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 Continue reading