When was the last time you felt true joy? What makes your body and mind vibrate? Cultural studies expert Agata Sikora puts us – and herself – under the microscope.
A couple holding hands, children jumping with enthusiasm, dogs barking playfully, a burst of laughter from friends sitting around a table, an improvised dance of happiness. What better symbol of the unification of humanity than this ‘divine spark’ which makes us all brothers? It’s good for the health, environmentally friendly, it opens us up to others; it really is hard to find a less controversial feeling than joy.
And yet, it is seen as ‘wild’, ‘childish’, ‘crazy’, and therefore not fitting for a rational, modern person. Many people are incapable of spontaneous enjoyment, apparently finding it easier to recognize anger or sadness than joy. Besides, in Poland – this country of partitions, slush and late trains – how can people who wag their tails at the world like Mr Peanutbutter be taken seriously?
In the revue of melancholy, self-destruction and dark humour that is the adult cartoon BoJack Horseman, the eternally enthusiastic anthropomorphized Labrador embodies the superficiality of the cult of positive thinking. The mandatory smile (‘Smile or Die’ announces the title of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book) leads to the displacement of sadness and the medicalization of mourning, and also blocks corrective actions – instead of demanding political change together, people individually celebrate magical thinking (because at the end of the day, ‘we just need to believe in ourselves’). And so, joy falls prey to ‘cruel optimism’ (according to Lauren Berlant, what you want turns out to be an obstacle to achieving well-being) – the unrealistic notions of joy mediated by the market block the possibility of experiencing it in real life.
And here the question arises: when you read the first sentences of this article (the couple holding hands, the playful kids, and so on), did you imagine yourself with Pete in battered trainers and a tatty fleece on your Saturday trip to the local greengrocer, your snot-nosed nephews jumping on the disintegrating Ikea couch, Rob with his oversized belly in a brownish green T-shirt (bless him, he never did know how to dress), and Katy suffering after a late night, all of them roaring with laughter at your silly joke in a kitchen crawling with dirty dishes? Do you associate joy with your own daily experiences, or images of it from adverts and films? And are you able to experience it with people you have no intimate connection with?
In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich emphasizes that in the Middle Ages, holidays and carnival were a time of closeness, drunkenness and feasting with loved ones, neighbours, acquaintances and strangers. The social order was suspended, gender roles and social hierarchies reversed, and sexual taboos eased; beggars dressed as kings, kings as beggars, and the streets were bursting with the energy of bodies liberated from the rules of refinement. Some researchers have viewed this as a space for the anarchic freedom of the people, others as merely a safety valve that allowed the maintenance of a strict hierarchy on a daily basis. Certainly, though, it was a common experience of joy, a celebration of a sense of community and an alleviation of individual fears.
However, the modern, centrally managed state began to perceive the dancing crowd as dangerous and sought to suppress – even ‘civilize’ – the carnival. The industrial revolution brought with it mass consumption; from then on, it was ‘things’ and the aura that surrounded them, not community-based interaction, that began to be associated with pleasure and satisfaction. Joy, individualized and privatized, has become entangled in fantasies of exotic settings, people more beautiful and more spontaneous than us… It has become an unattainable object of longing.
But there is another school of thinking. In her essay “Joy” from the collection Feel Free, Zadie Smith recalls that, until recently, she had experienced joy maybe five or six times in her life, and she’s not sure that she’d like to again. Unlike the pleasure you can experience every day thanks to ‘small’, repetitive things – eating a popsicle, telling your partner about people you saw on the street, or making offensive comments from your dog’s point of view – joy is an “admixture of terror, pain, and delight…” It is ecstatic and intense, like falling in love, giving birth, or a drug-induced trance. It transcends the boundaries of subjectivity: one is ‘in’ it rather than experiencing it.
Or take the scene from the film Immortal Beloved where Beethoven, already deaf, is conducting the first performance of his “Symphony No. 9” while remembering his childhood in the shadow of his brutal father. Following a panic-stricken escape at presto tempo, the tired boy lies down in a lake, conjuring an image from Adam Mickiewicz’s “Świteź” (“Stars above you and stars below you, and you shall see two moons”). Then the chorus erupts in an ode to joy, and we see him from above, lying in a flood of stars, as the camera gradually retreats – no longer from a lake, but from the cosmos in which the boy is slowly shrinking, to finally become just a dot, one of the millions lighting up the universe.
And one more trope, picked up by irreligious feminist Lynne Segal, the author of Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, from former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Williams notes that when we accompany a dying friend, sadness and mourning cannot stand the joy arising from the “overwhelming sense of being where you should be, being in tune with something or someone.” The Anglican priest shares in his sermons a thought close to the feminist ethics of care: “a truly fulfilled existence means accepting joyfully our dependence on one another,” because joy comes “from the outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty.”
So perhaps today – without the bodily closeness of group dance – we also hope to find some kind of unification in joy?
Several times in my life I have happened to be in the place described by Smith, where a feeling of heightened emotion intersects with pain, but I would never have thought to call it joy. It’s probably a matter of language. In English, joy has religious connotations and can be ‘overwhelming’; in Polish, only mediocre writers use it that way. The English word ‘joy’, a luminous, sharp stab, is more accommodating to the exceeding of the everyday experience than its mundane Slavic counterpart.
For me, the most beautiful thing about joy is its ordinariness – which is not to say that the intuitions connecting it with transcendence don’t set me on the right path. For when was the last time I felt it? I was as joyful as a child (“as a child!”) when, after many years, I came across an energetic Latin American song that my best friend and I once listened to at her grandparents’ house near Grójec while gorging on cherries (I immediately sent her a link, played it for my toddler to dance to, and again while writing this text). I feel it when someone helps me (thanks to Ł. for drawing my attention to Zadie Smith’s essay!); when someone discreetly looks out for me and forgives my weaknesses (like T. today, who had plenty of opportunity for modern knightly conduct as a result of my struggles with Excel); when I know that, despite the fact that I emigrated five years ago, there is a circle of people waiting for me in my hometown with whom I can start talking right off the bat as if we’d seen each other yesterday.
I derive joy from rhythm and movement – whether exercising the mind, the measure of a text, or a walk in the mountains. I love this little creature, agile and nimble, which gambols freely in my head, sometimes surprising even me. I don’t know how it manages to reconcile the principle of pleasure with deadlines, late nights and waiting for editors’ opinions.
Therefore, it is not spontaneous dancing in the street, nor running along a picture-perfect beach, nor secular transcendence, but simply an affirmation of the simplest relationships: with people, with ourselves, and with the world. And even now, I feel the joy of the less playful – not ‘wild’ exactly, but already taking a run-up, ready to jump and – right now! – taking off, just enough to turn on the bedside lamp, pull out my notebook and let the stream of words flow, fully aware of how ridiculous they might sound in broad daylight. It’s just that joy is at odds with every principle of decorum, because it is merely a game between the word, the world and the person, between me and you, it is simple trust (a surprising synonym!) – in myself and in you – that something as minor as a few words at the end of a column can be a small affirmation and a thread of community, clattering amusingly with Polish characters, pulsating, irresistible – joy [in Polish: radość – trans. note].
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster