A Defense of Joy

JOY is such stuff as the hinges of Heaven’s doors are made of. So our fathers believed. So we supposed in childhood. Since then it has become the literary fashion to combat this idea. The writers would have us think of joy not as a supernal hinge, but as a pottle of hay, hung by a crafty creator before humanity’s asinine nose. The donkey is thus constantly incited to unrewarded efforts. And when he arrives at his goal he is either defrauded of the hay outright, or he dislikes it, or it disagrees with him.

Robert Louis Stevenson warns us that ‘ to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,’ portraying eloquently the emptiness and illusory character of achievement. And, of those who have attained, Mr. E. F. Benson exclaims, ‘God help them!’ These sayings are typical of a wide-spread literary fashion. Now to slander Mistress Joy to-day is a serious matter. For we are coming to realize that she is a far more important person than we had supposed; that she is, in fact, one of the chief managers of life. Instead of doing a modest little business in an obscure suburb, she has offices that embrace the whole first floor of humanity’s city hall.

Of course I do not doubt that our writer-friends note down the truth as they see it. But they see it imperfectly. They merely have a corner of one eye on a corner of the truth. Therefore they tell untruths that are the falser for being so beautifully and neatly expressed. There is no more treacherous guide than the consummate artist on the wrong tack. Those who decry the joy of achievement are like tyros at skating who venture alone upon thin ice, fall down, fall in, and insist on the way home that winter sports have been grossly overestimated. This outcry about men being unable to enjoy what they have attained is a half-truth which cannot skate two consecutive strokes in the right direction without the support of its better half. And its better half is the fact that one may enjoy achievement hugely, provided only he will get himself into proper condition.

Of course I am not for one moment denying that achievement is harder to enjoy than the hope of achievement. Undoubtedly the former lacks the glamour of the indistinct, ‘that sweet bloom of all that is far away.’ But our writerfriends overlook the fact that glamour and ‘sweet bloom’ are so much pepsin to help weak stomachs digest strong joy. If you would have the best possible time of it in the world, develop your joy-digesting apparatus to the point where it can, without a qualm, dispose of that tough morsel, the present, obvious and attained. There will always be enough of the unattained at table to furnish balanced rations.

‘God help theattainers!’ — forsooth! Why, the ideas which I have quoted, if they were carried to logical lengths would make heaven a farcical kill-joy, a weary, stale, flat, unprofitable morgue of disappointed hopes, with Ennui for janitor. I admit that the old heaven of the Semitic poets was constructed somewhat along these lines. But that is no real heaven where you do nothing but lie about in a rather overdecorated auditorium and rehearse the same chorus during a seven-day week. No; the real Heaven is a quiet, beautiful place where every one is a Heaven-born creator and is engaged — not caring in the least for food or sleep — in turning out, one after another, the greatest of masterpieces, and enjoying them to the quick, both while they are being done and when they are quite achieved.

I would not, however, fall into the opposite error and disparage the joy of traveling hopefully. It is doubtless easy to enjoy one’s self in a wayside aircastle of a hundred suites, equipped with self-starting servants, a Congressional Library, a National Gallery of pictures, a Vatican-full of sculpture, with Hoppe for billiard-marker, Paderewski to keep things going in the music room, Wright as grand hereditary master of the hangar, and Miss Annette Kellerman in charge of the swimming pool, keeping Mumm about the winecellar. I am not denying that such a castle is easier to enjoy before the air has been squeezed out of it by the horny clutch of reality, which moves it to the journey’s end and sets it down with a jar in its fifty-foot lot, complete with seven rooms and bath, and only half an hour from the depot. But this is not for one moment admitting the contention of the lords of literature that the air-castle has a monopoly of joy, while the seven rooms and bath have a monopoly of disillusionized boredom and anguish of mind. If your before-mentioned apparatus is only in working order, you can have no end of joy out of the cottage. And any morning before breakfast you can build another, and vastly superior, air-castle on the vacant land behind the wood-shed.

