Few pleasures have been readily available to me this week: watching the final sequence of Whiplash as Miles Teller frantically plays a jazz drum solo that perfectly animates the word ecstatic; listening to Brooke Fraser sing Crows & Locusts while reading essays on my phone. These are derivatives of my most enduring sources of pleasure: books, songs, movies.
The above is written in black ink in my notebook because I’m rereading an essay by Zadie Smith titled Joy. I do not derive pleasure from food like she claims, and do not yet believe that having children affords any special kind of pleasure. (Before you squeeze your face, think properly about what it means to have kids full-time—we all love the cute babies we meet on the bus.) But she likes people-watching, and I’m a first-rate “professional gawker” too.
One of the few pleasures living and commuting in Lagos affords me is sitting by the window seat in Danfos to watch Lagosians. Watching the prim sales girl in the morning—with a crew-cut and an heavily made-up face, clutching her pink clutch close to her chest while cat-walking within the limits her high-riding skirt will permit—become a disheveled slob in the evening: back slouched and body slack as she drags her feet home. Or the sharply dressed bank worker who is the same at morning and at night: tie in hand, face droopy as if he would rather be doing something else. Or the kings of the streets—touts sitting under seedy stalls in the mornings and evenings—who share blunt and crass jokes while waiting for the moment their inner-animals hidden under ripped bodies will be called to action.
For the past two weeks, however, I’ve been a homebody. My range of pleasures has therefore been limited to those stated in that first paragraph, and another that I’ve come to enjoy: texting friends. It’s really a lazy way to live, and my aching muscles testify to that.
An article in The Atlantic states that one of the symptoms of depression is anhedonia. I cannot have anhedonia as long as there are books in this world, therefore, I can never have depression. But this is silly and illogical. Another symptom stated in the piece is an unwillingness to work. Writing is work—at least getting a piece fit for publishing is. I have found that work near-impossible in the past few days. Maybe I’m not free from depression after all.
Talking is work too, and this, perhaps, explains my reluctance to leave the house to interact with other humans—but texting is not work. Texting is like writing that is not work. Now I’m just making excuses. Bottom line is: I’m not depressed; I just have a narrow range of pleasures.
Zadie attempts a description of the difference between pleasure and joy in the essay, as shown below:
“Occasionally the child too is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy and now must find some way to live with daily.”
She claims to have experienced joy on six occasions. It is such a particular list that I’m inclined to distrust it even before reading. I do not share any of the experiences she describes: I’ve never taken a high-inducing drug, never gone to a party to dance with strangers to EDM, and I’ve never really experienced the kind of “falling in love” that makes people do things like scale a fence and risk injury on its account.
The only thing I’ve experienced that seems to fit what she says “…mimicked joy’s conditions pretty well.” And, “…included, in minor form, the great struggle that tends to precede joy, and the feeling—once one is “in” joy—that the experiencing subject has somehow “entered” the emotion, and disappeared” is that which many others reading this post must have experienced too.
It often occurs after a misguided choice of breakfast—usually beans or one of its derivatives, or after eating ill-cooked vegetables, or just the petulant misbehavior of an incontinent belly. The experience is made even better if the belly begins to rumble at a place without easy access to a toilet. (But not so far as to fall into the kind of danger described humorously by Timi Yeseibo here.) The external anal sphincter muscles can then be held in place for just the right amount of time—all the parts of the body in tension—before finding a clean toilet, where the body can be let go to an engulfing relief. That is the first experience my mind associated with the kind of joy Zadie describes.
Of course this is not joy. If it were, I would spend my days longing to hold my shit together for the right moment when offloading it would bring maximum pleasure.
The description of joy I’m more inclined to trust is that of CS Lewis. In in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, he also delineated between Joy and Pleasure, saying Joy “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 … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
Dr. Jerry Root, explains in the video above that Lewis saw Joy as a deep seated longing in each of us questing for its proper object. It is clear that I’m still waiting for this joy. It’s perhaps why I’m hopping from book to book, going back to my favourite writers, watching my favourite movies, texting my favourite people, reviewing/reliving my pleasures, and hoping to be surprised by joy.
Featured image by Abigail keenan via Unsplash