Chapter VI. Joie de Vivre

One form of humor is called joie de vivre "joy of life." Joie de vivre-why speak of such a thing? Because it is one of the most complete forms of humor. Because it involves a kind of love, and we love life and others less than we can. (We function at only a small fraction of our capacity to love.) Because we have to learn how to laugh again. Because there are ideas which give us such insight that they change our lives. Because after understanding joie de vivre we will never abandon it, never go back to the way we once were. Because people already have great expertise at creating negative emotions, but know little about positive ones. Because we do not know what joie de vivre is. We may look at the internet, journals and books in the largest libraries in France, or the world, and the studies are not there. One of the most significant ideas in human experience is missing. And it is a neglected aspect of humor, as well.

What is joie de vivre? It can be a joy of conversation, joy of eating, joy of anything one might do. One may speak of a joie de finesse (refinement, grace, elegance), joie de réussite (success), the joy of summer, the joy of an embrace, etc. Alain: Il y a de merveilleuses joies dans l'amitié-joy of friendship.

And joie de vivre may be seen as a joy of everything, a comprehensive joy, a philosophy of life, a Weltanschauung. Robert's Dictionnaire says joie is "sentiment exaltant ressenti par toute la conscience," that is, involves one's whole being.

But it is a joy first of all. "Joy" has been defined by Webster's International Dictionary (1986:1222) as "the emotion excited by the acquisition or expectation of good." Thus, "joy" is an emotion and involves the ethical term "good." To learn about joie de vivre we must, then, have a sound theory of emotion and ethics.

Ethical terms such as "good-bad, right-wrong, should-shouldn't," may be characterized as being vague, open-context or general terms. What does the word "good" mean on this view? It means precisely nothing. It is meaningless. It is like an empty glass. To be useful, we must pour something into it. And what things shall we pour into "good?" On a naturalistic theory, we would fill the glass with our actual needs and desires. By so doing, ethics reduces to inquiry which is used to bring about our desires deliberately and adequately in terms of a reasonably full knowledge of our environment.

"Joy" is an emotion, and I will base my presentation on the cognitive-emotive theory. In psychology, it is referred to as the "rational-emotive theory" and in philosophical psychology, it is called "the cognitive theory of emotion." The theory will be repeated here in case one has not read the previous chapters. If it is familiar this section may be skipped. Some of the basic tenets of the theory are:

1. Emotions have a cognitive component. They are assessments (self-talk, or language use) which lead to bodily sensations. Revenge, for example, must involve such cognitive assessments as "I wish to get back at you." Emotions are not just bodily feelings, not just sensations. So, to know what joie de vivre, we must know which assessments are involved in it.

2. We cause our own bodily feelings by our assessments. Emotions are not directly caused by others, or by the environment. Joy is something only we can create and keep alive in ourselves, not something that just happens to us. Only we ourselves can cause our joie de vivre.

3. Negative emotions are due to faulty assessments and the bodily feelings these assessments induce. It has been shown that anger, for example, is largely due to faulty expectations, or faulty factual knowledge. We come by error to believe that some things are "bad in themselves." Nothing is "bad in itself." Marcus Aurelius gives us insight into this when he tells us that we can only do what is within our power, and that we have to accept what is. This is simple, but brilliant advice. For our sanity and physical well-being, we have to accept death and tragedies, just as we welcome the desirable things that happen to us. This means, for example, that anger, boredom, depression, feelings of inferiority, may be unlearned, prevented, and are not justifiable.

4. Emotions usually involve open-context, ethical terms such as "good" or "bad," as previously mentioned. Thus, to be clear about emotions, one must also be clear about the uses and misuses of ethical terms. For example, if we realize that one cannot be "bad in itself," or "bad" in the abstract, we would not for this reason assess-feel inferior. We can, after all, only do what is within our power. It makes no sense to assess-feel bad about things we cannot change. And it makes no sense to assess-feel bad about things we can change. It rarely makes sense to "feel bad" at all. The research in rational-emotive therapy and the cognitive theory of emotion have shown us clearly how to effectively prevent and eliminate negative emotions. This command over negative emotions is needed before we can genuinely experience love or joie de vivre. For the dysfunctional, such events do not readily occur.

