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“What gives you joy?” asked Stuart. “I don’t mean what do you EN-joy, but truly fills you up with an uncontrollable emotion, maybe brings you to tears?” 

I thought about this for a moment. It seems different things at different times set off the buzzer. 

“That’s a fuzzy question,” I said. “Joy is one of those words that covers a whole basket of things. Like ‘love.’ Everyone means something different by it.”

“In this case, I guess, I mean something that fills you up, as if emotion will burst you open. This is very different from pleasure or happiness. Originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you.”

“That’s a tall order,” I said. “How often does it even happen?”

“Maybe I’ve made it sound too grand,” Stuart said. “Sure, there is the big transcendent blast, but it can happen in smaller doses, too. The big ones are life changing, but the smaller ones carry you through an hour or two of rising above the ordinary.”

“As long as we leave love out of it, and theology, too, then I guess I get most joy from the arts: Music, dance, painting. Odd moments when I’m reading poetry and a line or idea takes off and I become emotional. It can make me weep uncontrollably.”

“Billy Blake said, ‘Excess of joy weeps.’”

“Of course, only when the performance is good — or not just good, but exceptional. Other times, I enjoy them, but those times that are transcendent are rare, but necessary.”

“Necessary?” 

“Yes. Just going to the symphony every week is fine, or to a play, or the ballet. But if once in a blue moon a performance doesn’t reach beyond that and pierce the essential innards of my psyche or soul or emotions — I don’t know what you call it — then it’s hard to justify the expense of buying the tickets. It’s that nearly-never performance that makes all the others worthwhile.”

“Anything else?” he asked. “I mean being an esthete is fine, but what about non-artistic things?”

“Certainly. Love has elevated me like that, although more often when I was young and an idiot. Now, it is seeing someone I love feel joy that raises my heart. When I was young and with the woman I was nuts over, seeing a breeze blow the hem of her skirt or the wrinkles of her eyes, or even the ridges of her knuckles would send shivers through my being. That was transcendent.

“Now the thrill comes from cooking for someone I care for and seeing them enjoy what I have prepared. That actually gives me something of the same feeling.”

“Interesting,” said Stuart. “Because I have this theory…”

Here we go, I thought. Buckle up. 

“… this theory that people are roughly divided into those who are what I might call ‘sensualists’ and those we might call ‘activists.’ There are other classes, too: There are the depressives who never feel that elation we call joy.

“This came to me when I asked Genevieve this question. Although playing viola with the orchestra is her job, nothing gives her greater pleasure in her off-hour time than playing quartets with friends, or accompanying on the piano as another friend sight-reads a sonata. Sitting in and playing music with others is for her the ultimate in joyfulness.”

“I recognize that,” I said. “Carole felt the same way about playing four-hand piano. The two players meld into a single entity in the music. It gave her deep pleasure. She often asked me to play recorder while she played piano. I usually declined: I did not get the same thrill she did, perhaps because I had no real talent for it. I did once sing Gutte Nacht from Winterreise as she accompanied. You would not have wanted to hear me, but it made her happy and that made me happy.”

“Yes, well, that is the activist, the one who gets joy from doing. But I thought of you, on the other hand. You observe. You watch. Your joy comes from seeing a well-performed ballet, or the rich gray-purple in the background of a Renaissance painting. It is the sensual side of things that fills your sails.”

“I never thought of myself as a sensualist,” I said. “I’m too dull and academic. But I see your point. It is through my senses that I apprehend the transcendent. Looking, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling: These are all real portals into the reality of the cosmos. And it is seeing them, like the stars and Milky Way in a truly dark night sky, that gives me a sense of something bigger and beyond myself.”

Stuart smiled. “That is exactly what I mean by ‘joy.’ It can be found in the sense of how you are connected to things outside your self. What I call activists, in this sense, are those who find that experience in caregiving, or hiking in nature, or playing music with others — something outside, bigger and more important. The sensualists are seeking the same, but find it in metaphor, in what they see and hear. The Beethoven symphony that is a metaphor for the struggle of life, or the Balanchine choreography that does the same for the dance of the cosmos.”

“When I see a great dance performance,” I said, “I feel in my own muscles the twisting and flexing of the dancers’ muscles. Hell, in a particularly good and athletic performance, I can feel it in my own body so much that I need liniment the next day.”

“Iris Murdoch once said we always seek out ways to ‘unself.’ Usually, we are stuck in our egos, which is a boring place to be, claustrophobic, anxious and lonely. We want to know there is a bigger place to be, in which we are a puzzle piece that fits a waiting empty spot. What is more, that puzzle is vast, extending to the ends of the cosmos. It what we feel when we magnify, like Mary in the Magnificat — ‘Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est’ — and extend our being out to the night sky and the bright pin pricks there.”

Aldous Huxley wrote that humans have “a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence. I know what Stuart was talking about. I have often felt it, even in an unguided universe.  

“Yet, there are those who don’t feel joy, or at least, when I ask, they seem puzzled, not sure what I mean by the word. These are people, I think, who either don’t have the gene for joy, or who are depressed and squeezed flat, or who have not yet found their capacity. Surely they had it when they were children: Kids seem to drink directly from a fountain of joy. Joy requires a certain lack of self-consciousness, an openness, even to make yourself goofy or admit to emotions that others may not feel. 

“Depression flattens the world out — talk about the flat-earth people — and the …”

“Well,” I interrupted, “what does it for you? You always have these theories, but they are never directly about you. What gives you the giddies?”

Stuart talks a lot, but seldom about himself. There is always something held back, as if his jibber-jabber were a way of shielding himself.  

“I dunno. Let me think. I’ve gotten old — we’ve both gotten old — and can look back on a long history of sorrows and joys, both those I’ve caused and those I’ve been dealt. I have to say that the sources of joy have changed radically over those years. It used to be I felt most awake and alive when I found a new lady love to dazzle me, but after three mangled marriages and …” 

Here, he looked toward the sky and sort of bit his lip as he used his fingers to count.

“Seven, yes, seven significant other relationships, the blush of that first encounter has gone. Now I’ve been with Genevieve for eight years and I feel I’ve finally settled in, and I have found that I sometimes can watch her sleep next to me and feel that sense of magnification, expansiveness, joy, just in seeing her, and feeling that we are joined as co-puzzle pieces.”

“So,” I asked, “is that activist or sensualist?”

“Maybe I need to rethink this,” he said. “There is something passive, not active in this sort of joy, but neither is it sensual. There is joy I find in simply its ‘is-ness,’ the fact of it, the actuality and not theoretical. The ‘is-ness.’ That’s the best term for it.”

“God tells Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ But you don’t need a deity for that to be true. The cosmos is that it is.”

Stuart looked at me. “I remember Joseph Campbell talking about a newborn bawling, and that it is its way of proclaiming a joy that says, ‘I exist,’ or, as you have it, ‘I am that I am.’ Perhaps we’re finally getting to the bottom of this.”

van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.

Buchenwald

Buchenwald

But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.

grunewald

pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.