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Adam Potkay. The Story of Joy: From the Bible to Late Romanticism, Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN-13: 9780521879118. Price: $99.00

  • Stephen Prickett

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  • Stephen Prickett
    University of Kent

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What is ‘joy’? Is it a universal experience, easily translated into common equivalents in every major language, or is it a culture-specific phenomenon, peculiar to the European Judeo-Christian traditions? Is it a recognizable constant across the centuries, or has it, like so many words, evolved and changed over time so that the so-called joys of the early Christian mystics and Desert Fathers would be scarcely recognizable as ecstatic pleasures today?

By confining himself to the biblically-based cultures of Europe and America, Potkay makes no attempt to answer the first question, which is a pity, since it would have been interesting to know if religions of total renunciation, such as Buddhism, have a place (and, indeed, a separate word) for the absolute heights of personal happiness. Is it possible, for instance, that, as some have claimed for the idea of being ‘in love’, the idea of joy was unique (at least in its early stages) to the kinds of personal self-consciousness that grew out of the Western literary tradition, and is absent from other parallel cultures? It is the kind of question that might fascinate a Theodore Zeldin. But for practical reasons Potkay is probably wise in confining himself to the mainstream European tradition where there is enough material for half-a-dozen such studies without venturing further afield.

But within his given framework Potkay has several theses to explore simultaneously. One concerns the historical progression already mentioned. Starting with the Old Testament (but not entirely neglecting Classical Greece or even the Upanishads), he notes the joyous expectations of the early Christians, and follows joy down the centuries through the erotic/religious joys of the middle ages, past the Reformation and Enlightenment to nineteenth century Romanticism and its many (often contradictory) offshoots. Here Potkay’s progress is mostly predictable, and, though not without interesting and even quirky insights, is more a matter of heaping up and adumbrating examples than tracing continuities or radical changes. Though frustrating for the reader looking for the ‘story’ of joy as a progressive narrative, this is understandable. As Potkay shows very effectively, what starts primarily as a religious experience transfers by analogy to erotic love, and finally to aesthetics and even tragedy. But this ‘evolution’ does not mean that the original forms: religious ecstasy or erotic love then cease to happen. St Teresa of Avila is a contemporary of sixteenth-century love poets; John and Charles Wesley write of joy in the same era as Fielding; Hans Urs von Balthazar writes of the ‘irruption’ of divine joy in the middle of the twentieth century long after Nietzsche has proclaimed the death of God, and the Nazis ‘strength through joy’.

Alongside this, however, is a second thesis, drawn from popular post-Freudian psychology (Kristeva, Nussbaum etc.) which seeks to ‘explain’ joy in terms of the adult’s indebtedness to infantile pre-cognitive experiences. For me, at any rate, this was an unwelcome distraction for two reasons. Firstly, it tacitly assumes that whereas early Christian mystics or seventeenth-century lovers were driven by desires and reflexes they did not (and could not) understand, we, with our superior knowledge of the human mind, can suss them out for what they really were – a view that seems to me both patronizing and parochial. Moreover, this assumption is a piece of false logic: it assumes that the higher (in the form of aesthetic expression – whether religious or erotic) can be ‘explained’ by the lower (early childhood experiences). We were all children; by definition very few of us reach the spiritual or aesthetic achievements of the great mystics, saints, and poets.

