Essays - Autumn 2017

Still Wilderness

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What are we feeling when we are feeling joy? And where inside us does that feeling reside?

Ruins of Tintern Abbey (Stewart Black/Flickr)

By Christian Wiman

September 5, 2017



Paul Tillich once said of the word faith that “it belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men.” The word joy may not be quite so wounded, though I have noticed, as I have been gathering poems for a project I have been working on, that it tends to provoke conflicting responses. There is the back-slapping bonhomie of the evangelically joyful, who smile as if to say, “Even you, Old Sludge, dire poet—of our party at last!” There is academic detachment: is joy merely an intensification of happiness or an altogether other order of experience? And is it something of which one can be conscious at all, or is it so defined by immersion in a present tense that consciousness as we conceive it is precluded? There is affront: ruined migrants spilling over borders, rabid politicians frothing for power, terrorists detonating their own insides like terrible literal metaphors for an entire time gone wrong—“how with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” as Shakespeare, staring down his own age’s accelerating grimace, wondered. I took on this project because I realized that I was somewhat confused about the word myself, and I have found that, for me, the best way of thinking through any existential problem is with poetry, which does not “think through” such a problem so much as undergo it. Subjected to poetry’s extremities of form and feeling, what might that one word, joy, in these wild times, mean?

Here is the definition of joy from Merriam-Webster:

the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires: delight

2: a state of happiness or felicity: bliss

3: a source or cause of delight

If you’re musing on the general meaning of  joy or sitting down to write an article on the subject, this might be of some use as a place to start. But if you are trying to understand why a moment of joy can blast you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached, or why this lift into pure bliss might also entail a steep drop of concomitant loss, or how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might, like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom—well, in these cases the dictionary is useless.

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Christian Wiman is the author most recently of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and a volume of poems, Once in the West. He teaches at Yale University's Institute of Sacred Music.

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