Metaemotions, emotions about emotions, are also possible, for example, joy of joy, joy of humor, love of the joy of life, to compound the positive emotions. Negative compounds are also possible: joy of sadness, joy of suffering, fear of fear, etc. An analysis of one's actual statements can reveal the structure and levels. But new positive metaemotions can also be created.

Joie de vivre may now be usefully defined as one type of the positive emotion of humor, which involves acceptance or love. This in turn involves deviation, metaphor and rhetoric. The humor component may be described as the assessment (self-talk) that there is mistake, but one which is not bad or harmful. This then produces laughter and pleasurable bodily feelings. If the mistake is taken seriously, or assessed to be harmful, it results in anger or ridicule, not humor. Because humor requires acceptance, and even affection, we find Carlyle and Thackeray asserting that true humor is love.

Humor is created by deviating from traditional and common cultural experiences. Metaphor is also based on deviation, combining unlike ideas. The various types of humor have been shown earlier to be based on the kinds of metaphor. So we see a connection between humor, metaphor and rhetorical devices. This connection may be extended to the emotion, joie de vivre.

We know that to be positive, joie de vivre cannot involve negative emotion, "black humor," or ridicule. In addition, to be dynamic, it must be conscious. If it is just an unreflective, automatically learned behavior of a certain number of people, it is limited in its humaneness, scope, and possibilities. This type I refer to as "cultural joie de vivre," an enculturation. But if it is consciously and deliberately selected behavior, behavior chosen because it is beautiful, makes sense and is humanistic, I call it "rational joie de vivre." This distinction is analogous to and enriched by the already established contrast between idealistic "romantic love" and realistic "rational love," between being amoral and moral.

As even a semblance of a definition of joie de vivre is lacking, one must be created. Here is a case of the creation of a new emotion. We may then let the following characterize and define joie de vivre:

1. Spontaneity, caprice, whim (though whim is all too short). A caution here is that cultural joie de vivre may be impulsive.

2. Being carefree. Here, rational joie de vivre would be better rendered as "caring freely." On the cognitive-emotive theory, one can deliberately eliminate negative emotions and create positive ones. This is genuine freedom. It is to see with Marcus Aurelius that we must accept all that is, the total givenness of defeat as well as success. We accept because can and must. We learn how to live passionately with the impossible. Everything breathes joy. It is to say that whatever cannot be done out of love and joy should not be done at all. The criterion applies equally to science, ethics, punishment, emotion, logic, love, etc. Have we made our lives better by our words? Not being joyous, not being warm in every word, intonation, act, and gesture-this is for joie de vivre a crime of the heart. It is illogical, a fallacy, poor thinking, an act of suicide. It cannot be justified in our everyday living, or in war. If one can turn on charm, why turn it off? We invite strangers in from the street, give unexpected gifts, speak warmly to everyone we meet. How could one justify not doing such things? We are carefree about jealousy because we care for others as well as ourselves. We are thus made free.

3. Free, demonstrative and open expressions of emotion. Rational joie de vivre would require that these be positive. This is a form of genuineness, honesty to oneself and others. It is to cut beneath the surface, deviate from social taboos to positively express the way in which we really feel. It circumvents life-lie as well as self-lie. It is the courage to hold no questions back. It is to open up to the world and others, be available to them, be there for them. It is to look, look into another's eyes unafraid to keep looking. With rational love, this is especially possible, for we will have already removed our defense mechanisms.

We immerse ourselves in life, feel our way into it, through our understanding of emotions bring our thoughts and feelings together again, lose ourselves in the moment, and so be as children. We "get inside" an object. "Interest" comes from "inter-esse," meaning to be among, to be concerned, to share in the world, to sympathize, to have insatiable curiosity. The enthusiast is aroused in voice and action, giving his or her all completely to an experience.

4. The feeling of well-being. Joy, but humor also, has been misleadingly defined in this way. What I call "vertical joie de vivre," is the mere temporary sensation of relief felt when bouncing back from, for example, melancholy. Of this experience one can say, "It appeared after the race was won and lasted for twenty minutes." This may be compared with what Cazeneuve (1977:22-28) calls la joie fabriquée or "fabricated joy." This differs from a "horizontal joie de vivre," which is a positive emotion, more like an optimism which almost always prevails. It is the difference between a passing feeling of well-being, and a genuinely exuberant person. A good meal will not suffice for horizontal joie de vivre. The latter is not just a bodily feeling. It is not the sort of thing that would happen at 2:30 on Saturday and last for an hour. It would not make sense to say, "I had horizontal joie de vivre many times in my life."

