I was at a rock concert recently—the kind where the singer is 46, scraggly, parched, and won’t let his career go—watching everyone have more fun than me. This sort of scenario isn’t unusual. I’m a humbug, a grump, a curmudgeon. Basically all the titles that describe a writer. Hips thrusted to sultry songs. Arms shot up towards the sky, pushing against the flashing lights. I stood there, observing, thinking, analyzing, wondering what it all meant.
Let’s just say I have a hard time with joie de vivre, the enjoyment of life, or what some might call the triumph of spirit.
So does Phillip Lopate. In his canonical essay, “Against Joie de Vivre,” we see a thoughtful consideration of the idea that happiness can exist within social rituals: dinner parties, family game nights, picnics. The sorts of hallmark events where people are capable of basking in the tedium of everyday life, content and perhaps overwhelmed by the small things that a more cynical person would reject as banal. But attention is not wisdom. Need proof? What about the parent who watches over his kids without really seeing them? Or the singer at a concert who avoids feeling the futility of the performance by shutting her eyes and singing only to herself and the loved one she’s written her songs for?
As Lopate says, “anyone who recommends attention to the moment as a prescription for grateful wonder is only telling half the truth. To be happy one must pay attention, but to be unhappy one must also have paid attention.” Lopate didn’t enjoy his dinner party; he mopped up his evening, distilled it into detail, persuasion, and personal anecdote, and captivated an audience through his words. He turned to form: the essay. He turned to craft: narration. He went beyond trivialized social routine and into the deep hunger of someone who longs to experience the world by being both of and apart from a moment.
It’s not that “be, here, now” is wrong, it’s just that it isn’t everything. There’s another form of joy hidden in the need to reflect. Lopate says: “The present is not always an unwelcome guest, so long as it doesn't stay too long and cut into our time for remembering.” There is a dualism that allows you to live thoughtfully and inhabit the present so that you can write about it later. The essay allows you to experience life deeper at the same time that it removes you from it.
That night that I stood and gaped, I watched as people’s heads bobbed around me. The conga player’s palms crashed. The guitar player’s pale features melded into one another. The bass player leaned over his instrument, slapping the strings with his thick fingers. And when the house lights of the theatre washed over the sweating, sexualized crowd, I was there, alone, afraid I may have missed the joie de vivre prescribed by society. But, rather, I knew that later I would be home, in my room, nestled with a computer, storing it all away.
Rebecca Van Horn is a reader for Barnstorm and a first-year creative nonfiction student in the University of New Hampshire's MFA program.