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Adam Potkay, The Story of Joy: From the Bible to Late Romanticism

Sunday, August 2, 2009 - 08:14
Adam Potkay, The Story of Joy: From the Bible to Late Romanticism. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 318pp. ISBN-13: 9780521879118 (Hdbk.), $103.99

Reviewed by
Matthew VanWinkle
Ohio University

Adam Potkay’s ambitious study provides a deep background for a word of particular interest to Romantic era writers, a word that since has fallen into relative disfavor. By tracing instances of joy through a range of religious and literary texts, Potkay seeks to establish two constants in its variable history. The first is that joy, as distinct from words or concepts nearly synonymous, bears a close relationship to narrative. The second is that joy is inextricably involved with questions of ethics. Given how rapidly he surveys two and a half millennia of cultural history in the West, Potkay cannot always give each of these claims equal or consistent attention. Even so, he develops these claims persuasively, supporting them with a richness of detail and a clarity that still recognizes complexity. The result is a thoughtful and a bracing book that suggests both the need for and the appeal of further scholarly interest in its subject.

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding supplies Potkay’s initial definition of joy: “a delight of the Mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a Good” (4). With this formulation as the foundation for the ethical dimension of joy, Potkay articulates its narrative features in terms of reunion and fulfillment. Its unique relationship to narrative distinguishes joy from the emotions and experiences that it otherwise closely resembles. Unlike happiness, joy cannot be pursued; it is a something given, usually unexpected in its arrival no matter how long it has been anticipated. Unlike ecstasy, joy retains some sense of self, however transformed; it never fully eradicates individual personality. Happiness always tells the same story of virtue, while the radical disruption of ecstasy resists narration altogether. Joy is a resting place, if not entirely a conclusion, the satisfaction of desire rather than the keenest experience of it. This hesitation between expectation and completion means that it has a wider variety of stories to tell.

If its uncertain proximity to conclusion gives joy a narrative vitality, it also complicates its ethical significance. Taking the gospel of John as the point of departure for his first chapter, Potkay emphasizes the ways in which joy locates the tension between self and other in the Christian tradition. The joy of salvation involves either the absorption of the self in a larger good or the participation of a transformed self in this same good. In both cases the self finds its reward as a member of a chosen community, in a belonging that surpasses longing. Yet the unity of this belonging defines itself against a recalcitrant larger world. In its most extreme form, as it sometimes appears in the writings of Augustine, the joyous reunion with God precludes even this belonging; enjoying the company of one’s fellow believers becomes only a means to the greater end. While Aquinas, supplementing the gospel of John with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, reasserts the virtue of finding joy in one’s fellow creatures, the ambiguities of individual and communal salvation remain a concern both for eschatology and for psychology.

A version of this concern becomes even more acute in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, as Potkay argues in his third chapter. As sacramental traditions lose some of their ability to reassure, the need to display the conviction of one’s salvation grows more urgent. Where Augustine might have recognized a serene, introspective sense of fullness as joy, Luther places a new emphasis on joy as the public expression of gladness. At the same time, Luther acknowledges that the expression of joy does not in itself produce the foretaste of reunion with God that it hopes to represent. This disparity provokes unprecedented misgivings over the dangers of joylessness. Potkay expertly explores the significance of these misgivings in the first book of The Faerie Queene, where Redcrosse is unable to fully vanquish—indeed, comes to resemble in subtle ways—the treacherous Sans-Joy. The perils of joylessness also shadow the sermons of John Donne, whose personal religious history (Potkay suggests) would make the story of joy as reunion especially alluring and fraught. On one hand, Donne’s championing of ecclesiastical joy “would seem to allow for an enlightened religious pluralism.” On the other, “its stance of embattled group separatism generates further, intra-group separatism” (87-88). The inner experience of joy is shared by all denominations, eroding their ostensible differences; the increasingly various ways of articulating this experience reinforce these differences.

To this point the eschatological significance of joy frequently obscures its ethical dimension; Bunyan’s pilgrim earns his place in the heavenly choir in part by turning his back on those closest to him. Potkay’s fourth chapter proposes that the moral philosophy of the eighteenth century gives renewed (perhaps unprecedented) attention to joy’s ethical characteristics. Shaftesbury, drawing eclectically and indirectly from the Stoics, attributes joy to the contemplation of benevolent action, usually but not exclusively one’s own. Provocatively, Shaftesbury detaches joy’s delight from any system of posthumous retribution; it is an attendant virtue rather than a primary goal, ratifying moral ends without becoming an end in itself. Evangelicals throughout the eighteenth century objected to this vision of joy, arguing that it proceeded from an overly optimistic vision of fallen human nature. For those drawn to Shaftesbury’s naturalistic morality grounded in emotional experience, however, joy becomes at the same time more various and less urgent than it was for previous ages. Potkay illustrates this new variety with a deft reading of Joseph Andrews. Fielding’s novel presents the earthier joy of Joseph and Fanny reunited alongside Father Adams’s more philosophic delight in contemplating their reunion. This sympathetic response marks a class difference, more immediate in Shaftesbury’s benign aristocratic condescension but still palpable in Fielding. Joy as a primarily emotional response even in the high-minded parson emphasizes the novel’s moral that “justice, fled from the institutions raised in its name, is to be found in the untutored responses of good-hearted country gentlemen” (111). “Untutored” clashes with “gentleman” here; if earthly joys are leveling in some respects, they remain distinct in others.