5. It is to be a poet. Joie de vivre is an emotion, emotion involves thinking, thinking involves rhetoric, and rhetoric is central to poetry. Our world is largely linguistic, involving forms of rhetoric, fallacies, contradictions, the absurd, ambiguities, circularities, nonsense, free association, irony, juxtaposition, metaphor. I asked two French professors what joie de vivre is. One said that it is where freedom is illusion and illusion is freedom. The other said also paradoxically that it is what everyone has and no one has. We personify with, Mon petit chou: ("my little cabbage,") and write our figurative poems of love or war. The lover, poet, philosopher, comedian, scientist, all speak in metaphors. They play with life. They live their metaphors as well.

Poetry is often concrete rather than abstract. So we thereby may live in the fullness of the moment unlimited by abstract theory. As with ordinary-language philosophy, as well as pragmatism, language may be brought back to its concrete context. Joie de vivre becomes language-play, a "language game," a game the French philosophers especially like to play. We describe the wine as "sassy" or "impudent." To scramble eggs in French, you "punish them with a fork." We create worlds. And so, too, others personify and humanize through language:

It rains. They spoke no word,

The garden the man, the woman

will be joyful today. and the white rose.

Anon. Anon.

I build a bridge with my arms,

Words, eyes, lips

To you.

I cross the bridge.

Warren Shibles

Here again, we must separate. Cultural joie de vivre may have an unruly rhetoric, a dadaism, release itself from rational thought, whereas rational joie de vivre would release itself only from such things as a narrow and inadequate Aristotelian or symbolic logic, yet serve as the basis of sound argument and communication, as well.

6. A key to joie de vivre is deviation. This sounds like revolt, revolution, surrealism's anarchy, post-modernism. There is something to that. Humor is deviation, metaphor combines unlike things, and we live such deviations, have an insatiable hunger for metaphors, for new experiences. Extase means from the Greek, "distractions," and "out of its place."

The Greens (Die Grünen), the international pacifist political party, serves as an interesting case. They found that to be moral and humanistic, they had to deviate from many of the established institutions; provide radical alternatives and "humorful happenings," as a powerful, insight-giving and educative tool in politics. However, on occasion, they deviate for its own sake, metaphors take over, and instead of merely calling attention to the arguments, the deviation becomes ridicule and antihumanistic. For example, one deputy of the party threw blood on a general to call attention to the bloodiness of war. A number of party members found this action objectionable. Others found in the deviation an aesthetic truth of passion.

To express passion and affection in public, even if done with discretion, may be to break the rules of society. Joie de vivre gladly breaks such rules, as the streets of Paris and Rio show. Our rhetoric, philosophy, and poetry deviate by their use of language to critique, create new and hopefully better insight and experience. Insight humor and reduction to intimacy are used. When the arguments about us fail: traditional cultural beliefs about war, support of punishment over rehabilitation, exploitation of love, profit for its own sake, and superstition-then we must deviate from the absurd, societal morality to once again return to a joie de vivre.

7. Surrender. Although the experience has been sometimes reported (Shibles 1978b), few people seem to be able to understand what it is or accept it. Hobbes pointed out that once we establish a social contract for mutual protection, we experience a feeling of being civilized. Similarly, once we can understand and count on friends as being rational, fair and open, we can trust them, feel secure, and so surrender to them. Genuine surrender to friends, lovers, and to life can induce an exuberance and joie de vivre so sublime as to be unequaled by any other. It is an experience beyond cultural views of good and evil, beyond narrow bounds, a surrender into freedom.

8. Rational joie de vivre is characterized by adequacy. It is the pulling together of all the best that we know and feel. Exuberance is full awareness, surabondance. The pragmatic basis of ethics is unceasing curiosity and inquiry in order to bring about our informed wants in terms of overall consequences. Seneca said, "Only a wise person knows how to love well."

From the harmony of all of the positive characteristics above, we are led to an astounding emotion, an emotion of la volupté and gaieté of life which I call "rational joie de vivre."

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