This uneasy sense that what Potkay calls the ‘story’ of joy is being stretched to fit a procrustean bed of somewhat old-fashioned psychology is partly alleviated by the lack of overt psychologising in the middle chapters of the book, which deal intelligently with some of the great Romantic poets: Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth in particular. There is also a splendid chapter on the history of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and Beethoven’s adaptations of it for his Ninth Symphony – only slightly dented by his description of the British academic Sir John Keegan as ‘America’s leading military historian’. But even here the tendency to classify by labels is not entirely absent. Thus Blake, Shelley, and Joseph Smith (of all people) are lumped together under the label ‘post-Christians’. This may apply to Smith, but hardly to Shelley in the same sense, and Blake presents a more difficult and complex case altogether. If one takes his controversy with Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible, (at which Wordsworth was also outraged) most modern Christians would surely see Blake’s as the more ‘Christian’ position. Eighteenth-century rational Christianity was in some ways an aberration – and especially with regard to joy: what other age disapproved so vehemently of ‘enthusiasm’? Thus to discuss the ‘age of enlightenment’ in terms of the ‘ethical joys’ of Shaftsbury, Young and Fielding, and to ignore the far more dramatic eruptions of joy in the counter-cultural hymns and preaching of Whitfield and the Wesleys, is a severe distortion of the emotional history of the eighteenth century, and makes it more difficult to see the common roots of the Romanticisms of Blake, Coleridge, Shelley and Wordsworth alike. The parallels between Coleridge’s ‘Dejection’ and some of John Wesley’s hymns are very striking.

Potkay is on surer ground again with a very interesting discussion of the late Romanticism of Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche and Yeats at the end of the nineteenth century. Finding tragedy witnessing to the joy of creation is not entirely original to them, but the theorization of it at this period was surely unique, and Potkay is quite right to link such Wagnerian joys with some of the worst aspects of both Nazi and Soviet propaganda. Joy did indeed, as he says, ‘get a bad reputation’ in the twentieth century. There is a particularly poignant story of a children’s choir made to rehearse the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth in one of the lavatory blocks at Auschwitz – for reasons that are still not clear.

As observed, unusual extensions of joy do not preclude older forms. Despite the twentieth-century horrors of Fascism and Communism, joy in its older sense was still around. But here Potkay’s account, as he approaches our own time, becomes increasingly parochial, centered more and more on the USA (only in some superficial senses the world’s most pluralistic culture) discussing American evangelicalism, conservationism, and finally Hollywood. Turning away from the rest of the world, and great works of spirituality or high art of the past, Potkay seeks to illustrate ‘joy’ in our own time by ephemera and pop-culture – cinema (Thelma and Louise), rock groups (Led Zeppelin) and other expressions of what he calls the ‘Dionysian current’. Whether because he feels that high art is elitist and has failed to describe joy in our own time, or whether he believes that because ours is a democratic age that should measure joy by quantity rather than quality is not clear, but the idea that there is no joy in current literature seems questionable, to say the least. There is, for instance, no mention of even the names of Auden, Eliot (yes, even he did joy!) or Betjeman – all three of whom find joy in the Yeatsian foul rag-and-boneshop of the human heart. In novels, what about the ending of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado – or, in some ways more remarkable for its unexpectedness, the release from the broom-cupboard in William Golding’s Free Fall? Nevertheless, Potkay’s final section, entitled ‘American Beauty: Why the story of joy still matters,’ seems to suggest that the chief source of aesthetic joy in our time lies in film. The case that joy has here annexed yet another dramatic medium is certainly arguable; the problem for me is his choice of movie. Putting Sam Mendes’ 1999 American Beauty beside the works of Augustine, Spenser, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Schiller, and the other figures Potkay discusses earlier, does it few favours. Indeed, I could not restrain a wry European smile that the only thing Potkay did not see fit to comment on in his painstaking account of the plot was the fact that the central character, Lester, was shot by his neighbour. It certainly gives a new twist to the question that prompted the story of the Good Samaritan.

Maybe such a ‘story of joy’ is an impossible task. This version is an eccentric and selective personal excursion into the realms of joy, neither theoretical guide nor entertaining story in the normal senses. With so much potential material, the problem is either to show some kind of emotional evolution, illustrated by significant historical examples, or to deny any such progression, and simply look for ‘big moments’ of joy. Potkay seems to be promising the former, but more often produces something like the latter – but even here the bathos of American Beauty seems dispiritingly out of place.