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The Art of Good Living

Sunday was an embarrassment of sun-rays; a blatantly blue sky. We did not go stand in the sun. K and I watched Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep’s Child mannerisms seemed clownish and then – suddenly – became charming, joyfully indulgent with laughter and bonhomie. Ah, la vie française.

I drowned in a sudden enthusiasm to eat melted dark chocolate slowly off a spoon, and drink fine wine – or cheap wine with fine friends – to soak in the sun and warmth, to light candles and court dinner-party shadows. Joie de vivre! The art of good living.

I remembered Philip Lopate’s essay "Against Joie de Vivre", anthologized in The Art of the Personal Essay, which Lopate edited. Lopate writes, “A flushed sense of happiness can overtake a person anywhere, and one is no more to blame for it than the Asiatic flu or a sudden benevolent change in the weather… what rankles me is the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

Lopate blames the French and their picnics, Renoir, Miller, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs (example above), Greeks “who would clutch you to their joyfully stout bellies and crush you there”, parties on boats, spontaneous dancing, dinner parties, and brunch. He is playing the devil’s advocate, a curmudgeonly “ingrate.”

Lopate sees joie de vivrism as an enforced gaiety, a regime people cling to ward off depression or disappointment. That disappointment – something we are warned to avoid – is not a bad thing. He writes “The truth is, most wisdom is embittering. The task of the wise person cannot be to pretend with false naivete that every moment is new and unprecedented, but to bear the burden of dignity as strength will allow. Beyond that, all we ask of ourselves is that bitterness not cancel out our capacity to be surprised.”

This essay a) offended and then b) piqued my interest. I may not toss out my desire to live a good life or apologize for eating brie and baguettes, or go on sailing picnics, or enjoying fine espressos, or looking enviously at the Mediterranean (Elizabeth von Arnim’s book Enchanted April was a beautiful picture of four blooming English women in a Mediterranean garden; pure joie de vivre), but I affirm his ideas about the importance of disappointment and I think him an excellent guest at the table.

With the philosopher and theologian Simone Weil in his thoughts, Lopate finishes with “So much for joie de vivre. It’s too compensatory…I give thanks to the nip in the air that clarifies the scene. But I think it hypocritical to pretend satisfaction while I am still hungry.”


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