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.