The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Although Bertha Young was thirty, she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing.

—Katherine Mansfield, “Bliss”

Your breathing becomes shallow, as if the lungs are being squeezed. Your eyes gleam. The cheek muscles stretch the face into the hugest of smiles. There’s the urge to fling open the arms, to clap them together. To sweep up the nearest person in a dance. The knees may buckle, there may be tears too. Either way, joy can be a kind of violence, and always a SURPRISE. From the Old French joie (a jewel), this is an emotion that dazzles us into submission. It feels, as Katherine Mansfield put it, “as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe.”

One of the great definitions of joy comes from the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. A Jew banished from his religious community for believing that God could be found in trees and stones, he was condemned to wander around Holland without a family or home, earning a meagre living as a lens grinder. Believing the stories of our lives were fundamentally beyond our control, Spinoza linked joyfulness to the accidental and unforeseen. It surges up when something is better than we can possibly have imagined. “Joy is pleasure accompanied by the idea of something past, which has had an issue beyond our hope.”

The philosophers of the eighteenth century were more interested in happiness than the joy of serendipity and accidents. They spoke of happiness as something one should orchestrate for oneself, something to be pursued consciously (see: HAPPINESS). Against this backdrop, joy managed to protect its links with the unforeseen, still something discovered rather than made. Humility, gratitude and wonder—rather than pride and satisfaction—were its closest companions. Joy also meant sexual pleasures, not least those that arrived unannounced: in the Earl of Rochester’s poem “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” a premature ejaculation earns the unforgettable nickname “the clammy joys.”

What Bertha experiences in Katherine Mansfield’s story is an accidental transcendence—which, we discover later, may be the efflorescence of a nervous illness, what today we’d call mania. The late nineteenth century saw all kinds of positive mental states turned into psychiatric diagnoses (see: EUPHORIA; ECSTASY), but Mansfield studiously avoids the terminology in the way she describes Bertha’s mood. Instead, she leaves the experience uncategorized, intent on capturing some of joy’s giddy unpredictability, its refusal to sit quietly within the bounds of the ordinary and understood. The flipside of this, of course, is how quickly joy vanishes. Its fleeting nature was what most fascinated Virginia Woolf about this emotion, a writer not remembered for her capacity for joy. Yet, her diaries reveal she stumbled across it in the most unexpected places—in a well-polished door knocker, in the gleam of a window. She gave this experience of a sudden, revelatory joy to Mrs. Ramsay in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. Amid the banality of serving a family dinner, Mrs. Ramsay is struck by a feeling that life is gloriously perfect. Everything seems possible and right:

She hovered like a hawk suspended, like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body.

… “This cannot last,” she thought.