‘What is all this,’ I hear the reader ask, ‘about a joy-digesting apparatus? ’

It consists of four parts. Physical exuberance is the first. To a considerable extent joy depends on exuberant health. The joy of artistic creation, for instance, lies not so intensely and intoxicatingly in what you may some time accomplish as in what has actually just started into life under your pencil or clayey thumb, your bow or brush. For what you are about to receive, the Lord, as a rule, makes you duly thankful. But with the thankfulness is always mingled the shadowy apprehension that your powers may fail you when next you wish to use them. Thus the joy of anticipatory creation is akin to pain. It holds no such pure bliss as actual creation. When you are in full swing, what you have just finished (unless you are exhausted) seems to you nearly always the best piece of work that you have ever done. For your critical, inhibitory apparatus is temporarily paralyzed by the intoxication of the moment. What makes so many artists fail at these times to enjoy a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of its opposite, is that they do not train their bodies ’like a strong man to run a race,’ and make and keep them exuberant. The actual toil takes so much of their meagre vitality that they have too little left with which to enjoy the resulting achievement. If they become ever so slightly intoxicated over the work, they have a dreadful morning after, whose pain they read back into the joy preceding. And then they groan out that all is vanity, and slander joy by calling it a pottle of hay.

It takes so much vitality to enjoy achievement because achievement is something finished. And you cannot enjoy what is finished, in art for instance, without re-creating it for yourself. But, though re-creation demands almost as much vital overplus as creation, the layman should realize that he has, as a rule, far more of this overplus than the pallid, anæmic race of artists. And he should accordingly discount their lamentations over the vanity of achievement.

The reason Hazlitt took no pleasure in writing, and in having written, his delicious essays is that he did not know how to take proper care of his body. To be extremely antithetical, I, on the other hand, take so much pleasure in writing and in having written these essays of mine (which are no hundredth part as beautiful, witty, wise, or brilliant as Hazlitt’s) that the leaden showers of drudgery, discouragement, and disillusionment which accompany and follow almost every one of them, and the need of Spartan training for their sake, hardly displace a drop from the bucket of joy that the work brings.

Why? Because ‘I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.’ This procedure has meant so much vital overplus that long ago I spurted and caught up with my pottle of joy. And, finding that it made a cud of unimagined flavor and durability, I substituted for the pottle a placard to this effect: —


This placard, hung always before me, is a reminder that a decent respect for t he laws of good sportsmanship requires me to keep in as hard condition as possible for the hundred-yard dash called Life. Such a regimen pays thousands of per cent in yearly dividends.

Exuberance is an alembic which transforms all things into joy — even sorrow itself. I wonder if any one seriously doubts that it was just this which was giving Browning’s young David such a glorious time of it when he broke into that jubilant war-whoop about ‘our manhood’s prime vigor’ and ‘the wild joys of living.’

The physical variety of exuberance, once won, makes easy the winning of the mental variety. If your body is shouting for joy over the mere act of living, mental calisthenics no longer appear so impossibly irksome. And anyway, the discipline of your physical training has induced your will to put up with a good deal of irksomeness. This is partly because its eye is fixed on something beyond the far-off, divine event of achieving concentration on one subject for five minutes without allowing the mind to wander from it more than twenty-five times. That something is a keenness of perception which makes any given fragment of nature or human nature or art, however seemingly barren and commonplace, endlessly alive with possibilities of joyful discovery, — with possibilities, even, of a developing imagination. For the auto-comrade, your better self, is a magician. He can get something out of nothing.

At this stage of your development you will probably discover in yourself enough mental adroitness and power of concentration to enable you to weed all discordant thoughts out of your mind. As you wander through your mental pleasure-grounds, whenever you come upon an ugly int ruder of a thought which might bloom into some poisonous emotion such as fear, envy, hate, remorse, anger, and the like, there is only one right way to treat it. Pull it up like a weed; drop it on the rubbish heap as if it were a stinging nettle; and let some harmonious thought grow in its place. There is no more reckless consumer of all kinds of exuberance than the discordant thought, and weeding it out saves such an amazing quantity of eau de vie wherewith to water the garden of joy, that with it in hand every man may be his own Burbank.

