would feel like. Helped you learn to recognize joy, when it arrived. I suppose a neuroscientist could explain in very clear terms why the moment after giving birth can feel ecstatic, or swimming in a Welsh mountain lake with somebody dear to you. Perhaps the same synapses that ecstasy falsely twanged are twanged authentically by fresh water, certain epidurals, and oxytocin… We certainly don’t need to be neuroscientists to know that wild romantic crushes—especially if they are fraught with danger—do something ecstatic to our brains, though like the pills that share the name, horror and disappointment are usually not far behind. When my wild crush came, we wandered around a museum for so long it closed without us noticing; stuck in the grounds we climbed a high wall and, finding it higher on its other side, considered our options: broken ankles or a long night sleeping on a stone lion. In the end a passerby helped us down, and things turned prosaic and, after a few months, fizzled out. What looked like love had just been teen spirit. But what a wonderful thing, to sit on a high wall, dizzy with joy, and think nothing of breaking your ankles.

To me, Smith’s notion of joy here feels like bittersweet nostalgia and longing more than anything, which brings to mind Lewis’s notion of it in Surprised by Joy. Reflecting on the common qualities of Lewis’s own list of “joy” experiences from childhood, he writes:

For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

Smith seems to agree with Lewis that joy is a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. “The thing no one ever tells you about joy,” she writes, “is that it has very little real pleasure in it.” And yet she seems more perplexed than Lewis on the question of why humans would choose to desire joy over pleasure, even when it can cause so much pain:

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.

Smith’s recognition of the ultimate disposability and evanescence of pleasure seems to me representative of my generation’s increasing awareness of the general ephemerality of things, and their skepticism of all the tropes (a house, a family, a career, the suburban life…) previously associated (mostly via Hollywood) with a “joyous” life.

Mine is a generation which has grown up seeing about half of all marriages end in divorce. We’ve seen the real estate market collapse a few times, as well the stock market. We’ve seen umpteen holes shot through our heroes and icons (sex scandals, doping scandals, the generally unflattering transparency of 360 degree media).

Meanwhile, the allure of physical possessions seems ever diminished. Books on bookshelves are going the way of the CD. Amassing expensive furniture, investing in home improvements, registering for fine wedding china that will rarely be used… all of it feels pointless in a world whose impermanence is palpable: a world where life is lived via moment-by-moment tweets and Insta-documents quickly forgotten; where natural disaster, terrorism and apocalyptic doom are not feared as much as expected; where market instability, escalating debt and climate change make visions the future look closer to Children of Men than “Tomorrowland.”

Because of all of this (and no doubt much more), many of us are now, on the whole, much more desirous of experiences than things. We’d rather travel, eat amazing food, see movies, have adventures, and live socially in the present-tense than build for anything long-term. Unlike our parents, we tend to rent rather than buy; we work in jobs for years but not decades; we don’t live in one place for very long. We have close friends for “seasons,” but very few for life.

To be sure, the idea of rootedness, permanence and longevity–building an idyllic homestead wherein one’s family can flourish, amidst a tightknit community where “everybody knows your name,” where we can carve out a niche and stake our place for once and all–is desirable, but mostly in a fantasy sense (in the simultaneously nostalgic and eschatological sense, perhaps, of Marilynne Robinson’s reflections on home in the essay, “When I was a Child I Read Books.”) Such a vision confronts us mostly as a stab, a pang, a longing for what we know will probably never be.

And this brings us back to the discussion of joy. For it is precisely in those pangs and longings where joy exists, argues Lewis. “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire,” he wrote once in a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths. “Our best havings are wantings.”

Though I agree with Lewis that pleasure is surely distinct from joy, I also think they are very closely linked. That is, I believe pleasure–mostly the nostalgic remembrance of a pleasure–can often be a catalyst for joy. Zadie Smith’s experience in the London club likely felt more joyous and profound in her memory–with great distance–than it did in the actual moment. Perhaps in the moment it was closer to pleasure than joy. But without that initial pleasure to look back on and long for, would there be joy?

