Thursday, December 20, 2012

Zadie Smith’s “Joy”

In the absurdly narrow Twitterverse I inhabit, the name Zadie Smith has been popping up with alarming frequency. See, on Twitter, I limit myself to 20 Follows. That’s narrow. I know this runs counter to the notion of cramming your head with as much useless mini-information as possible, but I don’t care. When I exceed the 20 limit, I kill one of my Follows.

I. Just. Don’t. Have. The. Time.

The majority of those I follow are Catholickish (Benedict XVI, Thomas Peters, Creative Minority Report, e.g.), but several are bookish, including NY Times Books, LA Times Books, and NY Review of Books. Zadie Smith seems to be making news in the literary world at this precise nano-moment. I’m betting she has a new book out.

I call the frequency of her popping up in my own private Twitterverse alarming because until today, I didn’t know who she is, or even that she was not a he. And yet I am well aware that Zadie Smith is a name to be reckoned with, a Name I Should Know—like Salinger in the 50s, Pynchon in the 70s, or Wallace (David Foster) forever.

How do I know this about Smith’s name? The way I know the answers to the Saturday Times crossword. Meaning that my head is already crammed with mini-information. Just don’t ask me what Smith has written, or whether it’s in English.

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books Ms. Smith writes about “Joy” in a sadly joyless way. Of course, her writing has style, but her lack of joy is what stings.

“It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy,” she begins, and eventually she does so. Pleasure, Smith writes, is something we have, joy something we are or are part of. This sounds like a profound distinction until Smith states that she has known joy five times in her life, no, “let’s call it six.” Then she explains that—

Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed. It is hard to arrive at generalities in the face of such a small and varied collection of data. 

Much of the rest of the article is taken up with the one time—or was it two?—she took the drug ecstasy, admittedly “the first generation of the [drug]” so that she experienced “none of the adverse, occasionally lethal reactions we now know others suffered.” Thank God for that. It’s good to know that 16 to 33 percent of all her joy was the result of this designer amphetamine.

There follow long descriptions of a DJ mixing “Can I Kick It?” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” topless men and women who wore “strange aprons, fashionable at the time, that covered just the front of one’s torso,” a “rail-thin man with enormous eyes [reaching] across a sea of bodies for my hand”—and “everybody danced.”

What a beautiful summary of empty “joy” in today’s flattened culture: and everybody danced.

Smith’s article ends with “real love,” apparently one of the six joyful things (moments?) in her life. “Real love,” she writes, “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. You were holding my feet on the train to the bus that would take us there. We were heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile. That was joy. 

There is admittedly a lovely wave of the hand here to her husband and the father of her child, signaled by the sudden switch to second person.

But it’s no good thinking about or discussing it. It has no place next to the furious argument about who cleaned the house or picked up the child. It is irrelevant when sitting peacefully, watching an old movie, or doing an impression of two old ladies in a shop, or as I eat a popsicle while you scowl at me, or when working on different floors of the library. It 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?

Joy “has very little real pleasure in it”? “The everyday” is bereft of joy? And yet without joy “how would we live”? The despair here feels thick enough to slice.

And then the joy ends, or extends itself into something different:

Sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. 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? It should be noted that an equally dangerous joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.

Such “joy” to end in such nothingness! What a bleak vision!

Smith’s article straggles on into a final tacked-on paragraph about “the writer Julian Barnes,” whom I don’t even know that I should know.

Sometimes I am appalled at myself for wanting to know all of the “in” authors, the “hot” culture-makers, when all they have to offer me is despair.

1 comment:

  1. While I would agree that Smith's article has moments of "despair" within it, as a whole she points to a truth much overlooked by todays' society. There is a fundamental difference between pleasure and joy, the latter being more important. We find pleasure in everyday things (some live their lives in pursuit of it, but it's often empty). Joy is living the life of our own choosing, being true to oneself and sharing it with those that bring us more joy - a partner, spouse, child. Joy is distinctly human because often the loss of joy causes so much pain, where as pleasure can be replaced by something else. Smith chooses her joys carefully because she knows that once they're gone they can't be recreated.


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