When you have won physical and mental exuberance, you will have pleased your auto-comrade to such an extent that he will most likely startle and delight you with a birthday present as the reward of virtue. Some fine morning you will climb out of the right side of your bed and come whistling down to breakfast and find by your plate a neat packet of spiritual exuberance with his best wishes. Mental and spiritual exuberance, then, are the second and third parts of the joy-digesting apparatus. I think there is no need of dwelling on their efficacy in helping one to enjoy achievement. Let us pass, therefore, to the fourth and last part, which is self-restraint.

Perhaps the gravest count in the indictment of attainment is its sameness, its dry monotony. On the way to it (the writers say), you are constantly falling in with something new. But, once there, you must abandon the variegated delights of yesterday and settle down, to-day and forever, to the same old thing. In this connection I recall an epigram of Professor Woodrow Wilson’s. He was lecturing to us young Princetonians about Gladstone’s ability to make any subject of absorbing interest, even a four hours’ speech on the budget. ‘Young gentlemen,’ cried the professor, ‘it is not the subject that is dry. It is you that are dry!’ Similarly, it is not attainment that is dry; it is the attainers, — who fondly suppose that now, having attained, they have no further use for the exuberance of body, mind, and spirit or the self-restraint which helped them toward their goal. Particularly the self-restraint. One chief reason why the thing attained so often and so quickly palls is that men seek to enjoy it immoderately. Why, if Ponce de Leon had found the fountain of youth and drunk of it as bibulously as we are apt to guzzle the cup of achievement, he would in no time have turned himself into an embryo! Even traveling hopefully would pall if one kept at it twenty-four hours a day. Just feast on the rich food of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony morning, noon, and night, for a few months and see how you feel. There is no other way. Achievement must be moderately indulged in, not made the pretext for a debauch. If one has achieved a new cottage, for example, let him take numerous week-end vacations from it. And let not an author sit down and read through his own book the moment it comes from the binder. A few more months will suffice to blur the memory of those irrevocable, nauseating foundry proofs. If he forbears — instead of being sickened by the stuff, no gentle reader, I venture to predict, will be more keenly and delicately intrigued by the volume’s vigors and subtleties.

If you have just made your fortune, be sure, in the course of your Continental wanderings, to take many a third-class carriage full of witty peasants, and stop at many an ‘unpretentious’ inn ‘Of the White Hind,’ with bowered rose-garden and bowling-green running down to the trout-filled river, and mine ample hostess herself to make and bring you the dish for which she is famous over half the countryside. Thus you will increase by at least one Baedekerian star-power the lustre of t he next Grand Hotel Royal de l’ Universe which may receive you.

And be sure to alternate pedestrianism with motoring, and the ‘peanut’ gallery with the stage-box before the latter becomes a chestnut. Be sure to punctuate with stag vacations long periods of domestic felicity. When Solomon declared that all was vanity and vexation of spirit I suspect that he had been more than unusually intemperate in frequenting the hymeneal altar.

Why is it that the young painters, musicians, and playwrights who win fame and fortune as heroes in the novels of Mr. E. F. Benson enjoy achievement so hugely? Simply because they are exuberant in mind, body, and spirit, and, if not averse to brandy and soda, are in other ways at least, paragons of moderation. And yet, in his Book of Months, Mr. Benson requests God to help those who have attained!

With this fourfold equipment of the three exuberances and moderation, I defy Solomon himself in all his glory not to enjoy the situation immensely and settle down in high good humor and content with the paltry few scores of wives already attained. I defy him not to enjoy even his fame.

We have heard much from the gloomily illustrious about the fraudulent promise of the cup of fame. At a distance it seems genuine, they admit. But only step up and peer over the jeweled rim, and all you find there is dust and ashes, vanity and vexation of spirit. If a man holds this view, however, you may be rather sure that he belongs to the bourgeois great. For it is just as bourgeois to win fame and then not know what on earth to do with it, as it is to win fortune and then not know what on earth to do with it. The more cultivated a famous man is, the more he must enjoy the situation ; for along with his dry scrag of fame, the more he must have of the sauce which alone makes it palatable. The recipe for this sauce runs as follows: to one amphoraful best physical exuberance add spice of keen perception, cream of imagination, and fruits of the spirit. Serve with grain of salt.