When I consider instances of joy in my life thus far, most of what I would list probably felt more like pleasure at the time. I think of the summer night in Cambridge when I snuck onto the roof of Clare College with friends, looking out over the moonlit gardens, punting down the Cam river well after midnight, with champagne and laughter in ample supply. I think of the long, late-night undergrad conversations at Wheaton with my roommates: about God, movies, theology, relationships and the like. Or the childhood trips with my family to the Tulsa State Fair, an autumnal tradition rife with the screams and whirring of carnival rides and the smells of all things barbecue and fried. Pleasures all.

The memories of all that, the longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.

This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection. Lewis’ characterization of joy as always pointing away or calling us elsewhere (emphasizing our “pilgrim status”) rings true for citizens of discombobulated late modernity. We know all too well the vacuity that so often accompanies lives of consumption; the limited capacity of things to bring lasting pleasure. (Of course, experiences can also be disposable and empty, though I think they have greater capacity to morph into pleasant memories which ultimately bring joy).

Still, whether we’re curating commodities or experiences, It’s up to us to make the most of the little pleasures we come across. We can either celebrate the presentness of pleasure (YOLO, right?!) and stop there; or we can go further and see in pleasure signposts, recognizing that the ecstatic feeling triggered by a dance party, or a small-batch bourbon, or a down-to-the-wire Super Bowl, is not an end unto itself but rather a means by which we can contemplate our true pilgrim status and the telos to which it all must point.

(Originally published on MereOrthodoxy.com)


24 responses to “On Zadie Smith, C.S. Lewis, and Joy

  1. Still, whether we’re curating commodities or experiences, It’s up to us to make the most of the little pleasures we come across

    I really liked this!

  2. “Joy is never in our power”–?! What a steaming pile of moldy cabbage. Of COURSE joy is in our power, it always has been. In fact, it’s our natural state, it’s just that we have been taught to believe otherwise, and we tend to have that mentally beaten into us at a young age.

    We control our experience through our thoughts about our experience. That’s attitude, and it carries more leverage than a nuclear bomb. Time and time and time again, human beings have demonstrated to us the ability to be surrounded by horrifying conditions, yet be joyful. How do they do it? Focus. You find what you look for; you see what you focus upon.

    If you practice focusing on unpleasantness, you won’t be aware of anything else. And it does take practice. Every day. Every beautiful, amazing, brim-full, lottery winning day. Turn the other cheek, turn your mind. Admire the rose growing in the vacant lot.

    What an disempowered man poor C.S. Lewis must have been.

    • The kind of ‘joy’ we can get from empowerment is second-rate, I think the booming, jovial C. S. Lewis would say. From a personal story of enduring anxiety, I would have to agree. Joy comes before, not after, empowerment: otherwise we are empowered to ‘vanity’.

    • Allthoughtswork. Wow. anger off the bat. I think you misread CS Lewis, Zadie and Brett, completely.

      • You missed the point of my reply completely. The first line was humor, not anger. But, we see what we look for and I recognize how someone not focused on joy might see something else there.

      • Hey man. Sorry. I guess comment sections dont quite show sarcasm etc. I didnt mean to be a jerk.

  3. Enjoyed your post. It’s very well thought out and presented; I too have an article (two parts) on the subject of joy. I have included the link, should you choose to read it: http://jasonmin.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/article-4a/ Again, that you for posting.

  4. Interesting and very thoughtful. I’ve often thought about our restless generation over the last few years or so. I saw that restlessness in myself as well. I think you were spot on saying that people in our generation hoard experiences rather than objects. I think it is a great thing, being an existentialist, to want to experience life.

    But the problem is that hoarding experiences can bring as much misery as hoarding stuff. It’s as if people say “I have to do X,Y,Z in order to be happy.” Especially when we spend a lot of time on social media, and constantly compare ourselves to other people, without realizing they, like us, are putting forward their best face. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses with cars and houses, now it’s keeping up with the Joneses in terms of vacations and road trips. I try to get people to see that, while there is nothing wrong with wanting to go out and do things, you have to enjoy the day to day moments in life if you really want to be happy.

