Tag Archives: marilynne robinson

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)

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Why Partisanship is the New Normal

The ferociously partisan atmosphere in America these days isn’t limited to Washington D.C., though it certainly is epitomized there. No, the divisive, bitter ambience in this country exists everywhere, from sea to shining sea. A few minutes on cable news or a cursory scroll through one’s social media feed at any given moment (but especially on days like this) confirms it. And it’s getting worse.

“Moderate” is increasingly a relic in American culture. The ouster of Indiana senator (and moderate, bipartisan-minded Republican) Dick Luger is just the latest evidence of this. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats are getting more liberal. The country’s middle ground is quickly becoming no man’s land.

Issues like gay marriage are further entrenching both sides. The day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a ban on gay marriage, President Obama  ended his “evolving views” stalling and admitted to supporting the opposite view, thrilling liberals and stealing some of the spotlight from what happened in North Carolina. For Obama and his ever bluer base, opposition to gay marriage is seen as gradually eroding. The expectation is that soon enough gay marriage will be completely acceptable in society. But there are signs that, for red state America, the opposite trend is occurring. Voters in North Carolina–a swing state that went blue for Obama in 2008–actually voted for the ban on gay marriage by a larger margin (61-39%) than expected, and seven percentage points larger than the 2006 margin (57-42%) of another gay marriage ban in fellow Southern swing state Virginia (also went blue for Obama in 2008). This appears to be another sign that the red base is getting redder on wedge issues like gay marriage, even while the blue base is becoming bolder and louder on such divisive issue.

Why are we experiencing such unprecedented ideological divergence in our culture? Why is it looking–tragically–as if the recovery of a middle ground and a bipartisan, cordial public discourse is increasingly unlikely?

It may sound obvious, and it may be old hat by now, but I believe a huge factor contributing to all of this is the Internet. Namely: the way that it has fragmented and niche-ified our media consumption. For former generations, “news” was the thing everyone watched at the same time at night on TV. It was the local newspaper. There were far fewer options, so everyone tended to learn about the news from the same sources. Some big cities had multiple newspapers with slightly divergent political bents, but for the most part normal folks didn’t have easy access to “news” with a decidedly partisan bent.

Not so today. Now, we have 24/7 access to it. Whatever one’s political leaning may be, an entire personalized media landscape can be constructed to reinforce it. There are TV channels, YouTube channels, websites, tumblrs, blogs, e-newsletters,  newspapers and radio stations for whatever political opinion you may have. Everyone processes media narratives that are as infinitely different from one another as snowflakes. Each of us has a totally unique combination of blogs we follow, news sites we read, and social media connections who shape our media intake. No wonder “consensus” is a thing of the past. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. We live in our own iNews bubbles of self-perpetuating, fragmentary and volatile media flows.

And it creates a snowball effect. Given the choice, liberal-leaning folks naturally will spend more time watching MSNBC and filling their Twitter feeds with people of a similar bent. Conservatives will naturally choose to watch Fox News and populate their feeds with advocates of GOP-friendly ideals. In a world where it’s as easy as clicking “unfollow” whenever someone says something that challenges our beliefs, our “feeds” of self-selected narratives of reality will make us neither educated nor enriched; they’ll simply make us more ardent in the beliefs we already hold.

In this “million little narratives” world of individually curated and (often) hyper-politicized media experiences, it’s easy to see how fringe groups and all manner of Anders Breivek-style zealotry may develop. It’s easy to see how ideology-oriented communities can become dangerously insulated and prone to “no compromise!” hostility to the Other. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so bad at talking cordially with those who are different than us. There are just so few forums for us to learn how to productively converse with a plurality of differing voices. And even if there were, would we willingly enter those forums when there are unlimited options of lesser resistance at our disposal?

I think we must. The landscape of new media, I believe, is such that society is only going to become more divided. There will be more turnover in Congress. Less ability to “reach across the aisle” without dire political consequences. It will not be easy to recover cordiality, and the values of respect and moderation in the public square will be lost, to disastrous effect. That is, unless we each make a point of combatting this in our own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this:

  • If you watch news on TV, watch a different channel every night, even if it pains you.
  • Don’t just pack your social media feeds with people who agree with you. Curate a diverse plurality of voices.
  • Avoid commenting on articles, Facebook posts or other online forums when you are angered or upset. Take time to think it over, and if you still want to say something, say it with care and nuance.
  • Just say no to the social media “instant commentary!” impulse.
  • Do you have at least some friends who have different political views than you? You should. Engage them in friendly, loving debate.
  • Avoid watching the “crazies” too much (whether on Fox News, MSNBC, or any other channel… you know of whom I speak).
  • Read books on complicated subjects, not just news articles or tweets.
  • Learn to value humility and (gasp!) be willing to change your views on something, if reason (not peer pressure) leads you there.
  • Read Marilynne Robinson.

And on that note, a wise quote by Marilynne Robinson’s stellar, prescient essay for our times, “Austerity as Ideology“:

Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase…

In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems like a thinning atmosphere. Who would have thought that a thing so central to human life could prove so vulnerable to human choices?