That famous person is gravyless who can, without a tingle of joy, overhear the couple in the next steamer-chairs casually mentioning his name to each other as an accepted and honored household word. He has no sauce for his scrag if he, unmoved, can see the face of some beautiful child in the holiday crowd suddenly illuminated by the pleasure of recognizing him, from his pictures, as the author of her favorite story. He is bourgeois if it gives him no joy when the weight of his name swings the beam toward the good cause; or when the mail brings luminous comprehension and gratitude from the perfect stranger in Topeka or Tokyo. No; fame to the truly cultivated should be fully as enjoyable as traveling hopefully toward fame.

In certain other cases, indeed, attainment is even more delicious than the hope thereof. Think of the long, cool drink at the New Mexican pueblo after a day in the incandescent desert, with your tongue gradually enlarging itself from thirst. Has not the new president’s aged father a slightly better time at the inauguration of his son than he had at any time during the fifty years of hoping for and predicting that consummation? Does not the successful altruist enjoy more keenly the certainty of having made the world a better place to live in, than he had enjoyed the hope of achieving that desirable end? Can there be any comparison between the joys of the tempest-driven soul aspiring, now hopefully, now despairingly, to port, and the joys of the same soul which has at last found a perfect haven in the heart of God?

And still the writers go on talking of joy as if it. were a pottle of hay, — a flimsy fraud, — and of attainment as if it were as comfortless as the plight of a hobbled mule afflicted with indigestion. Why do they not realize, at least, that their every thrill of response to a beautiful note, their every laugh of delighted comprehension of Hazlitt or Crothers, is in itself attainment? The creative appreciator of art is always at his goal. And the much-maligned present is the only time at our disposal in which to enjoy the much-advertised future.

Too bad that our literary friends should have gone to extremes on this point! If Robert Louis Stevenson had noted that ‘to travel hopefully is an easier thing than to arrive,’ he would have hit the truth. If Mr. Benson had said, ‘ If you attain, God help you bountifully to exuberance,’ etc., that would have been unexceptionable. It would even have been a more useful — though slightly supererogatory — service, to point out for the million-and-flrst time that achievement is not all that it seems to be, from a considerable distance. In other words, that the laws of perspective will not budge. These writers would thus quite sufficiently have played dentist to Disappointment and extracted his venomous fangs for us in advance. What the gentlemen really should have done was to perform the dentistry first, reminding us once again that a part of attainment is illusory and consists of such stuff as dreams — good and bad — are made of. Then, per contra, they should have demonstrated attainment’s good points, finally leading up to its supreme advantage. This advantage is — its strategic position.

Arriving beats hoping to arrive, in this: that while the hoper is so keenly hopeful that he has little attention to spare for anything besides the future, the arriver may take a broader, more leisurely survey of things. The hoper’s eyes are glued to the distant peak. The attainer of that peak may recover his breath and enjoy a complete panorama of his present achievement, and may amuse himself besides by reclimbing the mountain in retrospect. He has also yonder farther and loftier peak in his eye, which he may now look forward to attacking the week after next; for this little preliminary jaunt is giving him his mountain legs. Hence, while the hoper enjoys only the future, the achiever, if his joy-digesting apparatus be working properly, rejoices with exceeding great joy in past, present, and future alike. He has an advantage of three to one over the merely hopeful traveler. And when they meet this is the song he sings: —

Mistress Joy is at your side
Waiting to become a bride.
Soft! Restrain your jubilation.
That ripe mouth may not be kissed
Ere you stand examination.
Mistress Joy’s a eugenist.
Is your crony Moderation?
Do your senses say you sooth?
Are your veins the kind that tingle?
Is your soul awake in truth?
If these traits in you commingle
Joy no more shall leave you single.