Ever since reading Zadie Smith’s essay “Joy” in the New York Review of Books (if you read no other link I post, read this one), I’ve been thinking about her definitions of joy and pleasure and how each relates to love.
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.
(I so love how she essays.)
I’ve been thinking about my dog, Roscoe, who is my most regular source of joy, which Smith describes as “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” I was nervous about this when I decided to adopt Roscoe: that committing to care for and, by inevitable extension, to love another creature would open me up to all sorts of uncomfortable risks. I rationalized this to myself by hoping that by the time Roscoe reached old age, I’d have a child, and this child’s existence would somehow make the death of a dog more bearable.
Maybe the timing was right for contemplating my dog’s mortality because on the morning I read Smith’s essay, Roscoe had awoken with a cough. He’d never had a cough in the three years I’ve had him, and when you wake late with a foggy, New-Year’s-Day headache and hear an unfamiliar deep hacking sound, you can’t help but panic. At first I was sure something was caught in his throat. I had no idea what it could be or how it might’ve gotten stuck there during his sleep but I nonetheless pried his jaws wide and shoved my hand in. Sticking your fingers down a dog’s throat must be an act of love. That tongue is the same tongue that licks dumpster juice off the pavement on rainy mornings. That is the mouth that chews chicken skin and cat feces with equal gusto.
I don’t know why, if it makes my heart shudder to hear my dog cough, I’ve ever imagined it would be a good idea to have a child. My relationship with Roscoe is mostly uncomplicated. He eats and sleeps and walks and gnaws on a cow femur. And I sit on the floor by his mat when I have papers to grade so he will rest his chin on my lap and make the work just slightly less tedious. Sometimes I ask Roscoe if he loves me, and he responds to the over-emphatic, joyful tones of my voice with a floor-thumping of the tail. Surely, it is not so easy to trick a child into such a display of love. Even now, with my sister and me well into adulthood, our family holidays accurately reflect Smith’s picture of joy: there is a small measure of pain, and terror, and delight.
It seems that joy, by its very nature, must contain the possibility of loss. And the greater the risk, the greater the joy. Smith’s distinction between joy and pleasure reminds me of the distinction between type-one and type-two fun. Rock climbing, for example, is most often a source of joy for me, but rarely a source of pure pleasure. Most of the time I’m actually climbing, that is when I’m tied into the sharp end of the rope and headed up a rock face, I am at least partially terrified. It’s the very risk of the sport (combined of course with the good company and the inspiring scenery) that makes it joyful, that buoys my motivation each summer.
I wonder also if the distinction between joy and pleasure is one way of thinking about the difference between love and a love story. Love is joyful (read: terrifying) but love stories are almost exclusively pleasurable. Falling in love throws into stark relief how much you stand to lose, which might explain why I clung so desperately to love in my early twenties: I had never known such exquisite delight and once I discovered it, I was terrified by the possibility of ever living without it.
This may also be why I inevitably cry at weddings. The risk two people are taking is, to me, at once admirable and utterly petrifying. And as soon as one wedding-party smile breaks into a teary grimace, my composure is lost, and my face too begins wrestling with joy’s complexities. True joy is both profound and rather ugly. So to my friends who have asked me to stand with them at the altar this summer: those will be tears of sheer terror streaming down my cheeks—no cause for alarm.
And thinking about all of this—the weddings, the crying, the terror, the love—reminds me of my very favorite love story of 2012. A few friends posted this slideshow on Facebook with comments about getting teary and, in the mood for procrastination, I clicked the link. I made the mistake of looking through the photos in public (I was ostensibly having writing time at a café down the street) because I hadn’t understood until I started scrolling through how literally friends must’ve meant their descriptions of teary-ness. I had to stop scrolling twice and switch over to reading e-mail in order to stop my lower lip from getting all shaky. I was unprepared for my own hot cheeks and swimming eyes, for how genuinely moved I would be by the joy of these couples who were, after many years together, finally able to marry in the eyes of the law.
To me, the truly profound thing about the photos is that, on the faces of the about-to-wed or the just-wed, you can see a kind of complex joy that contains—I suspect—all of the delight and pain and terror heterosexual couples experience when committing their lives to each other, but also what I can only imagine is the relief, and surprise, and sense of integrity that comes when loving someone has made you an outsider for most of your life and then, one day, your relationship is publically and legally sanctioned and legitimized. Of course as an unmarried heterosexual, I can only speculate about the experiences of these couples, but I can say that my own sense of vicarious joy—the terror and the admiration—was in overdrive.
That a government could feel justified in denying anyone who is willing to take on the risk of such a deep, complex joy is difficult for me to understand. After all, joy is a uniquely human capacity. (Roscoe will never get from me the joy I get from him. He’ll get pepperoni sticks and haunch scratches and a leg to rest his chin on, which in his world seems to be deep pleasure, but not as complex as joy.) So shouldn’t the willingness to brave the terror of truly loving someone, of formally and legally committing your life to theirs, be a basic civil and human right?