  5. Hmm, joy.
    Now that you bring it to my attension I don’t think I’ve ever had it. In any case I did do the E pill thing and it did not feel as if I were high , but it did feel heavenly,so I don’t know maybe its euphoria.
    And when I think of my past happy times I don’t feel joy but rather fortunate to have them. To me joy is to feel no wanting, free from attachment and suffering.


  6. It is difficult to think that our relation to Joy or pleasure is different than it’s even been. I liked the bit on Gen-X’s relationship to the temporality of joy however I think joy can be grasped no matter what one’s circumstances are. Even while we struggle for presence in a world rife with ephemera and uncertainty joy comes in that form of stasis you mentioned, the difficulty is holding on to it or accepting it for a moment of joy. Virginia Woolf called them ‘moments of being,’ Emmanuel Levinas called it ‘jouissance’ (which has the dialectic of melancholia Smith discusses) but the notion is perhaps best expressed in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. All are relatively old texts saying similar things.

  7. It is interesting to me to read what joy means to others! I hope you have a joyful day!

  8. What a great article! I completely agree with Smith when she notes that there is a certain melancholy to joy. Congratulations on being on Freshly Pressed!

  9. This was a great post to read!

  10. Thanks for this post! x

  11. I found this a very interesting and thought provoking read, and I read Smith’s article too. Personally I find what she wrote a little sad and cynical, but it has made me think about what Joy is for me, and the experiences in my life I would put that word too. Thanks for posting this, now I need some time for reflection…

  12. I read Smith’s article and really loved it too. I’ve also read C.S. Lewis on joy but didn’t connect the two. Excellent post. For me pleasure has always seemed more sedate, and comfortable. Perhaps joy more ecstatic; an experience which inevitably has the post-euphoric come down dolled out into the bargain. I think she refers to giving birth at one point, which is an excellent example of this. As for ‘sehnsucht’ this has always been more tied up with joy infused with longing for that something, that ultimate experience which is so fleeting it cannot be tamed by description (so linked to German Romanticism), so perhaps more of a reflection on the experience of the instant hit of joy itself. But then I could just be waffling myself into oblivion right now… anyways, thanks for the insight, and for whirring my brain into gear!

  13. Thank you for this great, thoughtful post. I have just started reading some of Zadie Smith’s short stories and have enjoyed all of them so far – I look forward to reading this one you reflect on. The topic of joy interests me, as does the idea of emotion in general, in particular how it is tangled up in both political and everyday life. I have been reading a lot of cultural theory work on affect lately, and am currently making my way through Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” and the notion of “the good life,” which you refer to in some way here. It is very compelling stuff if you are interested in exploring this topic further.

  14. Interesting, thought-provoking read – thank you! I’m a random who just chanced across your blog, and I’m glad I did.

    One thing I’m curious to hear, if you’re open to responding. You’ve looked at the contrast that Lewis presents between joy and pleasure. He also mentioned happiness. I’m interested in, the light of what you have written here, to know: where do you see happiness fitting into the broad scheme of things?

  15. When you said “the memories of all that, the longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way…that’s what stirs up joy”–it reminded me of what Lewis thought about the Renaissance:

    “The more I look into the evidence the less trace I find of that vernal rapture which is supposed to have swept Europe in the fifteenth century. I half suspect that the glow in the historians’ pages has a difference source, that each is remembering, and projecting his own personal Renaissance; that wonderful reawakening which comes to most of us when puberty is complete. It is properly called a re-birth not a birth, a reawakening not a wakening, because in many of us, besides being a new thing, it is also the recovery of things we had in childhood and lost when we became boys.”

    Thanks for a good read. I thoroughly enjoyed your post!

  16. A fascinating discussion, and such a thoughtful post, thank you. I sometimes think the essence of joy is precisely the title of Lewis’s book on the subject – ” Surprised by Joy”. I also think that everyone’s perceptions and experiences of joy are dependent on their character, personality, and the depths of the inner growth they’ve done….As we grow in clarity and serenity then joy becomes more available to us…. and I rather think it’s being connected to the love that is the ‘stuff of the universe’.. a connection which is brief until we realise that we are not separate from all that is…

  17. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  18. Pingback: Inside Out and Mountain Memories | The Search

  19. Pingback: Inside Out and Mountain Memories | Brett McCracken

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s