Zadie Smith On Joy Vs. Pleasure


In “Joy” Zadie Smith discusses the difference between pleasure and joy. According to her, pleasure is just that—nothing more, nothing less. It is straightforward and therefore usually involves something rather trivial. A candy bar, for example, might bring someone pleasure because it’s uncomplicated and induces instant gratification. But it’s also primitive in nature.

A relationship, on the other hand, isn’t that simple, and therefore cannot be associated with easy pleasure but with joy, which Zadie calls “that mixture of terror, pain, and delight,” which she “find some way to live with daily.”

I guess one way of distinguishing joy from the rest of your emotions is by detecting that acute sensation of dread—dread that this joy will not last, or dread of the inevitable death of us all, which will halt this ecstatic sensation. For me, that feeling also defines love. I known I’m truly in love with someone if I’m terrified of our time together ceasing to exist.

Zadie compares joy to the feeling she had that one night “in the Fabric club, near the old Smithfield meat market, on a night sometimes in the year 1999 (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific) when the DJ mixed ‘Can I Kick It?’ and then ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ into the deep house track he had been seeming to play exclusively for the previous four hours,” or, the first time she tried ecstasy. Remembering the sensation she had that night, she felt confident to be able to detect future instances of joy. And while I have a hard time believing that Zadie would unabashedly encourage the use of ecstasy, she does still suggest that the sensation one feels on ecstasy is representative of all joy. Namely, that “horror and disappointment are usually not far behind.”

Sometimes, after losing a colossal joy, it’s easy to feel utterly worthless, that you’d rather denounce joy forever and only live with fleeting pleasures, if only to avoid ever feeling this pain again. Sometimes you feel helpless, hopeless, and upon seeing no light at the end of your dark and despairing tunnel, figure you may as well stop walking. During times like these I turn to Zadie Smith.

Zadie ended her article with a quote from writer Julian Barnes. Of mourning, he said, “It hurts just as much as it’s worth.” It’s at once discouraging—implying that all things worthy of your attention will hurt—and yet calming. Sometimes the only way to measure one’s joy is through one’s pain.