Wordsworthian joy, the focus of Potkay’s fifth chapter, marks the limit of ethical joy as articulated by Enlightenment writers. At first glance “The Old Cumberland Beggar” offers a rustic and circumspect version of Shaftesbury’s urbane and magnanimous delight in philanthropy. Even as it approves the edifying generosity that the beggar elicits, however, the poem seems to recognize that this is an affective economy on the brink of extinction. Small, familiar charities, the poor extending aid to the absolutely destitute, can only afford to help the neediest few; the wider poverty of urban settings dwarfs this modestly benign impulse. Turning from this limit, Wordsworth finds in “Tintern Abbey” a joy grounded in the recognition of mere being, in a sense of participation in the larger whole of nature. This joy imposes limits of its own, demanding in practice the disengagement from the political sympathies of Wordsworth’s youth. In theory, however, it is more radically leveling than these sympathies, situating human consciousness as a thing among other things in the natural world. We are not only not superior to each other, we are not even superior to the nonhuman in our profound connection to it. This diffusive sense of “we” that arises from Wordsworthian joy, Potkay contends, stands as a chastening influence on the poet’s sublimely egotistical eye. It also locates precisely what the Victorians found so moving about Wordsworth, and not only as consolation for the dust and din of an abrasive existence. The elation of his natural piety reserved a potential for utopian renewal in this life rather than the next.

Where Wordsworthian joy produces a diffuse but palpable sense of participation in a larger whole, joy for Coleridge remains a vicarious consolation to a detached observer. Potkay calls this vision of joy “aesthetic,” the contemplation of feeling mediated through others rather than the immediate experience of passion itself. In poems such as “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and “The Nightingale,” Coleridge strives to imagine the pure rejoicing of another in a purely disinterested way. This joy is rarer than Wordsworth’s, but also, in its attention to others, more genuinely liberating. In support of this view Potkay strikingly but persuasively reads the train of substitutions in the revisions of “Dejection” as not merely evasive or defensive. They speak instead to the joy of others as an experience that transcends individual concerns. In spite of this liberation, however, a liberation that Potkay shrewdly reads as influencing later women poets such as Hemans and Dickinson, joy doesn’t emancipate Coleridge himself. The disadvantage of aesthetic joy is its neediness, its insistence that others model the delight that the spectator cannot achieve himself. In this respect it revives Luther’s anxiety about the gap between the experience of joy and its expression. It also risks rendering the appreciative spectator callous to those who must display the more direct experience of passion that he enjoys. Potkay takes The Picture of Dorian Gray as a cautionary tale about the limits of aesthetic joy as imagined by Coleridge. Wilde’s novel at once “stigmatizes and celebrates the act of seeing others not as ends (or stories) in themselves but as means of spectatorial self-gratification” (161).

Coleridge’s vision of joy remains problematically but palpably Christian. Potkay’s next chapter explores a range of Romantic era writers—Schiller, Blake, Percy Shelley, and Mormon prophet Joseph Smith—that he considers distinctively post-Christian. (It is an unusual constellation, especially considering the omission of the poet whose apprentice work begins “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”) These writers share a commitment to a radical notion of forgiveness that levels mundane hierarchical distinctions even as it exalts the human practice of this virtue to divine status. The right to punish, traditionally reserved for God, descends to humankind only to be honored in a refusal to exercise it. The joy Schiller finds in radical forgiveness appeals to a cosmopolitan fraternity consonant with the early promise of the French Revolution. For Blake, radical forgiveness exposes a cloying, disingenuous selflessness at the heart of Christian ethics and replaces it with joy as erotic bliss, the union and reunion with another’s body. The key adjective for Shelley’s vision of joy is “undivided”; it implies a Wordsworthian immersion in a larger natural world, a sense of individual integrity that borders on the asocial, and a transcendent experience undiluted by the possibility of sorrow. Prometheus Unbound provides the fullest articulation of this complex joy, grounding it in the most radical vision of forgiveness yet. In Joseph Smith’s theology, joy is no less than human possibility graduating into the divine; we are what Jehovah himself once was and may yet be what he is.

These later visions of joy in particular have tendencies we have come to suspect, specifically the privileging of the (erotic) experience and satisfaction of men over the experience and satisfaction of women. Potkay is right to register this, and also right in noticing that these misgivings aren’t wholly absent from those writers who elicit them from us now. Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion privileges a masculine fantasy of free love, but it also anticipates some of its costs. (American Beauty, Potkay’s choice for the late twentieth century’s exemplary work on joy, feels less searching in comparison.) As he traces the career of joy over the twentieth century, Potkay is similarly responsible in charting the appropriation of the term for totalitarian and consumerist purposes. These appropriations either mask or erode the specific experience of joy, and the process may have started earlier than Potkay suggests. His eighth chapter on tragic joy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century already reveals some difficulty in sustaining the distinctions that have guided his attention to joy in earlier ages. This infuses the study with a sense of anticlimax, but the very decrescendo emphasizes the value and interest of this work for scholars of Romantic era writing. The story of joy was uniquely rich and fraught at this moment, and Potkay’s study admirably illuminates its appeal and its tensions.